Rock’s First All-Female Band: Fanny
Few bands are more worthy of a prime spot in the pantheon of rock and roll pioneers than Fanny is. As the first all-female rock group signed to a major label, Fanny blazed a hard-won trail at the dawn of the ‘70s, through which the likes of The Runaways, The Go-Go’s and The Bangles could follow. As is often the case with those who break barriers, Fanny garnered less commercial success than they deserved, but they were hailed by their peers. No less an authority than David Bowie once said, “They were one of the finest bands of their era. They were extraordinary … just colossal and wonderful. It just wasn’t their time.”
Now living in Massachusetts, Fanny guitarist June Millington remains as active on the music front as ever. Just last month, she and fellow Fanny alumni Alice de Buhr and Jean Millington (June’s bass-playing sister, once married to Bowie guitarist Earl Slick) gathered at June’s barn studio to re-record two Fanny classics for a much-anticipated documentary titled, Feminist: Stories from the Women’s Liberation 1963-1970. June also runs the Institute for Musical Arts, an organization she co-founded in 1986 to support women and girls in music and music-related business.
Millington was – and remains -- a guitar player of extraordinary scope and dimension. Artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and The David Letterman Show’s Felicia Collins have cited her as an inspiration, and John Lennon was a staunch admirer. Play Like a Girl, an album she recorded two years ago with her sister Jean, shows she still has plenty of riffs in her quiver. From her studio, Millington spoke with us about Fanny’s legacy, her favorite guitars and what it was like to hang out with members of The Beatles.
How did you learn to play guitar?
I heard a girl playing at school, about a month or two before I turned 13. I was completely smitten. I remember thinking, “Why didn’t anybody tell me about this instrument?” I knew it was a gift, a revelation from the universe. I knew I had to play guitar. It was my salvation.
How soon after that did you get a guitar?
Before my family left the Philippines to come to the states, my Mom made a trip to the southern Philippines and brought me back a small, hand-made, mother-of-pearl inlaid guitar for my 13th birthday. I was thrilled.
Was that when you began to get serious about music?
I wouldn’t say that. My sister Jean and I played ukuleles incessantly before then, learning the pop hits of the day. We were doing songs by Neal Sedaka, Paul Anka, and Harry Belafonte – plus folk songs, things like “Tom Dooley.” Those things went right into the acoustic guitar playing. What did kick in for us, when we left the Philippines and arrived in Sacramento, was Hootenanny – the ‘60s TV show. It was exploding. We started learning folk songs that were popular in the U.S. – especially Peter, Paul & Mary.
How did you transition to electric guitar?
That probably happened in 1964. A girl from another school heard about us – she played drums – and she asked if we would like to start a band. We were like, "Yeah, okay!” My dad took me to a pawn shop and got me a Sears Roebuck guitar with a little matching amp. That was my first rig -- a complete and total thrill. Jean and I flipped a coin to see who would play bass in the band. (laughs) I won, so I got to stay on guitar. We learned to play by listening to the radio and by hanging out with boys who were in bands. We were 15 or 16 at the time.
How quickly did you try your hand at songwriting?
I started writing within a few months of our move to the U.S. My first song was “Angel in White,” and the second was “Miss Wallflower ’62.” We played that at the variety show at our junior high school, and it was a big hit with the students. The kids had sort of ignored us before then. We were from a different country, we were half-brown and half-white … you know. But all of a sudden they began stopping Jean and me in the hallway and talking with us, and smiling at us. That’s when we realized we were onto something. It was a revelation.
Was there a specific turning point where you felt, “Okay, we’re on our way now.”
No. It was a matter of working really, really hard. It involved practicing, rehearsing, doing gigs and going to other people’s gigs. Even after we signed with [producer] Richard Perry, our lead guitar player quit. That led to a year of my learning to play lead guitar and trying out various girls to see who would become our fourth member. Even after we signed with Richard, it wasn’t like, “Okay, now we’re going to make it.” Every day was a slog. We even ended up recording our first album twice.
We were looking for that fourth member. Also, Richard was using us to break in various studios -- studios that were being built, and studios he hadn’t yet tried out. He would take us in to record in the middle of the night. We learned to record – Jean, Alice and myself – with various girls who came in, as we waited to determine who that fourth member would be. When we found Nickey Barclay, we re-recorded everything and recorded her songs as well.
Did Perry ever tell you what he saw in the band that was special?
It was obvious. We were cute and we could play. We were pretty and we were confident. I mean, he just flipped out. He didn’t have to do anything to improve us except teach us how to record. We knew how to perform and we knew how to dress. We could already get up onstage and kick ass.
Where did that confidence come from?
We were a self-created band. That’s a really important point to emphasize. Our self-confidence had developed from the time we started buying our own gear and everything, and formed our first band. That was 1964. We got to L.A. in 1968 and were recording by 1969. That’s five years of apprenticeship, of doing our own thing.
Why didn’t the band achieve greater commercial success, especially when there was such critical acclaim?
The audience had no frame of reference for seeing four girls doing what we were doing. There was no precedent. Getting used to seeing girls play, and overcoming their own prejudice, took a while. We had to break through that resistance. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Once the audience realized they didn't hate us, they fell in love with us. We were experiencing that as it was happening, in real-time. We were the first to get in front of the public -- through television shows and hundreds of gigs and recording with Richard and going to Apple Studios. The Beatles and The Who and many other bands loved us, but it was all new. We did gigs with Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Humble Pie, The Staple Singers, Dr. John, Rush … you name it.
Who were some musicians who helped you along the way?
Lowell George, without question. I didn’t grow up in this country and I didn’t understand the blues. Lowell sat me down and played me Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. And then we met Bonnie Raitt. She came to one of our gigs in Texas right after our first album was produced. She wasn’t playing electric yet. It was Lowell and me who sort of inspired her to move to electric slide. And then there’s another person, a player named Joel Tepp, who really spent time with me, showing me stuff. Joel was one of those aficionados who learned every Elmore James lick and studied Robert Johnson. Those guys scared the hell out of me. It’s such a whole other musical world. Few people can play like Robert Johnson. Elmore James you can get to if you work hard -- “Dust My Broom” and all that – but Robert Johnson is another matter. But those were my three basic influences for slide – Joel Tepp, Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George.
How did you come to own your ’56 Les Paul?
I bought it from Kent Henry, the guitarist in Blues Image, and later the replacement guitarist in Steppenwolf. That was the guitar he used for the overdubs on “Ride Captain Ride.” He called me on the road needing money, and asked if he could sell me his guitar. I bought it as a favor, and probably just let it sit for six months to a year. But once I started to get to know that guitar, it started to own me. I became gripped with its soul and spirit. It took precedent over everything else. It really is kind of the Rolls Royce or the Ferrari of guitars. It’s got this deep-throated growl, but it also has a sort of grace to it, where it just plays so easily. I find myself doing things on that guitar that don’t happen on any other guitar. I just used it for overdubs on this recent session we did.
And your Les Paul Junior Special – the TV yellow guitar?
I don’t remember where I got either of the Juniors, to be honest. I had a Junior that I used for playing slide in Fanny, that was stolen. Our roadies were a bit remiss, and it was taken from the back of a truck at a college gig in Boston. I was so upset, but I did find another one that was almost exactly the same. I used the TV Special for the basics of these two re-recordings we just did. It sounds amazing. Each of those guitars goes to a certain place in the spheres.
What about your J-50 acoustic?
That was when I started playing with [feminist singer-songwriter] Cris Williamson. I went into a more feminist, spiritual sort of thing, with women’s music. I also began working as a record producer, something that was very important to me. But something most people don’t know is that I’ve had that J-50 since high school, since 1965 or ’66. I wrote a lot of Fanny songs on that guitar. It became the love of my life.
Is it true Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was your guitar repairman?
That’s right. Jeff installed the master fader on my Les Paul. That master fader is a big deal, an important part of my bag of tricks. It gives me another color. It’s installed in such a way that I can access it with my little finger no matter what else I’m doing. I can fade stuff in and out while I’m playing, without a pedal.
You became friends with The Beatles. How did that happen?
We had the same publicist -- Derek Taylor – and we used to go over to his house a lot when we were in London. Ringo and George used to go over there a lot as well. The Beatles had broken up by then, and actually the two of them were pretty down about it. They would hang out in Derek’s garden, and so would we. We met Paul in the studio at Air Studios around the same time, while Richard Perry was producing the Carly Simon album that had “You’re So Vain” on it. Later I went out on the bus with Paul and Linda while they were riding about England on that [first solo] tour. And I met John when Earl Slick was working with him on the Double Fantasy album. John wanted to meet me and Slick knew I was in New York, so he called me up and told me to come to a particular restaurant. When John saw me walk in, he stood up and mimed playing the guitar, with a huge grin on his face. That told me everything. I was completely comfortable with him after that. I ended up hanging out with them in the studio.
What aspect of Fanny’s legacy is your biggest source of pride?
I think it’s the complexity of what we achieved, the whole package. We were in the trenches and we really knew we were forging the way for girls. We knew it and we talked about it, and we persevered and accomplished that. We wrote some fantastic songs and we recorded them with a diligence and concentration that’s worthy of respect even now. People are revisiting that and it seems just as good today, maybe in some cases even better than how we remembered it. The light being shined on it is making it glint even more.
Photo credit: Mina Carson