By Richie Unterberger

When John Sebastian started his solo career in the late 1960s, Warner Brothers seemed like a logical home for him, as the label was at the forefront of signing artists who were part of the emerging singer-songwriter boom. His debut solo album unfortunately got delayed, and its impact diluted, by a contract dispute whose details are peculiar even by the idiosyncratic standards the record business brings to such situations. Fortunately, however, the characteristic good-natured cheer of Sebastian's music remained unaffected, and the record was the most commercially successful of his solo LPs, reaching #20 upon its release in 1970.

    The album, however, had been done for a while before it found release. To get to the bottom of that knot, it's necessary to backtrack to around 1968, when Sebastian was leaving both the Lovin' Spoonful and that group's label, Kama Sutra Records. A couple of tracks that ended up on John B. Sebastian, "She's a Lady" and "The Room Nobody Lives In," were released as a single on Kama Sutra during this transitional period. Sebastian, however, wanted to begin his career as a solo act with Warner Brothers, and worked on his debut LP with that label in mind for its release.

    "MGM [Kama Sutra's parent company] was asking me for more Lovin' Spoonful albums, claiming that I owed them," remembers Sebastian today. "At that point, [manager] Bob Cavallo went to [Warner Brothers executive] Mo Ostin. They had a very good relationship, and it was Mo's feeling that MGM was asking me for something that wasn't theirs to ask. He said, 'Look, I'll buy this contract out.' That was really what happened."

    For his part, Sebastian was eager to do an album with some of the musician friends he'd long admired. With the Spoonful, he explains, "Although it had been a tremendously popular thing, what we were finding at the point at which we were sort of on our last record was it felt like we were at the upper limits of our own musical abilities. I wanted this opportunity to play with the same guys I'd been playing with when we were all broke"—Sebastian, it's sometimes forgotten, having been a session musician himself in New York before the Lovin' Spoonful took off, contributing to recordings by key early folk-rockers such as Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. "That included [drummer] Dallas Taylor, Steve Stills, [bassist] Harvey Brooks, [keyboardist] Paul Harris. These were very often New York buds from before all of this. I felt like, well, wait a minute, if I was playing with Dallas Taylor, I can play a syncopated beat! It all made a lot of sense to me, that I could kind of move on musically."

    Another old friend, Paul Rothchild (who'd produced some sessions for Elektra Records on which Sebastian played in his early days, including ones for Fred Neil), would produce the album, mostly recorded in Elektra's Los Angeles studios. "I would say that familiarity is really valuable in these kind of relationships, and I had had a terrific run with [Lovin' Spoonful producer] Erik Jacobsen," observes John. "However, towards the tail end of the Spoonful, there were some kind of, I think, bad feelings. The Spoonful, essentially, had fired Erik from one last project, and it took me a few years to regain my friendship the same way. By the time Tarzana Kid [Sebastian's 1974 album, co-produced by John and Erik] came along, we managed to work it out. But that first album was totally because the other producer that I was really familiar and comfortable [with]—and he'd seen me at my worst already—was Paul Rothchild. I know that it was also a project Paul wanted to do."
    In addition to using Taylor (most famous for drumming with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young in the late 1960s and early 1970s),
Brooks, and Harris on many of the tracks, John B. Sebastian also had notable guest appearances from Stephen Stills (who played guitar on "Baby, Don't Ya Get Crazy" and "She's a Lady"), David Crosby (who also played guitar on "She's a Lady"), Graham Nash (who contributed a high harmony vocal to "What She Thinks About"), pedal steel player Buddy Emmons,  and Buzz Linhart. As he expected, the tracks allowed Sebastian to go into some directions he hadn't been able to explore in the Lovin' Spoonful, even on a remake of "You're a Big Boy Now," which the Spoonful had released as the soundtrack theme to the Francis Ford Coppola-directed movie of the same name. "Ones that would work were the only ones I'd do, I think," responds Sebastian when asked why he occasionally revisited Spoonful songs on his solo records. "'You're a Big Boy Now' was great fun as a one-guitar-one-voice thing, because I'd already had the opportunity to hear it orchestrated and kinda big on the soundtrack album."

    Another song on the LP, "The Room Nobody Lives In," would be the recipient of two quite different cover versions by fellow stars, many years apart. Cass Elliot interpreted it on her 1968 solo album, Dream a Little Dream of Me, which ended up coming out far in advance of John B. Sebastian. "We were very, very tight as friends, and it was sort of frustrating that her record-making process was so tied up," remarks John. "It was a big deal to get Cass to wrap that voice around that song, 'cause I knew she could do it beautifully." Then in 1989, Elvis Costello put it out as a single-only track, though it's now available as a bonus cut on the expanded CD reissue of his Spike album. "I like both of them," says Sebastian of Elliot and Costello's covers. "Elvis's version is more wrenching in some ways, just 'cause of the quality of his voice."

    Certainly the most well-known song on John B. Sebastian is "I Had a Dream," famous for its inclusion (as the opening track no less) on the Woodstock soundtrack, where it was performed by Sebastian with just voice and acoustic guitar. John hadn't expected to be performing at the festival, and played as a spur-of-the-moment favor when the stage's rainwater had to be swept off, necessitating an unplugged performer if any music was to be heard at all. The studio version is considerably lusher, with not just a full band, but also harp and a Paul Harris orchestral arrangement. "'I Had a Dream' is probably a really well-realized style that was really going out right about then," he laughs. "I really enjoyed having the swing of a jazz waltz, the way that Dallas played it, and being able to arrange a little bit. I believe Paul and I did that; Paul Harris, mostly. And 'She's a Lady' was kind of an attempt at bringing Renaissance instruments to something vaguely rock'n'roll. Again, an idea whose time has definitely passed! Everybody wanted to be tough and mean by now."

    "By now" being January 1970, when the album found release, though it had been recorded considerably earlier. MGM contended that the Lovin' Spoonful, though now defunct, owed it another album, and that it had the right to release the LP. An MGM version of John B. Sebastian (with a different cover than the one used on the Reprise version) appeared, unauthorized by the artist. While the Reprise edition is by far the more common one, the availability of the MGM version couldn't help but cause confusion and hurt Sebastian commercially.

    "It hurt everything," emphasizes John. "It made for confusion that didn't need to be there. Who knows, it might have done a little better [if MGM hadn't put out its LP]. But the important thing was losing that year and a half. Because music, especially our popular music, changes so fast that the shelf life on a style can be six months, and I was very aware of that. It was one of the first [albums] of the sort of singer-songwriter guys out of the box, but you couldn't realize it by the time the album came out, 'cause so many other guys with the same approach by then had gotten out there."
    MGM wasn't done with its troublemaking, putting out an unauthorized live Sebastian album shortly afterward. That inspired Sebastian and Reprise to counteract with a concert album of their own, 1971's Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live, also issued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 unless otherwise specified.