WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT…
by Bob Girouard
The Lovin’ Spoonful burned brighter than most bands in the ’60s—perhaps too bright for its own good. But the singing drummer who made a habit of beating the odds, in an era when studio cats regularly ghost-drummed on major productions, continues to keep the candle lit.
For a few years in the mid-’60s, the Lovin’ Spoonful regularly appeared at the top of the pop charts with a brand of “good-time music,” as the band called it, that blended jug band, folk, country, rock, and a bit of psychedelia. The hits, including “Do You Believe in Magic,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,” and the sizzling “Summer in the City,” were distinct from one another—and from much of the other pop singles on the charts at the time, which were inevitably recorded by groups of professional studio musicians such as the famed Wrecking Crew. The Spoonful was proudly self-contained, and Joe Butler’s open-ended drumming was a big part of its sound. A self-taught “feel” player, Butler had a natural ability to effortlessly blend styles and create patterns that were essential to the success of the Spoonful’s songs.
“I got into music by osmosis,” says Butler, who was raised in Great Neck, Long Island. “My father played spoons, and my mother always sang. Her claim to fame was that she once lost a singing contest to Frank Sinatra. Coming from Irish heritage, I was no stranger to performing songs like ‘Danny Boy’ at family get-togethers. I was fourteen when I began to play drums and sing in local bands, mostly rockabilly things like early Elvis and Johnny Cash. But I also did stuff like ‘Lady of Spain,’ so our accordionist could make his bellows shake!”
Butler regularly ventured into New York City to catch jazz greats like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, and Louie Bellson. “After seeing all of them,” the drummer recalls, “I realized I could never be that good. It was something beyond just training, like a divine gift. But who really did it for me was timbale master Tito Puente. I used to go to the Palladium, and I learned all those Latin dances.”
On Long Island Butler was in a band called the Kingsmen—no relation to the group of “Louie Louie” fame—which played what Joe describes as “a mix of everything from folk music to the Beatles to polkas.” The bassist in the group was Skip Boone, brother of future Spoonful bassist Steve Boone. “In 1964 I decided that we’d better get to Greenwich Village or we’d miss out on what was happening musically,” Butler recalls, “so we changed our name to the Sellouts. Two guys that would frequent our gigs were John Sebastian and [guitarist] Zal Yanovsky. Because of the folk boom, there was a huge number of guitar players, but hardly any drummers. I was so proud—I used to walk around the Village with drumsticks in my pocket!”
Butler, Sebastian, Yanovsky, and Steve Boone eventually joined forces, set up shop at the Albert Hotel, and began rehearsing. After cutting five demos with producer Erik Jacobsen for Elektra Records, they eventually landed with Kama Sutra Records. The rhythm section of Butler and Boone became tight, intuitive, and stage tested; the pair instinctively played off one another and provided nuanced support to Sebastian and Yanovsky’s hooks and melodies. Vocal chops allowed Butler to occasionally take the mic on album tracks—and served him especially well when Sebastian left the band in 1968. “My drum seat was set very high because I was always singing,” Butler says. “What I felt I brought to the Spoonful was the fact that I was a singing drummer who knew how to support the vocalists, meaning I had an innate feel for dynamics.”
Despite the Spoonful’s success in the ’60s, the group was done by the start of the new decade—victims, like so many other pop musicians over the decades, of a combination of bad luck and worse business deals. “We never got a penny for any of our recordings until 1991,” Butler explains, “when we finally renegotiated with Sony, resulting in a more modern accounting of our catalog. You get kind of beat down by it. It’s like Stockholm syndrome, where you start to like your jailer. Don’t forget, these people were brilliant manipulators. They robbed from you because they believed in you.”
The group members weren’t helping their own situation, either. “Zally and John were having their differences,” Butler recalls. “John was rather self-immersed at the time—dealing with the draft, divorce, and racking up his credit card mercilessly. And Zally was unhappy and made no bones about it. He was on all of us, and quite frankly was just miserable to be around. We replaced him with Jerry Yester, who remained with us for exactly one hundred days. Our last show was in Richmond, Virginia—I remember that Tiny Tim opened for us—and we regrettably folded the tent in 1969.”
Post-Spoonful, Butler focused much of his energy in the theater, initially by playing the lead role of Claude in the Broadway production of Hair. He became a founding member of the Circle Theatre Company, with which he acted, wrote, and directed a number of projects. Butler still makes his home in Greenwich Village, and he even passed on his passion for drama to his daughter, the successful actress Yancy Butler.
But the music never left, and Butler wouldn’t allow a failed attempt in the ’90s to reconvene with Sebastian and Yanovsky to dictate the end of the Spoonful. Moving to the front of the stage as lead singer, acoustic guitar player, and autoharpist, Butler, alongside Steve Boone and Jerry Yester, once again took the group’s joyous music to the masses. Today the band is rounded out by Phil Smith on second guitar and twenty-year vet Mike Arturi on drums.
In 2000 the Lovin’ Spoonful was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the four original members performed “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” and “Do You Believe in Magic.” The latter was an especially appropriate choice, epitomizing the ideal of hopefulness that continues to draw fans young and old to the group’s unique music to this day.