Monday, August 11, 2008

Ooh Ooh Mr. Kotter!

It seemed back in the 70s that to have a successful sitcom on television, required a popular theme song to accompany. If you think of the likes of ‘Happy Days’, ‘Laverne & Shirley’ and ‘Good Times’ you almost immediately think of the theme songs that went with them. That trend of course continued into the 80s and even 90s, but isn’t so prevalent as it once was. One of my favourite sitcoms from the 70s was ‘Welcome Back Kotter’. The show premiered in 1975 on the American ABC network, and ran for four seasons through to 1979, not to mention countless repeats. It starred Gabe Kaplan in the title role, and introduced the world to a young actor by the name of John Travolta as Vinnie “up your nose with a rubber hose” Barbarino. It also featured one of the most memorable theme songs in TV history, and one of the few to reach #1 on the pop charts.

Alan Sachs, who was the producer behind the proposed TV show ‘Kotter’, just happened to have the same agent as singer John Sebastian, which was convenient since Sachs wanted a Lovin’ Spoonful type song to be the show’s theme tune, and Sebastian just happened to be the former front man for The Lovin’ Spoonful.

New York City born singer/songwriter Sebastian had been born into a musical family, and due to his father’s harmonica playing the Sebastian family home often had visitors like Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie. Strongly influenced by the folk movement of the 50s and early 60s, Sebastian joined the Even Dozen Jug Band in 1964 as a singer/guitarist/harmonica player. He was soon playing with the likes of Tim Hardin, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan. In 1965 he was a founding member of The Lovin’ Spoonful. The group went on to have a string of seven straight U.S. top 10 hits between September ‘65 and January ‘67, including the 1966 #1 ‘Summer In The City’.

John Sebastian parted ways with The Lovin’ Spoonful during 1968, set on pursuing a solo career. He turned down an offer to join three friends and musicians in a band they were involved with called Crosby, Stills & Nash (I believe Neil Young later accepted the position). During 1969 he had his first minor solo hit with ‘She’s A Lady’ (US#84) and performed sets at both Woodstock and Isle Of Wight music festivals. He released his debut solo album ‘John B. Sebastian’ in 1970 which reached #20 in the U.S. Despite legal battles with his former record label dogging him, a steady stream of albums followed through the first half of the 70s, to various levels of success, though by 1974 Sebastian’s career seemed to have stalled. Whilst still with The Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian had also turned his hand to contributing music to some film projects, including Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ in 1967.

So when he was approached to pen a song for a proposed sitcom, it wasn’t completely foreign ground for the gifted song-smith. At his second attempt Sebastian wrote the song ‘Welcome Back’. The nostalgic-style ballad was just what the producers were after, and they loved the song so much they changed the name of the proposed sitcom from ‘Kotter’ to ‘Welcome Back Kotter’. Initially the song was only recorded as a 60 second accompaniment to the show’s opening credits. But such was the public demand for the song to be made available as a single, Warner Bros. requested Sebastian to expand it to a full length song.

The single length recording was co-produced by Steve Barri, who had just come from co-producing the U.S. #1 ‘Theme From S.W.A.T.’ by Rhythm Heritage. John Sebastian’s ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ would be the second U.S. #1 single to be linked to Barri, within the space of 10 weeks. In May 1976 ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ hit #1 on the U.S. charts (OZ#24), thanks in part to the overwhelming popularity of the sitcom, but mostly because it was a great pop-ballad. It went on to become the second biggest selling single in the U.S. for 1976, and sold more than twice the number of copies as The Lovin’ Spoonful’s biggest hit ‘Summer In The City’ had ten years previous.

It was a vital shot in the arm for Sebastian’s flagging career, but the accompanying album release and the follow up single ‘Hideaway’ (US#94) failed to capitalise on the huge profile established by ‘Welcome Back Kotter’, and soon Sebastian faded from the front pages of the pop music press.

Sebastian continued as both a writer and performer into the 90s, touring as an opening act with the likes of Sha Na Na, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Graham Parker and Willie Dixon. He also wrote music for the children’s TV show ‘Care Bears’, and authored a children’s book titled ‘J.B.’s Harmonica’. In 1992 Sebastian turned down an invite to participate in a reunion of The Lovin’ Spoonful. 1993 saw Sebastian release his first studio album since 1976, with the comeback effort ‘Tar Beach’ In 1994 he formed a jug band called J-Band, and released two albums during his tenure with the band. Though his profile may have waned over the last couple of decades, John Sebastian has continued to find an audience both as a live performer, song-writer, author, music tutor and through his involvement in regular TV, radio and print projects.

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