How ‘Summer in the City’ got its sound

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Randal C. Hill

Retired DJ and English teacher Randal C. Hill introduces readers to the hits of half a century ago in a feature he calls “It was 50 years ago today,” borrowing from the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Here he examines the roots of the Lovin’ Spooful’s 1966 hit “Summer in the City.”

The weary old radio sound man scratched his head. Those scraggly hippie musicians had requested his entire sound effects collection of traffic noises. They had even asked him to include the sound of a jackhammer. They said all the noise would show up on their next record.

The elderly gentleman rolled his eyes. Whatever happened to normal music? And just what kind of oddball name was the “Lovin’ Spoonful,” anyway?

Harmonica player/autoharpist John Sebastian and guitarist Zal Yanovsky had played in a bohemian Greenwich Village jug band/folk group called the Mugwumps, which coincidentally included future Mamas and Papas members Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty.

Seeking a new direction, John and Zal eventually left that band, recruited drummer/vocalist Joe Butler and bassist Steve Boone, and formed the Lovin’ Spoonful. For the name, Sebastian had lifted a lyric phrase from “Coffee Blues,” an obscure song by an old bluesman named Mississippi John Hurt.

After gigging in New York City clubs for awhile, the bluesy folkies signed with the fledgling Kama Sutra Records label and quickly found success when the group racked up five Top Ten singles in as many releases.

Now pressure was on to keep the winning streak alive. No problem. To the Lovin’ Spoonful, “Summer in the City” had “hit” written all over it.

The future classic had begun as a freshman English class poem written by the younger brother of Spoonful leader John Sebastian. Mark Sebastian had been discouraged by the “F” grade the poem had earned him, but he thought John might be able to do something with the words — lyrics about a young city guy being out on a summer night.

The elder Sebastian said he’d take a look, but later saw only two lines he really liked:

But at night it’s a different world

Go out and find a girl

Working with Steve Boone, John fashioned the poem into a winning musical composition that included the novelty of urban sound effects.

“We listened for hours to various traffic jam noises and car horns, and selected the ones we wanted,” Sebastian explained to Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “We found [the sound of] a pneumatic hammer to provide for that section and put it all together.”

“Summer in the City” proved to be another winner for the Big Apple boys. Musicologist Toby Cresswell, in his book 1001 Songs, enthuses, “The pounding bass and drums with staccato organ jabs build an intense mood that’s shattered by the sound effects of jackhammers and car horns. This really is the sound of the city, and the promise of excitement and adventure to be had in the streets and nightclubs.”

“Summer in the City” gave the Lovin’ Spoonful its sixth winning single — and its only Number One release.

There’s no way to calculate just how much the added sound effects contributed to the million-seller’s popularity. Maybe not much, really. For all the time and effort spent on the project, the entire gimmick lasts all of eight seconds.