While it seems as though Asian artists have only recently permeated the musical mainstream, their artistic impact extends far deeper into the fabric of American music than one might realize.
In 1969, a pair of siblings hailing from the Philippines founded Fanny — one of the very first all-female rock bands to achieve critical acclaim and commercial success in the United States. June and Jean Millington’s Filipina roots were reflected not merely in what they created, but rather in how they approached music-making.
“Jean and I were raised in Manila, so part of the work ethic is that you study and work hard,” June tells NextShark. “So when we decided we were gonna play, in my case electric guitars and electric bass, we worked really hard at it every day and you could tell the difference week by week.”
While Jean and June’s musical passions were undeniably impacted by their cultural upbringing, they never had a chance to reconcile the two.
“In the Philippines, music was a big thing with so much music with so many musical shows we listened to when we were young that really influenced us,” Jean says. “But coming to the United States, it was all about the fact that we were girls playing music and nobody touched on the fact that we were Filipina American. As far as bridging the cultural divide, that wasn’t even part of the question.”
From 1970 to 1974, Fanny churned out five full-length studio albums that showcased an innovative blend of rock, blues and funk elements.
Although they achieved a pair of Top 40 hits in the process, the elusive combination of widespread success, influence and the allure of a chart-topping hit remained just beyond their reach.
“It felt odd. You knew that you were just as good as somebody else, and you almost had to accept that you wouldn’t be chosen or seen, or recognized because that’s just how it was,” Fanny drummer, vocalist and fellow Filipino American Brie Howard says. “I didn’t stop and cry about it; I just had to keep working.”
Even for Bobbi Jo Hart, who was born and raised in Southern California right when Fanny first burst onto the scene, the filmmaker remained unaware of their music until decades later.
“My parents were hippies loving rock and roll and I had LPs everywhere, but there were no Fanny albums. I’m blown away that that was when they were killing it on the scene and I didn’t have any albums like that at my home. I didn’t even hear them on the radio,” Hart says. “I only discovered them about seven, eight years ago when I was looking for a guitar for my daughter on a website with an image of June and her and Fanny’s backstory.”
Captivated by the untold narrative of this groundbreaking group, Hart felt compelled to create “Fanny: The Right to Rock,” a PBS documentary that not only delves into the band’s enduring legacy but also traces its ongoing evolution, which continues to unfold even in the present day.
The film tenderly captures the precious period of time when Fanny reigned supreme of the American musical landscape of the ’70s with an extensive palette of warm-toned archival material from behind-the-scenes concert footage to intimate photographs. Hart enlisted the talents of a vast variety of talented creatives and contributors to capture such a distinct atmosphere.
“We started out by having access to so many great photos, some from the band and around 80 photos from photographer Linda Wolf, which was phenomenal,” Hart said. “I worked with an amazing editor, Catherine Legault, and we had so many weeks and weeks of conversations on how to infuse them into the film. We had contact sheets and photos retouched and took scratches out.”
“I was really honored to work with Kara Blake, who’s an animator who took a lot of the photos and we brainstormed ideas on how to make them kind of feel alive in the film,” Hart added. “I really feel grateful for all of these collaborations.”
Following their reunion in 2018, “Fanny Walked the World,” the dynamic trio of June, Jean and Brie find themselves continuously exploring avenues for growth and creative development.
Howard credits her nephew as the one who helped her redefine her sound.
“My nephew, who is a musical genius, started producing my solo record. He just released an album of nature sounds that he recorded and turned into instruments on his solo record, which is unbelievable” Howard says. “He’s bringing some of his experience to my record which is deeply appreciated because I don’t want to keep doing what I’ve always done. I want it to be completely me, but I want it to be the me moving forward.”
In contrast to Howard’s more progressive approach, the Millington sisters are deeply committed to honing their own personal styles that they’ve cultivated for decades.
“I don’t feel like I need to go into new stuff. I just feel like I just got to streamline what I got and get better. I’m not really looking for new because what comes out of me is what I hear internally,” June says.
The film offered the bandmates a precious moment of introspection, inviting them to contemplate the extraordinary trajectory of their personal journeys.
“Our younger selves would be pretty shocked and very much gratified. I just turned 75. I can’t believe we’re, number one, still alive and, number two, being appreciated all over again, which is a completely different feeling from what we were feeling when we were young,” June says. “Our first three albums were put out when we were in our early 20s. So I think we’d be very happy but quite shocked, really, for sure.”
“Fanny: The Right to Rock” is available to stream on PBS.