On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Zal Yanovsky (Dec. 19, 1944 – Dec. 13, 2002): Guitarist, Co-Founder, Lovin’ Spoonful, Chef, Restaurateur, Cookbook Author

Aug. 14, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

Just ahead of the COVID onslaught, three of the four remaining members of the Lovin’ Spoonful reunited on a Glendale, California stage for the first time in two decades. The original quartet last appeared together at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Missing on stage that evening was their Canadian Jewish co-founder, Zalman (Zal) Yanovsky, who’d died 18 years earlier.

Zalman (Zal) Yanovsky

During my university years, this 1960s band got lots of airplay and regularly topped the charts with memorable tunes like Daydream, Do You Believe In Magic?, Nashville Cats, Rain On The Roof, Summer In The City and You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice. 

A rock music icon and fashion trendsetter, Yanovsky was the group’s conspicuous showman who wore cowboy hats and fringed jackets, a style emulated by Sonny Bono, David Crosby and Johnny Rivers.

The Toronto-born son of political cartoonist Avrom Yanovsky (his mother died while he was still a child), Zal was a self-taught guitarist and folk singer. He was taught to play the banjo at Camp Naivelt by Jerry Gray, who founded the Travellers.

A high school dropout who played the Toronto coffee house scene starting at age 16, Yanovsky moved to Israel, where he worked on a kibbutz and later as a Tel Aviv street busker.

He returned to Toronto and hooked up with Denny Doherty who invited him to join his folk-blues combo, the Halifax Three. Doherty, later a member of the Mamas and the Papas, invited Yanovsky to play with that group and the future “Mama” Cass Elliot in the Mugwumps, as reported in Rolling Stone.

Yanovsky moved to Greenwich Village and teamed with another talented guitarist, John Sebastian, who told Rolling Stone, “He could play like Elmore James, he could play like Floyd Cramer, he could play like Chuck Berry. He could play like all these people, yet he still had his overpowering personality. Out of this we could, I thought, craft something with real flexibility.”

Then came bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler, and the Lovin’ Spoonful, with Sebastian as lead singer, was launched.

So how did they choose their name? According to rocknrollmusichistory.com, it came from a line in a Mississippi John Hurt song, Coffee Blues, in which Hurt paid tribute to Maxwell House coffee, “which is so good, he only needs one spoonful, which he refers to as ‘my lovin’ spoonful.’”

The group’s first single was Do You Believe In Magic, a Top 10 hit in 1965. As a string of catchy tunes followed, the Spoonful challenged the Beatles and other British Invasion groups’ chart dominance.

But trouble was brewing in the band when, in 1966, Boone and Yanovsky were booked on pot charges in San Francisco, but escaped prosecution by turning in their dealer. In mid-1967, Yanovsky was deported back to Canada but was ostracized and quit the foursome.

He played guitar with Kris Kristofferson and in 1969, co-produced an album, Happy Sad, with his Lovin’ Spoonful replacement Jerry Yester. He recorded a solo album, Alive And Well In Argentina in 1971.

Fed up with music business politics in the early ‘70s, he took a shot a TV production, but ultimately found new career success as a chef and restaurateur. In 1979 he renovated a late 19th century livery stable, named it Chez Piggy, and opened a second restaurant, Pan Chancho Bakery, in 1994. Both would be hotspots in Kingston, Ont. Yanovsky’s business partner was his second wife, Rose Richardson. He also wrote the Chez Piggy Cookbook in 1998 which became a favourite for music and culinary fans.

Just six days before his 58th birthday, Yanovsky died of a heart attack. His daughter, Zoe, whose mother is actress Jackie Burroughs, has owned and operated both restaurants since 2005.

In memoriam, John Sebastian told Rolling Stone that “Spoonful reunions without Zal Yanovsky are more like get-togethers. (Whenever we do them), it will be a blast, but a reunion would be a misnomer.”

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.