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Fanny Returns to Rock, Sharing the Power of Music

Musicians embrace their heritage and their place as senior rockers

spinner image From left to right, Fanny band members bassist Jean Millington, drummer Brie Darling, and lead guitarist June Millington
Jean Millington, left, Brie Darling, and June Millington prepare for the album cover photoshoot for “Fanny Walked the Earth.”
Marita Madeloni

When rock band Fanny formed in California in 1970, the members were in their early 20s and there wasn’t much discussion about being of Filipina heritage. Sisters June and Jean Millington immigrated to California from the Philippines, but their heritage wasn’t a focus. 

“We weren’t thinking about we’re half Filipino,” says Jean Millington, founding member and bassist of Fanny, in an interview with AARP to commemorate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “We were struggling to make it as women in the music business. That did not enter into our consciousness at the time.”

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June Millington, Fanny founding member and lead guitarist, agrees. “We were conditioned to not really think about talking about being Asian American or Filipina American or AAPI,” she says. “We didn’t even mention it. But I’m so glad that it seems to be something that’s important to people now.”

As part of AAPI Heritage Month, Fanny will perform at the Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest — an exhibition of Asian American and Asian films. AARP is a supporter of the performance. A documentary about the band is set to premiere on PBS.

Breaking barriers

Brie Darling’s mother wanted her children to fit in after the family migrated to California from the Philippines, so Darling,  a Fanny drummer, didn’t learn her mother’s language or culture. “I didn’t really know that I was Asian or Asian American,” Darling says, but she knew she was different. She felt there wasn’t room for people who looked like her with her mixture of European and Asian features. “I do feel though that at the time, a lot of minorities, and especially Filipinos and especially Filipino Americans, were not even recognized.”

Fanny — originally the Millingtons, Alice de Buhr and Nickey Barclay — was the first all-female band to release an album on a major record label. The group released four albums with Reprise Records, including Charity Ball (the title song hit number 40 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart in November 1971) and Fanny Hill. “Butter Boy” from the album Rock and Roll Survivors (Casablanca Records) reached number 29 on Billboard’s chart in 1975.

spinner image A Fanny billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in 1970
A Fanny billboard appears on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood promoting a concert at the famed Whiskey release of their first album in 1970.
Linda Wolf

There were various members at different times. Darling joined Fanny as the drummer when de Buhr left in 1973; Patti Quatro played lead guitar after June Millington left the band. Although the group was an inspiration for female rock bands such as The Go-Go's and The Bangles, initially, Fanny wasn't taken seriously in the music business.

“To be a woman musician, I might as well have said, ‘I’m going to walk on the moon,’ ” June Millington says. “There was no room in their sort of mental paradigm for us to walk in with our electric guitars and bass and drums, right? There was no room that we belonged in, so we had to create that room” by continuing to perform.

She thinks some people couldn’t understand Fanny because audiences or critics didn’t want substantial content. “They wanted to see us as kind of airheads who would fulfill their fantasies of whatever. … But we were trying to communicate intelligent rock.”

June Millington pointed to the band’s song “Soul Child,” written mostly by Jean Millington, that talked about taking the contraceptive pill. “She’s talking to the issues of the day,” and the people wanted mindless content from them.

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Recognition in their 70s

Now that they’re in their 70s, there is renewed interest in the band. They’re performing in California, including during CAAMFest at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco on May 20. The PBS debut of the documentary Fanny: The Right to Rock will air May 22.

The band is thrilled with its resurgence, particularly at this stage in their lives.

spinner image Jean Millington, left, June millington and Brie Darling ride in a convertible in California
Jean Millington, left, June Millington and Brie Darling ride in a convertible in California after the release of “Fanny Walked the Earth.”
Bobbi Jo Hart

“It’s like the cherry on top,” says Quatro, 75, “like a big surprise at our age, and I think it’s wonderful.”

“Where else are you going to find rockers our age,” says June Millington, 75, “who are being celebrated for not only having done it but still able to do it. … I’m so glad that we’re again pioneers, this time, you know, on the cutting edge of ageism.”

Darling, 73, has been playing music since she was 14. She still feels involved as a senior in the rock business.

“When I was young, I thought I wasn’t old enough,” she says. “And then when I started getting older, I thought maybe I would get too old. But really, I think that as long as you have the burn to do it, it’s out there.” 

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Music and the mind

Music keeps them going and helps with their well-being. According to 2020 AARP research, casual and focused music listeners “had slightly higher average scores for mental well-being and slightly reduced levels of anxiety and depression compared to people overall.”

For de Buhr, 73, “there’s no feeling in the world like getting up on a stage with other musicians that you know and you trust and you respect and you’ve worked hours and hours and hours with and you deliver that song or that set.”

Jean Millington, 73, agrees. “Music transports you to a different place. It takes you out of the humdrum. … You’re just in a different place when you’re in the force of the music.”

Not only does playing music benefit these musicians’ well-being, they also believe in the power of music to protect memories.

De Buhr keeps her brain active by doing crossword puzzles and reading. She likes being able to figure out what a word or sentence means. “And then to sit down again at the drums in 50 years and get my right foot to remember what it’s supposed to do in a shuffle, when my right hand is doing something else, my left foot is doing something else, my left hand is doing something else and my right foot is going, ‘What about me? What am I supposed to do.’ You know, that’s the brain exercise for me.”

“I can tell you one thing that [music] does for everybody: It causes the left and right brain to work better together,” June Millington says. “If somebody is losing their memory, if you play them something that they loved in their youth, all those memories come flooding back. It’s also memory retention held within the cup of music.”

Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 18, 2023. It has been updated to correct Alice de Buhr's age. She is 73. 

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