By Richie Unterberger

In the mid-1970s, it looked as though John Sebastian's association with Warner Brothers might be coming to an end. The singer-songwriter had done four albums for the label's Reprise subsidiary (all reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), the last of which had failed to make the charts altogether. Sebastian had started to ask whether it might be possible to get a release from his contract. An unexpected #1 hit single changed all of this.

    "Record companies sometimes have to react very quickly to events as they happen," explains John today. "In the case of 'Welcome Back,' they had an artist they had pretty much given up on. [They had] pretty much figured that this guy is stylistically too far from what we're gonna be about now in our new modern Warner Brothers-ness to really accommodate this guy. Just to stay alive while I'm waiting for any opportunity, I'm doing any work that comes to me, a television show that had a very logical theme to it being one of them. Being a dyslexic student who was often in those slow learner groups, I felt a camaraderie, and it made it easier to write the song"—that song being "Welcome Back," used as the theme to the hit program Welcome Back, Kotter.

    "The television show happens, six months go by, and all of a sudden everybody wants this song," continues Sebastian. "Then Warner Brothers had to suddenly go, 'Our biggest song the company has this year is this song where we have pretty much been ignoring this guy. So quickly, we have to get some idea on how to make a record.' Because as much as I'd been trying to get in the studio with a couple tunes, I had not been getting the green light from Warner Brothers. I've even been getting messages from some of the people over there that I could leave. I said, 'Let's work something out. Let me give back part of my advance,' and I'd go be a big frog in a smaller pond or something. I've told the joke many times, that walking into Warner Brothers and seeing the life-size poster of Alice Cooper over the secretary's desk reminded me that stuff moves real fast, Sebastian! Sometimes you're way behind it."

    Warner Brothers determined, however, that a different, longer version of the theme should be released as a single. As John tells it, "They decided, well, Steve Barri has had a television hit song recently. Let's pair him up with Sebastian, who's had a television hit song lately.'" Barri had long been a successful pop-rock songwriter (often in collaboration with P.F. Sloan in the mid-1960s) and producer, in which capacity he oversaw hits for the Grass Roots. He wasn't the kind of producer with whom Sebastian usually worked, those duties usually falling to Erik Jacobsen and Paul Rothchild, both of whom had come out of the same folk and folk-rock scene that John had. The single version of "Welcome Back," however, couldn't have been more commercially successful, going all the way to #1 in the spring of 1976.

    The single version of "Welcome Back" isn't much different than the demo used on the television show, but it's not exactly the same. The demo, elaborates Sebastian, "lasted about a minute and three quarters. So as soon as the song became viable to be a single on the radio, that was the point at which people were asking for another version. Knowing that half of what makes a magic record is the way it was recorded, and going back doesn't necessarily get you what you want, I simply spliced another verse of the version that I already had into the shorter version, adding a space for a harmonica break. The other technical detail is that after I made the cut, then I used the guitar [riff] kind of sequentially; that is, I re-recorded that part so that it would comment and always be changing, rather than doing the same thing, where'd you be able to tell that you were listening to two recordings of the same verse."

    With the popularity of "Welcome Back," Warner Brothers, which only recently had seemed uninterested in keeping Sebastian on the label, now quickly wanted to get an album released. While John remains fond of some of the songs on the Welcome Back LP, he feels the record could have benefited from more time in the studio and a more fully thought-out approach. "What we could attribute Steve Barri with was knowing a good ensemble," he observes. "He put together a very nice group in [drummer Jeff] Porcaro, [bassist David] Hungate, [arp and marimba player Michael] Omartian, and so on. It just didn't have that much to do with me. Given my own time, I've very often been able to come up with good ideas and good combinations of players. These were great players; I relished the opportunity to play with Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate. But I probably would have set its mood a little differently. I was starting to get friendly again with [Lovin' Spoonful guitarist] Zal Yanovsky. You could speculate that there might have been a little more Yanovsky-Sebastian interactivity there, which of course would have been a good idea."

    Asked which were his favorite songs on Welcome Back, Sebastian responds, "'I Needed Her Most When I Told Her To Go' is still a tune that I like, but the good version hasn't been done yet. I think there's a couple of tunes on that album that had that. 'You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine' has something to it that it needs, you know, Buck Owens and [Owens's longtime guitarist] Don Rich or something. Also I still have hope for 'A Song a Day in Nashville.' It's odd because it isn't exactly a song for a country and western guy now. It's like [the Lovin' Spoonful hit] 'Nashville Cats' or a couple of tunes that I've written as an outsider fan of country music." The song, with Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (who put in stints with both Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers in the 1970s) on pedal steel, grew out of an actual week-long trip John had recently taken to Nashville specifically to write songs, as he wanted to be in "a town where music is a buzz, and music is being played. It was also a less self-conscious scene than the Los Angeles rock and roll scene."

    Sebastian had made a couple of ventures into reggae and Caribbean music on his previous albums, and did so again with "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back," which John re-recorded with the J Band on his 1999 album Chasin' Gus' Ghost. "That's a tune that my cousin John Charles Lewis wrote during the calypso era [around the beginning of the 1960s]," says Sebastian. "I think my main contribution was organizing, putting little licks in, and more or less being an arranger for that tune. He's also the composer of 'Rooty-Toot,'" which John had included on his 1971 album Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live. Filling out the LP were a couple of remakes of songs the Lovin' Spoonful had recorded, "Didn't Wanna Have to Do It" and "Warm Baby."

    Despite the inclusion of a chart-topping 45, the Welcome Back album wasn't a big hit, peaking at #79. Neither was the follow-up single to "Welcome Back," "Hideaway" (also included on the LP), which only got to #95. "The [promotional] effort on both the album and single were absolutely shameful," says Sebastian. "It really was like, 'Not only will we be really nice after we've ignored you, but then we'll go right back to ignoring you immediately right after we were making nice.' You could chalk it up to not so much as 'let's not promote this' as the energy going into 'hey, let's promote that.'" As for "Hideaway, "We'll never know what that silly little tune might have done. I don't consider it a magnum opus. But it was catchy, and it was a hit in Germany, for example"—in a German-sung cover that, he laughs, changed a lyric to "we're coming in jeans, and hanging out in Saint-Tropez."

    Sebastian and Warner Brothers did part ways after Welcome Back, ending a relationship that had endured from the beginning of the singer-songwriter era to the dawn of punk. "My original feeling of confidence in Warner Brothers came very much from [executive] Mo Ostin, and the more that he was involved, the better these projects [were], the more soul they had," feels John. "You know, 'pull an album project away from MGM and do it right. Do an ambitious album that has a 15-minute side to it.' Really, those were all done with Mo Ostin's encouragement, and when I didn't have his ear, things at Warner Brothers were much more difficult." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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