Note to future rock stars: be careful what you call may end up having to live with a silly name for the rest of your life! The members of Elaine McFarlane's mid-'60s folk trio thought it was a clever idea to call themselves Spanky and Our Gang after characters from the classic comedy shorts of the '20s, '30s and '40s. Elaine had the same last name as cherubic Our Gang ringleader George "Spanky" McFarland...okay, not quite...and someone from her previous group thought she even resembled the famous tyke. Thus the name...pretty funny, huh? New York rockers The Rascals found themselves in a similar predicament when their manager decided the band would be called The Young Rascals...they were even hornswoggled into wearing knickers reminiscent of The Little Rascals, who were nothing more than Our Gang renamed (for no apparent reason) when the films transitioned from theaters to television in the '50s. After several major hit records, the Rascals had enough clout to renegotiate their contract and have the "Young" part dropped...the knickers had long since been discarded.

Spanky and Our Gang had no such luck, or motivation. So when they were listed in TV Guide as guests on a 1968 installment of The Ed Sullivan Show, my mother asked me if I thought she'd be seeing those cute kids from the movies all grown up. Uh, no,'ll for sure be this singing group that does songs about days...happy, sad, sunny Sunday ones. The band's confusing moniker was a gag that got out of hand...and to this day, people say "Hi, Spanky!" to the acquiescent Elaine, who shares a conflicting virtual space with Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, Robert Blake, Pete the Pup and...well, the whole Gang.

McFarlane was singing with folk group The New Wine Singers in 1963; the liner notes of the group's Vee-Jay album At the Chicago Opera House said she was "...fresh from a convent high school in Peoria (Illinois)" and had been found "...wailing Dixieland tunes with Little Brother Montgomery's band" (the scene went down at a Chicago club called the Fickle Pickle). And Elaine was the name she used. Bill Malloy and Bob Connelly were New Wine group members, along with Arnie Lanza, who'd suggested "Spanky" (likely without considering she'd be cornered by fame into using it for another 50, 60, 70 years). She and Montana-born New Wine trombonist Malcolm Hale became great friends; their playing/working relationship could have been a lasting one had there not been an unforeseen accident a few years down the road.

With New Wine in her rear view, Elaine (she hadn't yet fully embraced her "Spanky" alter ego) did some moving around, winding up in Coconut Grove near Miami, Florida during a "hurricane party," one of many community gatherings that coincide with tropical storm advisories and can sometimes escalate into a full-blown party with rain, wind and occasionally people flying into the eye. This particular one lasted about three days, during which time she met, and informally jammed with, Michigan-born guitarist Nigel Pickering and West Virginian bassist Paul Michael "Oz" Bach. Soon afterwards they joined forces at Mother Blues, a popular nightclub in Chicago, singing blues and folk music and doing comedy bits in between; Hale heard about it and made a bee-line for the club, joining in as a fourth member on kazoo, washboard and other homemade instruments. The name Spanky and Our Gang, despite its previous use, seemed right for the farcical jug band, so they went with it...against Elaine/Spanky's better judgment. Word got out about the unusual act, crowds flocked, and when Chicago's Mercury Records (on the lookout for someone to compete with the hottest act of early '66, The Mamas and the Papas) became interested, the club's manager, Curley Tait, left his position to manage the group full time.

The label's newbies were assigned to producer Jerry Ross, who nixed the jug band shenanigans (they were fine with that) in favor of a slick pop-rock approach. The first single, "And Your Bird Can Sing," a near-soundalike cover of The Beatles' Yesterday and Today/Revolver track, was released just after the original version's debut in the summer of 1966. It didn't click, some retooling was needed, and the quartet continued doing its jug band act in various coffeehouses as the next single was held back several months. "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," a Eugene Pistilli-Terry Cashman song conveying a despondent theme within a cheerful arrangement, was released in April '67 and went top ten in June. A regular drummer was needed and they tapped John Seiter (nicknamed "The Chief," he often sported a Native American look - with a feather in his cap - onstage). "Making Every Minute Count" hit the top 40 in September and "Lazy Day," a George Fischoff-Tony Powers song that can be considered a joyous counterpart to "Sunday Will Never Be," spent several weeks in the top 20 in November and December.

Major changes took place in 1968; Oz Bach departed for the chance to work as a musical arranger for a variety of artists and was replaced by bassist Kenny Hodges, who'd been in a folk group with Nigel, The Folksters, several years earlier. Guitarist Eustace Britchforth, who used the easier-to-pronounce handle Lefty Baker, joined on guitar and vocals and the group had six members for a time. A different production team, Stuart Scharf and Bob Dorough, came on board as the group desired a more layered sound with intricate harmonies. This new tick was evident on "Sunday Mornin'," which topped out at number 30 in February. "Like to Get to Know You" was easy, breezy and returned them to the top 20 that spring. Scharf and Dorough's "Give a Damn" gave Spanky and Our Gang a social commentary soapbox; lyrics like '...put your girl to sleep sometime with rats instead of nursery rhymes...with hunger and your other children by her side' sought to '...teach you how to give a damn about your fellow man.' The message was obscured as radio stations hesitated to play the song because of the "d" word in the title. It just missed the top 40.

Malcolm Hale passed away under uncertain circumstances in October 1968; no less than three explanations for his death have been cited over the years. Spanky was devastated and the band began to disintegrate. Hit-worthy singles "Yesterday's Rain," "Anything You Choose" and especially bassist Hodges' "And She's Mine" barely touched the charts. By mid-1969 the group had called it quits. "Everybody's Talkin' at Me," composed a few years earlier by Fred Neil, was issued in late '69, but Harry Nilsson's version (prominently featured in John Schlesinger's much-talked-about and soon-to-be Oscar-winning Best Picture Midnight Cowboy) had already gained the upper hand and gone top ten.

Mercury released Spanky's Greatest Hit(s), the singularity in the title referring to Elaine's newborn son, followed in 1970 by Spanky and Our Gang Live, recorded in 1967 during a jug band performance at the Gaslight Club in Miami's Coconut Grove near the fateful hurricane. Cirrhosis of the liver claimed Lefty Baker's life in 1971; he was 32. In 1975, Spanky, Nigel Pickering and Oz Bach, the original core trio, reformed Spanky and Our Gang for one album on the Epic label and a concert tour. "L.A. Freeway," penned by former Byrds singer Gene Clark, is their best-known song from this period. For more than a decade starting in 1981, Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane replaced the late Mama Cass Elliot as a touring member of The New Mamas and the Papas.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Making Every Minute Count Sunday Mornin' Like to Get to Know You