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Zal Yanovsky 12/2002

Zal YanovskyDecember 13, 2002 –  Zalman Zal Yanovsky (The Lovin’ Spoonful) was born on December 19, 1944 near Toronto, Canada. His father was a political cartoonist. Mostly self-taught, he began his musical career playing folk music coffee houses in Toronto. He lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a short time before returning to Canada. He then teamed with fellow Canadian Denny Doherty in the Halifax Three and both later joined Cass Elliot in the Mugwumps, a group made famous by Doherty’s and Cass’s later group the Mamas and the Papas in the song “Creeque Alley” which referred to an alley way in Charlotte Amalie on St.Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

In the Greenwich Village folk rock scene he was known as one of the early rock n roll performers to wear a cowboy hat, and fringed “Davy Crockett” style clothing, setting the trend followed by such 1960s performers as Sonny Bono, Johnny Rivers and David Crosby.

It was at this time he met John Sebastian and they formed the Lovin’ Spoonful with Steve Boone and Joe Butler, taking their name from a line in Mississippi John Hurt’s Coffee Blues. The band became an immediate smash with their first single, “Do You Believe in Magic?” a Top Ten hit in 1965, which led off a remarkable string of hits that established the Lovin’ Spoonful as one of the few American bands that could challenge the chart dominance of the Beatles and their British Invasion contemporaries.

Sebastian and Yanovsky had devised the musical blueprint for the group, drawing from folk, blues and country music. If Sebastian was the brains of the band, Yanovsky was the character who provided its zany appeal. Sebastian was Lennon and McCartney combined (and worthy of mention in the same breath), while Yanovsky was the Ringo of lead guitarists.

“I quickly saw that Zally had a flamboyant quality so different from the folkie approach to the guitar,” Sebastian told Mojo magazine earlier this year. “He’d be mugging at the audience and crossing his eyes while he played, making it silly and making it funny, and taking the wind out of all those blustery guitar players. He’d play the same thing as them, only he’d cross his eyes and stick his tongue out.”

The group members grew their hair and wore clothes inspired by the Carnaby Street fashions of the English beat groups who had colonized the US charts, but their success still came as a surprise; they were playing a San Francisco strip club when Do You Believe In Magic hit the charts in the autumn of 1965. When they shared the bill at the Pasadena Rose Bowl with the Beach Boys, Herman’s Hermits and the Bobby Fuller Four soon afterwards, they were astonished to find their car being chased by scores of screaming girls.

But then the 1966 San Francisco drugs bust that led to Zal Yanovsky’s enforced departure from the Lovin’ Spoonful, effectively ended the career of one of the most creative bands of the immediate pre-psychedelic era. Within a year, the run of hits that included Do You Believe In Magic, Daydream and Summer In The City had come to an end, and guitarist Yanovsky, had been cast into a limbo from which he only emerged years later as a successful restaurateur in his native Canada.

Summer In The City was still a fixture on the radio when Yanovsky and his bass guitarist Steve Boone were arrested for possessing marijuana. Threatened with deportation, Yanovsky went along with a plan to name their supplier in exchange for a discharge. The plan was that the band would then hire the dealer a top lawyer. But instead the dealer went to jail, and among the burgeoning counter-cultural leaders of Haight-Ashbury, the Spoonful were excoriated as snitches, hastening their eclipse by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. It also probably did not help that they came from New York, where they had their origins in the Greenwich Village folk-rock scene. 

At their best, the Lovin’ Spoonful reflected the astonishing pace of pop music’s development in the middle 1960s. The journey from the jangly radio fodder of their first singles to the ambitious complexity of Summer In The City occupied barely a year, and perhaps took its toll on the group’s stability. Internal pressures were increased when Sebastian married Yanovsky’s former girlfriend; during an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show to promote their latest single, Darling Be Home Soon, Yanovsky held a rubber frog in front of Sebastian’s face as he attempted to sing.

A year after leaving the group, Yanovsky released an unsuccessful solo album, Alive And Well In Argentina. In 1970, he unexpectedly turned up on stage with Sebastian at the Isle of Wight festival, having arrived at the gig as a member of Kris Kristofferson’s backing group. The four original members were reunited in 1980 for an appearance in Paul Simon’s film One Trick Pony, and were seen together again at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

With the proceeds from his short lived rock-star career, Yanovsky and his second wife, Rose Richardson, restored a 19th-century livery stable in Kingston, Ontario, a hundred miles east of his Toronto birthplace, and opened a restaurant called Chez Piggy. Its success presaged a general rehabilitation of Kingston’s downtown area.

Zalman ‘Zal’ Yanovsky, guitarist and restaurateur, died on December 13, 2002 at the age of 57  from a suspected heart attack.

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