|Influences: Patti Austin, Nancy Wilson, Earth, Wind & Fire
“At age 10 my grandmother presented me with the Martin ukulele my grandfather gave her when she was 16. I learned to play it from tablature books.” McClellan then graduated to her grandfather’s guitar – a 1910 Gibson that he played as a boy in the Prohibition-era “blind pigs” of Detroit. McClellan and brother Bryce took piano lessons and guitar lessons. Brother Craig received a very basic drum set their grandfather brought back from the renowned Manny’s music store in New York City.
“When I was in 9th grade I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and though I was not screaming over them, I decided I wanted to have a band like that. But it would be all girls. I had never seen or heard of an all-girl band, but I didn’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be screamed over, too,” McClellan recalls. “I was probably born with the ability to think outside the box…. at the age of 12 I knew I didn’t want kids or housewifehood; I knew I would do other things, and two years later I launched the Debutantes.”
McClellan asked a couple of girlfriends who were eager Beatle fans if they wanted to be in a band. She taught one of them to play guitar chords. Craig taught her what he learned at his drum lessons, and McClellan in turn taught the beats to the other friend.
In the band’s infancy, The Debutantes played “D.J. dances” around the Detroit area. They were held in halls or roller rinks, hosted by the disc jockeys of WKNR “Keener” radio. Happy just to hear their names mentioned on the airwaves, the bands received no pay. Just $5 gas money. “We did not have drivers’ licenses so my mom was always there to chauffeur us and all our equipment, and help carry it, too,” says McClellan. “And even though it was a financial stretch, my parents bought my first electric guitar, my amp, and even a bass – because our first bass player didn’t even have one.”
McClellan had the ability early on to “lift” songs from the radio, a process that consisted of cassette-taping tunes and quickly figuring out the guitar chords that corresponded with the lyrics. “My teenaged brain had a huge capacity for memorizing lyrics and music. No music stands or lead sheets needed then.”
“Our parents forced us to graduate from Royal Oak Kimball, Osborn, and St. Cyril high schools when we had our hearts set on dropping out so we could tour full-time,” quips McClellan. “We played clubs, showrooms, resorts, and special events across the States and Canada… and at the military venues, we did get the ‘Beatles treatment’…. we really were screamed over.”
Upon returning stateside, the Debutantes were dis-“band”-ed. Late in 1969, McClellan left Michigan for good and relocated in Las Vegas with a solo singing engagement already booked.
One of the most popular mainstays of Vegas were the Moulin Rouge type production extravaganzas, and several (“Les Girls”, “Casino de Paris”, “Tower Sweets”, “Bare Touch of Vegas”, “Les Sizzle”) were produced by mogul Fredric Apcar. McClellan did a substitute turn in “Bare Touch” at the Stardust, and later landed a coveted spot on the Apcar roster as featured vocalist in “Les Sizzle” at Harrah’s. “Sammy Davis Jr. invited the whole Les Sizzle cast to his penthouse suite for his home-made spaghetti dinner,” recalls McClellan. “He traveled with a full set of cooking gear.”
The Harrah’s gig lead to a 3-year solo spot in the main showroom at the Dunes in “Casino de Paris”. “My first time backed by a big band – there’s nothing like it,” she says. “I was fortunate to have my big band charts written by arranger Brent Price, known as the ‘best ears in Vegas’.” The 7-year partnership with Price gave McClellan a musical theory foundation, enabling her to read and write lead sheets. “Musicians considered me a musician, not just a ‘chick singer’.” McClellan also did a spot on “Celebrity Cabaret”, a television show taped at the Dunes hosted by Frank Sinatra, Jr. [see video clip – Price is conducting from the drums.]
Despite the glamour and excitement of the lifestyle, McClellan became painfully aware of the behind-the-scenes treatment of animals used in entertainment. She recalls, “‘Tanya the Baby Elephant’ at Circus-Circus was abused by her handlers and I learned that she wasn’t the first ‘Tanya’. The previous baby Tanya died while in their care. In the Dunes show, we were not allowed backstage or in our dressing rooms when The Fercos were on stage… they were a Czech family acrobat troupe who decided to become a Siegfried & Roy clone with lions and tigers. We were told they didn’t want anyone to see how the ‘magic’ tricks were done, but I feel it was so we wouldn’t see how the animals were treated.” At the Stardust, concerned “Lido de Paris” cast members secretly video-taped Bobby Berosini beating his orangutans with lead pipes and the case was brought to public attention by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Ruthless circus kingpin Kenneth Feld, owner of Ringling Bros. Circus and Siegfried & Roy, defended Berosini and the beatings.
Acting took McClellan to Los Angeles where she was cast on “The Young and the Restless”, “Ryan’s Hope”, and in some independent films. It was in L.A. that she met television music producer-pianist John Toben. McClellan sang with Toben and his band at posh venues such as the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Hotel Bel-Air, and the Laguna Beach Ritz-Carlton.
In addition to the arts, McClellan has long been involved in social causes and has actively campaigned for the rights of all exploited groups: civil rights, women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, anti-anti-semitism, and particularly for non-human animals. Campaigns have included non-violent civil disobedience, arrests, court appearances, and visits to jail. “I’m still hoping someone who has photos of my arrests will contact me. They would be a nice touch for this site.”
McClellan’s husband, Simon Oswitch, co-founded Animal Emancipation, Inc. at UC Santa Barbara. Oswitch teaches college level Philosophy and Religious Studies, courses that include philosophical, societal, and religious views on our treatment of non-human animals. In 2006, McClellan co-founded and became spokesperson for “Citizens Against Covance”, a grass-roots organization that opposes the building of a new facility for an extremely controversial contract lab that has a long history of secrecy, deception, and violations of federal law. [www.stopcovance.com] McClellan and Oswitch have been ethical vegans since 1988.
|“Home Girls” [the casts] (1964 – 1969)
- 1964: Jan McClellan (lead), Lynn Hawkins (rhythm), Diane Abray (drums)
- 1964-65: McClellan, Hawkins, Abray, Corinne Helco (bass)
- 1965-66: McClellan, Abray, Mary Linton (rhythm), Carol Linton (bass)
- 1966-67: McClellan, the Lintons, Jino Chominski (drums)
- 1967-68: McClellan, Chominski, Darlene Groncki (keyboards), Chris Janssen (bass)
- 1968-69: McClellan, Groncki, Janssen, Denise Mandell (drums)
- 1969: McClellan, Sue Lade (bass), Lynne Serridge (keyboards), Leigh Serridge (drums)
Influences: Beatles, Motown, Vanilla Fudge, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Blood, Sweat & Tears
The Debutantes came on the Detroit scene in 1964 soon after Jan McClellan, 14, watched the first Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and was struck with the idea of having a band in the Beatles genre, but all girls. McClellan recruited two friends and taught them to play guitar and drums.
Before they even had amplified instruments, the Debutantes auditioned for the Michigan State Fair Teen Scene and scored a spot in the program. McClellan’s grandfather, Fred Collins, a General Motors PR exec and former reporter, made a call to a photographer and got the girls a photo shoot to promote the Fair. It took place in the old house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit that served as the recording studio known as Hitsville USA. As it turned out, the shoot also included the legendary Marvin Gaye and a skinny young Little Stevie Wonder, who had just released “Fingertips Part II”. Hitsville later became Motown.
The band made return appearances at the Michigan State Fair Grounds Music Shell, sharing the marquee with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha & the Van Dellas, Buddy Rich & His Orchestra, Buddy Greco, Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66, “?”& the Mysterians, and The Rationals. The Debutantes appeared in the Music Shell one last time for the entertainment of the National Guardsmen when the 1967 Detroit race riots had the city under siege.
The spectacular Detroit Auto Show at Cobo Hall saw the Debs opening for such names as Della Reese, the Woody Herman Orchestra with Jake Hanna, and Bobby Vinton. In smaller venues they were frequently paired with Bob Seger and the Last Heard or The Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”). The Debutantes were frequent guests on the American Bandstand-type show, “Swingin’ Time” on CKLW-TV, with hosts Robin Seymour and Tom Shannon. They also appeared on the syndicated show “Upbeat” from Cleveland, along with Spanky & Our Gang and the legendary B.B. King.
The band toured most of the 50 states, Canada, and the Bahamas. In 1968 they booked 4 months in Germany, entertaining U.S. troops at Air Force and Army clubs. They played some civilian clubs as well, including the Berlin Playboy Club and the famed Star Club in Hamburg where the Beatles first gained international acclaim.
1969 brought another 4-month tour, to the excitement of troops stationed throughout Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Okinawa, and Japan. But the realities of Far East tour were unexpected. Upon landing in Vietnam, the Korean talent point-person asked to see the band’s passports and once they were in his hands, he declined to return them. McClellan recalls, “ ‘Mr. Kim’ explained the way he does business is like this: once he deemed we had performed enough shows to reimburse him for our plane fares – which we had believed were included in the arrangements – he would return our passports and we were free to leave. I did not like this sudden change of rules and thought it smacked of slavery.” With this development, coupled with the war atmosphere, culture shock, intense heat, and the onset of water-borne illness, McClellan launched a futile attempt at getting an early reprieve by pleading with the U.S. Embassy and President Nixon to intervene, but the effort yielded no response. “The troops greatly appreciated our appearances, but it was very difficult being there and we desperately wanted to come home. While traveling to bases in trucks we were shot at, we were shot at being transported by helicopter, and one of our hotels suffered a hit when, fortunately, we were not in our rooms.” A singer in another group was killed when she stepped to the microphone, directly in the line of fire of an assassin targeting a high-ranking officer.
Upon returning to the U.S., The Debutantes went home to Michigan and Wisconsin and were officially dis-“band”-ed in late 1969.