Single Stories: John Sebastian, WELCOME BACK (KOTTER)

Friday, September 9, 2022

By the mid-1970s, Lovin' Spoonful songwriter John Sebastian was still piecing together a solo career when he got the call to do something entirely different.

"Yes, and it came at a point I was so far out of style," Sebastian admitted to the Indian River Guardian in 2015. "I was looking for work, and a TV producer called me and said I got this story, a real Brooklyn kind of a thing, but I figure if I’m going to hire anybody to write a theme song, it’s got to be guys from New York. We’ve got Dion Dimucci writing one; could you write one too? I got together with the producer, and he gave me a rough demo and a few scripts to read. I made a demo, and 48 hours later I came back to him. They were so excited about the song, 'Welcome Back,' that they changed the name of the show from Kotter to Welcome Back Kotter."

It was September 9, 1975, when Welcome Back Kotter debuted on ABC-TV. The show about a New York remedial classroom populated by the ethnically and racially cast of students known as "The Sweathogs" was an instant ratings hit, making it the 13th most-watched show of the season, nestled between All in the Family at 12, and The Bionic Woman at 14. The show also launched breakout star, John Travolta, to superstar status.

The show's instant popularity was such that producers wanted to release the melancholy theme song as a single. The only problem is that the theme was only 53 seconds long. Sebastian went back into the recording studio, and simply wrote another verse, stretching the tune out to almost three minute. A hit record was born.

Released in March 1976, the hazy, laid-back vibes of "Welcome Back" exploded at radio and record stores, sending the song up the charts until it peaked at #1 on the Hot 100 for the week of May 8, 1976. At year's end, Billboard would mark "Welcome Back" as the 58th biggest hit of the year.

FUN FACT: First pressings of the single amended the song title to read "Welcome Back (Kotter)," making it easier for record shoppers to identify the track as the theme from the hit TV show.