The son of a political cartoonist, Zal Yanovsky was born in Toronto in 1944 and was raised by his father when his mother died while he was still a child. His sense of humour got him in trouble more often than his classmates would like to have admitted, often referring to him as a class clown. But it was while in high school that his passion for music bloomed. Although for the most part he was already self-taught on the guitar, his first instrument of choice in school was the violin.
After high school he travelled to Israel for a short pilgrimage and to find his roots. Upon his return, he bummed around the city, hanging around outside New College (a converted mansion) at the University of Toronto and played on street corners and bus stops.
He travelled to the Maritimes and at the age of 20 joined The Halifax Three with Denny Doherty (later of Mamas & Papas fame), Pat Lacroix, and Richard Byrne. When Yanovsky joined, the band had already recorded a pair of traditional folk albumsstarting in ’63, spawning a string of moderately successful singles like “Bull Train,” “The Man Who Wouldn’t Sing Along With Mitch,” “Come On By,” and “San Francisco Bay Blues.” But after less than a year on the road with the band and without Yanovsky recording with them, they disbanded.
He moved to Greenwich Village in upstate New York and again hooked up with Doherty in 1964, forming The Mugwumps with Cass Elliott and Jim Hendricks. But going nowhere, he left the band after one self-titled album that summer on Warner Brothers that spawned the disappointing single, “I Don’t Wanna Know” b/w “I’ll Remember Tonight.”
He struck a friendship with another struggling musician named John Sebastian. Along with bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler, they formed The Lovin’ Spoonful, and together they dominated the charts for three studio albums over four years. Although they only topped Billboard’s chart once with “Summer In The City,” they cracked the top 10 six times with tracks like “Daydream,” “Do You Believe In Magic?,” “Nashville Cats,” and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” They also did the soundtracks for a pair of movies – Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “You’re A Big Boy Now.” Oddly the highest charting album the group did was their 1967 greatest hits package.
While on a California tour in the mid ’60s, he started a fashion craze, and is generally credited as the first performer to wear a cowboy hat and fringed leather jackets on stage, prompting the likes of Neil Young, Johnny Rivers, Sonny Bono, and David Crosby to do likewise.
Yanovsky left The Lovin’ Spoonful in the fall of ’67, but continued to record. Still under contract to Kama Sutra, they initially licensed his solo material out to Buddha Records. He released the single “As Long As You’re Here” in late ’67, and despite it not setting the world on fire, label execs sent him back to the studios with producer Jack Nitzsche. Under his full name of Zalman Yanovsky, the result was his debut full length album, ALIVE AND WELL IN ARGENTINA, in the stores in the spring of 1968. No singles were released, as by this time Yanovsky had hooked up with John Sebastian, and formed The Lovin’ Spoonful shortly thereafter.
That same year, his welcome in the American rock world came to an end, when he was arrested for possesson of marijuana. In exchange for not being deported, Yanovsky narked on his dealer, and was hence ostracized by the music community.
He spent some time in Kris Kristofferson’s touring ensemble, and even made a brief reunion with John Sebastian at The Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, the same year Kama Sutra re-released his only solo album in 1970 while giving it a new jacket and adding his single “As Long As You’re Here,” as well as the b-side “Ereh Er’ouy Sa Gnol Sa” – which was the same song without vocals and recorded backwards. That same year, he joined the “plaster caster club,” when he allowed Cynthia Albritton to create a sculpture of his johnson made of dental cast.
He ultimately returned to Canada, and for the most part retired from the music business all together. He became a chef at The Golden Apple in Ganagoque, Ontario, and at Dr Bull’s in Kingston. He eventually opened his own restaurant in Toronto called Chez Piggy with his second wife Rose Richardson, after divorcing his first wife, actress Jackie Burroughs. The restuarant’s success prompted the publication of a cookbook called “The Chez Piggy Cookbook.” The two then opened Pan Chanco Bakery in Toronto.
The song “Coconut Grove” has been covered by over two dozen other artists. And throughout his career, Yanovsky became a highly sought after songwriter and producer, working with the likes of Judy Henske, Jerry Yester (his replacement in The Lovin’ Spoonful), Tim Buckley, Paul Weller, and Frank Zappa, among others.He also appeared in the Off-Broadway show “National Lampoon’s Lemmings” at New York’s Village Gate. Although not an original cast member, he contributed a musical number “Nirvana Banana”, a Donovan parody.
Following his departure from The Lovin’ Spoonful, the band’s entire catalogue was eventually re-released on CD on various labels, and usually included studio out-takes and other previously unreleased tracks. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. He himself was inducted into the Canadian Rock & Roll Hall of Fame four years earlier.
Yanovsky died on December 13, 2002 from congestive heart failure in Kingston, six days before his 58th birthday. In 2008, BMG Music re-released the 1970 version of Yanovsky’s debut album as a Japanese import CD, keeping the original jacket but re-arranging the tracklisting