Text by Mary Anne Cassata
Images from the Internet
© 1985 FFanzeen
The following article/interview with Spanky McFarlane was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #13, in 1985. It was written by Mary Anne Cassata. In the original pressing, I mistakenly misspelled Spanky’s last name, and would like to take this moment to apologize. – RBF
In 1966, the contemporary pop group Spanky and Our Gang because a huge success with their classic “Sunday Will Never Be the Same.” In the tiny, smoke-filled Mother Blues Club, in Chicago, Spanky McFarlane and her group originated accidentally. Spanky, whose given name is Elaine, used to live in an apartment over the club. “The manager called up one night and said he needed an opening act, so we rehearsed all day and night, and got some good reviews,” recalled the lead vocalist of Our Gang, with a smile. “I was real good friends with the manager, so we performed that night.”
Before long, Spanky and Our Gang were signed to the Mercury label and hits began to populate the American music charts, such as “Lazy Day,” “Sunday Will Never Be the Same,” “Making Every Minute Count,” and “I’d Really Like to Get to Know You.” Legendary radio DJ Murray “the K” debuted “Sunday” on his show, and it almost instantly made Spanky and Our Gang a national success. “Murray ‘the K’ really made our first record for us,” says Spanky. “Back then, records weren’t usually played on New York radio stations, but he didn’t seem to care.”
Selling albums in the millions allowed the group to make many television guest appearances on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, and The Hollywood Palace. By 1969, however, the popular music group almost came to a grinding halt when their lead singer decided to retire and raise a family. Although Spanky didn’t have the desire to perform live anymore, she did remain productive in doing television commercials and singing backup for many legendary recording artists on the West Coast.
By 1974, McFarlane grew restless of her “retirement” and formed a 14 piece country and western band as the new Spanky and Our Gang. Her group performed through the Southwest as special guests for the Willie Nelson Picnic. Having garnered a favorable response with their country act, Our Gang were singed for a special one album deal for Epic Records, called Changes.
In 1981, Spanky received an important call from John Phillips, who was in the midst of reassembling the Mamas and the Papas. To McFarlane’s surprise, he expressed interest in having her assume the role of the legendary “Mama” Cass Elliot. “I didn’t even know him and he called me,” Spanky said. “I asked him who the other Mama would be, and John said his daughter Mackenzie. My only other question was ‘Can she sing?’”
The newly formed group made their debut on Good Morning America and performed up until last year, to sell-out concert halls across the country.
This past summer, Spanky and Our Gang, along with other popular ‘60s acts like the Association, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Three Dog Night, and the Turtles, appeared together in the Happy Together Tour ‘84. The oldie artists performed to more than 125 sold-out concert halls across the country. Spanky enjoyed her recent concerts and is looking forward to the next one. “It’s so much fun,” she smiles. “It’s great, especially when you’re the only girl with 24 guys.”
The following interview was conducted with Spanky McFarlane in New York City.
FFanzeen: How is the Happy Together Tour working out so far?
Spanky McFarlane: Incredible. Much better than anyone ever dreamed. We get standing ovations every night. People are smiling and happy.
FF: When did the tour open?
Spanky: We played the Beverly Wilshire Theater, which is everybody’s home in L.A. It was kind of hard to open there. We would have liked to play three or four dates before that to see what we had. We didn’t even know what the show was. But it went really well. We got great reviews there.
FF: What song do you open your set with?
Spanky: I actually open the set with one of my favorite songs, an old Martha and the Vandellas tune, “Dancing in the Streets.” See, I did my time with the Mamas and Papas in ’83, so I feel I should include some of their songs in my set, too. Now they are part of my legacy. It was great when we sat down to sing the tunes of the Mamas and Papas. We had about thirty hits to cover. It was incredible. The whole time I was with them, I told my friend, “You better see this while you can.” I just knew it wasn’t going to last. We had good press and everyone that came to see us thought we put on a great show.
FF: What has being part of the tour been like for you?
Spanky: It is funny, because everybody that is in the show spends a lot of time watching the show, which is pretty amazing, since we have done about seventy shows. I think the shows have all been of quality and the people that are in it enjoy it. We are all there for the music. When the Association sing “Walk Away Renée,” I want to be there. It’s a celebration. Between the four groups, we have 23 hits, and I don’t think the Turtles do all of theirs. We don’t have time to do them all. I perform for about 25 minutes, and I don’t’ perform all of mine, and we all do a finale together. It’s really a fun thing. When we sing a hit, the audience stands up. They love it. We all take bows and it’s a lot of fun.
FF: “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” is certainly one of the all-time favorite ‘60s songs. Did you ever think when the song was recorded in 1966 that it would be a classic today?
Spanky: Well, I certainly have no regrets about it. People just like the song and that makes me happy.
FF: Last year, with the Mamas and Papas, wasn’t there supposed to have been an album?
Spanky: We have a demo tape with ten songs. I did some writing with John Phillips and Mackenzie. It was a lot of fun. Actually, we were all writing together. I wish we had more time to do more of it. We think the songs we wrote were all pretty good.
FF: In 1974, after your retirement, you formed a country version of Spanky and Our Gang. Why the switch to country music?
Spanky: Well, in 1978, there wasn’t anything good, musically, to listen to except country music, in my opinion. I like a lot of vocal harmony, so I thought I’d swing in another direction. I was listening to the Byrds and anyone who harmonizes.
FF: What did the old Spanky and Our Gang fans have to say?
Spanky: I don’t know, and I don’t really care. When I had the country band, I didn’t even sing any Spanky and Our Gang songs. For the first couple of years, I wouldn’t even listen to them. But finally, the pressure was on and I did sing some of the songs. We worked up a little medley of songs. I can see why now I guess being a little bit selfish. I mainly wanted to do what I wanted to do.
FF: Were you trying to break out of your old image?
Spanky: Yes, I was. The thought of singing “Lazy Day” – oh, please! How can I keep singing it? It’s funny, I saw one of the guys who wrote the songs on this tour and he came backstage and said, “I know you weren’t going to sing that song.” I said, “You were right, I can’t sing it.” Even, “Making every minute count / making it groovy….” Eh!
FF: I guess lyrics like that don’t really apply to the ‘80s lifestyle too much.
Spanky: Yeah, I guess they don’t apply too well. Maybe I should rewrite some of it, and scare the shit out of some people! [Laughs]
FF: There is a cross section of people that attend your concerts. A lot of young kinds, as well as parent – not to mention the over-30 audience.
Spanky: Yes, parents have played the records for their kids and everybody sings along. It is really neat. We see a lot of people singing along and, of course, we urge them to sing along, too. At the end of the show, everyone sings along with us. All the bands come back on stage together for the finale.
FF: Why was there two different versions recorded of “I’d Really Like to Get to Know You”?
Spanky: I think one was the single version and one was an album version of the song. One was only shorter, that’s all. The original was in the album [Like to Get to Know You], we just extended it. We had quite a long instrumental for it at the end. When I produced the Greatest Hits album, I decided I really liked it. I also had a tape of everyone talking and by then a couple of the guys had died, so it meant a lot to me to have their voices there, laughing and joking.
FF: Malcolm Hale passed away at the height of the group’s career. How did that affect you?
Spanky: Actually, two members died, Malcolm and Lefty Baker. Malcolm died in ’68. We were about to start a summer show called Rollin’ on the River. When Malcolm died, everyone wanted to quit, especially me. So we all quit. In 1971, Lefty died. That can sure break up a group. Malcolm died of pneumonia. He didn’t even know he had it. He died in his sleep. We really didn’t do a big publicity thing about it. We were really in mourning. The group broke up real quietly about two months after he died. We just didn’t have the heart to get any publicity out of Malcolm’s death. It wasn’t something we wanted to discuss. We all just went our separate ways. We said goodbye and remained friends for life. Actually, Nigel, who was in the first group, helped start the second one up. The county band was really a continuation of Spanky and Our Gang. All I have left is the ties to those guys.
FF: How do you feel about performing on this tour with the remaining members of Our Gang?
Spanky: You know, the thing about it – and I realize it now – is that you get closer to the people you work with. Sometimes more than your own family. I had five brothers when I was growing up. I was close to them, but then, I haven’t lived at some since I was 14 years old. All these bands I’ve had have become my family. It is not just like losing a partner; it’s like losing a brother. I have a daughter who is very pretty and very bright and she loves rock’n’roll. When I brought my kids home from the hospital, the first thing I did was set them between the speakers and turn the music up. It probably wasn’t every good for them, but I did it anyway. I was listening to [Dylan’s] Blood on the Tracks when Nat was born.
FF: During your heyday, did you feel Spanky and Our Gang was more of a cabaret act or contemporary rock band?
Spanky: Well, that’s funny. We started out as a joke band and we played acoustic instruments. We did a lot of comedy and show tunes, folk tunes, and rock’n’roll. We did anything that pleased us. We were contented with ourselves and everybody loved what we were doing. It gave us all a chance to shine at what we do best. We sand the blues or anything we felt like doing. We always did our songs with harmony and a lot of style. We even had the first electric jug and washboard. I even had an electric banana, which was a kazoo. That was something to see. When we went over to Europe, all our equipment was stolen. The silly hats and these silly instruments we had were gone. That part was an aspect of our show. We just didn’t have the heart to find new outfits, so we dropped a lot of our comedy numbers. We did get more serious songs like, “I’d Really Like to Get to Know You,” and “Give a Damn.” It’s funny to look back in time and now we don’t do the comedy act. It’s weird.
FF: How did the Happy Together Tour originate?
Spanky: In my opinion, it evolved from the Mamas and Papas. I think if they were still together they would have been on this tour. It’s, like, a spin-off of a TV show. Everyone thinks that Our Gang is my band, but it is actually Gary Puckett’s, the Union Gap. I’m with Gary, and we’re Spanky and Our Gang again. It’s amazing. No one knows it’s the Union Gap. Everyone thinks it’s my band. It really doesn’t seem to matter.
FF: We had mentioned earlier about the reunion of the Mamas and Papas. How were you asked to assume the role of Cass Elliot?
Spanky: That tour was because John Phillips had called me and I went to spend a year with them before I ever went on stage. It was the most amazing year of my life. I changed everything. I moved to the East Coast, brought my clothes and family to be close to John and Mackenzie, who were having drug treatments in New Jersey. At the time, they had to do their way of life. We put the band together. It was very exciting. I brought a friend of mine and that is probably why we are all together now for this tour. Carlos [Bernal] used to work with the Turtles, and my ex-husband [Charly Galvin], and the Byrds. As the plot thickens…
FF: Why was the Mamas and Papas’ tour so short?
Spanky: That’s interesting. Last year, at about this time, Mackenzie went back to her TV show [One Day at a Time] . She was going to be gone for 26 weeks out of the year. It wasn’t going to be enough to tour just for the six months. Shortly after she had lost her show; by then I wanted to do something else. I felt I just couldn’t’ do it any more.
FF: What was it like, singing with Mackenzie?
Spanky: She’s a very talented actress and you know what? J A good singer, too – once she got over her initial fear of the stage, which didn’t take more than five minutes. She let her voice settle down, too. She had good power and range and, after a while, we were sounding like sisters. We were that close in our voice range, and we can get the same timbre. She is still pursuing her acting career in L.A., although I think she would like to be doing the Mamas and Papas very much. It just doesn’t seem possible for her and her father to work together. As close as they were, it was still very hard. I also want to say that Denny was really good. He was like a rock throughout the whole thing.
FF: A few years ago, your debut album had been reissued by Mercury. What did you think of that?
Spanky: I thought it was very interesting. It had been one of the first album covers that folded out with pictures inside. When they reissued the album, it wasn’t the same cover. Good ol’ Mercury Records – good ol’ cheap Mercury Records. The cover didn’t fold out. I wish they would have re-released the Greatest Hits album [re-released in 1986, and again in 1999 and 2006 – ed.], actually, because that is more logical than our first album. We also had a bootleg album put out. They bought a tape from 1966 and put out an album in 1971 as a new album. It was called Spanky and Our Gang Live. We had been together about a week when that tape was made, and to have them put it out as our new album – after the group had three or four successful albums already. It is amazing the record company can do things like that. It was a little bit embarrassing because it was a live album. There was no overdubs or instrumentations, or a chance to correct anything. It was strictly bootleg. You never know what your own label is going to do.
FF: Have you ever considered taking your talents to Broadway?
Spanky: Oh yes, I have. I think my voice is suited for Broadway. I think that would be a fun thing to do. I have thought a lot about that; more lately than the past. Do you know anybody who would be interested? I wish they would do the Ethel Merman story, or Ernest Borgnine. I don’t think I have anything more to say.