July 30, 2014

Nigel Pickering: 1930 - 2011

 

Guitarist/singer and one-time Topangan Nigel Pickering, one of the founders and songwriters of the 1960s folk-rock group, “Spanky and Our Gang,” died Thursday, May 5, 2011, in St. Augustine, Fla. after a long struggle with liver cancer. He was 81. He had been a musician for more than 60 years.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. AUGUSTINE RECORD

Nigel Pickering: 1930 - 2011

Nigel Pickering playing at the Tradewinds in St. Augustine, Florida, where he moved with friend and bass player, Ken Hodges.



Pickering was born Frederick Ray Pickering in 1930 in Pontiac, Michigan. In the late 50s and early 60s, he played with “The Folksters,” with Art Schill and bassist Ken Hodges and performed on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and for Johnny Carson.

He met Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane in Florida in the winter of 1965 at a hurricane party where Spanky, Oz Bach and Nigel spent three days jamming while stranded by the storm. The chance meeting resulted in an invitation for them to join her in Chicago, where McFarlane was working as a singing waitress at a club called Mother Blues. When the owner, Curly Tait, asked her to assemble a group to open for the outside acts, she recruited Bach and Pickering who began arranging their repertory for three voices.

With Bach on bass, Pickering playing guitar, and McFarlane playing washboard and kazoo, they called themselves “Spanky & Our Gang” as a joke. But when local newspapers began favorably reviewing their performances, the name stuck. Malcolm Hale joined on guitar and percussion as the group moved out of Mother Blues and into bigger clubs, with Tait serving as their manager.

“Spanky and Our Gang” made the charts from 1967 to 1969. They cut a few albums and performed on major TV shows, but broke up when their guiding light, guitarist and trombonist Malcolm Hale, died of pneumonia at 27. He was the glue that kept the group together.

Spanky got married and then pregnant, and their drummer, another former Topangan, John Seiter, was lured away by “The Turtles.”

Pickering reportedly had five wives. Skye Webber of Santa Monica, CA, met Nigel when he was 40 and she was 21. They fell in love and ran away. They have one son, Cyrus, who was born in Holland. He visited his father the week before he died. Pickering and Webber split in 1979 after seven years.

Pickering made three albums: “Cowards Never Start;” “Sunset at the Tradewinds,” a mixture of live and recorded music; and “Back Home Americana: Part I,” recorded with Spanky and others. He also acted in a few movies, but that career never took off.

A service and open-mic event in Pickering’s memory is set for Saturday, June 25 at the American Legion Post across from Tradewinds. Spanky will attend that and perform at Tradewinds on June 26 to honor Pickering.

Although frail, Pickering attended his 81st birthday party at Tradewinds last June He smiled and waved to the packed room, and sang with Spanky that night.

“I knew that was our last duet,” she said. “He was my rock on stage.”

The last song at that party began with his signature introduction, “How'm I doin'?” Then he sang Willie Nelson’s “Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away?” and everyone knew he wouldn’t be back.

To see Nigel performing “Ain’t it Funny...,” go to youtube.com/watch?v=oDO_sCUfu-c.

With thanks to Peter Guinta and his article in the St. Augustine Record. For more on “Spanky and Our Gang,” go to answers.com/topic/spanky-and-our-gang.