By Richie Unterberger

For 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.

    Two of the 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

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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