The latest installment in the Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions at NYU series starred 1960s legends Felix Cavaliere and John Sebastian in conversation with Phil Galdston at NYU Steinhardt’s Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.
“Both exerted a profound influence on a certain teenage songwriter,” said Galdston, a hit songwriter and NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Master Teacher in Songwriting, speaking of himself.
Cavaliere, who as keyboardist/vocalist with The Rascals had a hand in writing such classic hits as “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” “Groovin’,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “A Girl Like You,” “A Beautiful Morning” and “People Got to Be Free,” opened by noting that “there’s no substitute for soul—no matter what kind of music.”
For his part, Lovin’ Spoonful vocalist/guitarist Sebastian, who wrote hits including “Do You Believe In Magic?,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?,” “Daydream,” “Summer In The City,” “Nashville Cats” and “Darling Be Home Soon,” instructed students in the audience to “listen and create without prejudice.” He added that when the song creation is over, so is “most of the fun,” and that “music is not just a way of making a living but a way of life.”
Both songwriter/artists noted, though, that making a living in music seemed farfetched for them early on.
“There was a point when we were turned down by every record company in New York City—and that’s a lot!” said Sebastian. He then described the fertile Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early ‘60s that he was part of.
“It was a multiplex of music [with] all these different factions: guys from Washington Square, ‘Kingston Trio’ guys with matching shirts, blues guys who wanted to be like Lightnin’ Hopkins–which I was in–a jug band contingent, all these old-time music guys, [Earl] Scruggs [banjo] pickers. Everybody was firmly entrenched in what they liked, and everything else sucked.”
Remarkably, Sebastian noted, “everything happened within a few doors of this place!”
“All these various factions were colliding,” he continued. “I was listening to a lot of fingerpickers from that era and basically playing the Willie Dixon [blues] songbook, [and] wound up being a session player in Manhattan and apprenticed with [folk blues legend] Mississippi John Hurt. Then Paul Rothchild, who was staff producer at Elektra, took me under his wing because we shared an enthusiasm for music and herb. He had the fabulous idea for a New York jug band—the components were at Washington Square on Sundays.”
Indeed, Sebastian, who later wrote the Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Jug Band Music,” played in the Even Dozen Jug Band, which Rothchild produced for Elektra in 1964. Also that year he met Zal Yanovsky, with whom he served in The Mugwumps with future members of the Mamas & the Papas, and later, the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Cavaliere, meanwhile, recalled that in 1963, he was still in school.
“I started out in the Catskills,” he said, explaining that he brought his college band to gigs in Catskills venues in the summer “and never went back.” Falling under the spell of the Hammond B-3 organ, he recalled the “revelation” of visiting Macy’s to check one out.
Cavaliere later joined Joey Dee & the Starliters of “Peppermint Twist” hit fame.
“We were on stage in Europe with these people with long hair—The Beatles—and people were going crazy,” he said. “Basically, they were a singing group—great voices, okay musicians. Their American [cover] songs were all right—though they couldn’t come to my neighborhood and play them!”
Seated at a keyboard, Cavaliere played a few notes from “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
“But their [original] things were really cool,” Cavaliere continued. “Whatever it was, it was different. It was the first time I was hip to songwriting—not Chuck Berry or Little Richard [covers], but their creations. Besides the organ, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Sebastian, now with Yanovsky, first saw Cavaliere performing with future Rascals drummer Dino Danelli after bravely venturing uptown “above 14th Street.”
“We said, ‘We’re dead. We’re so dead!’ We took away from it that we had to find a drummer!”
Cavaliere stated that the goal of The Rascals was to incorporate Marvin Gaye’s voice, The Beatles’ songwriting, Phil Spector’s production, and the keyboards of Jimmy Smith and Ray Charles. He told the students to “get the education and go for it”—and be ready for opportunity.
Sebastian said that his songwriting came out of the “desperation” of doing eight shows a day. He explained: “We’d already done [Tommy Tucker’s 1963 hit] ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’ four times. ‘I know. I’ll paraphrase it!’”
But Sebastian also noted how he borrowed from a Carter Family compilation album in employing the autoharp into Lovin’ Spoonful songs like “Do You Believe in Magic?”
“I realized it was the same as Travis picking—only crossing your arms,” he said. “Girls started to notice—which was really the ‘point of departure’ to learn the instrument.”
Cavaliere credited Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Arif Mardin for their work on Rascals records, and offered advice to budding songwriters.
“Anybody who plays standards for weddings and bar mitzvahs is really doing themselves a favor–learning great music,” he said, noting how he himself “extrapolated” compositional elements that “stick in your head” from past songs.
Here he played a bit of The Rascals’ “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” and juxtaposed it with a corresponding piece from The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
“The more you have in that encyclopedia, you can draw from it any time you want!” he said.
Likewise, Sebastian noted that Paul McCartney had stated that The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream,” then confessed that he himself wrote “Daydream” wanting to write a song like the 1930s standard “Deep Purple”—specifically, the 1963 hit version by Nino Tempo & April Stevens.
“Everbyody thought it was about pot, and I’m going, ‘Finally I’m writing something that isn’t about pot!”
Sebastian noted, too, that his “Summer in the City” was intentionally “Gershwinized” a la the street sounds of “An American in Paris.”
But Cavaliere hailed “the unique influence The Beatles had on people.”
“They changed everything: Radio stations at that time had to play The Beatles [and] these geniuses with their sound opened all these doors.”
The evening ended with Sebastian and Cavaliere duetting on Lovin’ Spoonful’s “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” and The Rascals’ “Groovin’.”
Since its launch in 2011, the Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions has brought to the NYU community great songwriters for in-depth interviews, performances and demonstrations. Previous editions have featured the late Hal David, Jimmy Webb, Glenn Frey, Nile Rodgers, and Valerie Simpson.
[The Examiner contributes to the Songwriters Hall of Fame newsletter.]
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