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
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.