Formed long before the label “Americana music” was coined, the father and son rock and roll duo, the Spanic Boys, are considered to be among founding artists such as Los Lobos, Steve Earle, the Blasters and others who helped to define the genre.
Celebrating their 25th anniversary of playing together professionally in 2011, Tom and Ian Spanic have appeared on many national TV shows including Saturday Night Live, Late Night With David Letterman and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and their songs have been featured in numerous TV shows, movies, commercials and even video games. In their 25 years playing together, the Spanic Boys have toured extensively in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
You could say the true start of the band was in 1956 when Tom Spanic received a brand new blond Fender Stratocaster for his 10th birthday. From that point on Tom was never far from the guitar. One of his favorite tricks was to stack quarters on the arm of his record player so that it would play slower and he could learn the guitar parts of his boyhood idol Chet Atkins note for note. He soon eclipsed his guitar teachers and in fact, was so good that the Fender guitar distributor would recruit him to play at their display at the Wisconsin State Fair. His playing helped to convince many youngsters that they just had to have a Fender guitar so that they too could be part of the rock and roll frenzy of the 1950s.
Fast forward to 1968 when son Ian was born. Tom’s interest in guitar branched out, and he set upon a course of classical training that would lead him to eventually teach at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Ian can always remember a guitar around the house, and it was at the age of 7 when his dad started giving him lessons, choosing to teach him classical guitar first in the hopes that it would establish the proper techniques. It wasn’t until the age of 14 that Tom bought Ian his first electric guitar, oddly enough a Fender Stratocaster. According to Ian, “Once I got that first electric guitar it was all over for the classical.”
The two Spanics would spend hours playing guitar and singing together with Ian playing rhythm to Tom’s faithful renditions of Freddie King instrumentals, Buck Owens songs, Buddy Holly, Rick Nelson, the Everly Brothers and countless others. These many hours of playing together would lead to what critics describe as Tom and Ian’s near-telepathic guitar playing and tight vocal harmonies. “When we play together we just naturally know what the other is going to do and the parts fit together like a puzzle,” said Tom. Much has been made of the special blending of voices and close phrasing that exists between family members and the Spanic Boys are no exception.
Being avid guitar collectors, in the mid 1980s the Spanics would frequent the local music stores where they would try out various guitars, and soon their playing was being noticed and talked about. Being such regular visitors, when asked by customers who the two guys were who played guitar like that an employee of one favorite shop would reply, “Oh, those Spanic boys.” This same employee had a local blues band and convinced the Spanics to sit in one night. Tom and Ian accepted and made their stage debut at the Rainbow Lounge in Milwaukee, a bar known for their rough biker clientele. A bit nervous, they took the stage and played three instrumentals. Imagine their surprise when the crowd went crazy and would not let them leave until they played more. During the break the drummer of the band approached the two and said he would quit his current position to come and play with them if they would start their own band.
It was 1986 when Tom and Ian formed the band first known as Oh! Those Spanic Boys. Within months they were packing in the crowds and creating quite a stir with their twin Telecaster guitars and tight vocal harmonies. During this time Tom wrote the band’s first two original songs, “Heartache after Heartache” and “Looking So Fine,” which would be their first 45 release. Being prolific writers, they soon had a backlog of original material which became their first album for Milwaukee’s now defunct Permanent Records.
This very same Permanent album ended up on the desk of rock critic Ed Ward, who helped put together the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas. According to Ward, the first time he played the Spanic Boys album, “I had my ears nearly torn off,” and he invited the band to perform at a SXSW showcase in 1989. He had never seen them perform live, and he kept hoping they could play. “Over the weeks, as I called various people to come to SXSW, I found myself using the Spanic Boys as a lure whenever people asked me what was unusually good,” said Ward. “MTV was intrigued enough to actually leave New York for the day,” and featured the band in a Week in Rock special. That night the Continental Club in Austin was packed. “I’d like to say the crowd went wild that night, but it was too stunned at first to do anything,” said Ward. “The Spanics were better than good, and by the time they did their string-ripping finale, the crowd was over its shock and was screaming and yelling.” Rounder Record company exec Ken Irwin signed the band on the spot. The band went on to record three critically-acclaimed albums on Rounder, SPANIC BOYS, STRANGE WORLD and DREAM YOUR LIFE AWAY. Rounder also re-released that fateful first Permanent Records album as EARLY SPANIC BOYS.
As if the story of a father and son rock and roll band isn’t far fetched enough, add to it the Hollywood twist of Tom Spanic’s phone ringing one May night in 1990 and the person on the other end explaining that he was G.E Smith, the band leader for Saturday Night Live. Of course Tom did what any sane person would do and promptly accused the caller of playing a joke on him. Luckily Smith convinced him that if he simply called the number he was about to give him at NBC he would soon find out that this was not a joke.
It just so happens that Smith had a copy of the Spanic Boys first Rounder release SPANIC BOYS, and after calling the record company and getting Tom’s number (from who else but the night janitor), he wanted to know if the Spanic Boys would like to come to New York on the first flight out the next morning to replace Sinead O’Connor, who was boycotting over the controversial host comedian Andrew Dice Clay. Of course the answer was yes.
There’s more to the story of course, like Tom sending the Chicago police to find Ian at 3:00 AM, the freak May snowstorm that delayed the plane, the missing bass player, the broken down limo, all of that for another time. It did end up to be one of the most watched episodes in the history of Saturday Night Live and a great way for a father and son to see New York for the first time.
After that there would be continued touring and recording, with the Spanic Boys releasing several more critically acclaimed CDs, including the country flavored SPANIC FAMILY ALBUM on East Side Digital, with the song “I Can’t Find a Way,” featured on ABC’s The Marshall, a limited edition, signed CD titled WALK THROUGH FIRE, and TORTURE on Chicago’s Checkered Past. In 2007 the Spanic Boys released SUNSHINE, their eighth album, on their own Cinaps Records. Tom and Ian are currently in Lone Scout Studio working on their ninth album.