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Spanic Boys Tom and Ian Spanic, were one of the most curious duos in the history of Rock & Roll, a duo formed by father and son, with a difference of 22 years of age. The Spanic Boys resided in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s they had their moment of glory, when they released three albums for Rounder Records, garnered rave reviews, and enjoyed some fame.
Tom Spanic was born on April 21, 1946. From the moment his parents gave him a Fender Stratocaster on his tenth birthday, hardly a day passed when Tom didn’t have a guitar in his hand. Her childhood was developed on the south side of Milwaukee, in a working class neighbourhood, his family was of Croatian origin, his father was a worker of the Wisconsin Gas Company and his mother worked as a Welder. Tom started playing the guitar in 1956, when Rock & Roll was at the top of the charts, he learned with the songs of Chet Atkins. He stacked coins on the arm of his turntable so the vinyl would spin slower so he could copy each note. In 1962 he already had his own Rock & Roll band and played for $ 10 in Milwaukee bars.
In the early 1970s, after serving in the military, Tom went into teaching, teaching classical guitar classes at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. In 1976 Tom divorced and took care of his son Ian, whom he raised entirely alone.
When his son Ian was 8 years old, Tom encouraged the boy to learn to play an instrument, Ian explained in an interview; “He used reverse psychology on me. He left his 1962 Fender Stratocaster Olympic White and his Fender Super Reverb amp in my room and always said, ‘Don’t touch the guitar.’ So of course, I was looking forward to playing it.”
Tom didn’t let his son play the electric guitar until he was 12, until that time, Ian, who studied classical guitar, was at the age of twelve when Tom gave his son his first electric guitar, a reissue of the 1957 Stratocaster, like the one used by Buddy Holly.
From then on, Tom began to realize that he enjoyed playing guitar with his son much more than teaching at the conservatory, and decided to form a duet with his son. The father and son first performed in public in 1986, supporting a friend’s band at a noisy biker bar called Rainbow Lounge. “In that show, we played Buck Owens songs, instrumental polkas, surf songs and R’nB´ in the style of Freddie King, people went completely crazy,” Ian explained years later. “When we finished, the drummer asked us to join us and that’s how the band started.”
Tom’s way of playing was spectacular, and along with the style his son had learned from him, the couple took the two-guitar rock & roll subgenre one step further, exchanging solos and making exquisite vocal harmonies in the style of Everly Brothers, hard to hear at the time. Their sound sometimes sounded like country-rock, rockabilly or blues. Over the years, father and son achieved a musical connection that seemed telepathic, they perfectly arranged their guitars, they never stepped on each other, they always knew what the other had to do.
Tom and Ian were a curious case, father and son shared the same musical tastes, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Lonnie Mack, Merle Travis, Buck Owens, Ricky Nelson and Chet Atkins, were among their favourites. Although their influences were on the rock and roll pioneers, they used a whole range of effects and amps for their guitars, which only late 20th century sound technology could offer them, making their sound unique and timeless, their sound was current, but its old formula. Crossing the distances, the music of the Spanics Boys could be framed in the same line of artists like Weeb Wilder or Chris Isaac, artists who drink from classic Rock & Roll, to build new sounds. An avid record collector and sound scholar of Buddy Holly, Ian grew up as a fish out of water in the 1980s, preferring rockers like Holly and Presley to more popular bands, for guys of his generation like Van Halen. or Bon Jovi. The generational problem did not exist between father and son when they talked about music, the artists of the 50’s and 60’s, are the favourites of both.
In 1986 the first sound reference of the group appears, a single for the Panic Button label with two of their own songs “Heartache After Heartache” / “Lookin ‘So Fine”. This will be the general tone of the Spanic Boys, always putting their own songs before the versions, although live they liked to play many versions of their favourite classics, other people’s songs are scarce on their records.
In 1988, the Spanis Boys recorded their first full length for the local label Permanent Records. The album is a rabid tangle of guitars, that moves between Rockabilly and Country, with some brushstrokes of R’n’B, the notes of the album are the responsibility of Ed Ward, radio announcer and renowned scholar of the history of the Rock. In 1989 Ward invited the band to perform at a festival he was hosting in Austin, Texas, South by Southwest. After the successful concert, the Rounder Records label offers a contract to the band. The result would be the recording of three Lp’s for Rounder Records. The Spanic Boys rely on excellent musicians to record their records, Tom and Ian are always the guitarists and singers, the drums and bass are played by different collaborators, in their first works the couple was accompanied by Curt Lefevre, drums, Paul Schroeder, bass, or Mike Frederickson, bass.
In 1990 their first self-titled album for Rounder Records was released. Magnificent album that follows the path of its previous LP, this album will include a version, the song “Lariat”, original by the Milwaukee band The Legends, one of the pioneering groups of Rock & Roll, and most loved in this city to late 50’s and early 60’s. The album was very liked by the then leader of the band of the program “Saturday Night Live” G.E. Blacksmith. When Sinead O’Connor abruptly cancelled her appearance on the show, because she didn’t want to share airspace with controversial host Andrew Dice Clay. SNL Music Director G.E. Smith, a fan of the Spanics Boys album, called Wednesday night to see if the band was available. Tom, who had planned to take the week off after foot surgery, agreed. The performance was a national success, as the controversy over the rejection of Sidney O’Connor made the program a leader on the grill that day, all this was tremendous publicity for the Spanic Boys. After that television appearance, lots of requests came for the album, interview requests, and live performance opportunities. On television they appeared in “Late Night with David Letterman”, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, MTV, “Entertainment Tonight”, “The World Cafe”, “Morning Edition”, among many other programs. His next album was very well received, both in sales and critics. Rolling Stone critic David Wild said of their 1991 album “Strange World”: “Their songs are not museum pieces; they are surprising and infectious contemporary rock songs that show how much can be accomplished with just two voices, two guitars and an impressive rhythm section” they are a really cool classic rock ‘n’ roll band, but there is nothing hindsight in their music. “Tom and Ian’s formula works perfectly, American rooted music, with a heart for the 50’s and the brain set in the new millennium.
The Spanic Boys had famous admirers in the music business. Bonnie Raitt, during a performance at the Marcus Amphitheatre in Milwaukee, featured the Spanic Boys as special guests. When the duo went backstage and saw Raitt doing an interview for local radio, he stopped the conversation to give them a hug and introduced the reporter to the Spanic Boys as “their local heroes.” His next and last album for the Rounder label, was “Dream Your Life Away” from 1993, the album contains songs like “Look For Love”, which is a true delight, Buck Owens and The Birds shake hands on this magnificent song, the wild “Air Raid”, Rockabilly to the rhythm of a locomotive about to derail. The album perfectly matches the previous two for this label, maintaining the same quality and good work. During the period that they were at Rounder Records they made several tours throughout the country and Europe.
None of this really affected them. They kept their feet on the ground, knowing that fame is ephemeral, one day you are up and the next day you have no place to drop dead.
In total, the Spanic Boys recorded eight versatile Roots Rock albums, three on Rounder and the rest on different labels, their last album of the year 2007 titled “Sunshine”, was released on their own label Cinaps Records. All their records enjoy enormous quality, they are works without cracks or ups and downs, songs with heartbreak lyrics, in the tradition of the best Country music ever mixed with Rockabilly themes of dizzying speed, with decayed Stratocasters, when listening comes to you At the head are names such as Buddy Holly, Steve Earle, Flying Burritos, Southern Culture On The Skids, The Everly Brothers or The Birds, in addition to all this, in their music we can also find nods to the British invasion groups, such as The Beatles . After their stage in Rounder Tom and Ian, they also dedicated themselves to production in their studio, Lone Scout, they produced groups of Rockabilly, Country, Blues, Soul, Pop, Celtic or Cajun music. The RipTones, Jim Liban, Robyn Pluer, David Todoran, or Instant Whip have been some of the groups and soloists with whom these Milwaukee geniuses have worked in their studio. Special mention for the fourth Lp, which between 1996 and 2000 produced for The Riptones, a band to which we will soon dedicate the space they deserve in this blog.
The Spanic Boys were always very proud to be from Milwaukee; “Milwaukee citizens have always seen us as ambassadors for the city,” Ian said in an interview. As I mentioned before, their last recorded job was in 2007, unfortunately Tom passed away on March 15, 2016. He lived in Bay View, four houses from where Ian lives with his wife Deborah, and their daughter Lara. Tom was 69 years old.
I know that father and son had a lot of projects and many songs recorded, which I don’t know if Ian will want to edit someday. The death of his father greatly affected Ian, who was totally devastated, according to Ian, in addition to being an excellent father he had always been his best friend.
“The highlight of our entire career was all of our experiences together,” said Ian. “More than any story related to music or anything else, what strikes me is that he was an amazing father and everything else was secondary … He always said he was very proud of me.” Hopefully we hear from Ian soon.
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