On May 8, 1976, John Sebastian landed atop the Billboard Hot 100 for the first and - at least as of this writing - only time in his career, doing so with a song he penned as the theme song for one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1970s.
Sebastian, of course, was no stranger to the upper reaches of the pop charts, having ascended to such heights more than a few times during his days as the frontman for The Lovin’ Spoonful. As a solo artist, however, Sebastian hadn’t managed to achieve anything resembling the same heights, having hit No. 84 with his 1968 debut solo single, “She’s a Lady,” but completely failing to chart with anything else over the subsequent eight years.
What luck for Sebastian, then, that TV producer Alan Sacks reached out to him in the mid-1970s and commission him to write the theme song for a new sitcom.
"They said, 'Write the theme song,' and I said, 'What's the title?' and they said, 'Kotter,’ and I said, 'Gimme a chance!'” Sebastian told the Sentinel Star. “So I read the original treatment (the 10-page storyline) and wrote 'Welcome Back,' and the next week they made that the show's title. Then a few weeks later, some network guy had a flash of brilliance - 'If we call it Welcome Back, it'll sound like a nostalgia show. So we should call it Welcome Back, Kotter.'”
That’s right: if it wasn’t for Sebastian and his song, who’s to say that the show ever would ended up bearing the name that it ultimately did? What’s even more remarkable, however, is how quickly this incredible earworm of a TV theme came into existence.
"Like (the song) 'Daydream,’ I wrote 'Welcome Back' in 15 minutes,” Sebastian said in the same interview. “Generally, they're hits if you write them fast. The idea that can be put down in 15 minutes is very often simple enough to be commercial. I've never been anti-commercial. I want a lot of people to hear my music. Commercial is just likable. I strive to make music that's likable."
Just how likeable was “Welcome Back”? Well, it’s hard to really gauge something like that, but when you consider that it made its way to No. 1 within five weeks of its release, we’d say that it was pretty darned likeable...and, boy, did Sebastian need that level of likability right then in his career! His previous album, Tarzana Kid, had been a commercial failure, and he had just one more LP left on his contract with Reprise Records.
So how did Reprise reward him for delivering a No. 1 hit? Why, by dropping him, of course! That’s rock ‘n’ roll for you, baby...
For what it’s worth, the Welcome Back album ultimately hit No. 79 on the Billboard 200, and it spawned one more minor hit, but given that “Hideaway” topped out at No. 95, you can imagine that Reprise saw the writing on the wall and rationalized that - short of writing another TV theme - the odds of Sebastian suddenly starting to shift platinum units weren’t worth gambling on renewing his contract.
It would be another 17 years before Sebastian would release a proper follow-up to Welcome Back, but when Tar Beach finally arrived in 1993...well, Stewart Mason said it best on AllMusic: “It sounds like it could have some out six months later, as if the intervening 17 years had never happened.” It didn’t make the long wait any easier for fans to endure, but at least it made it seem relatively worthwhile.