By Richie Unterberger

John Sebastian is a performer at home both with a band and as an unaccompanied (or just slightly accompanied) singer-guitarist. It wasn't unusual, then, for his first live recording to spotlight his voice and acoustic guitar, the only other instrumentation supplied by piano and (on just a few tracks) guitar-bass. With an unusually generous running time (for a single-disc vinyl LP) of 51 minutes, 1971's Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live gave listeners a chance to hear him offer an assortment of Lovin' Spoonful tunes, rock'n'roll oldies, and folk/blues covers in a concert setting. Of course, by the time it came out, millions of listeners had already heard some acoustic solo John Sebastian on the Woodstock soundtrack, which opened with his performance of "I Had a Dream." For such a rootsy and no-nonsense album, however, a considerable amount of music industry nonsense was involved in sparking the idea to make a live recording of the material.

    When John Sebastian began recording as a solo artist at Reprise Records, his career was impeded by competing, unauthorized albums issued at the same time by MGM. His first LP, 1970's John B. Sebastian (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), was issued not only by Reprise, but also (with a different cover) by MGM, the parent company of the label with which Sebastian had recorded as part of the Lovin' Spoonful. MGM contended that the Lovin' Spoonful owed the company another album, which gave it the right to put out this Sebastian material. While most of the copies of John B. Sebastian in circulation were on Reprise rather than MGM, the imbroglio curtailed his efforts to get his solo career off the ground, confusing the marketplace and also delaying release of the authorized version of the LP.

    MGM, however, was not done trying to claim sales on unauthorized Sebastian releases. A few months after John B. Sebastian came out, the label issued John Sebastian Live, which was not only released without the permission of the artist, but also recorded at a concert that John had no intention of making the basis of a commercial LP. "You have to remember the setting of what I call The White Album," emphasizes Sebastian when discussing the MGM live release. "It's white, with one little picture of me. I never approved that album, it was never presented to me as a possible release; it was done like thieves in the night. It's just so silly, and so wrong. In the scheme of things, it ain't killing little tiny baby squirrels, but it's really nasty, and it really screwed with my career."

    John further explains, "I had a performance [at] what we called the Swamp Festival, a big festival sort of trying to imitate Woodstock that happened outside of New Orleans. [My wife] Catherine and I went, and Mountain did it, so I was there with my old pal Felix Pappalardi, and we were having a jolly good time. Somewhere around like eight or nine in the evening, somebody said, 'You know, we've got 300 people in a field in Woodstock.' Somebody, I forget who it was, couldn't do it. 'Could you come and play a set tomorrow morning for these people?' So it involved immediately jumping onto a series of planes, kind of all-night style. This is not how you'd prepare for a live album that you really wanted to represent yourself with."

    Nonetheless, this is the gig that was recorded for the MGM album, as Sebastian continues: "We go to a little field, somewhere here in Woodstock—I'm not entirely sure where it is, even though I've lived here for over 30 years. They didn't have anything like the right amplifier. All they had was a Fender Champ, so I did the set with that. As far as an indication of 'how is Sebastian after you keep him up all night and throw him out on stage and see if he can stay on his feet'—okay, maybe it's pretty good on that level. But that's about the only level it's good, because I would have prepared much more. Cheapo Cheapo was an attempt to distinguish it from this phony live album that had been just put out without any responsibility to the artist. I think [MGM] just tried to grab hold and see if they could hang on. I was one of the last [of the artists that had been on the label] floating as they were sinking."

    Recorded live at four California shows, Cheapo Cheapo Presents Real Live was done with more care than the unauthorized concert LP. Accompanying Sebastian's voice and acoustic guitar on piano was Paul Harris, who'd played on much of John B. Sebastian (as well as sessions by numerous other major artists of the era, including the Doors, Judy Collins, and Nick Drake). Producing was Paul Rothchild, and engineering was Fritz Richmond, two more old friends who had likewise been engaged in those capacities for John B. Sebastian. Dan Armstrong played guitar-bass on "Fishin' Blues," "My Gal," and "Make Up Your Mind," but otherwise Sebastian and Harris were carrying the show.

    Sebastian has high praise for everyone in the supporting cast on Cheapo Cheapo, starting with Harris. "Paul was such a great player, and also a guy who understood the idioms that I was moving through," he enthuses. "He had some skills that are pretty unusual. Not every pianist can fingerpick a piano." On the recording end, "It was sort of the dawn of live recording, and Fritz and Paul [Rothchild] really did a great job. Fritz and I had a friendship that had started back when we were both still learning how to smoke dope. Knowing that a guy you consider one of your best friends is the guy that is committing some of this stuff to tape at the time, it's a very, very comfortable feeling; it gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. I benefited from his professional expertise, but also as a friend, I always felt I was getting a straight answer from Fritz. In some ways, Fritz was beginning to substitute for Zally [Yanovsky, lead guitarist in the Lovin' Spoonful]. Because in times before, my kind of confidante that would give it to me straight was always Zally."

    The songs selected for Cheapo Cheapo covered some of the more popular ("Younger Generation," "Darlin' Be Home Soon," "Younger Girl,"  "Nashville Cats") and more obscure ("Fishin' Blues," "Lovin' You," "My Gal," "Amy's Theme") songs he'd recorded with the Lovin' Spoonful. Even the songs that had been done by the Spoonful sounded markedly different in this setting, however, one example being "Amy's Theme," which had been given a fairly lush orchestral production in its original version (on the soundtrack to the Francis Ford Coppola movie You're a Big Boy Now). "After all, its subtitle has always been 'Lonely'," John explains. "So there was something a little more lonely about doing it [with] one guitar and whistling."

    There were also as an assortment of covers that delved into his folk, country, and jug band influences. "Mobile Line" had been recorded not long before Cheapo Cheapo by the Holy Modal Rounders, though Sebastian first heard it from Mark Spoelstra. "Irene," better known as "Goodnight Irene," had been a chart-topper in 1950 for the Weavers. "Rooty-Toot" came from Sebastian's cousin John Lewis, and "Waiting for a Train," though primarily identified with country great Jimmie Rodgers, was actually learned by John from Jerry Lee Lewis's cover version. In the midst of all this were two of the mid-'50s rock'n'roll classics that Sebastian had grown up with, "Blue Suede Shoes" and the doo wop ballad "In the Still of the Night."

    "When you go out and you do a live show, your main responsibility is to let people hear the things that they came to hear," reflects John. "That was simply the set that I would do in those days. Many of those sort of old-time songs were not a regular overnight occurrence, but were rather a way for me to surprise myself a little bit every night and do something different. One night I'd be imitating Johnny Cash, and another I'd do 'In the Still of the Night' to remind people that I come out of a doo wop tradition in a weird way. Growing up in Little Italy [in New York City], that was pretty inescapable."

    Having both paid homage to his roots and offered a live recording to counteract an unauthorized LP, Sebastian was now ready to resume his activities in the studio without the obstruction of contractual hassles. The result was The Four of Us, issued just five months after Cheapo Cheapo's March 1971 release, and also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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