By April Anderson
There was magic in the air September 9 for the latest in the series of Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions at NYU. On the intimate stage of NYU Steinhardt’s Provincetown Playhouse, Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees Felix Cavaliere and John Sebastian held court, adroitly directed and hosted by Phil Galdston, NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Master Teacher in Songwriting.
Sebastian has had a plethora of such folk-flavored hits as “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.” He touched on his roots; speaking about growing up in the vibrant musical culture of Greenwich Village “just a few doors from this place,” and of his father who was a noted classical harmonica player. Sebastian started off as a teen playing guitar, assuming “girls would notice me,” but a sojourn in summer camp proved that was not to be the case. He switched to the autoharp and a lothario was born overnight. His song “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” was written a few years later about a camp muse and her sister on the back of a pack of Lucky Strikes on his way to the studio. By then he had partnered up with Zal Yanovsky, Steve Boone and Joe Butler as The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Cavaliere penned hits with Eddie Brigati and gave voice to classic songs “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.” He talked about falling in love with his first Hammond B-3 organ and beginning his career by playing covers, which bands were required to do at that time. He spoke of “searching out the obscure songs” and throwing in some originals disguised as covers to make it interesting. He did a stint with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, traveling to Europe where he had the defining experience of seeing crowds go wild for The Beatles. He said he then became “hip to songwriting,” deciding he “wanted to do that.” Cavaliere teamed up with fellow collaborator Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli and Gene Cornish in a band that would come to showcase his songwriting and soulful delivery. They didn’t have a name at first, until the day Soupy Sales contacted them. He was in need of a backup band, took one look/listen to them and christened them The Rascals.
Sebastian also related the fact that he had had to begin by playing out on the cover circuit, and said “desperation was a motivator for writing songs so we would not have to keep doing covers.” He used the description “electrified jug band” for some of his early music. Cavaliere went on to say “anyone who starts out playing standards is learning music, and you can then draw from it.” To illustrate, he played a few measures of The Rascals’ “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” comparing it with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
Galdston said Sebastian “had a mastery of images carrying a story,” and asked “how do your lyrics flow?” He answered “it rarely makes sense.”
Cavaliere and Sebastian wound up the evening playing a couple of duets; Lovin’ Spoonful’s “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” and The Rascals’ “Groovin’,”sending those in attendance out into the night feeling as though they’d experienced an intimate insight into the craft and processes of these two legendary songwriters.
Thanks go to SHOF Board Members and Education Chair and Vice-Chair respectively, Robbin Ahrold and Karen Sherry, for making this event possible.
Read more about the Master Session in an article for The Examiner by Jim Bessman.
Stay tuned to songhall.org for news of the next Master Session coming soon!