Zalman “Zal” Yanovsky, guitarist, songwriter, restaurateur (born 19 December 1944 in Toronto, ON; died 13 December 2002 in Kingston, ON). A product of the Yorkville and Greenwich Village folk music scenes of the early 1960s, Zal Yanovsky was best known as the lead guitarist in the folk-rock band The Lovin’ Spoonful. Formed in 1965, the group had seven top 10 hits in two years, including “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream” and the No. 1 hit “Summer in the City.” Yanovsky was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Lovin’ Spoonful in 2000.
Zal Yanovsky was the child of Eastern European immigrants. His Ukrainian father, Avrom Yanovsky, was a political cartoonist for the Communist Party of Canada’s Canadian Tribune newspaper. Zal’s mother, Nechama Yanovsky (née Gemeril), was Polish and worked as a teacher. She was also regarded as one of Toronto’s foremost experts in Yiddish. (See Jewish Writing.)
In his youth, Yanovsky spent his summers at Camp Naivelt, a Jewish summer camp in Brampton, Ontario. The camp developed a reputation for having an excellent folk music program. The members of The Travellers met and formed their group there in 1953. A recording of a camp concert in July 1960 features Yanovsky singing alongside Sharon Trostin (now Hampson), who went on to form Sharon, Lois & Bram.
Yanovsky attended Downsview Collegiate in Toronto but dropped out of high school at age 16. After a brief stint living at a kibbutz in Israel — and busking on the streets of Tel Aviv — he returned to Toronto. He started hanging out at many Toronto folk clubs, such as the Village Corner and the Bohemian Embassy. He learned to play guitar by watching artists perform. For a while, Yanovsky lived on the street in the Yorkville/Annex area. He often slept in the Club Automatic laundromat at 163 Dupont Street, next door to the folk coffee house the Gate of Cleve. It was at the laundromat that Yanovsky met actor Jackie Burroughs. The couple married in 1967 and had a daughter, Zoe, before separating a couple years later.
After meeting Denny Doherty, Yanovsky was invited to join the folk trio he played in, The Halifax Three. They changed their name to The Halifax Three Plus One. The group released a pair of albums with Epic Records and toured as part of the “Original Hootenanny USA” with The Journeyman before breaking up in late 1963.
Yanovsky then had a brief stint in Washington, DC, working at a club called Max’s Pipe & Drum. He and Doherty then headed to New York City to start a new group in the fertile Greenwich Village folk scene. The first group they formed, in 1964, was with Cass Elliot and her first husband, Jim Hendricks, called Cass Elliot & The Big Three. This was followed by the short-lived The Mugwumps. That group released one self-titled album on Warner Bros. that came out in 1967, after the band had already parted ways.
The Lovin’ Spoonful
When The Mugwumps broke up in 1965, Elliot and Doherty formed The Mamas and the Papas. Yanovsky stayed in New York City and hooked up with a trio of Greenwich Village musicians: singer, songwriter and harmonica player John Sebastian; bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler. The folk-rock and blues band the Lovin’ Spoonful (named after a line in the Mississippi John Hurt song “Coffee Blues”) was born.
“Zally,” as he was affectionately known to his bandmates, was the group’s zany, flamboyant showman. He dressed in Western wear and often wore a cowboy hat. As Richard Williams wrote in the Guardian in 2002, “If Sebastian was the brains of the
band, Yanovsky was the character… Sebastian was Lennon and McCartney combined (and worthy of mention in the same breath), while Yanovsky was the Ringo of lead guitarists.” Sebastian recalled in a 2002 interview with Mojo how Yanovsky would “be mugging
at the audience and crossing his eyes while he played, making it silly and making it funny, and taking the wind out of all those blustery guitar players.”
The Lovin’ Spoonful shot up the charts immediately. Their first single, the title track from their debut album on the Kama Sutra label, was “Do You Believe in Magic.” Released in August 1965, the song had cracked the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 by October. Dubbed the “American Beatles” for their catchy, radio-friendly songs, marijuana-addled reputation and penchant for writing hits, the Lovin’ Spoonful had seven top 10 singles in two years, including “You Didn’t Have to be So Nice,” “Daydream” and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” The latter two peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The perennial summer anthem “Summer in the City” was the band’s biggest charting single. It spent three weeks at No. 1 in August 1966.
The group released three albums with Yanovsky as a member: Do You Believe in Magic (1965), Daydream (1966) and Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful (1966). The compilation album, Best of the Lovin’ Spoonful, released around the time the band broke up, was Billboard’s No. 3 album of 1967. Also, the band’s song “Pow” was used as the opening theme in Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966), which features a performance by the band.
In his 1996 speech inducting Yanovsky into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, John Sebastian said of his bandmate: “Zal was our greatest asset, our unmeasurable quantity. He was our fire and our humor. We relied on his intuition, on his sense of spontaneity, his fear of being predictable.”
Breakup of the Band
In 1966, Yanovsky and bassist Steve Boone were arrested in San Francisco for marijuana possession. As part of a deal to avoid prosecution and deportation, Yanovsky named his supplier. This resulted in a lot of negative press and a fierce backlash from the counterculture, who now saw Yanovsky as a snitch.
At the same time, Yanovsky grew increasingly frustrated with the band’s turn toward a softer sound. He grew wary of success and lobbied for the group to reclaim its earlier, riskier edge. “The band was never going to do what I wanted it to do,” he later said. “And I wasn’t going to do any more of what they were going to do.” After Yanovksy told Sebastian that his songwriting had “really gone down the toilet,” the band called a meeting and Yanovsky was fired.
In 1980, the four original members of the Lovin’ Spoonful reunited when they appeared in the Paul Simon film One Trick Pony. They performed together again when they were inducted by John Mellencamp into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Career after the Lovin’ Spoonful
In 1968, Yanovsky released a solo record of psychedelic folk-rock, Alive and Well in Argentina, which went nowhere. In 1969, Yanovsky co-produced Tim Buckley’s Happy Sad. For a brief period in 1970, he joined Kris Kristofferson’s band as lead guitarist for a European tour that included a performance at the famed counterculture Isle of Wight Festival. In an interview reflecting on his relationship with Yanovsky, Kristofferson said, “He was loud and unpredictable, and he had a spirit that I loved.” He also added with a laugh that Yanovsky “was the only guy I ever had to fire. And he told me I would have to fire him one day or he’d tear it all down around us.”
Hounded by the counterculture and disenchanted with the music business, Yanovsky returned to Canada and eventually switched careers. In 1979, with his second wife, Rose Richardson, Yanovsky opened a restaurant in a restored 19th-century limestone livery stable in Kingston, Ontario, called Chez Piggy. In 1991, Yanovksy and Richardson published The Chez Piggy Cookbook. “The Pig,” as it is affectionately known, remains a popular foodie destination in Kingston. It has been operated by Zal’s daughter, Zoe Yanovsky, since his death in 2002.
- Inductee, Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1996)
- Inductee (The Lovin’ Spoonful), Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (2000)
- Inductee (The Lovin’ Spoonful), Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2006)