So said David Bowie of this quartet of women whose chops and tireless gigging earned them a spot on the same label as Hendrix, and session dates in the Beatles’ Apple Studio with Geoff Emerick.
In the late 1960s, prominent rock musicians were primarily men. Aside from a few notable exceptions—like prolific and highly influential “Wrecking Crew” session bassist Carol Kaye—female musicians weren’t given a whole lot of mainstream recognition. They were accepted as vocalists, and sometimes as guitar-strumming folkies, but otherwise often weren’t considered “serious” players. We could spend hours detailing how these sexist societal norms unfolded the way they did, but suffice it to say that women didplay instruments—and played them well. Though, until recently, their story was long lost to time, one of the most notable exceptions to the previously stated observation about the golden age of rock and roll is the all-female band Fanny. Consider none other than David Bowie’s unequivocal sentiments on the matter.
“They were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time,” Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1999. “They were extraordinary: They wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time.”
Musically, the L.A.-based quartet drank from the same waters as other rockers of the day, like Humble Pie, the Faces, and Grand Funk Railroad. They played guitar-centric, blues-based boogie with hints of Motown. They used open tunings, displayed deft slide skills, and used overdriven amps and Leslie cabinets to get a huge sound. And they were tight. They were so good it’s almost criminal they fell under the radar.
Fanny’s core was guitarist June Millington and her bass-playing sister Jean. The Millington family had relocated to Sacramento, California, from the Philippines in 1961, when June and Jean were 13 and 12 years old, respectively. In 1964 the sisters joined their first band, the Svelts, which by 1968 had morphed into Wild Honey and featured, in addition to the Millingtons, Nickey Barclay on keys and Alice de Buhron drums. Each band member also sang, taking turns on lead duties. Following a gig at the Troubadourin West Hollywood, Wild Honey caught the attention of legendary producer Richard Perry (Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Harry Nilsson, and many others), who signed them to Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise Records—home to artists like Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, and the Kinks.
The women of Fanny were already gritty, seasoned professionals by this point, with nearly five years of steady work in dives, clubs, frat houses, and U.S. Air Force bases under their belts. They’d mastered both their instruments and their ability to function as a kick-ass ensemble, and knew how to dial-in their own sound and work a room to engage audiences. They often played five sets a night and boasted a massive repertoire that included a diverse list of covers—like Buffalo Springfield’s “Special Care,” the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog,” Ike & Tina Turner’s “Young and Dumb,” Cream’s “Badge,” and a seriously heavy take on Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
The quartet’s peak period was from 1970 to 1973, when they released four albums and had a few of their singles—like “Charity Ball” and “Ain’t That Peculiar”—chart on Billboard’sHot 100. They toured Europe and the States, and appeared on a number of television shows, including The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and West Germany’s Beat-Club. Through the band’s connection to Perry, Fanny even supported Barbra Streisand on her 1971 attempt at heavier fare, Barbra Joan Streisand. In addition, Perry himself produced the band’s first three albums, with famed Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick running sound for their third LP, 1973’s Fanny Hill, and Todd Rundgren producing their fourth album, Mother’s Pride, later that same year.
But for whatever the reason, the world wasn’t ready for Fanny. By the middle of the decade, they’d called it quits. June continued to record, and also produced a number of artists. Jean worked less frequently after marrying David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick, and spent most of the ’80s and ’90s raising her children. These days, Jean is still based in L.A., while June lives in Massachusetts, where she directs the Institute for the Musical Arts, which runs a Rock ’n’ Roll Girls Camp every summer. “That’s a lot of my life now, passing it on,” says June. “It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.”
That might make the Millington sisters’ story sound like it’s coming to a close, but the internet is a magical thing, and Fanny, once dormant, is enjoying a resurgence of late. Old footage is making the rounds online, and a box set of the band’s Reprise catalog (plus outtakes and rarities) was reissued in 2013. In 2018, June and Jean—plus Svelts drummer Brie Howard-Darling (née Brandt)—even released an album of new material, Fanny Walked the Earth. But for all the hype, not much attention has been paid in the guitar community to Fanny’s musical prowess, their experiences on the road and in elite studios, and their gear—they still own the vintage axes they bought used back in the ’60s and early ’70s.
TIDBIT: Fanny’s self-titled debut LP came out in 1969. It was produced by Richard Perry and included nine original songs, one tune written by Booker T. Jones and Al Bell, and a cover of Cream’s “Badge.”
This long-overdue interview with June and Jean aims to rectify that. Sadly, Jean is recovering from a stroke that has, for the time being, made it impossible to play bass, but both she and June were delighted to recently discuss all the aforementioned history and more—including the time they freaked out the host of the hottest TV talk show of the day.
Did you start playing music while you were still living in the Philippines?
June Millington: Yes, ukuleles first, then we started on guitar about a month before we got on the ship [to emigrate to the U.S.]. I heard somebody playing guitar at the Catholic girls school where we went for a year, and was completely smitten. All I had to do was hear it for a few seconds and I knew it was my thing.
Jean, you played guitar as well, but reportedly switched to bass on a coin toss—is that right?
June: Well, that’s what our drummer tells us, neither one of us remembers [laughs ]. I won the toss apparently.
And you took to it right away?
Jean: At that time, we didn’t read music. We didn’t realize, for instance, that if June was playing an A chord on the guitar that there was an A on the bass that correlated with that. It was all by ear. It was a “that sounds right, let’s play that” kind of thing. It took us a while before we really figured out that guitar chords and places on the bass correlated.
Were you both playing acoustic guitars when you first started gigging?
June: We did a lot of gigs on acoustic. Hootenanny [a popular 1960s ABC variety show featuring folk artists] was big when we got to the U.S. Peter, Paul, and Mary were on there—they had a big impact on the nation and on us. But after a couple of years, around ’64, Jean’s boyfriend was a bass player in a surf band and we started to hang out with them. That’s when we got bit by the bug. But, yes, we were already doing gigs on acoustic guitar.
So it was surf, not, say, the Beatles’ famous 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, that got you hooked on rock ’n’ roll?
June: No. We certainly heard the Beatles, but it was because we were hanging out with a surf band in particular that we were able to get sucked into it. We talked to our mom and dad about it, and our mom was super into it because she could tell it made us happy. Our dad was not. She went around him and, in secret, went to a music store with us and signed for some gear. That was the actual start of our career.
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.
Jean Millington (left) plays her beloved P bass at the Institute for Musical Arts’ 2012 Lady and the Amp Fest, an event celebrating a decade of summer programs for women. (Photo courtesy of June Millington) — June Millington (right) has dedicated most of her adult life to supporting women and girls in music. In 1986 she cofounded the Institute for Musical Arts in Massachusetts, where she currently organizes rock camps for girls each summer. (Photo by Per Brandin)
Didn’t you have a Les Paul Junior, as well?
June: That’s what I used on “Ain’t That Peculiar,” because it was in a completely different tuning. I don’t even remember what it was. I think I only played it on that. For the rest of the stuff, I used my Les Paul. The Les Paul Junior is the only guitar that was stolen from me. That was at Boston University. My roadies fucked up, man, they really did. They left it on the lip of the truck and went back to get another load and nobody stayed with it. Within three minutes, somebody came and grabbed it. I did find a replacement, same color and everything. The neck had snapped—those necks will go at any time! So I bought it fairly cheap, a couple hundred bucks or something, and had it fixed.
How about amps? There are a lot of pictures of you with a Twin.
June: I delved into Traynor for about a year, because Lowell told me about it. But then I went back to my Fender. I still have my tweed Fender that somehow succeeded in living through the whole thing. I had it refurbished for the  Fanny Walked the Earthalbum. I don’t use too many pedals to get vintage sounds because I’ve got the fucking vintage gear. Do you know what I’m saying? Forget all the rest of it—work with your guitar and your amp! It takes time, and it’s kind of a hassle, but once you hit the sweet spot there’s nothing that’s like it.
You were fortunate to work with Richard Perry early in your career. What did you learn from that?
June: He showed us everything. I know Richard really well and I know how he works. He’s a bit of a tyrant, but he knows what he’s doing. I went to visit him, I think it was in December. He’s sick, but we had a really long conversation and I thanked him. He taught me everything I needed to know about recording, quite frankly.
What was your process like in the studio?
June: Well, I will overdub parts, but the live take of the band is super important to us. That’s the framework of the whole thing. Choosing which take—or which parts of takes—and editing is a whole process. You’ve got to hear it ahead of time, and that’s what I learned from Richard. It’s almost ritualistic. It’s got to go a certain way. How do you find the magic? How do you preserve it? How do you record it? All that. It’s really hard work. I am super grateful to him for teaching me how to do that.
When you’re going for the right take, do you ever choose something with a flub over a “perfect” take because the feel is better?
June: Well certainly, but one of the tricks Richard taught us was, as you’re getting sounds, don’t play your full thing. Wait until you know you’re close—when the producer and engineer are satisfied or really close to having the sound—then give it your all. Because there are only about five takes, really, when you’re in the game—when you’re at your peak. There are only three to five takes. When we worked live in the studio with Barbra Streisand and Richard, there were only three takes. She was singing live, by the way. Those were not overdubbed. She was looking at us and we were looking at her.
Jean: She wanted more of a rock sound, so she was totally into whatever experimenting she had to do. She was quite gracious. One thing that impressed me was that she never did the same take twice. When she sang the song again, it sounded different—she had different melodies. It was impressive that she could keep all that in her head.
Did you do harmony vocals with her?
Jean: We did on some of the things. Of course we were thrilled, but we were young bunnies at the time and didn’t really grasp the importance of singing background vocals with Barbra Streisand. It was just—you’re in the studio, Richard said you’re going to sing background. Okay, sure. But now, when I know the import of it, it’s pretty impressive.
Jean, to capture the bass on Fanny sessions, did you use an amp or run a direct line to the board?
Jean: We used a direct line and also a mic at times, depending on the song and the sound they wanted. But a lot of times I was going direct. When I used an amp, it was usually right in the room with baffles around it.
June, was your amp cranked in another room or was it in the room with you?
June: It depended on the studio. Sometimes it would be in another room or in the hall or something like that. We tried to have as much isolation as possible. But it’s also the way you place the mics, to exclude as much bleed as possible. I mean, you can do a live vocal in the studio if you’ve got that 180-degree, out-of-phase thing going on.
How did you mike your amps?
June: For the most part they were close-miked. If we could, we would close- and far-mike them. We did that at Apple Studio with Geoff Emerick. I mean, seriously, he’s one of the best engineers I ever worked with.
What impressed you most about working with him?
June: Number one, he let you get your sound and then he would mike that. I said to him, “How did you get George Harrison’s sound?” He said, “Well, he got his sound and then I miked it.” It was so simple. He didn’t dictate the sounds.
Jean: We were totally jazzed being in the Beatles’ studio—and with Geoff Emerick as our engineer! You couldn’t have fantasized more than that. June always had arguments with Richard Perry—he wanted her to play [with her amp] on 5 and she, of course, wanted to play at 10. One time she asked Geoff, “What number did George play at?” He said, “11.” [Laughs.] That ended that argument.
June: I was also really good friends with Dave Hassinger [legendary RCA Records engineer and producer who recorded with Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and others]. I said to him, “How do you mike anything?” He said, “What I do is I move my ear around. Where it sounds good, that’s where I put the mic.” It’s not as crazy complicated as people think: Put the mic where it sounds good.
Anything else you remember from those Apple Studio sessions?
June: They would record it as if it was already mixed. They put the effects on everything so it was pre-mixed—all you had to do was bring up the faders. You had your sound already. Richard used to go to England, go to sessions, and hang out with people. He surreptitiously took photos of the board—he’s not going to care if I’m telling the story now—and he would come back and show us the pictures. He would share the settings with the engineers we were working with in L.A. and try to mimic as much of their sound as possible. It was great.
You mentioned Dave Hassinger ...
June: Let me tell you how good this guy was. He was the one who really impressed on me that, when you’re mixing, you mix at a level where you can barely hear it, because then you can really hear the tonal and volume differences. Aja[Steely Dan’s 1977 album] was mixed that way, by the way. Ajawas totally mixed on small reference speakers at a very low level. Anyway, he would let me come in anytime, I’d just come and hang. That’s how I learned.
Why is it better to mix at low volumes?
June: Number one, you save your ears, so you can work more than six to eight hours if you have to. After eight hours, you can’t hear anymore—your cilia are just vibrating by themselves. You think you’re hearing but you’re not. But more than that, you hear the volume and timbre changes much more eloquently than when it’s loud. Every once in a while you turn it up, but mostly you keep it down. You can hear volume changes incredibly well when it’s low.
How did you choose which covers to record?
June: It’s funny, because we didn’t do a lot of cover songs, but the cover songs that we did got famous. Most of our albums are original material—I would say about 80 percent. But how did we pick the covers? Well, we loved “Hey Bulldog,” so we just worked on it. We knew Randy Newman and somehow we did “Last Night I Had a Dream.” We would scour records. “Young and Dumb” was the B-side of an Ike & Tina Turner tune. “Badge” was our song. That song was written for girls. It’s incredible for an all-girl group to sing that song. It’s very feminine.
How about that killer slide part on “Ain’t That Peculiar?”
Jean: June’s slide part totally clinched the deal. We had our own arrangement of it, and because of the slide part, of course we had to do the song.
June:That was really the influence of Lowell. I must’ve started doing that and the others were like, “Yeah, that’s good.” We tried stuff out. We were unafraid. We had gone through the musical experience and we knew what was there. You really couldn’t find stuff that we didn’t know. Jean turned me on to the Meters, for example, and within a couple of months we were actually doing gigs with them in New Orleans.
When you wrote songs, did you bring riffs into rehearsals or did they mostly come from jamming?
Jean: It was all of the above. “Seven Roads” [from 1970’s Fanny] is a total jam and we made a song out of it. A lot of times Nickey would bring complete songs. But it depended. “Blind Alley” [off 1972’s Fanny Hill] was completely Nickey. “Charity Ball” [from the 1971 album of the same name] was a collaboration.
June: We jammed all the time. That’s how most of our songs came about. I have tapes of us jamming on “You’re the One” [from Charity Ball] and you can hear the germ of the idea. But it probably took two months to write that song.
On those clips from European TV, it’s obvious you’re playing live, but it doesn’t look like you had monitors. How did you hear yourselves?
Jean: I think they probably had speakers suspended up in front of the stage, but you couldn’t see them down on the floor—because, of course, we had to hear ourselves. They did excellent sound. We were so impressed, because they were really into doing the sound the way it should be. In America, on the TV shows we did, the sound was for shit most of the time. But the Beat-Clubwas impressive, they really had that together. All of that is live. None of that is overdubbed.
Essential Fanny ListeningSkip to 21:06 in this collection of Fanny TV appearances to witness their cover of Cream’s “Badge” for a French station. At 24:05 you’ll hear their take on Ike & Tina Turner’s “Young and Dumb.” The sound quality is okay, but the performances are stellar.
Check out this track from Fanny’s 1972 album, Fanny Hill, to see June Millington playing slide on her modded 1957 Les Paul.
Fanny performs a knockout rock jam of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” live on the West German television program Beat-Clubin 1972.
Production values may not be stellar in this likely phone-shot footage from 2013, but it’s still great to see June and Jean singing and rocking in gloriously tight and funky form during a jam with Jean’s son, Lee Madeloni (from her marriage to Earl Slick), on drums.