By Tom Prestopnik
The year was 1965 and The Beatles had 10 hits on the American music charts. From this side of the pond, an American group evolved and produced their first Top 10 single in October. More than a year before The Monkees would emerge on the scene and be dubbed “The American Beatles.” The Lovin’ Spoonful would be credited with being the answer to The Beatles. Others have called them “America’s Mop Tops from Manhattan.”
The four equal members, getting their start in the Greenwich Village folk music scene comprised of Steve Boone on bass, Joe Butler on drums, John Sebastian on autoharp, guitar and harmonica and Zalman (Zally) Yanovsky on lead guitar. All were on vocals with Sebastian up front in the lead.
With a debut single “Do You Believe In Magic” hitting No. 9 on the U.S. charts, the band lasted through ups and downs, both musically and personally for two years, putting nine songs in the American Top 20.
As with many musical bands and marriages, life gets in the way. Changes occur. Some people grow, some don’t. The Spoonful were no different. Lies from record companies and agents, an active drug scene, personality challenges, etc., can all have a negative impact on keeping a viable band together. And problems with immigration officials (Zally was Canadian), had things come crashing down on The Lovin’ Spoonful in two year’s time. In 1967, after immigration issues, Zally left the band and was replaced by Jerry Yester of the Modern Folk Quartet. The following year, John Sebastian left the group which pretty much ended the hit singles and albums. After disbanding in 1968, everyone went their separate ways.
Flash forward to the 1990s, Boone and Butler revived the Spoonful and decided to go out on the road. The band continue to perform to this day. Goldmine caught up with Steve Boone on this year’s Flower Power Cruise.
GOLDMINE: Firstly, thank you for keeping the music alive for over 50 years. With McCartney, The Moody Blues, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys... you’re in good company. After reading about many of the rock groups from the ’60s and their lifestyles, how were you able to survive?
STEVE BOONE: In the ’60s most of the bands that I knew were pot and beer bands. Do a little pot, drink some beer and a tequila shot now and then. Not the hard drugs at all and that kind of reflects how the music was as well. Like a peaceful easy feeling. And then the ’70s came along and the cocaine was beginning to work its way into the music and the musicians and you can timeline it and see where it starts to get more hard edge with the debauchery and the hard rock lifestyle. To me it’s just a complete turn off, trashing hotel rooms, treating women as some kind of an item. And to answer your question, Joe and I were beer and pot guys and that’s the key, you have to maintain your health, gotta have a good attitude.
GM: Your second single, “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” was written by you and Sebastian. John was known as the main songwriter for the band. How did that song go about getting written?
SB: It’s a great story. When I first met John and Zally, we immediately clicked as three guys who loved music. But everybody had a back story; John grew up in Greenwich Village, Zally was from Toronto and the folk scene up there, and I lived on Long Island at the time. From the first day, Zally wanted me to meet a friend from Toronto named Nurit Wilde. He said that we would be a perfect match. I met her when she came to New York and it developed into a plutonic relationship. At the time my songwriting career had been limited to what I called beach party songs, but when I saw that John had a craft about writing a song, such as developing a song around an idea, or a phrase, I really wanted to be part of that.
GM: So John influenced your songwriting abilities.
SB: One day I was over to Joe’s girlfriend’s house and she had a piano and I started playing this riff that was in the back of my mind. And I started playing this melody and out of the blue words came into my mind, “You didn’t have to be so nice, I would have liked you anyway,’’ referring to Nurit because she was overly nice. The next morning we were at a rehearsal and I told John about this idea that I had for a song. And he said let’s do it. We started talking ideas around. The melody was intact. The title was intact. The first verse was intact. But we needed to make it a complete song. John has the ability of hooking couplets together. Like “Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart.” That’s a magical kind of thinking that he can do that. So he was really the main inspiration for me to create songs, using couplets. That song was a hit for us and it really meant a lot to me that the idea worked.
GM: Unless somebody reads your book (Hotter Than a Match Head), they might not know that you toured with the Supremes. That seems like a strange union.
SB: What I do remember was that before we went on the road with the Supremes, we had “Magic” as a hit and “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice” in the can, but not released, and our manager said that he had a one week booking for us at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. It was called the “Murray The ‘K’ Brooklyn Fox Show” and traditionally featured Motown artists. All Motown artists. So I asked Bob, our manager, “Do you think this is gonna work, four white guys in Brooklyn, appearing on the bill with the entire Motown Review?” Of course I was thrilled to be playing with these guys, but wasn’t sure it was going to work out. The first day we did a matinee and an evening show. The audience was very polite, but by the third show they were really excited and the Motown people were all excited by us and at that point it became so successful for the Spoonful, Bob talked to the people at Motown and the Supremes were going on the road to try out a new idea for moving away from rock and more into theater or pop stuff and they would be willing to have us as the opening act because it was different from what the Supremes audience was expecting.
GM: And how did that turn out?
SB: We were a bit hesitant, but it turned out to be just as good as it could get; not only playing with the Supremes, whom we all loved, but Motown was a big inspiration behind our music. The band they sent out...you know James Jamerson was strictly a studio musician and he never toured. We would sit in the back of the bus and I was trying to get some tips about playing bass and he was just an amazingly easy going guy. You now when I started out I was in a band with a black sax player, King Charles, and he was my mentor for the whole four years the band was together before the Spoonful. He taught me so many shortcuts to learn quickly, so having James Jamerson on board and the rest of the Motown band was great.
GM: Sound great. Anything that didn’t go quite right?
SB: The only thing negative was that this was still in the segregation era and we were in South Carolina, you know “No Blacks Allowed” ... hotels, restaurants. I grew up in St Augustine, Florida, which was a segregated city until the ’60s. So I was familiar with how blacks got treated in the south, but I was not exactly comfortable with it. But everybody on the bus just said, “Let’s do our gigs and that’s it.”
GM: The Supremes stayed on the bus and food was brought onto the bus for them.
SB: They were kept at arm’s length because they were young pretty girls. They were real friendly to us. Florence played poker with us, but mostly they stayed by themselves. Diana was a little reserved. She was the youngest, I think, and a little nervous about how she should handle herself. So it was a great experience and it really broadened our audience at a time when most rock bands didn’t have that audience. And the next thing that we did that was very smart: our manager got us touring college campuses. Traditionally it was jazz and folk, but we were actually the first rock band to move into that arena which broadened our appeal, because rock concerts were mostly for teeny-boppers, we were getting people in their 20s. It was the next step in making music become a permanent fixture rather than just a temporary bus stop on the way to becoming whatever we were to become.
GM:You mentioned the Supremes and Jamerson. Are there other artists that you would have liked to work with, either on the stage, or writing as you did with Sebastian?
SB:Touring with the Supremes was a highlight for us. We enjoyed working with The Association and loved working with The Beach Boys.
GM:Was that with the original five? With Brian and David Marks?
SB : I think that Brian was with us with one show, but that was right at the time when he was getting into acid and backing out of performing. We were in L.A. and Dennis came over to my apartment and picked me up in his Corvette, and we went driving around and he asked if I wanted to go to a session, so we went to the overdub session for “Good Vibrations.” Brian was there and I had the chance to have a good conversation with him. You know that when you’re performing you’re in the formula, but talking with him at the studio was really cool. He was in a category by himself. He was a student of Spector’s and the big sound and a fan of The Lettermen. Brian deserves his place in music history. The rest of the band couldn’t have been nicer to us. Dennis and Carl were like brothers to us.
GM:Was Bruce (Johnston) in the band by then?
SB: Bruce was just transitioning in at that time and Glen Campbell was there as well. We worked about a dozen dates with them over a course of two years.
GM:Of the current crop of rock and pop stars out there, who would you like to work with?
SB:I think that the Barenaked Ladies would have been what the Spoonful would have evolved to if we had stayed together. The Eagles were the logical extension of the Spoonful. I had a recording studio in Baltimore in 1977 and had Little Feat in there and had the benefit of securing the studio in an auction that was created by George Massenburg, who essentially invented digital recording. When I inherited it, it was a revelation to me because I got to learn how to deal in the digital realm way before most people did.
GM: So you would compare yourselves to the Eagles?
SB: The Spoonful needed one more layer of vocals. With Joe and John doing the singing, Zally and I were not up to the challenge. When Jerry came in we had it, we were the first band to use 16-track recording on everything that we were playing. And nobody knew how to mix it because it was too challenging, so we wanted to do layering and Jerry’s voice was a masterpiece, but we couldn’t mix it. The Eagles had the advantage of the new recording techniques and could take three months or six months to record an album and we had to do it in three or four days.
GM:How did the San Francisco bust affect the band? I lived on the east coast in 1966 and don’t remember hearing anything about it at all. It must have been mostly a west coast thing.
SB: There was kind of a stink about The Lovin’ Spoonful revolving around the bust. My opinion is that shit happens, get over it. I bought a sailboat and sailed off. I didn’t want to be part of the scene anymore. We worked too hard. We worked 350 days in two years.
GM:It’s thoroughly covered in your book, do you want to talk about the bust?
SB: Here’s what happened. Rolling Stone’s first edition came out in 1967. 1966 the bust happened. In those days, if you got busted for a felony offense, and you were an alien on a work visa, you got deported the next day. It was immediately, there was no hearing, you were just sent back to where you came from. To keep Zally in the band and to honor our performance contracts, we agreed to do what we did. It certainly isn’t something that I’m proud of, but that part of the deal was that the San Francisco District Attorney would eliminate all records and all we did was to introduce a guy. We didn’t make a buy, just introduced a guy who was obviously a cop. He had a crew cut and looked like a football player. What happened was that a year later, somebody from the Berkeley Barb newspaper heard a story that the Spoonful had gotten arrested the night before the Berkeley concert. And somebody who was in the jail holding cell said that he had met (the Spoonful) in jail and that they had been arrested, and that story got into the Berkeley Barb. The guy who got arrested had heard about a new magazine, Rolling Stone, and told his story. One year and one month after the bust, Rolling Stone had a front page article about the Spoonful being busted and turned in their source. It wasn’t close to being the truth, but it was there on the cover of Rolling Stone.
GM:Was there anything positive about the story?
SB: To his credit, co-owner of Rolling Stone, Ralph Gleason, wrote an article about the bust that said, ‘’If they’re pouring hot lead up your ass, what do you do?” And I appreciated that. I could have walked away and gotten a slap on the wrist, but I wasn’t gonna let Zally swing in the wind by himself. That would have been the end of the band if he were sent back to Canada. It was also unfair because it was an illegal bust and I do fault management structure for not contesting the arrest in the first place because there was no justification for the arrest. We weren’t speeding or driving erratically. I think someone from the house turned us in because we were picked up by the cops about a block from the house.
GM:On the 45 single you’re given writing credit for “Butchie’s Tune” and on the album credit is given to Sebastian. Was that an error on the label’s part?
SB: There was a deal made over publishing rights. I actually wrote the song, but because we had co-written several songs together, I got this one and he got another one. But the record company didn’t get the news until too late.
GM:Did it affect your residuals in any way?
SB: Not really because when they sent the check out they straightened it out. Ironically, I made more money from that 45 than anybody did because “Butchie’s Tune” was on the B-side of “Summer in the City”— of all of our 45s. In those days the 45s really counted for something, because you got paid for both sides. I bought my Ferrari with that money.
GM:McCartney wrote “Good Day Sunshine” as an homage to “Daydream.” Was that 100% Sebastian? Any comments on that song?
SB: There’s a great photo of McCartney walking out of the Apple offices with our Hums album under his arm. It’s an anecdotal story that I’m sure is true. When we went to the Marquee Club in London, George came to see us and John came to see us. Paul didn’t come and Ringo had no interest. Lennon and Sebastian became good friends and talked a lot. I feel that we were held in pretty high esteem by The Beatles. Just recently I was communicating with a British journalist and I said that the Spoonful don’t get its due and he said that they certainly do in England.
GM:The Beatles at Shea Stadium is covered in your book. Do you want to add anything to that?
SB: It was hubris because we thought that with a No. 1 record we could go and sit in Shea Stadium and nobody would notice us. Joe and I went together and John went with his girl friend and Zally went with his girlfriend and we were sitting behind the third base dugout, about five rows up. And somebody way in the back recognized Joe and it was almost like a movie creation. There were two cops standing with us and all of a sudden about a third of the section stood up at once and the cops didn’t know what to do, so they got on the radio and called Sid Bernstein and he suggested that we be brought into the dugout. After that third of the section stood up, then the rest wanted to know what was going on over there and the cops were afraid of having a minor riot on their hands.
GM:Talking to a friend recently who was at the concert and she told me that she remembered seeing you being brought into the dugout.
SB: That was the only possible way for us to get out of the crowd since people were still coming in. We walked right past the opening act, I can’t remember who it was. Maybe the Young Rascals, and they were like “What are these guys doing?”Normally before a show I don’t want to have any conversation. I’m thinking about getting ready to play, but I went up to Paul and told him that I loved his bass playing and wanted to know how he liked playing the left-handed Hofner bass and he let me try it. It was left handed so I couldn’t play it, but he said “When I get back to England, I’ll send you one, mate.”
GM:You mentioned that in the book. Did he ever come through?
SB: He never did. Maybe he’ll read this interview and send me one. There’s a great story connected with it. In 1987 I was living in Ft Lauderdale, Florida and I was working in an Irish band with a bunch of guys just over from Ireland. It was New Year’s Eve and we were on a live broadcast to Ireland and over the air the announcer asked if there was anything that I want to say to the folks over in Ireland. I said, “Yeah, to Paul McCartney, it’s been over 30 years and I’m still waiting for my bass guitar.” I don’t know if he ever heard it or not. When we were being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Paul was in the audience and I was going to ask him but didn’t want to embarrass him. Instead I thanked my brother and that was my thing.
GM:On The Flower Power Cruise this year you played the song “Full Measure.” Living in Buffalo in 1966 I remember hearing that played a lot on radio station WKBW. I was surprised to read that the song only got up to No. 87 nationally. I thought it was a major hit.
SB: It went to No. 1 in L.A. In those days the DJs were not reluctant to flip over a hit and play the B-side. In the ’50s they could play anything that they wanted to play. Murray the K, Alan Freed and Bruce Morrow were legendary. In the late ’60s they started developing a playlist. Radio stations were becoming corporate-owned and the bean counters started saying that they had to have a system. They weren’t allowed to turn the records over because it became a BMI payment, a different payment every time they played a flip side.
GM:I was surprised that the title of the song came from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
SB: As you know, my dad was in the Marine Corps. The name “Full Measure’’ comes from when someone gives their life in combat. It’s not the theme of the song, just the title of the song as I had heard that term since I was a kid and I was aware of the term.
GM:Is there anything else that you want to add? What’s next for Steve Boone?
SB: I went out on tour promoting my book and I didn’t do a good job of it. I’d like to rethink it and do it again, but do a better job of it this time. I’d also like to do an audio-video presentation of the history of rock and roll, going all the way back to the early ’50s when it really started. A lot of people think the rock era began in the ’60s, but I want to educate them. My musical influences go back to the ’50s, where my brother got his influences, where Joe got his. My wife Lena is on YouTube, you can find her work at “The Farce Awakens” and I want to maybe have her help me do my presentation.