Born on May 17, 1941, in Butte, Montana, Malcolm Hale died at 27 years and 166 days old on October 30, 1968, in Chicago, Illinois. His untimely death was attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, exacerbated by a nasty case of bronchitis, apparently caused by a faulty space heater and a poorly ventilated bedroom. He was an original and founding member and lead guitarist of the pop-rock group Spanky and Our Gang. He played not only lead guitar, but trombone, other horns, and keyboards, and was a harmony vocalist as well. Not much is known about his personal life, but his story is essentially the story of a band.
Anyone who was alive and young in 1967 can understand why the group Hale was a vital part of meant so much. The summer of that year saw a huge explosion of music, culture, and art the likes of which had never been seen before. The songs and albums of 1967 wafted over the airwaves and into the consciousness of those who were listening, and most of Spanky and Our Gang’s big hits made their debut that momentous year. Their first album was released in August of the summer of love, and it contained “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” and “Lazy Day,” both of which became successes for the fledgling band. Hale was not a writer, but his ability to play many instruments and provide vocal harmonies and arrangements made him an essential member. Along with Spanky McFarlane, he was a co-founder and guiding spirit in the short life of the group. In the spring of 1968 their second full-length LP came out, and it contained 2 more huge hits – “Sunday Morning” and “Like to get to Know You.”
The summer of 1968 saw the release of a single called “Give a Damn” which became a sore spot in some ways for the band, although the controversy gave them a lot of publicity. Many radio stations at the time would not play the song simply because of the word “damn” in the title – hard to believe in these modern times. But in addition, the song’s subject – racial equality – was one that many did not want to hear. The use of a recording of an angry black man’s voice saying something indecipherable at the end added to the song’s problems, which nevertheless was minor hit. The band sang the song live on the Smother’s Brothers tv show, drawing criticism and complaints from President Nixon, among others. The cultural lines had been drawn, and Spanky’s group knew which side they were on.
When he died in the fall of 1968 at the age of 27, the band’s career came to a screeching halt as a result of the unexpected Malcolm Hale death. Besides all of his musical abilities, he had apparently been the major force holding them together, and without him they quickly disintegrated. Within a few months Spanky and Our Gang were officially over, and their music became interwoven into the tapestry of a magical era. Their legacy remains strong, of course, and a replay of any of their well-known songs can trigger a flashback for an aging hippie – a good one, of colored balloons and walks in the park, on a long-forgotten summer day in 1967.
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