JOHN SEBASTIAN'S THE FOUR OF US
each of John
Sebastian's first three solo albums (all reissued on CD by Collectors'
Choice Music), the singer-songwriter used a different approach that not
only varied from LP to LP, but also stood apart from what he'd done as
part of the Lovin' Spoonful. His debut, John B. Sebastian, gave him the
chance to play with numerous fellow musicians he'd wanted to
collaborate with, including all three members of Crosby, Stills, &
Nash, as well as friends from his New York folkie days. For his concert
album Cheapo Cheapo Productions
Presents Real Live, he used only piano, occasional guitar-bass,
and his own acoustic guitar as accompaniment. For 1971's The Four of Us, however, he'd use a
fairly stable crew of backing musicians, almost amounting to a band in
its own right as opposed to a rotating cast.
three core musicians supporting Sebastian on The Four of Us had also been
frequent contributors on John B.
Sebastian. Keyboardist Paul Harris (who'd also played on Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real
Live) also did sessions for numerous other major artists of the
era, including the Doors, Judy Collins, and Nick Drake. Dallas Taylor
is best known as the drummer for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in
the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bassist Kenny Altman recorded as part
of another Reprise Records act, the Fifth Avenue Band, whose
self-titled album was produced by two ex-Lovin' Spoonful members (Zal
Yanovsky and Jerry Yester) and the Spoonful's own producer (Erik
Jacobsen). A couple guest bass players did appear, Sebastian's old
buddy Felix Pappalardi (then of Mountain) doing the honors on "Apple
Hill," and Greg Reeves (who also played with Crosby, Stills, Nash &
Young) contributing to "Well, Well, Well." The Esso Trinidad Steel Band
and Dr. John could be heard as well, but for the most part, The Four of Us was laid down by
just four musicians.
The centerpiece of The
Four of Us was a 16-minute suite of the same name that took up
all of side two. Such lengthy tracks were becoming increasingly common
in rock music in the early 1970s, though unlike most of the prog-rock
endeavors that dominated such endeavors, the epic detailed in "The Four
of Us" was relatively straightforward and reality-based. "I had been
used to telling stories in two and a half minutes," admits Sebastian
today. "And of course, it's evident, 'cause this 15 minutes is just a
series of a two-and-a-half-minute [pieces] put together. But it was an
idea that began to emerge because it had happened in kind of a
sequential way, and it was in some ways part of the story of [his wife]
Catherine and I getting together. I guess that story was something that
I wanted to tell."
The real-life "four of us" were not just Sebastian
and his wife, but also the other couple pictured in the lyric sheet for
the original LP. "In that picture, the four of us are myself and
Catherine, and Bart and Carolina Carpinelli, a couple who at the time
were frequent kind of partners in crime," he explains. "We did this
trip [detailed in the suite 'The Four of Us'] with them. These were a
couple that we had met in California in this little sort of vaguely
communal arrangement that was on a little back road in Burbank—not
really that much of a back road, actually. A condo is actually [now]
built right on what used to be the driveway entrance to this four or
five-building complex that we were all living in. It was the last of
it, too. It was Lady Barham's old hunting lodge from the '20s."
Even on the lyric sheet, "The Four of Us" was
divided into four separate parts, three of them subtitled "Domenica,"
"Lashes LaRue," and "Red Wing, Colorado" respectively. This gave
Sebastian a chance to introduce some new musical accents, and guests,
not found elsewhere on the LP. To bring out the Caribbean flavor of
"Domenica," Sebastian tapped the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, who'd been
brought to the United States by fellow Warner Brothers
singer-songwriter Van Dyke Parks (who produced the steel band's 1971
Warners LP). Putting some New Orleans spice into "Lashes LaRue" was Dr.
John, credited on the original LP as "Mac Rabinac" (a misspelling of
his real name, Mac Rebennack). "I think it was just the luck of the
draw," says Sebastian of Dr. John's contribution. "Mac was around and I
had already made friends with him somehow or another, just totally
because of the Gris-Gris
album. When that album came out, just about every musician in L.A.
thought, it's a new playing field now. It's a great record; talk about
a continuity of moods and everything. It was just so mysterious, the
combination of those vocal groups and great double-handfuls of
percussion, jangly things and jingly things."
In contrast, side one of The Four of Us presented discrete
shorter, thematically unconnected songs, several of which had a notably
bluesy feel, and the first pair of which were not Sebastian originals.
"Black Snake Blues" was a cover of a tune by Clifton Chenier, the
zydeco legend who was far less well known to the general music public
in the early 1970s than he would be in subsequent years. "Well, Well,
Well" had been learned from Josh White, the folk-blues singer who'd
been a big part of the folk revival as it started to catch on with
urban audiences in the 1940s and 1950s. "We'll See," which was from
John's pen, had an unusually jazzy tinge for Sebastian's work. "I'd
have to say that it had something to do with a certain swing that the
Fifth Avenue Band had managed to do, Kenny Altman being an original
member of that group," he observes. "I wanted something that had a
little jazziness to it." As for the decidedly rootsy feel of much of
the material on side one, he adds, "Some of that was just paying
tribute to the guys that inspired me. 'Well, Well, Well,' I'd always
heard from Josh White. I kind of grew up a little bit in the backs of
clubs with [White's son] Donny and Josh, because Dad [the esteemed
harmonica player, also named John Sebastian] played with Josh fairly
frequently in New York, at the Cotton Club and a couple of other clubs
in the '40s."
It was a happy, romantic time for Sebastian and his
wife, and the record reflects that, particularly the suite on side two.
It did not, however, translate into a big commercial success, and John
feels that if anything, the good vibes worked against the record
finding a big audience. "I've heard Bruce Springsteen say the same
thing," he remarks. "He said, 'They loved it while I was pissed off at
my dad, pissed off at my girl, and pissed off at where I lived.' And
now, you get to the record where you're going, 'man, I'm so in love,
and everything's so great,' and it's a big yawn. I sympathize with some
people who maybe weren't quite there romantically at that point. You
know, it's an easy target. Maybe it wasn't an area that people might
have expected of the sensitive singer-songwriter guy."
Sebastian has said he had hopes of making his
central backing trio on The Four of
Us—Harris, Taylor, and Altman—his own band. As it happened,
however, Harris and Taylor joined another band to play with another of
John's running buddies, Stephen Stills, when they became part of
Manassas. Altman would still be aboard when John recorded his next
album, which also reunited him with Lovin' Spoonful producer Erik
Jacobsen. But it was back to using a rotating cast of supporting
players on Tarzana Kid, also
reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
unless otherwise specified.
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