I post a weekly diary of historical notes, arts & science items, foreign news (often receiving little notice in the US) and whimsical pieces from the outside world that I often feature in "Cheers & Jeers". For example .....
SEPARATED at BIRTH - film stars Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine) and Adelaide Clemens (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Great Gatsby).
OK, you've been warned - here is this week's
tomfoolery material that I posted.
ART NOTES - works by wildlife artist Bob Kuhn in an exhibition entitled Drawing on Instinct are at the Tucson, Arizona Museum of art through February 16th.
BRAIN TEASER - try this Quiz of the Week's News from the BBC.
THE OTHER NIGHT yours truly hosted the Top Comments diary with a look at the record-setting run on the quiz show Jeopardy! by a then 30 year-old Ken Jennings - which happened nearly ten years ago(!) - and what he is up to now.
WEDNESDAY's CHILD is Trigger the Cat - a hero kitteh who saved the life of a 75 year-old Missouri woman (who was having a stroke and unable to speak) by meowing loud enough to awaken the woman's sleeping daughter.
CHEERS to seeing that African women are making great strides in politics and business, in a part of the world where old men still rule most of its governments.
THURSDAY's CHILD is Chequers the Cat - an English hero kitteh who started following (and meowing loudly) ... a neighbor who wondered why ... and then went into cardiac arrest .. and credits the cat for alerting him to impending danger.
THERE WERE MANY PRIOR references to the Boys from Brazil - but this story chronicles a major farm in that country which (during the 1930's) was owned by a family in league with Fascists .... and thus were sympathetic to the Nazis.
FRIDAY's CHILD is Taffy the Cat - a Welsh hero kitteh who awakened a woman whose smoke detector went off (and ignored it, believing it to be the alarm clock) by biting her hand ... until she awoke and called firefighters (and there is now a suspect in custody ... for suspected arson).
IN THE RUN-UP to the 100th anniversary this summer of the beginning of World War I .... the BBC has a series of profiles on major European capitals as they were (w/photos) in 1914 ...... and this profile is of Vienna - where (just a year earlier), its residents included Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Carl Jung, (Marshal) Joseph Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin.
......and finally, for a song of the week ............... one of the 1960's sunshine pop groups that went through an interesting ebb-and-flow not only in popularity - but also in their music - was Spanky and Our Gang - whose sound went from vocal-jazz to folk/rock to pop ... and back again to blues and jazz. The All-Music Guide's Bruce Eder notes that they aren't as well-remembered as icons like the Mamas & Papas due to a more obscure public persona (and lesser songwriting ability) - but they had just as rich harmonies and as much influence on the sound of the mid-to-late 60's as anyone else.
Their story begins with the Peoria, Illinois native Elaine McFarlane joining the jazz-blues Jamie Lyn Trio in 1962. But this style was in a down-phase at that time, and so she joined the Chicago-based New Wine Singers (with trombonist Malcolm Hale) whose mix of folk/protest-songs and ... Dixieland jazz might seem comical today but it was definitely contemporary .. (well, for awhile).
By 1965 McFarlane had left for a Florida vacation where she met guitarist Nigel Pickering and bassist Paul "Oz" Bach at a hurricane party (waiting one out). Their jug band sound was appealing to McFarlane enough that she invited them to join her at Chicago's Mother Blues club where she was a singing waitress.
Later that year, the club's owner Curly Tait needed an opening act for out-of-town bands. Pickering and Bach did join her but - with a lack of material - they added comedy sketches to their folk songs, a common practice of the day. McFarlane's old band mate Malcolm Hale joined (this time on guitar) but what about a band name? Elaine McFarlane had been nicknamed "Spanky" as it was said she resembled (and had a similar last name as) George "Spanky" McFarland of the "Our Gang" comedy shorts ... and that was the name that stuck. With club owner Curly Tait as their manager, the group eventually got work at larger clubs and caught the crest-of-a-wave that was the 1965-1966 folk rock movement (as exemplified by The Byrds).
Eventually they caught the eye of Chicago-based Mercury Records, who signed the band in late 1966 and assigned them the talented producer Jerry Ross. Adding drummer John Seiter, they went straight into the charts as a result of their first recording session: with a song that had been rejected by both the Mamas and Papas as well as the Left Banke (of "Walk Away, Renée" fame). Sunday Will Never Be the Same was co-written by Terry Cashman (of "Talking Baseball" fame) as a ballad - but Malcolm Hale revamped the song and its intro, and it wound up at #9 on the charts during the Summer of Love.
Two other songs charted from their self-titled debut album: "Making Every Minute Count" and also Lazy Day - which seems to re-emerge each summer on the radio, doesn't it?. Their harmonies clicked, and producer Jerry Ross pulled out all of the stops in harnessing their sound.
In early 1968 bassist Oz Bach left the group, replaced by Kenny Hodges (who brought along guitarist Lefty Baker). The band also decided to replace producer Jerry Ross, desiring a more sophisticated sound. They settled upon songwriter/producers (for the Chad Mitchell Trio) Stuart Scharf and especially Bob Dorough (much more famous as a jazz pianist/vocalist).
Their next album Like to Get to Know You was released in the summer of 1968. The change in producers had an effect; there were elements of blues and jazz - including a version of "Stardust" that is said to have been an inspiration for the soon-to-be-formed Manhattan Transfer. But there was the same result in hit songs: "Sunday Morning" reaching #30 and the title track reaching #17.
And there was also a cover of the Fred Neil song Everybody's Talkin' - soon to be the title song of the film Midnight Cowboy and a major hit for Harry Nilsson the following year. This sounds like a "Behind the Music" plot twist: but it proved to be the band's high-water mark.
In late 1968, they gathered to record their third album. Scharf and Dorough had written some sophisticated tunes and complex arrangements - but which necessitated using session musicians for much of the album. And while critically acclaimed, the album lacked an obvious hit single (except for one which had a drawback, as will be noted later) and thus suffered from poor sales. McFarlane was pregnant and considering leaving the band, and drummer John Seiter had been offered the drummer's chair in The Turtles. Finally, guitarist Malcolm Hale died in October of carbon monoxide poisoning (due to a faulty space heater).
Shaken, the band reassessed its future and decided not to continue - and thus they completed the album Without Rhyme or Reason and fulfilled their concert obligations by early 1969. Two years later, everyone was surprised to learn of the release of the album Spanky & Our Gang Live which dated back in 1967, in an early incarnation of the band.
In 1999, a reunion concert was held in Florida, with Spanky McFarlane accompanied by Nigel Pickering and Kenny Hodges. Not able to participate was Oz Bach - who died of cancer a year earlier - and guitarist Lefty Baker (who died back in 1971).
The band's 1999 Greatest Hits compilation offers a good overview of the band's career.
In 2009, Spanky McFarlane and Nigel Pickering released the first Spanky and Our Gang album in thirty-four years, Back Home Americana, Vol. 1 before the death of Nigel Pickering in 2011 (at age 81) ... and Kenny Hodges last year (at age 76) ... with drummer John Seiter now the last of Spanky McFarlane's surviving bandmates from the '60's.
Spanky McFarlane turns age 72 this coming June, and performed a show as "Spanky & Our Gang as recently as two years ago - albeit with no members from the original band. So there may be more from the band of this name, yet.
As mentioned earlier, what might have been a hit single from (what proved to be) the original band's last album .... was one written by their producers Dorough & Scharf - Give A Damn - had trouble getting airplay for two reasons: in the summer of 1968 the word "damn" caused the song to be banned in parts of the country, and (b) its commentary of racial equality made it unpalatable in certain areas, too.
The band performed it on the Smothers Brothers show, and among the complaints that CBS received - according to Tom Smothers - one came from Richard Nixon. Interestingly, in 1969 John Lindsay used the song as part of his (successful) re-election campaign as New York City's mayor.
And at this link you can listen to it.
If you'd take the train with me
uptown, through the misery
of ghetto streets in morning light
it's always night
Take a window seat, put down your Times
You can read between the lines
Just meet the faces that you meet
beyond the window's pane
And it might begin to teach you
how to give a damn about your fellow man
And it might begin to reach you
how to give a damn about your fellow man