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Spoonful's Zal Yanovsky Dies

Guitarist dead from a heart atttack at fifty-eight

December 16, 2002 12:00 AM ET

Zal Yanovsky, guitarist and co-founder of the Lovin' Spoonful, died of a heart attack at his home near Kingston, Ontario, on Friday. He was fifty-eight years old.

Yanovsky was a largely self-taught musician whose artful guitar work and effervescent presence helped make the Lovin' Spoonful one of the most musically distinctive and commercially successful American bands of the 1960s. Yanovsky's mischievous, grinning visage was as memorable as the quartet's impressive run of sunny, infectious folk-rock hits, including "Do You Believe in Magic?," "Summer in the City," "Daydream," "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," "Rain on the Roof" and "Nashville Cats."

Born in Toronto on December 19th, 1944, Zalman Yanovsky dropped out of college at the age of sixteen, to begin playing folk music in Canadian coffeehouses. For a time after that, he lived in Israel, where he briefly worked on a kibbutz (which he was reportedly asked to leave after driving a tractor through a building) and busked on the streets of Tel Aviv. After retuning to Toronto, he met Denny Doherty, later of the Mamas and the Papas. Doherty invited Yanovsky to join his folk-blues combo the Halifax Three; later, Yanovsky played with Doherty and the future Mama Cass Elliot in the Mugwumps.

Settling into New York's thriving Greenwich Village folk scene in the mid-Sixties, Yanovsky fell in with another talented young player, John Sebastian, with whom he shared an avid interest in folk and blues forms. Inspired by the Beatles' example, the two plotted to create an electric band that would combine their trad roots with the energy of rock & roll.

"I heard all these strengths in Zally," Sebastian later recalled. "He could play like Elmore James, he could play like Floyd Cramer, he could play like Chuck Berry. He could play like all these people, yet he still had his own overpowering personality. Out of this we could, I thought, craft something with real flexibility."

Teaming with a pair of young rock & rollers from Long Island, bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler, Sebastian and Yanovsky launched the Lovin' Spoonful, signed with the Kama Sutra label and became an immediate smash with their first single, "Do You Believe in Magic?" a Top Ten hit in late 1965. That tune led off a remarkable string of hits that established the Spoonful as one of the few American bands that could challenge the chart dominance of the Beatles and their British Invasion contemporaries. At a time when rock records were usually laden with filler, the Spoonful made solid, well-crafted albums that showcased the band's musical depth and songwriting ability.

But the Spoonful's abundant good vibes turned bad after Yanovsky and Boone were busted on pot charges in San Francisco, only escaping prosecution -- and in Yanovsky's case, deportation -- by turning in their dealer. The news severely damaged the band's credibility in the counterculture, leading to Yanovsky's departure from the band in mid-1967.

Yanovsky released a solo album, Alive and Well in Argentina in 1971, did a stint playing guitar with Kris Kristofferson and co-produced Tim Buckley's 1969 album Happy Sad in collaboration with Jerry Yester, who replaced him in the Lovin' Spoonful. But Yanovsky, weary of music-biz politics, retreated from the rock world in the early Seventies. He returned to Canada, briefly dabbling in television production before finding success as a restaurateur.

With his second wife, Rose Richardson, he turned a dilapidated 1880s livery stable into their successful eatery Chez Piggy, which became a beloved centerpiece of downtown Kingston's nightlife. The couple also published The Chez Piggy Cookbook.

Yanovsky briefly reunited with his Spoonful mates on a couple of occasions, filming an appearance in Paul Simon's 1980 film One Trick Pony and performing some of their hits on stage on the occasion of the band's 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More recently, Yanovsky participated in BMG Heritage's CD reissues of the Spoonful's catalogue, which yielded expanded editions of the 1965 albums Do You Believe In Magic? and Daydream, both of which were released in July 2002. The band's third and fourth albums, Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful (Yanovsky's last album with the band) and Everything Playin', are scheduled for February.

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