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JUNE MILLINGTON

The pioneering rock musician had no role models. But because of her, other young women do.

 

The nuns who taught at June Millington’s junior high school in the Philippines might not have approved of her decision to form an all-girl rock band under the provocative name Fanny. But her school, a strict Catholic college in Manila, played a key role in guiding her life — not because of the things that she was taught, but because of a mystical experience she had there when she was 12, three weeks before she and her family boarded the USS President Cleveland and emigrated to America.

“One day during class I heard this beautiful sound,” she recalls. “I got out of my seat and followed the sound in a trance, as if sleepwalking.” The teacher didn’t notice her pupil’s exit, and June was able to walk down the hallway in search of the source of the music. “A few doors down, I saw a girl sitting alone in a room playing a guitar. I’ve often wondered if she was an angel because I never saw her before — or again.” June’s first thought wasn’t: Who is this person and why is she out of class? It was: Why has nobody ever told me about the guitar before? June watched the girl, who never looked up, in silence. When June eventually returned to her seat, her life was changed. “I’ve never felt more inspired,” she says. “From that moment I knew what I had to do with my life: play guitar.”

When June returned home that day she spoke “incessantly” to her mother about what had happened. A few houses down the road from where the Millingtons were staying while their belongings were being packed lived a neighbor whose son owned a guitar. “I’d stand at the gate to their house and stare at this boy playing his guitar,” she says. “I was completely entranced. One day he came to the gate and let me touch the guitar once, for a few moments.” Before the family left for America, June’s mother bought her a small, handmade mother-of-pearl inlaid guitar from the Southern Philippines for her 13th birthday. “I never looked back,” she reflects. “I still practice for hours; it’s like being with my best friend.”

Making Music in California

June stayed true to that moment of calling in the school corridor, even when everyone around her tried to dissuade her from the path. Even easygoing California was subject to racial tensions in the 1960s. “I was shy and quiet, and unsure of myself because of being biracial and bicultural,” she says. “That was not at all hip in those post-war days.” Music became a refuge for the teenager. The family moved to Sacramento, and June and her sister Jean started to write songs and perform in bands. “Music became our lifeline,” she shares. “It definitely saved us. I cannot imagine having the personality I have now without music first melting away the barriers in myself and with the people I’d meet. Music is a great blessing, and made all the difference in the world for me. It gave me joy and courage.”

Courage was something June would need in abundance during the coming years. When her interest in music was merely a hobby, people’s reactions were favorable. But that changed when the band played at the Troubadour in Hollywood in 1968 and things became more serious. The secretary for music producer Richard Perry saw the band play that night. She called Perry the next day, and the band received an invitation to play a private audition. The audition was so successful that Perry convinced the president of Reprise Records to sign the band without seeing them play first. The hobby had become a profession, and for June and the other women in the band, the support they had received to date was set to change.

Crashing the Boy’s Club

“During that time we heard just about every prejudice you can think of,” June says. “People would say: ‘Girls shouldn’t play electric instruments or drums,’ or ‘Girls can’t play as well as guys.’ We were automatically branded as ‘loose,’ and our boyfriends would get jealous.” June recalls that the best compliment the band would receive at that time was: “You’re not bad for chicks.” But the negativity did not have its intended effect.“ It just caused us to develop our own sense of self-worth that sustained us to go into the next step, and the next,” she says. “Having your own inner radar is critical in the music business. We developed that; you could say the criticism became an asset.”

Indeed, the negativity did little to hold Fanny back. “We shrugged it off because we were determined and were already familiar with prejudice — although it’d been racial up to this point,” says June. “But now it was directed towards being women doing something that was unfamiliar, with no frame of social reference. But the joy it gave us was simply so much more than any stupid and lame thoughts people might have towards our now-profession.” The band became self-sufficient at booking gigs, setting up their own equipment and driving from town to town all while making money. “We had freedom and independence,” June reflects. “Who cared what anyone else said? The impetus was clearly so very much bigger than us. It was synergistic, and as it turns out was in step with the times. We were actually ahead of the curve.”

In time the record label began to market the band’s femininity. “We were already playing up to our femininity to a certain degree,” June says. “We worked our hair, learned how to put on makeup, watched the styles. As we began to tour places like New York and London and were introduced to designers and breaking trends, it became even more fun because a budget was being provided for us to shop.” But in 1973 the record label brought in a clothes designer who pushed a certain style that made June uncomfortable. “I acquiesced at first but ended up not liking it at all,” she recalls. “It felt fake, and was symptomatic of what was happening to the band.” June left the band, retreated to upstate New York, where she took some time out to discover herself before eventually joining a new outfit.

A Meaningful Musical Legacy

Despite Fanny’s relatively brief recording spell, the band’s impact has been tremendous. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine David Bowie said that Fanny was “one of the finest rock bands of their time,” describing them as “extraordinary” and “as important as anybody else who’s ever been.” Some, including Bowie, have observed that because Fanny was ahead of the curve, they are lesser-known than some of their contemporaries. But in truth, June and the band broke new ground for other women to follow. One woman came up to June and told her that she saw Fanny on television in New York City when she was just 5 years old. “She told me that she pointed to the TV screen and said to her parents: ‘ I want to do that,’” June relays. Felicia Collins’s dream also came true. She later became the guitarist on Late Show with David Letterman.

Music has continued to sustain and inspire June throughout her life. “Music has informed everything I’ve done that ever felt meaningful, because it connected me to myself first,” she says. “It’s brought me confidence and joy, and has allowed me to communicate with people in a non-linear way. There is nothing better in the world.”