Spanky & Our Gang’s Lost Treasures of Americana Music
“We are and shall remain Spanky and Our Gang…” Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane closing her latest live album, Back Home, Americana Vl. 1
This needs to be clear: If musicologist, pop music authorities, Americana researchers and rock critics of all persuasions take a glance at overlooked talents and innovators over the last 50 years of popular music, Spanky McFarlane and the short legacy of the band she led, Spanky and Our Gang, should be somewhere near the top of the list. Familiar hits like “Lazy Day,” “Sunday Will Never Be The Same,” and “Can I Get To Know You,” only scratch the surface of the inventive, diverse and delightfully creative body of work they accomplished during their prime years combining folk, pop, rock, blues and vocal jazz in ways that would prove to be ahead of their time. They would later inspire groups like ABBA and Manhattan Transfer.
While her bandmates Oz Bach and Nigel Pickering helped to create much of the style and vocal blend which made their more famous songs accessible and wildly fresh and original, it was Elaine (Spanky) McFarlane, who provided the central vocal instrument that became the breath of life for the hits and the often psychedelic blend of styles and innovative interpretations of songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which, in a 1966 session, was re-recreated into a harmonic vocal pop-jazz fusion arranged in movements with each stanza sounding like a cross between The Beach Boys’ Smile and the yet-to-be formed Manhattan Transfer. This track alone is a near pop masterpiece of vocal pop innovation and genre bending fusion years before this approach became mainstream in popular music.
A Clip from 1968 of Spanky & Our Gang performing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
A survey of her work beyond the heady days of the late 60’s, when Spanky & Our Gang appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers and Hollywood Palace and charted five bestselling top 40 hit songs, through the 70’s and up to the present day, reveal Spanky as a vocalist equally capable of the familiar melodic appealing folk-pop hits she pioneered, as she is of jazz, blues, country and pop standards. In her vocal performances over the years you may hear traces of Sister Rosetta Thorpe on songs like “Make Me A Pallet,” or Ronnie Gilbert on songs like “Stewball, or Odetta on “Sinnerman.” Like any great artist, she is able to move skillfully and almost magically between these styles of distinctly American music. It makes her a hybrid representation of what later would become known today as Americana music. Listening to the early Mercury recordings from the late 60’s as well as the mid 70’s reunion album, Change, where she interprets today’s well-regarded Americana songwriters like Guy Clark(“L.A. Freeway) and Tom Waits(“San Diego Serenade”) and 2009’s live, Back Home-Americana Vol. 1 demonstrates her versatility and sensitivity to the style and the song.
In a recent phone interview from her northern California home she said that she left full time music as a career to start a family and raise kids. But, in later decades she would be recruited by Papas, John Phillips and Denny Doherty to fill in for the late-Mama Cass Elliot along with John’s daughter, Mackenzie Phillips, who took the place Mama Michelle. This was something Spanky was well equipped to do; however, it obscured her own considerable contributions in the overall scheme of folk-rock history and unnecessarily placed her in the shadow of the popular and well-loved Cass Elliot.
Spanky’s vocal performance style comes from her jug band and ragtime roots and the influence of singers like Etta James and Bessie Smith. Her vocal style developed early on. In 1962, young Elaine McFarlane took her first professional music gig in a vocal jazz band group called The Jamie Lyn Trio. But, it was during her short time with The New Wine Singers, a group that combined Dixieland jazz with the folk-protest music of their day, that she met Malcolm Hale who played trombone. They would carry this musical approach into the mid-60’s naturally evolving into an acoustic based jug-band complete with a comic stage show and kazoos camouflaged inside of banana skins. A fateful meeting with Oz Bach and Nigel Pickering of Florida would complete the foundation for Spanky & Our Gang. Elaine became known as Spanky when, during rehearsals, the band would stop to watch old re-runs of the Hal Roach short films on television. The similarity in last names between Roach’s child actor, George “Spanky” McFarland and Elaine McFarlane became an irresistible nickname that stuck and soon was attached to the band, at first as a joke. As the band continued and evolved from jug band to electric-based folk-rock, they were signed to Mercury Records. Like other bands of this era including kindred musical souls, The Mamas and the Papas and The Loving Spoonful, their prime period for live performance and hit records lasted only a few years from 1966 until 1968. But when founding member Malcolm Hale died suddenly, the die was cast for the 1969 demise of the band. They came together briefly for 1975’s country-flavored, Change, but the album failed to chart at the time and they quietly disbanded. Subsequent reunions of various line-ups would occur over the years. Even so, today it can be viewed as one of the early rumblings of the country side of Americana music.
In today’s Americana music, which is intent on pushing the boundaries of age, time and styles in favor something authentic at the roots of American music, there are fans, like this writer, who through musical excavations, are looking out for treasures such these. Generally, this has been the job of great musicologists like Alan Lomax. While he took his recording equipment to the work fields and prisons of the Deep South during the 30’s and 40’s, today we can access so much treasure so easily, it would be nearly criminal not to recognize and honor it. It’s time for Americana music to discover the music of Spanky & Our Gang.
A listen to the rare, limited compilation 2003 release, Spanky’s Basement Tape, which includes pristine recordings of early S&OG during their jug band days, New Wine Singers tracks, a few songs from the forgotten classic final album, 1975’s Change, and a stunning five-song set with Little Brother Montgomery at Chicago’s legendary Mother Blue’s nightclub, demonstrates Spanky’s versatility and vitality as a singer and a stylist. The music found here, if heard by today’s mainstream Americana audience, would prove to be a welcome addition to the legacy of overlooked artists of our recent past.
Today, Spanky is in strong voice and, as she moves into her 70th year, she is eager to share her music live again. Although core founding members, Nigel Pickering, Oz Back and Malcolm Hale have passed away,
Spanky has assembled a group of excellent musicians and vocalists to help her re-create the sound of the band and to showcase her own distinct vocal style with a variety of songs from artists who have influenced her along with Spanky and Our Gang’s most familiar hits. The new lineup includes; guitarist/vocals, Jim Carrick (formerly backed up singer-songwriter, Steve Young);drummer, Eddie Ponder (Flying Burrito Brothers, Warren Zevon); guitarist: Denny Dias (Steely Dan), background vocalist, Karen Dumont (Portland Oregon Blues/Gospel Artist) and bassist/vocals, Chris Matheos (Mel Bay Author).
This week will be a rare opportunity to see Spanky & Our Gang. They will be appearing at Bob Stane’s Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, California on March 14th and 15th. Reservations are available at 626-798-6236.
Spanky sings “Buddy Can You Spare A Dime,” in 2007