A decade later he landed the chart-topping comeback “Welcome Back.”
Sebastian’s magical career started as a child in New York’s fabled Greenwich Village, where he learned about music from Woody Guthrie, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Burl Ives — all regular visitors to his parents’ home. He received artistic encouragement from his godparents — “I Love Lucy” co-star Vivian Vance and children’s book illustrator Garth Williams (“Charlotte’s Web” and the “Little House” books).
Besides scoring several hits with the Spoonful (“Summer in the City,” “Daydream”), he played on key albums by Bob Dylan, the Doors and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
But maybe his most magical moment was at Woodstock in 1969 when the tie-dyed, sideburned singer entertained the rain-soaked multitudes with just his voice and acoustic guitar.
He’s been invited back for Woodstock 50 next month, though the fest seems to be in jeopardy without a firm site.
“I don’t know how you can have a show and not have a ticket office yet,” he said.
He’s seen the lineup, which ranges from contemporary stars like Jay-Z and Imagine Dragons to Woodstock originals Santana and David Crosby.
“The roster looks exhausting,” Sebastian said. “I’ve been paid. I’ll be glad to play if they can pull it off.”
As he prepares to return to the Dakota in Minneapolis this week, Sebastian, 75, called to discuss everything from “Welcome Back” to Woodstock, where he’s lived since 1972.
On the magic of the Spoonful
“It was a real nice cultural puddle with the Irish Italian guy [Sebastian], the other two Irish guys and the Jewish guy and a Scandinavian guy running production,” he observed. “It was pretty multiculti for 1960-whatever it was.”
A big key was the eclectic tastes of guitarist Zal Yanovsky.
On learning harmonica
His father, also named John Sebastian (né Pugliese), was a famed classical harmonica player. He helped the Hohner company develop a chromatic harmonica that spanned more than four octaves, so he received lots of free Marine Band mouth harps that he passed along to his kid.
“That was where I started, with ‘Yankee Doodle’ or something like that,” Sebastian recalled. While he was fixated on guitar, “harmonica was the first instrument I got hired to play.”
After hanging out and jamming with the bard in Woodstock, N.Y., Sebastian was invited to a Dylan record session in New York City in 1965 for “Bringing It All Back Home.”
There was no bass player. So Sebastian jumped in until a real bassist took over. “I don’t know which [take] ended up” on the album, he said.
Everything with Dylan was kind of casual. Like his informal invitation to Sebastian to join his band.
“There was vagueness on both sides,” recalls Sebastian, who wasn’t offered a contract.
He declined because the Lovin’ Spoonful was just coming together.
“I hung up the phone,” he remembered. “I did take a moment in that cold telephone booth to go: ‘You idiot.’ ”
On the Doors
Sebastian had played harmonica on albums for Judy Collins, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin produced by Paul Rothchild. So the producer recruited Sebastian to record “Roadhouse Blues” on the Doors’ “Morrison Hotel” — under the alias G. Pugliese. The harp man also ended up on three live Doors albums.
“I didn’t consider playing with the Doors a career decision. It was fun. It was a period when [singer Jim Morrison] was astute and all the way there — and still had a sense of humor about them.”
On playing at Woodstock
Having hitched a ride to the festival on the Incredible String Band’s helicopter, Sebastian was backstage for a weekend of fun. He had quit the Spoonful the year before and was between projects.
On the rain-drenched second day, he found himself standing with festival promoter Michael Lang and stage manager Chip Monck. They wanted someone to entertain the crowd without having to plug in, so they looked at the guy with the wire-rimmed glasses and big sideburns.
“I didn’t bring anything other than a thumb pick,” he told them. Borrowing an acoustic guitar from his pal Hardin, Sebastian performed five songs that live in history.
On living in Woodstock
“It is remarkably the same town. Of course, there’s a greater influx of tourists as the prime season comes for a couple of months. Then the town calms down, and it’s no longer hard to wander or drive the streets of Woodstock.”
On tie-dyed clothing
The movie “Woodstock” left an indelible impression of Sebastian in a tie-dyed denim jacket and jeans.
He got into tie-dye while living in Burbank, Calif., at a piece of land with other musicians, painters and batiker Ann Thomas.
“She had showed us how to use these very strong dyes and a few simple patterns. I went nuts. I was really having fun wandering around these dye pods.”
On Crosby, Stills & Nash
He became friends with the trio while hanging out at Cass Elliot’s swimming pool. He’d been in a folk group with her called the Mugwumps, which eventually split into the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful.
There he witnessed some of the very first times CSN harmonized. “They’d come over and do that in my swimming pool, too. That was just after my Spoonful opulence period.”
Sebastian invited CSN to use the rehearsal space in his house at Sag Harbor, N.Y.
“Sometimes I’d be home and there was a [drum] kit and I’d tap along. Steve [Stills] said: ‘This is what we need. Not a big drummer guy. Tap along, sing below us and write some songs.’ ”
Shortly thereafter, Sebastian heard and recommended drummer Dallas Taylor to them. However, he did play harmonica on the group’s second album, “Déjà Vu,” with Neil Young.
On ‘Welcome Back’
This is how serendipity works in showbiz: Sebastian’s manager of a month got a call from one of his old friends, a TV producer, who was looking for a “a John Sebastian-type guy” to write a theme song for a pilot.
Sebastian read the script and recorded a demo.
“I could see this had to be explained in the first sentence: It’s about a guy who used to go [to school] here as a bad student and now he’s a teacher.
“In New York, you say ‘Welcome back’ and you roll the back of your fingers underneath your chin.”
The producer loved the song so much that he changed the name of the program from “Kotter” to “Welcome Back Kotter.”
The TV show had a four-season run, and Sebastian had a No. 1 song.
“It was so unexpected. It really did give me a second wind of sorts at a time when I was out of fashion.”
On late-night infomercials
In recent years he’s helped host cheesy TV infomercials for golden-oldie record compilations.
“I have had hilarious calls. It would be one of my more disreputable friends saying, ‘Hey, John. I’m in Dayton. It’s 3 in the morning. Why are you on the television?’ ”
It started with a Time Life commercial and that led to infomercials for all-star compilation albums.
“They call you. You don’t call them,” Sebastian said of the infomercial producers. “It’s not something I anticipated would be part of my professional life.”