“As soon as we signed our first record deal, it was like, ‘Grit your teeth, strap your seatbelt on tight, because it’s gonna take off any minute now.’” So recalls 71-year-old Steve Boone on the band’s feat of going from near obscurity to becoming one of American’s biggest musical acts practically overnight.
“When the band first asked me to join, in December of ’64,” he recalls, “I told them, ‘I’ll take off one college semester, but if we’re not signed to a label by the following June, I’m going back for the fall semester.’ Sure enough, the deal came through just in time.”
With a name inspired by a line from bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s song “Coffee Blues,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, singer-composer John Sebastian, bassist Steve Boone, guitarist Zal Yanovsky and drummer Joe Butler, became one of America’s most successful musical acts of the 1960s. Starting with their debut single “Do You Believe In Magic?” in 1965, the group ran off seven consecutive top-ten hits, which included “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Darling Be Home Soon,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” and the biggest hit, “Summer In The City.”
The band was riding high until one fateful night in May of 1966, when Boone and Zanovsky were arrested in San Francisco for marijuana possession. As Zanovsky was a Canadian citizen, fearing deportation, he cooperated with police in naming his drug supplier. This resulted in negative press about the band, which ultimately led to Zanovsky’s departure and signaled the beginning of the end for the original group.
Ultimately, Sebastian left, followed by Boone, until Butler was the only original member on the last album bearing the Spoonful name, “Revelation: Revolution ’69.”
However, in 1992, original members Boone and Butler were granted the rights to the Lovin’ Spoonful name. Last night at Ocean Grove, New Jersey’s Great Auditorium, the band, which also included original member Jerry Yester, performed an entertaining set on a bill with Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals.
Elliot Stephen Cohen: How did the group become such an overnight sensation?
Steve Boone: Well, you know, the Spoonful’s history is a very strange one, with our success coming just a few months after the band was formed, and playing our first notes together. Unlike the Beatles or the Stones or a lot of bands from the early ’60s who had a lot of time to hone their craft, we weren’t a band that played a lot of nightclubs and hung together for years. With us, shortly after we started, we had a record on the charts and were thrown into playing the Rose Bowl. It’s one thing to be able to make great records in a studio situation, but playing live is a whole different thing. When we did the Rose Bowl, we only had a total repertoire of about 15 or 20 songs. So, we were always forced to be at the very top of our game, and I think, considering the circumstances, we did a really good job of it.
ESC: What were those early shows like? Obviously, the sound systems of the mid-60s were primitive by today’s standards. Also, there were no stage or in-the-ear monitors, not to mention trying to hear what you were playing onstage over all the screaming girls.
SB: You’re absolutely right. You know, in December 2013, John Sebastian was doing a little benefit in a town near me. So I called him up and said, “John, I’d like to bring my bass down and sit in with you.” We did a nice little hour-and-a-half performance, with John talking and singing the best he could. During the show, John points out exactly what you just said, that the sound equipment for this little outdoor show was far superior to the sound system the Lovin’ Spoonful had when we played the huge Rose Bowl in’65. The ones we had to use from the ’65-to-’68 era were just atrocious.
ESC: Why doesn’t John come back to play with the band any more?
SB: Well, John has turned down every offer we’ve made to him. I miss John. Of course, we all do. He has a totally unique personality, and I think he’s one of the most underrated musicians of the whole ’60s era … not as a lead player, but as a rhythm guitarist, he’s just phenomenal. As recently as a month ago, I visited John in his house, and he told me, “At this point in my life I’ve got a grandchild and another one on the way. I just don’t see myself doing many projects now, especially something that would involve me competing with drums and electrified instruments onstage.” That’s been his line for a long time, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if one day he calls me up and says, “Let’s do it.” John is famous for saying, “I say no, until I say yes.”
ESC: … but do you think some audience members who buy tickets expecting to see John are disappointed when they get to the show and he isn’t there?
SB: Audiences who come to our shows are living for the moment, and they enjoy what they hear. In the last 20-something years that we’ve been doing this, I could count to less than the number of fingers I have on one hand, the number of people who complain to me about John not being there.
ESC: During the band’s heyday, you reportedly had a chance to hang out with such rock royalty as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
SB: The stories are too numerous to tell here, but hanging out with the Beatles at Shea Stadium before their last concert in ’66 there was a great experience. We were being treated by them as peers, not as fans coming backstage for a “Meet and Greet.” We talked shop … I don’t think Ringo was all that interested in meeting us. He kind-of stayed to himself, but John, Paul and George were all super cool. Couldn’t have been nicer.
ESC: It’s been speculated that Lennon got the idea for the long sideburns and granny glasses from John.
SB: That’s what I mean when I say the Spoonful were trend setters. I’m not making this stuff up. We set the style for a lot of people. We weren’t deliberately copying anyone.
ESC: … and Dylan?
SB:. Well, Dylan was a contemporary and, of course, we all admired him. I actually got to play bass on one of his albums. That really blew me out of the water, but Bob puts his pants on one leg at a time, like everybody else. It was just a very interesting time to be in the music business.
ESC: So, just prior the infamous drug bust, things couldn’t have been going better for the band.
SB: Well, in April of ’66, we were all on “Cloud Nine” or, to put it in modern terms, “ten feet tall and bullet proof.” We had the Beatles in our audience. We played for the Guinness heir at his parents’ house in Luglow, Ireland for his 21st birthday, the one who became the hero in the Beatles song “A Day In The Life” We knew “Summer In The City” was going to be our first number-one record, and I really felt we were on par with The Beatles. I am sure everyone in the band would agree with that statement, but then, one month later, in May, everything stared unraveling.
ESC: What exactly happened the night of the arrest?
SB: It happened in San Francisco. There was no reason for the cops to stop us. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t driving badly. We were riding a rent- a-car, and it was almost like someone called the cops and said we had a bag of weed with us.
ESC: Now, after Zal felt pressured to inform the police of the name of his drug dealer, this severely hurt the group’s image, although there was really no serious rock press in 1966 to spread the story.
SB: That’s true, except there was The L.A. Free Press, The Berkeley Barb and The Village Voice. Those three constituted a very aggressive counterculture that tolerated no cooperation with “The Man.” It was also the beginning of the anti-war movement, and that created a dangerous atmosphere. Zally’s own father was a Communist member in Canada, and Zally grew up seeing a man who had to be constantly aware of finks and informers in his life. Zally, knowing what he’d done, couldn’t look at himself in the mirror anymore.
ESC: What exactly caused Zal’s departure from the group?
SB: Well, only Zal could answer that. I would not want to speculate and put any words into Zally’s mouth. Zally and I were as close as two men could be in a rock band. We called ourselves “The Death Duo.” We went through that experience (of the drug bust) together, but I will tell you this, even John and Joe to this day don’t understand what was going through his mind.
ESC: Would you agree … and I’ve discussed this with John various times, that once Zal left the group, a lot of the humor, the band’s chemistry, and magic left with him?
SB: Well, I wouldn’t say all of the humor, but a lot of people who knew us would agree, Zally was, in a word that we all shared to describe him, a firecracker. He was the firecracker in the band. After the arrest, he knew he could no longer be that person. It took him over 20 years (till his passing) to try to get over it. I’m still dealing with what happened on that night which I wish never happened. I didn’t think the band had to stop. It just had to change.
ESC: So, after the arrest, did it become obvious to everyone in the group that Zal’s days with the band were numbered?
SB: Once the rug was pulled from under him and he realized he could no longer could perform like he used to, he turned into a really obnoxious guy. He’d be obnoxious in public. I’d say, “Zally, you’re got to get it together. You’re ruining it for the band.” He’d be obnoxious to John. He accused the band of becoming lightweight and not trying too play real rock music any more. Then a lot of other things started going on within the band. It was like the air leaking out of a balloon. It starts slowly, very slowly, until it’s all gone.
ESC: What are your memories of the band’s televised reunion for its 2000 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction? A lot of critics really knocked the band’s performance.
SB: Well, Zal had to really work hard to get himself in shape for it. You know, he was such a virtual genius on the guitar. He could make notes come out of a guitar that most people had never heard … to make it sound like a piano or saxophone. To do that, he had to really be a gymnast of the fingers and with his whammy bar.
ESC: Did you feel it was a good performance?
SB: I would argue with anyone who said the band didn’t sound good. It’s just that John’s singing was obviously not up to par. During rehearsals I said to John, “Why don’t we do “Night Owl Blues,” which was an instrumental that was our signature song when we started out playing clubs that used to always get audiences up on their feet. John’s mouth harp playing was still at the top of its form and Zally’s guitar work was coming to life. But Paul Shaffer (the musical director) and the management of the production company wanted us to play one of our hit records.
ESC: With all of the media attention that the Hall’s induction ceremonies get, besides the television broadcast, that’s usually a good time for an act to come out with a new album and tour. Was there any talk about the Spoonful doing that?
SB: Well our manager Bob Cavallo had brought that up the night before the ceremony. He had given a private party for the band and some close associates, and he said, “You know, this may turn out to be a key point for us to be able to put the band back on the road,” and nobody objected. I think we all would have loved it, but after our performance, I saw Bob I the hallway, and he just looked at me and shook his head. He didn’t have to say anything, but I could see he was thinking, “So much for that idea.”
ESC: Of all the great recordings that the Spoonful did, can you name your three favorites and why you picked them?
SB: Well, the top of the list has to be “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” for obvious reasons. It was the first hit record I had a hand in writing. John and I became a songwriting team, and I love that style of music, pop country, or pop rock. I’d say “It’s Not Time Now” is my favorite John Sebastian song because of the lyrics and also his great guitar picking. Number three would be “Rain On The Roof,” although it was a bad choice by our record company to be picked as a follow-up to “Summer In The City.” I didn’t care too much for the lyrics, which were kind of sappy, but the music … I fell asleep while he other guys were doing their overdubs, and when I woke up, the guitars sounded so amazing, I thought I was in heaven.
ESC: How would you sum up the legacy of The Lovin’ Spoonful, when people read about the band many years from now?
SB: Good time music. I think it will forever put a smile on peoples’ faces when they hear one of our songs. That’s the most anyone can hope for out of a legacy, to create nice, positive memories.
Boone’s autobiography is called “Hotter Than a Match Head: My Life on the Run with The Lovin’ Spoonful” (ECW Press).