Still lovin’ you: Charting the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit singles and essential songs
The Lovin’ Spoonful, led by singer-songwriter John Sebastian, dexterously synthesized pop, rock, folk, country, blues, and jug band music into a unique hybrid purely their own during the swingin’ sixties. Their singles mostly encapsulated sunny, good time odes filled with catchy melodies.
The band entered the spotlight when their first hit single, “Do You Believe in Magic,” came crashing onto the charts back in July 1965. Featuring Sebastian — one of the first rock artists to give the autoharp a prominent role — lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky, bassist-songwriter Steve Boone, and drummer-sometime singer Joe Butler, the band had its origins in the early 1960s folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York.
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The Spoonful was a talented multi-instrumentalist band with a commercial songwriter and distinctive, honey-rich voice in Sebastian, although all the members were capable of lyrical contributions. With the British Invasion at full throttle in the mid ’60s, the Spoonful proved that the USA was still a force to be reckoned with.
Nineteen-sixty-six was the golden year for the Spoonful, as 10 A-sides eventually reached Billboard’s Top 30, with the first seven singles climbing into the Top 10, including such standards as “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Nashville Cats,” and the immortal “Summer in the City.” The state-of-the-art production on the latter has lost none of its innovative luster.
Yanovsky, a zany, often underrated guitar player on his Guild Thunderbird, was busted in San Francisco on a marijuana possession and named his supplier because he feared he would be forcibly sent back to his native Canada and refused re-entry to America. Also dismayed at Sebastian’s burgeoning introspective lyrics and the band’s more mainstream pop rock direction, Yanovsky resigned from the band amid counterculture pressure.
Jerry Yester, part of the Modern Folk Quartet and friend of the band since its earliest days, accepted Yanovsky’s position. Yester played piano on “Do You Believe in Magic,” did a number of vocal arrangements, and sat in with the Monkees on their fantastic do-it-yourself Headquarters record before he became an official Spoonful card-carrying member.
The band soldiered on, notching medium sized hits like “Six O’Clock” and “She Is Still a Mystery” without the input of original producer Erik Jacobsen. Yet by June 1968, lingering underground press hostility over the marijuana charge prompted Sebastian to also exit the Spoonful to forge a solo path, effectively signaling the end of the band as a viably commercial outfit, although one more album, Revelation Revolution ’69, and several excellent singles featuring Butler on lead vocals — “Me About You” and “Never Going Back” — dropped to public indifference.
Sebastian found a willing audience, touring constantly with just guitar and voice. He performed an impromptu, heralded set at Woodstock under the influence of psychedelic drugs, and “I Had a Dream” opened the best-selling album that documented the three-day experience.
Debut solo album John B. Sebastian charted in the Top 20 when finally distributed in 1970 after almost 18 months of legal wrangling. The songwriter had signed with Sinatra’s Reprise Records, but a loophole in his previous contract with MGM — the distributor of the Spoonful’s Kama Sutra recordings — had MGM claiming they could release his new material. An unauthorized version of John B. Sebastian and a subsequent live concert hit the market for a time, confusing fans.
The Four of Us and Tarzana Kid were subsequent laudable Sebastian albums containing contributions from Little Feat leader Lowell George and Don Everly of the Everly Brothers. Sebastian gradually focused more energy on television soundtrack work since Reprise couldn’t be bothered to promote his records. He flabbergasted both listeners and the record label in 1976 with “Welcome Back,” the uncomplicated sing-along theme song for beloved sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter that shuttled all the way to number one.
Sebastian remains an active touring musician in spite of vocal deterioration. In the mid-’90s he returned to his first love of jug band music and founded John Sebastian and the J-Band. He has released instructional videos of his best-known songs, and 2007’s Satisfied found him collaborating in a bluegrass setting with mandolin master David Grisman. He was finally elected into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2008. It’s high time for a new Sebastian studio record.
Sadly, Yanovsky dropped one solo album at the dawn of his career, 1968’s Alive and Well in Argentina, and then nothing else. He devoted most of his remaining energy to being a successful restaurateur in Canada until his death from congestive heart failure in 2002. Fortunately, the guitarist was able to celebrate the Spoonful’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Boone became a respected producer and studio owner in Baltimore, operating Blue Seas Studios on an actual houseboat. Little Feat, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, and Bonnie Raitt all recorded some of their best albums there. Boone unleashed his memoir, Hotter Than a Match Head: My Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful, in 2014.
Butler largely forsook drumming during the ’70s, opting to write commercial jingles and act on Broadway in such off-beat but still music-centered productions like Hair and Mahogany.
As the years went by, Boone, Butler, and Yester were constantly reminded by fans how much they missed seeing the band in concert. After years of legal wrangling with former label Sutra Records finally came to a halt in 1991, a reunion inexplicably transpired minus Sebastian and Yanovsky.
Visiting cities all over the world spreading positive vibes and melodies to younger generations, drummer Mike Arturi — Butler is often up front singing lead vocals or playing autoharp — and guitarist Phil Smith keep the band’s lineup steady. Visit their official website for all the latest tour dates.
As an aside, a recording of Butler and Yester’s “Free Boys,” a catchy pop song about flying high and a concert staple, deserves an official release, if only on a download-only EP. But Yester’s shocking October 2017 arrest, charged with 30 counts of possession of child pornography, led to his immediate ouster from the band and may have scuttled any future possibilities of new material seeing the light of day.
If you’re a Spoonful rookie, keep reading for a complete discography of their Billboard single chart appearances. Ten of their essential recordings follow, and every song can be found digitally or via streaming. The timeless music of the Lovin’ Spoonful definitely isn’t going anywhere.
The Lovin’ Spoonful Hit Singles
- “Do You Believe in Magic” [No. 9 POP July 1965, Do You Believe in Magic]
- “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” [No. 10 POP November 1965, Daydream]
- “Daydream” [No. 2 POP February 1966, Daydream]
- “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” [No. 2 POP May 1966, Do You Believe in Magic]
- “Summer in the City” [No. 1 POP July 1966, Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- “Rain on the Roof” [No. 10 POP October 1966, Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- “Nashville Cats” [No. 8 POP December 1966, Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- “Full Measure” [No. 87 POP December 1966, B-side of “Nashville Cats,” Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- “Darling Be Home Soon” [No. 15 POP February 1967,
You’re a Big Boy Now (soundtrack)]
- “Six O’Clock” [No. 18 POP April 1967, Everything Playing]
- “She Is Still a Mystery” [No. 27 POP October 1967, Everything Playing]
- “Money” [No. 48 POP November 1967, Everything Playing]
- “Never Going Back” [No. 73 POP July 1968, Revelation: Revolution ‘69]
- “Me About You” [No. 91 POP January 1969, Revelation: Revolution ‘69]
The Lovin’ Spoonful Essential Songs
- “Fishin’ Blues” [Do You Believe in Magic, November 1965]
- “Younger Girl” [Do You Believe in Magic]
- “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” [Daydream, March 1966]
- “Warm Baby” [Daydream]
- “Lovin’ You” [Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, November 1966]
- “Darlin’ Companion” [B-side of “Darling Be Home Soon:” Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- “Coconut Grove” [Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful]
- “You’re a Big Boy Now” [A-side: on same April 1967 soundtrack]
- “Younger Generation” [A-side: Everything Playing, January 1968]
- “[Till I] Run with You” [A-side October 1968: Revelation Revolution ’69, March 1969]
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