In the 60s and early 70s, a rock group that was entirely comprised of women was a rarity. Today we'll be examining one of the two best of those (the other one is coming up): Fanny, a band that David Bowie called "one of the finest rock bands of their time." Interestingly enough, three out of its four original members fall into the LGBTQI spectrum. All but Jean Millington. We'll examine the career of Jean's sister, June, a little more closely though; she had the most interesting post-Fanny career and she was the most open about her sexuality from the start.
June Elizabeth Millington was born in Manila, the Philippines, on April 14, 1948, the oldest of the seven children of Filipina socialite "Yola" Yolanda Leonor Limjoco Millington and former United States Navy Lt. Commander John "Jack" Howard Millington. Her sister, Jean Y. Millington Madeloni was born May 25, 1949, also in Manila.
Jack and Yola Millington and their children lived luxuriously (with servants and swimming pool) with June's maternal grandparents in various locations in Manila until their emigration to the United States in 1961. At the age of eight, June began playing the piano to entertain her family, and later listened to music on the radio and attempted to play along on ukulele. As she recalls:
"Well, I came from the Philippines and Filipinos are incredibly musical. I mean the best cover bands in the world come from Manila! And I had an aunt by marriage who had gone to Julliard, believe it or not, and she taught me piano from about age five to eight. But I was more interested in playing in the trees [laughs], so my mom was like, “Fine, then. Stop. Quit.” But I do have that in my background. There was actually an amazing psychic in New York - I saw her in the late seventies and early eighties, and she told me I was a composer in Germany, and I don’t know how I would do this, but she told me if I were to look around I would find the school that’s named after me. It’s interesting because I wasn’t always so interested in classical music, but I do know it and I can write orchestral parts with my guitar."
What kinds of music was she listening to when she was growing up?
"Stuff on the radio: Yellow Bird by Harry Belafonte, Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley, Travelin’ Man by Ricky Nelson, all the early Elvis Presley stuff - Won’t You Wear My Ring Around Your Neck? - which rocks on ukulele by the way - Paper Roses by Anita Bryant. We loved Johnny Mathis. Tell Laura I Love Her, and all those sappy teenage “death songs”—oh my god, my sister Jean and I ate those up! You’ve got to get into drama and pathos, but in three minutes you’re out of it. [Laughs] That’s what’s so great about songs!"
When did she first become specifically enchanted by the guitar?
"We were going to a Catholic girls’ school called Assumption College the last year we were in the Philippines. I was in the seventh grade, and it was my last day of school. Mother Milagros, who was the strictest of the strict, was at the podium in front of us when I heard a sound coming from somewhere. I stood up and walked out of that class, and it was like I was invisible. She didn’t say a word! I walked down the hall to another classroom, and there was this girl playing an acoustic guitar. She didn’t even look at me. Maybe she didn’t notice I was there! But I kind of think she was a guardian angel who was sent down to let me know - I knew instantly that guitar was going to be my liberation."
When June picked up the guitar, she turned to Jean and told her, "You have to play the bass." Jean laughs and recalls: "She was the older sister, 13 months older. She led, I followed." As it turned out, she was a good bass player, figuring out everything by ear. "There were no models for young girls to learn how to play," she says.
The Millington family settled in Sacramento, California, and, as June recalls: "We always felt like 'other', never quite fitting in, both in Manila and Sacramento. Being both biracial and bicultural was a really really tough slot in the '50s into the '60s, our formative teenage years." In an attempt to become more popular and make friends, in 1962, June and Jean wrote their first song, Angel in White, followed by Miss Wallflower '62, which they sang with two other girls on their ukuleles at their junior high school variety show. June recalled that afterward, "Kids started coming up to us and telling us they liked it. So it dawned on us this was a way to make friends." In 1962, the two sisters began to sing folk songs together as an acoustic duo at hootenannies and similar events.
Against their father's wishes (but with their mother's assistance), in late 1964, the Millingtons switched from acoustic guitar to electric guitar and bass, after a girl from another school who played drums [Kathy Terry] asked if they would like to start a band. By early 1965 the Svelts were formed, an all-female rock band, with June on rhythm guitar, Jean on bass, Kathy Terry on drums, and Cathy Carter on guitar. According to Millington, the band's name, "came from a word my brother had just learned in school. To be svelte: thin, lithe. It sounded like what we wanted to be, kinda classy!"
The Svelts performed at sock hops, air force bases, and frat parties and gradually built a following. How did people react to an all-girl rock band? June says:
"I don’t think they saw musicians because there was no context for that. So I think they were seeing girls. For the most part, people would get slightly excited but they’d get more nervous than excited. We were nervous too. What if we weren’t good? Everyone would be humiliated. We definitely knew we were representing. In the beginning, people in the audience would be shuffling around, there was a lot of nervous energy, sometimes some of the boys would be openly sneering, but as soon as we hit it everyone would be dancing and singing along. That’s the great thing about music. You can’t hold joy back!"
Later, Terry was replaced on drums by Filipino American Brie Berry. After a number of personnel changes, including five different drummers, the Millington sisters were joined in 1968 by lead guitarist Adrienne "Addie" Lee Clement and drummer Alice Monroe de Buhr (born September 4, 1949, in Mason City, Iowa), who had moved to California at age 17, after the divorce of her parents, in search of fame and fortune. In this four-piece configuration, the Svelts gigged around the West in a renovated Greyhound bus, mainly playing cover songs. By early 1967, the Svelts had a band house in Los Altos, where they lived and rehearsed.
In 1967, June enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where she continued her pre-med studies for two quarters. While Millington attended classes, Clement and de Buhr toured as the Svelts, but later decided to rename the band Wild Honey, and gigged briefly in the Midwest before returning to California. In 1968 they invited the Millington sisters to join Wild Honey. Consequently, June decided to terminate her university studies to become a full-time musician.
Hoping to secure a recording contract, in April 1969, Wild Honey relocated from Sacramento to Los Angeles to "either sign with a label or go back to school." However, frustrated by "playing all nasty inappropriate little gigs, suffering all the demeaning little scams," and by a lack of success or respect in the male-dominated rock scene, Wild Honey decided to disband after one final open mic appearance at Doug Weston's Troubadour Club in West Hollywood in 1969. They were spotted at this gig by the secretary of producer Richard Perry, who had been searching for an all-female rock band to mentor. Perry convinced Warner Bros. to sign the band to their Reprise Records subsidiary. After Addie Clement left the band, June became the lead guitarist, taking a year to learn to play lead guitar. During the recording of their first album, the band recruited keyboardist Nickey Barclay (born April 21, 1951, Washington, DC) who was also a member of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen touring ensemble. The band was then renamed Fanny, not with a sexual connotation but to denote a female spirit.
Their first album, also titled Fanny (1970), was welcomed by the critics. Allmusic, in a later review, gave the album four out of five stars and said: "The album is somewhat tied to its times, but appealing for its unapologetic celebration of everything paisley, bell-bottomed, and post-hippie."
From this album, here's a June Millington composition called Candlelighter Man:
Here's a Barclay composition called Conversation with a Cop:
Fanny's nimble cover of Cream's Badge may explain their music best of all: they cut away the mystery of the original, straightening it out but giving it a looser, almost funky backbeat and never forgetting to jam.
Fanny were still finding their feet when they recorded their first album in 1970 - it was a fine set of songs but occasionally betrayed the fact that the bandmembers were just getting accustomed to one another when they started recording. Fanny's second effort, 1971's Charity Ball, was in comparison a stronger, more confident, and more enjoyable disc; the push and pull between June Millington's tough guitar figures and Nickey Barclay's rollicking keyboards yield more exciting results here, while Alice de Buhr's sharp, inventive drumming and Jean Millington's subtle, melodic basslines keep the bottom end lively and supportive at all times.
The rowdy good-time boogie of the title cut, a composition by Alice and June, was a deserved hit single, though it sadly peaked just as it first nicked the Top 40:
Soul Child (comp. June-Nickey) delivers some cool but sassy funk:
Place in the Country is a powerful rant against the madness of war and inner-city strife with some of June's most fiery soloing.
From the same album, here they are, beginning with a June Millington composition, You're The One, and moving on to a Stephen Stills cover, Special Care:
Their third album, 1972's Fanny Hill, truly caught them at the peak of their strength. Produced by Richard Perry, as were the previous two, at London's Abbey Road Studio, with Geoff Emerick as engineer (who worked on several of the Beatles' best recordings), Fanny Hill is the group's hardest-rocking set.
From this album, Blind Alley, a Barclay-de Buhr composition, is a rocker that demonstrates they were one of the best and most underappreciated American rock bands of the '70s.
There are a couple of great covers here. First, here's the Marvin Gaye composition, Ain't That Peculiar (with Rolling Stones' associate Bobby Keys on sax):
... And here's the Beatles' Hey Bulldog:
Fanny's fourth long-player, Mother's Pride (1973), would also be the last to include the original quartet. Under the production of Todd Rundgren, Fanny pulls out one of their most ambitious efforts, while retaining their abilities to mix anthem-esque rock with increasingly introspective ballads.
There is a darker and more pensive edge pervading much of the album, perhaps suggesting the internal struggles that were beginning to divide and ultimately conquer the group. There is a definite sense of longing on the Barclay song Is It Really You?:
Beside Myself, a rare June Millington/Nickey Barclay co-composition, has a similar feeling to it:
Contrasting those works are the decidedly amplified I Need You Need Me - which is also one of Barclay's most powerful contributions to Fanny:
The feel-good rocker Summer Song, is one of June Millington's top contributions in the album:
Here's their cover of Randy Newman's Last Night I Had A Dream:
Although both Perry and Rundgren were top producers, and although the albums were critically acclaimed and moderately successful, the girls weren't very happy. Says Jean: "I really was kind of loathe to listen to those tracks because what would happen is that Richard (Perry) was very much pop-oriented and, frankly, I don’t think he did the band justice on record because we would cut these tracks that were really biting and big and then Richard would “pop-ify” them. Of course, we’d be sent out on the road and he would mix while we were gone. There was nothing we could do. We felt like he took the starch out of a lot of the tracks."
"I just have to tell you a quick story about my sister June. We were recording in Apple Studios and Geoff Emerick, who was The Beatles’ engineer, was engineering the tracks. There was this one song – I can’t remember which one it was – and June had her amp turned up to ten. Richard went into the studio, he turned her amp down to three or four, and June was just fit to be tied. Somehow the dialogue came up with Geoff, and June said to Geoff something along the lines of, “How did George (Harrison) get that sound?” and Geoff replied, “Well…he had the amp on eleven” (laughs).
She wasn't too happy with Rundgren either: "One of the major reasons we went with Todd was because we had these meetings with him and he knew that, with Richard, we had been locked out of the studio. We thought, 'He’s a musician, he’s hip, he’s cool, he’s one of us.' At the end of the day, he locked us out of the studio because he wanted to get it over and done with and go record with his band. We were absolutely pissed."
Of her reasons for leaving the band, June would say: "I was just so intent on my mission to do music come hell or high water that I was missing a lot of the subtleties of life - which is why I’d left Hollywood. I had intuited that I was in trouble and I had to leave - which was very difficult. It was hard to leave that whole scene, it was hard to leave rock ’n’ roll in that way, it was hard to leave the band that we had worked so hard to establish, it was hard to leave my sister. But I was falling apart."
Alice left because she missed June and because her girlfriend laid down the law: "She said ‘me or the band,’ and I chose her. I wish I hadn’t made that decision. The relationship only lasted four and a half years."
But it was Nickey, who left after their next album was recorded, that was the most acidic of them all. She later said: "After so very many years of not even *thinking* about Fanny, many people are suddenly re-entering my life from those days and it's raised so many ghosts and opened so many cans of worms. It's probably best if I say the nice things first. Jumping the gun to "having been a part of Fanny" is about the only way I can do that: the best feeling I ever got from the whole thing was that of having made thousands and thousands of people happy through our music, and having opened the way for girls and women to be rock musicians in our wake, and most importantly of having inspired a number of fans, our age at the time, to take up music themselves. Shall I be brutal here and tell the truth? I hated just about every hour of being in Fanny (though, in the words of the Vogon guard in Hitch Hikers Guide, some of the actual minutes weren't too bad). As for the reasons *why* I felt that way, there were three main ones:
Number 1) Our musical backgrounds were galaxies apart. When I went to meet and audition for Alice, Jean, and June for the first time, and we were about to have a first experimental jam, I said, "I don't know if we're into the same kinds of music, so why don't we just try a simple 1-4-5 blues, you know, a 12-bar jam," and I was answered by three totally blank looks. I remember thinking "Oh shit, I'm in trouble here already, they don't even know what a blues progression is!" and being freaked by that. So I asked what music they were into, and was equally appalled by the answer. They liked the Beatles - I had no problem with that - but they seemed to know most of the vanilla Motown girl-group songs, and that did *not* go down well with me. And so it went, pretty much ever after. June and I were butting heads constantly from the off because she was into softer music. I felt then - and still feel - that that was a tragedy, because she could play the most delicious dirty rock lead and was a decent rock rhythm player too, but getting her to do these styles was like pulling teeth. We were the bane of each others' existence!
Number 2) We had the Manager From Hell. I could write a whole book about Fanny's manager, Roy Silver. Someone should because he was the archetype of the crooked, sly, ego-ridden, manipulative band manager. Not to put too fine a point on it, the guy was a bastard. He screwed us sideways. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair. That sonofabitch was the main reason I left the Hollywood session circuit, and the music business altogether. I still get the shudders thinking about him.
Number 3) I was - and still, in many ways, am - one of the world's most passionate misogynists. Well, that about says it all, doesn't it? (sighs) Can you think of a more unlikely candidate for being one of the Founding Mothers of women in music? On the other hand, I have NEVER understood sexual discrimination for its own sake. The ideas of paying a woman less than a man for the same job, barring a woman from a job or field of endeavour simply on the basis of sex, and judging female and male skills in the same arenas by different standards, have always seemed completely daft to me. Go figure."
We will play Fanny's last album, but before that, here's Barbra Streisand with Fanny and Billy Preston in Space Captain (1971):
Fanny's final album, Rock & Roll Survivors (1974), had Patti Quatro (sister of Suzi) in the place of June Millington and Brie Brandt in the place of Alice de Buhr. It was produced by Vini Poncia, a house producer for Casablanca Records, which was their new home, and reflected its owner's desire for sheeny, tight, slick, studio glitz. While it is easily the band's most polished and commercial sounding record - Poncia was clearly trying to get the band to sound like Heart, which didn't work - it falls emotionally flat in several places despite excellent songs. With more emphasis on keyboards and drums and less on guitars, the pure, hard rock power of earlier recordings is lost. However, the album contained their biggest hit single, the Millington-penned Butter Boy (US, #29):
The cover of the Rolling Stones' Let's Spend the Night Together, is a radical rearrangement and changes the song's meaning but really comes across.
The album's title track was written by Barclay:
Quatro also had some great compositions, for instance, Rockin' All Nite Long:
After she left Fanny in 1973, Millington moved to Peconic, New York, on Long Island, and soon after to her recently purchased farm on Mead Mountain, Woodstock, New York, to focus on her songwriting and spiritual development. Soon after, Millington started a solo career in New York, where she eventually became the lover of musician Jacqueline "Jackie" Robbins (born circa 1950), who played bass guitar, cello, and bass. Millington and Robbins played together, but she also regularly played with other bands such as Randall's Island and Sha-Na-Na. Millington recalled in November 2012:
"I jammed with whomever whenever I could, as that was part of what I’d felt was missing from my life. Most people don’t realize how many women players there were in New York at that time. There were a lot, funky too, and serious about playing; they’d be practicing all the time."
About 1973, Millington formed a band called Smiles in New York, which also included percussionist Padi Macheta. In 1975, Millington worked in New Orleans as a guest musician on the Allen Toussaint-produced album Ain't No Stopping Us Now by the all-female jazz fusion band Isis that had been founded by Ginger Bianco and Carol MacDonald, who had both been in pioneer all-female band Goldie & the Gingerbreads.
After a period of rest and renewal, in 1975, Millington began a musical association with Cris Williamson through her friendship with Robbins. Through Williamson's influence, Millington became involved in the burgeoning Women's Music Movement (often code for Lesbian Music). In the winter of 1975, both Millington and Robbins traveled to Los Angeles to play on Williamson's The Changer and the Changed: A Record of the Times, which would become the definitive work of the genre. Millington headlined major Women's Music festivals for decades.
In 1977, June and Jean Millington reunited as a duo called Millington to record Ladies on the Stage (1978). From that album, here's Bird In Flight:
... And here's Fantasy:
By August 1981, Millington had moved to the Bay Area and had separated from Robbins, with Robbins briefly becoming the partner of Cris Williamson. In 1981 Millington started her own record label, Fabulous Records, a subsidiary of Olivia Records. In early 1980, Millington started working on her debut solo album, Heartsong, a soft-rock folk album, and toured to support the album. From this album, here's When Wrong Is Right:
... And here's Right Time:
Her second solo record came out in 1983 and was called Running. Here's the title track:
... And here's Don't Be Careless With Your Love:
In 1988 she released One World, One Heart. Here's all of the first side of the album:
In 1993 the Millington sisters released Ticket to Wonderful. From that album, here's Indigo Skies:
By 1999, the Millingtons formed a six-person band, the Slammin' Babes, that released an album Melting Pot in August 2001. The Slammin' Babes continued to perform until at least mid-2006.
Is there a chance that Fanny would reunite? This is Jean's opinion: "It would be an interesting thing to come together and do that. I just don’t know… Nickey is in Australia. From what I understand, she still harbors a hell of a lot of resentment. For the longest time, June was just mad as could be and could never, ever think of working with Nickey but June’s really been working on her emotional issues and I think June has gotten to the point where she’d consider it. I honestly don’t know if Nickey would be able to do that. I’d be up for it. I’m sure Alice would be up for it too. I just don’t know at this point about Nickey because she said some pretty vitriolic things in an article that came out about two years ago."
More recently, June Millington has become an educator. She and her partner, Ann Hackler, founded the Institute for the Musical Arts, a nonprofit educational organization located on a 25-acre converted farm in western Massachusetts. Along with a 3,000-square-foot recording complex, the IMA features workshops for women interested in the music business and a series of sleepaway rock camps for teen girls in the summer. Millington is the artistic director, and she teaches music theory and a course on “The Foremothers,” whose mission is creating a safe space for young women to explore their creativity. She also offers private guitar lessons in the evenings during camp.
As the IMA grew and performance gigs for Fanny became fewer, Millington, now in her late 60s, began thinking of the institute - with its growing network of rock-camp alumni - as a way to settle down out of the spotlight while also having a lasting impact on the music industry, by showing young women that they can build successful careers in music. “I figured, this is what I do for the rest of my life,” she says. “And I really enjoy it and it’s what gives my life meaning.”
And then, starting a couple of years ago, Millington began popping up onstage again in clubs around Northampton, Massachusetts, a town two hours west of Boston and the home of Smith College. She was the subject of a tribute concert there, featuring a lineup of friends, collaborators, and protégés from over the years who read excerpts from Millington’s book, shared stories about her and performed songs that reminded them of Millington. The guest of honor spent most of the show with Hackler in a box adjacent to the stage, singing and clapping along and often looking as though she was on the verge of vaulting down to join her friends at the microphone. Eventually, she took the stage to add her own voice, and guitar, to the mix.
“It was like being in a dream, where angels are singing and everything’s in colors more magical than you ever imagined,” Millington said afterward.
There’s also a pop-up exhibition in a Northampton storefront of photos and memorabilia that span Millington’s career, from rock ’n’ roll to women’s music to IMA.
“When I was living through all those phases, it was like everyone had forgotten about me,” Millington says. “All of a sudden, it all means something, and that is a surprising thing. And I get to pass it on, which is so interesting, and I find that to be incredibly rewarding.”
“I’m not so interested in people reading about us and saying, ‘Oh, isn’t that great that they existed?’” says Millington. “I want to go out and slam in front of people.”
Even now, she is the consummate musician...