NEW YORK — During the summer of 1966, a heat wave boiled New York City at the most brutal temperatures recorded since 1869, the year weather data began to be consistently collected.
Opposition to the war as well as to chronic discrimination against blacks, women and gays was gathering steam in the city. Clashes broke out elsewhere, with race riots that summer in Chicago and in Lansing, Michigan.
“America was convulsing in a way, a time of huge unrest, incredible violence,” said Jon Savage, author of “1966: The Year the Decade Exploded.”
On Aug. 1, in Austin, Texas, a lone gunman introduced the United States to mass murder. Charles Whitman killed his mother and wife and then more than a dozen people, sniper-style, from the University of Texas’ clock tower, wounding more than 30 others.
Meanwhile, “Summer in the City,” a propulsive, apolitical rock song by the Lovin’ Spoonful, based in New York, was climbing the charts to No. 1, reassuring listeners that “despite the heat it’ll be all right.” Sung and co-written by John Sebastian, the band’s frontman, the song was conceived by his younger brother, Mark Sebastian, when he was just 14. Steve Boone, the bass player, contributed the memorable instrumental interlude. The three shared writing credit and continue to reap royalties: The song has endured as an anthem for every heat wave since and has been covered by Quincy Jones, Joe Cocker and Isaac Hayes, among others.
(It will most likely figure prominently at a concert, “Music and Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s,” on Sunday at Central Park’s SummerStage, where John Sebastian is part of a lineup that includes José Feliciano and Maria Muldaur.)
In addition to John Sebastian and Boone, the original band members (Mark was too young) were Zal Yanovsky on guitar and Joe Butler on drums. Their producer, Erik Jacobsen, helped shape their 1965 debut album, “Do You Believe in Magic,” and their 1966 follow-up album, “Daydream.” Their manager, Bob Cavallo, masterminded the business end. In 1966, the group also supplied the soundtrack to Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” They toured extensively and, with their rapid rise to fame, found themselves in need of more material. One day, Sebastian heard something intriguing from his younger brother.
JOHN SEBASTIAN (frontman): Mark really was the beginning of the song. Hot town, summer in the city ... but at night it’s a different world. “Hey, hold on, what’s that?” I said.
MARK SEBASTIAN (songwriter): I recently found the songbook I wrote it in, in pencil. My brother, who’d moved out by then, was back home visiting and listened to what I’d written.
The song soon became a contender for the band’s next album, which they were under pressure to produce quickly. “Cavallo had us on the road so much that we never had the luxury of dedicated periods of recording,” said Steve Boone, the bass player. By March 1966, just a few months after wrapping “Daydream,” they were back in the studio to record what would become “Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful,” which would feature “Summer in the City.” From the beginning, the band was excited about the single’s potential, no matter that it began with a dreamy adolescent longing to break out of his family’s tony residence, tucked between Macdougal Street and Waverly Place.
MARK SEBASTIAN: Our family’s apartment was at 29 Washington Square West, the 15th floor; my bedroom looked out over the Hudson. I wanted to run away, go down by the docks, dreaming of whatever this romance thing was, having a band of my own. There was all this music out in Washington Square Park, girls that came down from the Bronx, really sexy, chewing gum, and I was still too young to talk to them without fainting.
JOHN SEBASTIAN: Eleanor Roosevelt lived across the hall in the 1940s when we first moved in. My mom, Jane Bishir, was a Midwestern girl who’d come to New York to make it as a writer and became the closest of friends with Vivian Vance long before she was on “I Love Lucy.” She was my godmother. My godfather was the best baby sitter on God’s green earth, Garth Williams, the illustrator for all these wonderful books. He would be doodling, and there was one evening where he showed me three or four spiders: “Which spider do you like?” He and E.B. White were going around the bend to avoid the Disneyfication of “Charlotte’s Web,” and he wanted to try it out on a kid. My dad was a classical harmonica player and good friends with Burl Ives, who asked him if we could let this songwriter from Oklahoma stay at our house for a while. So I’m in bed, and in the next room I hear Woody Guthrie singing and playing, and in my total infancy I thought, “He’s not as good as Dad.” It’s not a memory I’m proud of.
STEVE BOONE (bass guitarist): John not only grew up in Greenwich Village, he was there when folk musicians and bands started writing their own songs and actually playing their instruments on the recordings. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, record companies would hire songwriters and studio musicians, and the artists would come in and sing. The rock scene began with this gestation period in the Village.
John Sebastian was steeped in a rivalrous fraternity of folk, roots, blues and jug-band artists at coffeehouses and basement hangouts on West Third, Macdougal and Bleecker streets. He saw the careers of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jimmy James (later known as Jimi Hendrix) and the Blue Flames take off from cramped stages. Playing harmonica, guitar and autoharp, he began to accompany a variety of artists, influences that bore fruit when he turned to songwriting.
Sebastian’s friend Cass Elliot introduced him to Yanovsky, a Canadian who played in her folk group, the Mugwumps, along with Denny Doherty. After they split up, Elliot and Doherty co-founded the Mamas and the Papas while Sebastian and Yanovsky formed the Lovin’ Spoonful, taking their name from a Mississippi John Hurt song, “Coffee Blues.”
In February 1965, their tryout at the Night Owl Cafe, formerly at 118 W. Third St., was a disaster. Joe Marra, the club’s owner, now 85, was known for presenting the likes of Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Tim Buckley, Stephen Stills, Richie Havens and James Taylor. He gave Cass Elliot a job as a hostess.
JOHN SEBASTIAN: We got fired.
JOE BUTLER (drummer): We were living in the same room at the Albert Hotel, the four of us in the same goddamn bed, a laundry cart with all our instruments. We’d roll it down to the basement to rehearse, water bugs running around.
SEBASTIAN: I had an apartment, but maybe I’d end up there overnight now and then. It’s where I wrote “Do You Believe in Magic.”
BUTLER: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band rehearsed in the ballroom. A lot of musicians were living in that place on the sly. So were Denny and Cass, who were still with the Mugwumps. Basically, Denny was romancing the manager, so he was our meal ticket. We had a secret entrance, hiding in rooms, and never paid. I was just out of the Air Force, my father was a cop, and I grew up in Great Neck, so I wasn’t as bohemian as they were. I was 23, the oldest in the group. If you were lucky, you got to sleep on the floor in Butchie’s room.
BOONE: Butchie was the Lovin’ Spoonful’s stepmother at the hotel, funny, cheerful, encouraging. I wrote “Butchie’s Tune” for her, how she was the greatest, but I wasn’t attracted to her.
SEBASTIAN: She was a pal of my producer who overheard me talking about the draft, how I was the right age to get taken. She said, “Oh, I’ll marry you.” It was a technical marriage. She ended up marrying Bob Denver.
JOSHUA WHITE (pioneer of psychedelic light shows): We were getting deeper and deeper into Vietnam. Everyone, including the Lovin’ Spoonful, was subject to the draft, and you were going to die, your life under that dangling sword. People were doing all kinds of things to better their chances — getting married, having children, becoming teachers, looking over their shoulders.
SEBASTIAN: We immediately got into Cafe Bizarre, a tourist trap. We did eight sets a day for $25 a week and all the tuna fish sandwiches you could eat. Joe Marra gave us another shot at the Night Owl, and we were ecstatic when we saw a 16-year-old girl from Queens dancing to our music. The next week a ton of girls showed up.
JON SAVAGE (“1966” author): There was magic between the four of them, and Zal Yanovsky was the wild card. You always need a wild card, somebody who’s going to rip it up. London was over, everybody knew that, and New York became the pop center of the world, strong with the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Rascals, the Brill Building not dead yet.
BUTLER: I was fascinated by Zally. Harpo Marx with a guitar, a genius who could play anything.
ZOE YANOVSKY (Zal Yanovsky’s daughter): Zalman was a bit of a street urchin, somewhat homeless, and had roamed around Israel playing guitar. There’s a mythical story about him coming back to Toronto and living in a laundromat before going to New York.
GERRY GIOIA (guitarist and composer): When I played in the Village back then I’d get $10, but that would buy you 10 pizzas. Music was everywhere, street performers, smells of sausage heroes, coffee beans, people walking up and down the streets trying to look as freaky as possible. It was like Paris in the ‘20s, the Harlem Renaissance, things that come and go, and you don’t realize it until it’s gone.
GENE SCULATTI (author of “Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ‘Bout Rock and Roll”): The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Byrds were the first of the groups that really comprised hipsters, ex-folkies and dope smokers. When you first saw them, they were like the Rolling Stones, dressed in street clothes, not uniforms.
In late 1965, the Lovin’ Spoonful toured the South with the Supremes, chronicled in Steve Boone’s memoir, “Hotter Than a Match Head: Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful” (2014). They were taunted for having long hair and witnessed naked racism. “Segregation was supposed to be over,” Butler said, “but Zally was out there, animated and loud, and guys started coming for us, saying, ‘Should we shave their heads?'” People at a diner started using racist jeers. “Zally grabbed a fork, ready to take somebody’s eye out so he’d never forget what he said to us that day.”
The band toured overseas, and on May 20, 1966, after triumphant gigs in England, Sweden and Ireland, rubbing elbows with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Yanovsky and Boone were arrested in San Francisco for marijuana possession.
BOONE: We hadn’t even gone a block from the house where the party was, and they immediately wanted to search the car. It may have been a setup. The chief of police said he’d put Zally on a plane to Canada tomorrow, not be allowed back in. We were young and scared and made a deal to introduce a cop as a friend of ours to our crowd. I wish we had said, “See you in court.”
The bust did not immediately make the news, and the band went on to perform in Los Angeles and on various television shows. In July, “Summer in the City” was released, a song recorded before they left for Europe.
MARK SEBASTIAN: That summer, I was in the Loire with my mom dragging me around to châteaus. I wanted to be in New York and hear “Summer in the City” playing from the window. My mom rented a radio. I heard “I Want You” from Dylan, then started to hear my song. I was in shock. What I’d written was more of a mellow ballad, and John took it to this whole other place that was aggressive and exciting and fun.
ERIK JACOBSEN (producer): We had Roy Halee, a fabulous engineer at Columbia, put in these sound effects of a drill and traffic and a legitimate big-time fade at the end.
BOONE: Until “Summer in the City,” we were not accepted wholeheartedly by the rock scene.
BUTLER: And we were playing our own instruments, not using the Wrecking Crew like the Byrds and the Beach Boys.
JOHN SEBASTIAN: There was no love lost between us and rock critics.
BOONE: That song changed everything. We had street cred. It was really also the end of the Spoonful, the tipping point. From that point on, there was this tiny pinhole in the balloon that started leaking.
SAVAGE: “Summer in the City” is almost an avant-garde piece, that stuttering piano, the noises of the city in the middle. It’s an edgy record, not a peaceful record. It was their fifth Top 10 single in under a year. They were on an insane schedule.
BUTLER: We were designed to burn out, like a light bulb that was overamped. We were on the road all the time, and our heads got swelled up with how popular we were and how much the girls loved us. We were unable to support each other.
SAVAGE: Within two years, they released at least three full albums, two soundtrack albums and had nine Top 20 singles. It’s not surprising relationships fracture under that pressure. How are you going to keep it up?
As much as Boone and Butler professed their love and admiration for Yanovsky, they noticed his mood darken after the drug arrest. During that period, Jacobsen described him as “an impossible guy capable of guerrilla warfare.” There was also a love interest — isn’t there always? — that got in the way. In 1967, it came to a head.
BOONE: Zally quit the band emotionally and then got fired. It was well after “Summer” was a hit record that anybody even knew about the drug bust. It got out in the underground press in California.
SAVAGE: Their name was mud for fingering their source. It was a great shame that young people were put under that kind of pressure for making a mistake. They were very badly advised and intimidated by the police.
ZOE YANOVSKY: Zalman may have had a certain element of self-sabotage. On “The Ed Sullivan Show,” he purposefully sang the wrong lyrics. But those are the great partnerships in life and in rock ‘n’ roll, opposites attracting. John is very sincere, and Zalman was very much in your face.
SAVAGE: Once the band lost Zal, it became something different. Los Angeles, and in particular, San Francisco, was positioning itself as the next center of pop.
Yanovsky released a solo album, “Alive and Well in Argentina,” drove a cab in Toronto and became a restaurateur in Kingston, Ontario. He died of a heart attack in 2002, just shy of his 58th birthday.
Richard Barone, a musician who released the album “Sorrows & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” in 2016, and is hosting Sunday’s SummerStage show dedicated to the era, said that by 1968, “Greenwich Village was over, a commercial commodity.”
John Sebastian, 74, quit the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1968 to go solo, and he played an unscheduled set at Woodstock in 1969. “I’ve gone in and out of style five times since then,” he said. On a recent visit from Woodstock, where he has lived with his wife, Catherine, since 1976, he retraced his old Village route, more exuberant about the memories than wistful. “It’s all gone,” he said, “but so are the crooners. Everybody has their turn. When did I leave? The real answer is I’ll never leave the Village. It’s mine.”
New York Summer Songs
John Schaefer, the host of “New Sounds” on WNYC, shares his selection. Here are six of them; the full list is at nytimes.com/metropolitan.
— “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas. Detroit can rightly claim this ultimate summer song, but the lyrics are more inclusive: “They’re dancing in Chicago/ Down in New Orleans/ In New York City.”
— “Up on the Roof” by the Drifters. From the songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, this classic’s lyrics never actually mention “summer in New York,” but with its “rat race noise down in the street” and its rooftop air so “fresh and sweet,” it’s got to be.
— “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Jazzy Jeff and a young Will Smith were not New Yorkers, but this 1991 tune is built on “Summer Madness,” from Jersey City’s own Kool & the Gang.
— “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z. The king and queen of New York ruled summer 2003 with this sweaty, Chi-Lites-sampling dance tune.
— “Rockaway Beach” by the Ramones. Because even punks need a break from being cool to be, you know, cool.
— “Bang Bang” by Joe Cuba. The tradition of great Latin summer hits includes last year’s “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, “Gasolina” by Daddy Yankee in 2004 and any number of Fania All-Stars tunes from the ‘70s. But it all began in New York in 1966, with this irresistible number.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.