The Lovin’ Spoonful is a band that made a huge impact on the musical landscape in a very small window of time. It held its own at a time when the music world around it was changing fast and heading in different directions and the listener had to hold on tight, just to keep up.
In only two years in the mid-1960s, the Greenwich Village group charted a string of 10 Top 40 hits at a time when the competition included Motown, the Beatles and the British Invasion’s entire fleet.
The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the most successful pop/rock groups to have jug band and folk roots, and nearly half the songs on their first album were modernized versions of blues standards. The band’s popularity revived interest in the form, and many subsequent jug bands cite them as an inspiration. The rest of their albums featured mostly original songs, but their jug band roots showed up again and again, particularly in “Daydream” and the lesser-known “Money,” featuring a typewriter as percussion.
With their freewheeling hits like “Do You Believe in Magic?” and the harder rockin’ “Summer in the City,” Spoonful spoon-fed its fans lots of poppy, melodic, feel-good music in heaping amounts.
The four original members — singer/guitarist John Sebastian, guitarist Zal Yanovsky, bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler — came together at a time when the folk-music scene was in full swing, engulfing them all in this organic rootsy vibe, but the electrified sounds of the Beatles and the other pop bands of the day also had caught their attention. Retaining its folk roots while exploring new directions, the Lovin’ Spoonful adapted folk-style fingerpicking to electric instruments. The folk-rock hybrid was particularly evident in the unusual combination of autoharp and electric guitar on “Do You Believe in Magic.”
It was a daring eclecticism that really set the Lovin’ Spoonful apart from the mid-’60s pack of the one-hit wonder syndrome. No two singles were written in the same style. Between 1965 and 1968, they tackled jug-band music (“Good Time Music”), ragtime (“Daydream”), country (“Nashville Cats”), folk-pop (“You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”), hard rock (“Summer in the City”) and orchestrated pop (“She Is Still a Mystery”).
For those not familiar with the “jug-band” genre, a jug band is a mix of conventional and homemade instruments. These homemade instruments are ordinary objects adapted to or modified for making sound, like the jug, washtub bass, washboard, spoons, bones, stovepipe, and comb and tissue paper (kazoo).
In the early days of jug band music, homemade guitars and mandolins sometimes were made from the necks of discarded manufactured guitars fastened to large gourds that were flattened on one side, with a sound-hole cut into the flat side, before drying. Banjos sometimes were made from a discarded guitar neck and a metal pie plate.
The happy sounds of the Lovin’ Spoonful made the quartet a fixture during the golden age of Top Forty radio, and those same singles have stood the test of time. “Do You Believe in Magic” remains a defining rock and roll anthem.
At the peak of the band’s success, the producers of the television series that later became “The Monkees” initially planned to build their series around the Lovin’ Spoonful, but dropped the band from the project due to conflicts over song publishing rights.
The Lovin’ Spoonful’s song “Pow!” was used as the opening theme of Woody Allen’s first feature film, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily.” The band also composed and played instrumental music for the film and appeared in some live performance sequences in the film (reportedly added during post-production without Allen’s knowledge or consent). Shortly thereafter, Sebastian composed the music for Francis Ford Coppola’s second film, “You’re a Big Boy Now,” and the Lovin’ Spoonful played the music for the soundtrack, which included yet another hit, “Darling Be Home Soon.” Both films were released in 1966.
Band members started to go their separate ways in ’66, with Yanovsky leaving in ‘67 and Sebastian in ’68.
Sebastian launched a successful solo career that found him giving one of the more memorable performances at Woodstock in August 1969. Many years later, in 1980, the Lovin’ Spoonful lineup came together one more time to perform a cameo in Paul Simon’s film “One-Trick Pony.”
In 1991, Butler and Boone decided to start up the Lovin’ Spoonful again, and began touring with Butler as the group’s lead vocalist. Additional current members include Murray Weinstock, Mike Arturi and Phil Smith.
The original four members of the group were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2000. Yanovsky passed away in 2002.
These guys, more than anything, are survivors of the volatile and dishonest entity known as the music business. Their integrity and their sense of humor is still at the core of everything they do.
“We never made a penny until 1991,” said Butler. “Every cent we made was stolen from us. We never got it — this was standard operating policy for record companies back then, this was very ordinary with a lot of artists, and we got burned terribly. We didn’t get any royalties at all, not a penny, not a nickel, not a dime, nothing. We sued them in 1991, and then of course, you can’t go back more than three years.
“Nevertheless, we settled up and Steve Boone and I put the Spoonful back together,” he added. “Personnel has changed over the years, not too much, but Steve and I have always been there.
“Many, many years ago, Steve and I were in a band called the Kingsmen, we were really successful in the eastern part of Long Island for several years. When I was in the Air Force, we had worked in many of the bars and then we started working VFW halls and selling tickets, buying truckloads of soda and having off-duty police officers to watch out for us. We’d go and play in different towns, we were making a good living, and they wanted me to re-enlist after I did my four years but I turned them down.
“By then, it was music all the way. I was hooked because I was born at the beginning of rock and roll,” Butler added. “There really was a line in the sand, everything on one end of the line was the crooners singing things like, ‘If you made me a king, I’d still be a slave to you,’ … and then ‘wop baba lou bop a whap bam boo,’ was at the other.” It was a marked line, there was nothing like it before and nothing like it since.
“So I was bitten by the bug really early, having bands from the time I was 13. We took the Kingsmen to New York and eventually both of us teamed up with John and Zally. We were out there doing the more folk-oriented stuff — we we’re in the ‘buckets of blood and beer’ bars singing rock and roll with leather lungs, it was rough out there,” he said with a laugh. “We learned everything from being in bars.
“We’ve been working all over the world, like doing four cities in Germany,” Butler added. “We’ve played all over. When I see maps and something happens there, I’m like, ‘I’ve been there.’ I’ve been about every place three to 10 times, Steve, too. We’ve been around the block and every town and city in the country…‘the audiences are heaven but the traveling was hell,’ is the line somebody said. I forget the song.”
Boone and Butler continue to lead the charge to preserve the band’s legacy, keeping the music alive and well, something they are proud to keep going.
“The Spoonful started in the shade of the Beatles and the folk music scene and so the one reason I joined up with Jon and Zally in the first place was their sound — and John described it as becoming an electric jug band,” Boone said. “While that concept is hard to execute, the idea of it lives on.
“So the legacy for me is important, not as a band that had nine consecutive Top 20 hits, but it’s important as a band that laid the groundwork for a lot of folks who came after us, and in fact many of them didn’t even realize what the Spoonful was representing,” he added. “But the Beatles in fact, were fans of the band, and the reason was that we were eclectic and we didn’t stick to a formula.”
While Spoonful and the Beatles competed for the top spot on radio charts, mutual respect was the real name of the game, to the point of being inspired and “borrowing” some of their sounds.
“Everybody took ideas from everybody else, of course, and we certainly earned their respect,” Butler said. “I had known John (Lennon) from when he and George (Harrison) came to see us at the Marquis Club in London when we played there. After the show, we went back to our hotel and hung out. They were very respectful and, God, nobody worked harder than those guys.”
The Beatles also respected the fact Spoonful was just as eclectic as they were.
“Absolutely,” Boone said. “In telling stories about the band and then comparing us to the Beatles, they had three years in Berlin to get their act honed and tight and come up with some songs. Spoonful had three months before we were out on the road, and so we really had to gallop hard to keep up with the herd and it was at a time, in ’65-’66, when technology hadn’t caught up to live performance, it was difficult to put the electric jug band in motion with the sound equipment we had. We just couldn’t reproduce it satisfactorily for big venues — we played a lot of large concerts with 5,000, 10,000, and 15,000 seat concert halls. So it was a delicate balance.
“If, say, the band started in ’67, and could have benefitted from the leaps in technology, I think it would have been an easier row to hoe, to get that balance between the hits and the beginnings of the band — and we really tried to not step in the footsteps we just walked. In other words, we didn’t want it to sound like the last hit we had.”
Maintaining their creative integrity was difficult at a time when labels wanted the new project to sound just like the old one.
“Most record companies were almost rabid about it — ‘please just do the same thing you just did again,’ is something artists heard a lot,” he said. “And we tried not to and were largely successful, and continued with that. But then, of course, we all went our separate ways for years in 1968.
“I moved from performing live to having a recording studio in Baltimore,” he said. “I learned an enormous amount in the four years I was involved with that. I whimsically thought if the Spoonful could have landed in that era, it would have been a different thing. Bands like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac had six or eight or 10 months to create an album. What a Day for a Daydream — that album had to be done in three days, soup to nuts. So we were handicapped by time, but the record company at least supported our desire to not replicate our sound on every record. It was a mix, good and bad, and I have no complaints.”
Spoonful’s return to the Riverside Resort in Laughlin will see a return to the music everybody from the ’60s knows backward and forward.
“What we concentrate on is the hits, and the other songs were pretty much the ones that were played a lot despite not being a hit,” Boone said. “We’re planning on reintroducing a couple of what I call chestnuts in this stretch in Laughlin. Our audience is there to hear the hits and the way I look at it, I’m very grateful we had those hits, they were terrific and an eclectic mix.
“Music is a precious thing, and it can be reduced to the level of driving your car to the store, or it can be something you put your heart and soul into, and we tried within our powers to put our heart and soul into everything we did.
“The legacy that can be preserved, will be, and Joe and I are very concerned about it and we want to make sure that the image and the music is presented as close to what we set out to do in the beginning as possible.
“I look out in the audience and I see the reaction of the fans, and it makes it all worthwhile,” Boone added. “They’re reliving a moment in time that was very precious to them. I think the legacy will endure because the songs are so good
“I like to say in the show that John’s songwriting is woven into the fabric of the 1960s music scene and it always will be remembered…always. He was a master tunesmith in terms of being able to use phrases that stick with you forever. I think our legacy will be in tact as long as we don’t go out and set off a nuclear bomb or something — musically speaking, of course,” he said with a laugh.