Summer in the City

On August 13, 1966, the classic ode to the trials and joys of summer days and summer nights, Summer in the City by the Lovin’ Spoonful, reached number one on the American Pop Singles Charts.  Having entered the charts six weeks earlier over the July 4th weekend, the song stayed at No. 1 for the rest of the summer (a summer which, by the way, included many 100+ degree days and was the hottest on record in New York City until 2010).

John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, performing “Summer in the City.”

Most people know that the Lovin’ Spoonful, like so many American folk/pop/rock acts of the era, got their start in the clubs of Greenwich Village.  But while many may assume that this evocative tale of summertime rituals came from an experienced pen familiar with the grittier side of city life, fewer know that the song actually started as lyrics written by a 15 year old Greenwich Village student.

Mark Sebastian was the younger brother of John Sebastian, the lead singer of the Lovin’ Spoonful.  The Sebastian Brothers grew up in a musical household in Greenwich Village; their father was a noted classical harmonica player and their mother a writer of radio programs.  Regular visitors to the family’s home overlooking Washington Square Park included Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie.

118 West 3rd street today, formerly the home of the Night Owl Cafe.

John became a fan of, and then a participant in, the folk music revival that swept the nation in the late 1950s. He started in the Even Dozen Jug Band, playing guitar, harmonica and autoharp.  He soon 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.  Soon after John joined the Mugwumps, a folk band which 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 (where many an aspiring Village musician or artist lived at the time) and eventually performing at the Night Owl Cafe, which was located at 118 West 3rd Street, and was one of the premier showcases for up and coming musical talent in the Village at the time.

The Albert today, no longer a hotel, at 10th and University Place.

Shortly after getting a record deal, the Spoonful began 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 domestic acts at the time, they were soon called “America’s Answer to the Beatles.”

But a Number 1 hit eluded them until John’s younger brother Mark (at 15, his junior by seven years) shared with him some 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 and delivered on vinyl (and in countless public performances) by the entire band (see Mark Sebastian’s comment below for more details and backstory).  The song is ranked number 393 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

“Summer In the City” remained the Spoonful’s only number 1 hit, and the band broke up just a few years later.  John Sebastian continues to work as a musician to this day, while his brother Mark continued to write songs, but made a living at film production and real estate.

Hot town summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirt and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk hotter than a match head

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come on, come on and dance all night
Despite the heat it will be alright
And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
The days can’t be like the night
In the summer in the city
In the summer in the city

Cool town, evening in the city
Dressed so fine and looking so pretty
Cool cat lookin’ for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city
Till I’m weezin’ like a bus stop
Running up the stairs gonna meet ya on the roof top

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come on, come on lets dance all night
Despite the heat it will be alright
And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
The days can’t be like the night
In the summer in the city
In the summer in the city

Solo

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come on, come on lets dance all night
Despite the heat it will be alright
And babe don’t you know it’s a pity
The days can’t be like the night
In the summer in the city
In the summer in the city

Hot town summer in the city

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.

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5 comments on “Summer in the City
  1. Andrew Berman Mark Sebastian says:

    Thanks, Andrew, for your recognition, but much more importantly, your tireless efforts to keep our Village from being destroyed. There has always been this misinformation that I only had a poem that I showed my brother in the nascent stage of “Summer In The City”. In fact, it was a fully realized song. The chorus existed just as it does in the recorded version. “But at night it’s a different world, go out and find a girl, come on, come on and dance all night …(etc)” stayed in the song, chords, words and all. In fact, Sir Elton John was endearing and funny on the subject of the complexity of the chords when he performed it at a recent edition of Sting’s RAINFOREST CONCERT at Carnegie Hall.”There’s just one bit I keep messing up!”. In a recent performance at the Living Room, I played a bit of the original song before launching into the final version.
    It was the verses that my brother rewrote. They had been rather laconic and mellow, and he substituted the aggressive, energetic ones that exist in the finished version. I think Rolling Stone interviewed an old classmate decades ago who said it had been a poem and henceforth that apocryphal bit attached itself to most pieces written about the song. I wrote it while living on Washington Square West. “Summer In The City” has recently enjoyed recognition as Billboard magazine’s #1 all time summer song.

    • Andrew Berman Steve Boone says:

      It’s sad when I feel the need to point out an omission that should not have been made. I am sure that Mark just forgot that there was indeed a third writer who got 1/3rd of the writer’s credits on the RECORDING called Summer in the City

    • Extremely late response: Hi Mark! Thanks for that interesting history of “Summer In The City”. It has always fascinated me as to how great songs like yours came about. I absolutely love the Spoonful and it appears that you, your brother, and your entire family for that matter are a group of very talented, creative people. Best of luck to you!

  2. Andrew Berman Andrew says:

    Thanks so much for this Mark. We have updated the post to reflect this fantastic information you shared with us.

  3. Andrew Berman jane heil says:

    Dear Andrew, When I read this I can’t help remembering my old colleague the late Don Paulsen, Editor of Hit Parader Magazine, who drew a fantastic comic strip about the early days of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the ALbert Hotel, etc. It was really amusing, long, and detailed.
    Best, Jane Heil

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Summer in the City"
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