June and Jean Millington were playing five sets a night in clubs as teenagers. In this photo taken at Whiskey a Go Go in the early ’70s, Jean (second from right) still has her first bass, a Framus that she later stepped on and broke while dancing. June (right) is playing a blonde ES-335. Photo by Linda Wolf — lindawolf.net
But you got your first electrics before that, correct?
June: Believe it or not, I must’ve talked about it so much that, one Sunday, my dad and I walked to a pawnshop in Sacramento and he bought me a little Sears Roebuck rig. I had a small amp and a guitar, but I have no idea what happened to that. I was playing that before we started the band. And when we started the band, I got—because now we werelistening to the Beatles—I got a Gretsch Country Gentleman. And both Jean and I got Vox amps. I also had a Fender Mustang.
Jean: My first bass was a Framus. It was pretty primitive. I think what happened to it was there were times when we would take off our instruments and dance around and sing. Apparently, I was dancing around so much I stepped backwards and cracked the neck. That’s what happened to my first bass [laughs].
That first band was the Svelts—which eventually became Wild Honey and was signed to Reprise, right?
June: Yes. It took about four years, from late ’64 to ’68. That’s a long time. We were already a real band—we knew how to set up a PA, we booked our own gigs, we could do everything except record. We played so many gigs between ’64 and ’68. Rock ’n’ roll doesn’t have child labor laws! Jean was 16 and I was 17 when we started at the Itching Post, a little bar in Sacramento. In the summer of ’66, which was when I graduated from high school, we played six weeks at a club outside of Reno and that was definitely five sets a night.
Were those sets all covers?
June: Yes. Let’s face it, the music coming out then was the cornerstone of everything we’re playing today. We played [Wilson Pickett’s] “In the Midnight Hour,” we played [Mack Rice’s] “Mustang Sally”—which is an amazing song to play every single night on a six-month gig. My book called Land of a Thousand Bridgesis because of the [Chris Kenner] song “Land of a Thousand Dances”—we played that a million times. We had to get the people up dancing!
You must’ve been pretty tight and able to read each other really well by that point, too.
June: We had already changed personnel several times. Jean and I were always at the center of the band, but people came in and out—it was kind of like musical chairs. We had become Wild Honey about two or three months before we went to L.A. for our last attempt to try to get a deal, and after we signed the contract we were a set band. But then our lead guitar player left a few months later and I had to learn how to play lead guitar.
I went from zero to “Badge” in about a year! It’s amazing when I think about it now, but we were raised in the Philippines and we knew how to study. I knew I had to find out how to play, so I just went about it methodically. I would go to other people’s gigs and ask, “How did you do that?” The nice ones shared with me. They’d come over to the house and show me a couple of things. So I learned how to apply myself—from the second I woke up in the morning, I had an agenda and that was to learn.
What did you focus on?
June: Everything. One really nice guy I saw play in a club showed me a couple of exercises. He cautioned me to play them slowly at the beginning. That was a great tip—move up in tempo incrementally. He suggested I use a small pick, which I did. I used a small pick and had fingerpicks on at least one, maybe two other fingers.
Did you start playing slide around that time?
June: No, I learned slide from [Little Feat guitarist] Lowell George. My other guy was Jeff “Skunk” Baxter [Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers]. He’s a really good friend, even now.
Were you still playing your Gretsch when Wild Honey got signed?
June: Yes. I played the Gretsch through the first album. But then, it was kind of awful, but Kent Henry—the guitar player in Blues Image and then Steppenwolf—called me. I was on the road. He found me in New York and said, “Would you buy my guitar?” I said, “What?” I couldn’t understand why he would sell his guitar. But he was broke. It was a 1957 Les Paul. I said, “I’ll ask our accountant and if he says okay, then sure.” It was 500 bucks. Jeff [Baxter] did all the mods.
June: He talked me into the master volume, which is critical to my musical playpen, you could say. He also put bass frets on my Strat. He said, “If you put these frets on there, you’ll be able to play a lot faster.” I was really dubious, but he was right.
Jean, when did you get your P bass?
Jean: We were at a photographer’s and I was sitting on the sofa. I kicked something, and it was a case. I opened it up and said, “Oh you have a P bass here.” It was puke green. He said, “Somebody owed me money. If you want to buy it, go ahead.” So I bought my bass for $125.
Did you do mod it at all?
Jean: I had it stripped to the plain wood. Years later I had another guitar player friend who did the sunburst finish that’s on it now—and he modified it a bit, too. Some of the pickups had been changed, and he modified it back to whatever the P bass had. I put the pickup cover back on, too, but that was after [session and Late Show with David Letterman bassist] Will Lee taught me about slapping with my thumb. He said he uses a pickup cover because he wants someplace solid to rest his hand while he’s slapping.
Photo by Linda Wolf — lindawolf.net
June, how did you get your distortion—did you use pedals or ride that master volume?
June: I would change the settings on my amp practically between every song. That’s number one, and people don’t do that anymore. I had a distortion unit—I think some guy in L.A. made it, to tell you the truth, because I didn’t go into the store and buy it—but we used to pick up police radio on it. I remember many soundchecks where I’d be playing and then all of a sudden [mimics sound of static] you’d hear the dispatcher talking to the car. It was horrible! We would do all sorts of stuff to try and circumvent that. I didn’t really get into effects too much, but I did have that one pedal. I also had an Echoplex that I used, for example, on “Last Night I Had a Dream,” that song by Randy Newman.
Jean, how did you get your tone?
Jean: My amp was an Acoustic 360 with a folded horn. That was my favorite back then—the big amp. I’m not a tech-head. I was happy. The bass sounded the way I wanted it to sound. I loved on/off,bass, treble, and mid—that was my concern. I tried playing with a wah-wah pedal, I tried playing with a fuzz and all that stuff. But I am a plain Jane: I like the straight sound.
Just a bass and an amp.
Jean: That was it. I adjusted the tone. For a while they had me experiment with fuzz bass. They had me experiment with an octave pedal. But I didn’t get into that stuff. I just liked a good old bass sound, though it had to be a certain thing. It couldn’t be low and boomy. I can’t stand the low and boomy—thatall-over-the-place sound. I like a tight sound, but it has to have a good amount of bass and mid to it, so it cuts through.
June, you had a Gibson ES-355, too, didn’t you?
June: When we recorded at [the Beatles’] Apple Studio, I had both the Les Paul and the 355. But after that I sold the ES-355—which was the stereo version—to Nickey’s ex-husband.
Did you use the stereo feature at all?
June: I tried to for about a year—I had two amps on either side of the stage. But I am legitimately deaf in my left ear. A lot of people don’t know that. I’ve never heard in my left ear, so I don’t know anything different. So I tried stereo, but I couldn’t really hear the one on the left and after a while I just gave up. I’ll tell you what was really great for me, though: I had a Leslie speaker and—especially on “Badge”—I would hit it, turn it on, and change the speed. That was really an incredible sound. That mod—to control the Leslie—was made for me by the roadies. I could turn it on and off. It was a separate amp.