Everyone knows the folk-rock classic “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, which topped the charts 51 years ago this August in 1966. But fewer know the song’s roots in Greenwich Village–lead singer John Sebastian actually grew up in the neighborhood and the act got their start in the local clubs–and fewer still know a 15-year-old Village student was responsible for a significant part of its composition.
Sebastian came from a musical household; his father was a noted classical harmonica player, and his mother wrote radio programs. Regular visitors to the family’s home overlooking Washington Square Park included Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie. As a teen in the late 1950s, he became a fan of, and then a participant in, the folk music revival that was then sweeping the nation. He started in the Even Dozen Jug Band, playing guitar, harmonica and autoharp, and not long after he became a sought-after accompanist on the Village folk scene, working with Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Mississippi John Hurt, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and many others. John then joined the Mugwumps, a folk band that included future Mamas and Papas Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. When the Mugwumps split up, John and guitarist Zal Yanovsky formed the Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Lovin’ Spoonful got their start practicing in the basement of the Albert Hotel on University Place and 10th Street, where many an aspiring Village musician or artist lived at the time. Eventually, the group started performing at the Night Owl Cafe, at 118 West 3rd Street, one of the premier showcases for up-and-coming musical talent in the Village.
Shortly after getting a record deal, the Spoonful released a series of successful pop hits, including “Do You Believe in Magic?,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” and “Daydream.” Like many successful U.S. acts at the time, they were soon called “America’s Answer to the Beatles.”
But a Number 1 hit eluded the Spoonful. That is until John’s younger brother Mark (at 15, his junior by seven years) shared with him some music and lyrics he had written about that particularly grueling summer. John re-wrote the verses, fellow bandmate Steve Boone contributed to the concoction, and a classic was born. The single was released on July 4, 1966, during what was the hottest summer on record in New York up to that time (and remains the second hottest). The song swiftly ascended to the top of the American charts by August 13th, where it stayed for the rest of that long hot summer.
“Summer In the City” remained the Spoonful’s only number 1 hit, and the band broke up just a few years later. The song has consistently appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. John Sebastian did find himself on top of the U.S. charts one more time a decade later when his single “Welcome Back,” another distinctly New York song which served as the theme to the TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter,” reached number one in May of 1976.
This article was originally published in 6sqft.