Zalman ‘Zal’ Yanovsky was a founder-member of The Lovin’ Spoonful, one of the best-loved, most fondly-recalled of North American pop bands of the mid-1960s. As their lead guitarist, he added deft musical colourations to their sound, being able to effortlessly jump styles.
Before the Spoonful convened, the somewhat restless Yanovsky (he had sojourned in a kibbutz in Israel) had cut his musical teeth busking in Toronto, sleeping in Laundromats and eventually hooked up with singer Denny Doherty in 1961. Then in folk trio The Halifax Three, the future Mamas & Papas vocalist soon invited Yanovsky to join their ranks. His involvement would take Zal to both Washington and New York, where, through the auspices of Mama Cass Elliot (Yanovsky and Doherty formed the short-lived The Mugwumps with Mama Cass) he would meet future musical partner Sebastian.
The two would work as a duo, as Sebastian recalled in a July, 2002 feature for the UK rock monthly, Mojo: "When we went down to the Night Owl to play, just the two of us, I quickly saw that Zally had a flamboyant quality so different from the folkie approach to the guitar. For the first half a year or so I just stared at my feet while I played, while Zally was this great kind of includer. He'd be mugging at the audience and crossing his eyes when he played, making it silly and making it funny and taking the wind out of these blustery guitar players. He'd play the same thing as them, only he'd cross his eyes and stick his tongue out."
By the end of '64, Sebastian and Yanovsky had met bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler (the original LS drummer was Steve Carl, but Butler replaced him after only one gig) and formed the Spoonful. Following a residency at the Village's Night Owl Cafe, the quartet landed a deal with the Kama Sutra records label. The Lovin’ Spoonful were, for a spell at least, one of the bands often labelled ‘America’s Beatles’. In the UK, they enjoyed sizeable hits with the likes of ‘Daydream’, ‘Summer In The City’, and ‘Nashville Cats’, each distinct from one another, and Yanovsky’s guitar style morphed effortlessly from the subtle, jazzy inflections of the first, through to the Country licks of the last. He was clearly a gifted player, and the Spoonful quartet, at their best, had a genuine spark of real rock and roll magic that greatly enriched pop music at the time.
Yanovsky was one of the first US musicians to bring in a bit of sartorial buckskin chic to his shtick, favouring cowboy hats, tasselled jackets and so on, a look that was picked up by Sonny Bono, David Crosby and Johnny Rivers amongst others. He was also a BIG character; he could always be relied upon to mug furiously whenever a TV camera was pointed at him, and sent up the whole essential fakery of lip-synching to a backing track on, say the Ed Sullivan Show, by mouthing the wrong words, or else generally goofing off.
If Yanovsky’s behaviour could be an irritation, worse was to follow. In late 1966, Yanovsky and Boone were busted in San Francisco on a marijuana possession charge. Being a Canadian, Yanovsky was threatened with deportation, unless he turned in his dealer. The band’s management planned to get the dealer a decent lawyer, but the dealer refused, and ended up being jailed, and thereafter, having ‘finked’ on their connection, the Spoonful’s name was forever tarnished in the eyes of Bay Area hippies and beyond. Yanovsky left the band a few months later.
In 1968, Yanovsky released this month’s Alive And Well. Produced by his Spoonful replacement, Jerry Yester, it is laced with a certain amount of the zany and the goofball, but there is also excursions into straight ahead Country (George Jones’ ‘Brown to Blue’, later recorded by Elvis Costello & The Attractions), and with tracks like ‘Hip Toad’ (an inversion of an old Edgar Allan Poe short story, Hop-Frog, with perhaps a veiled reference to Cream’s ‘Toad’), which takes on a kind of pseudo-heaviness, with a portentous, daftly overblown vocal, ludicrous, free-associating stream of unconsciousness lyrics, showing a genuine taste for the bizarre. There’s even a John Sebastian tune, ‘Priscilla Millionaira’, showing that there was no hard feelings toward his Spoonful buddy, and there are nods to Yanovsky’s musical formative years, with tracks such as ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’, ‘You Talk Too Much’, and even a Floyd Cramer instrumental, ‘Last Date’, which is beautifully rendered – a little reminiscent of Neil Young in lead guitar-playing mode.
After the release of the album, Yanovsky would find himself playing guitar with Kris Kristofferson, and then withdrawing from music to become a restaurateur. He would rejoin with his Lovin’ Spoonful band mates for the Paul Simon movie, One Trick Pony, and also for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in March, 2000. Of the latter, Yanovsky later opined: "a big media event that’s over in two seconds". As the inspired and inventive lead guitarist with the Lovin’ Spoonful, he will be forever remembered, and for Alive and Well and Living in Argentina, he shone some light into Zally-world – at times a brilliant snap shot of an individual informed by a uniquely skewed vision.
With thanks to Alan Robinson