Jimmy Carl Black – One Of Mother's Finest
By Ron Young
Boogie Magazine, October, 1987
Jimmy Carl Black has got to be the ugliest woman I've ever seen. On the cover of the Mothers of Invention's album We're Only In It For the Money, he's decked out in a formal that your sister might have worn to the prom. He's also got long, flowing curly brown hair, a moustache and a jazzman's goatee. His honker tells you right away that he's "the Indian in the group".
From 1964-1970 Black was one of the drummers in the Frank Zappa-led Mothers of Invention, in every hardcore Zappaphile's opinion the best of Frank's bands.
From Freak Out to 200 Motels and beyond, Black was on all of the Mothers' albums until Zappa disbanded the group in 1970. For the last four-and-a-half years Black has called Austin home. He's played in several Austin blues based bands including Jimmy Carl Black & the Mannish Boys with whom he's just released an album. Currently he's playing and leading a band called Jimmy Carl Black & the Bluz, which he is turning into a band called the Grandmothers. The Grannies will perform pure unadulterated Mothers music from Zappa's heyday.
Black was recently in San Antonio, where he was staying at the home of his manager/soundman Ed Moore. Black had not changed in appearance much in the twenty years since We're Only In It For the Money was recorded, except that he wasn't wearing a formal gown. Looking at least ten years younger than his age of 50, Black easily recounted his musical career of 27 years, including the heady years with Zappa. He talked readily about his desire to lead the Grandmothers, as well as his other job outside music, a house painting gig that he shares with another well-known musician, Arthur ''The God of Hell Fire" Brown.
Jimmy Carl Black was born in the West Texas town of Anthony almost 50 years ago. His father was a full-blood Cheyenne and his mother one-fourth, making him 5/8 Cheyenne Indian. He attended school in New Mexico and like so many other Texas teenage boys got his sexual education in Juarez, Mexico for $2. His family later moved to El Paso.
Although he played trumpet in high school, Black showed only passing interest in music. He enrolled in Texas Western College as a geology major. Like any other teenager growing up in El Paso, Black wanted to leave the town as soon as possible. By joining the Air Force in 1958, Black got his wish. Once in the Air Force he was stationed in Wichita, Kansas. After his honorable discharge from the service Black took a job driving trucks for an electric company. He also bought himself a set of Slingerland drums and began gigging with the local bands. He cut a single with the Keys called "Stretch Pants" (Which he re-recorded on the Mannish Boys LP on Amazing Records) in 1962. By '64 he was a pretty fair drummer, working with every kind of band, playing soul music and country. By that time he was also tired of the Wichita scene and decided to head for Los Angeles.
Two weeks after his move to L.A., Black found himself in an R&B band called the Soul Giants, which was led by future Mother and later Little Feat bassist Roy Estrada.
"We were playing some gigs out there," said Black in his gruff rasp. "The lead signer had just left and we asked a guy who had been hanging out at the bar, Ray Collins, if he wanted to sit in. So he took over. He was great. Then we had to let the guitar player go and Ray said he knew of a guitarist who had just gotten out of jail. His name was Frank Zappa." (According to David Walley's book The Saga of Frank Zappa & the Mothers Of Invention, Zappa was arrested for selling pornographic tapes to an undercover vice detective. Naturally it was a set-up, but he spent ten days in jail and three years on probation.)
"Anyway, Frank played real good and we enjoyed playing with him. After our saxophone player, Davie Coronado, left, Frank took over the band. He told us if we'd just stick with him and play his music he'd made us all rich and famous. Well, so far he's taken care of half of the promise," Black said with a laugh.
Black and the other Mothers Of Invention (Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, Roy Estrada, Ian Underwood) members filed a joint suit against Zappa two years ago, claiming that he owed them $16 million in royalties from the recordings on which they appeared. The suit is still pending.
"Oh, I don't have any hard feelings about Frank. It's just business," explained Black. "In fact I'd still like to do some things with him, even have him produce the new Grandmothers album.
"I want my share of the pie. I'd like to see the lawsuit work out, probably settle it out of court. I haven't talked to Frank, though, since 1981 when the Grandmothers recorded that first LP for Rhino Records."
In 1970 Zappa dismantled the Mothers and Black started his own group called Geronimo Black that released two albums, Geronimo Black for MCA in 1972 and Welcome Back Geronimo Black for the Helios label in 1980. The other Mothers went their separate ways.
"Six months after he broke up the band Frank tried to get us all back together," said Black. "I think Frank realized that he's fucked up. Because since the Mothers he's never had a band quite like that one. It was the best band in the world at the time. We had to be, man. We rehearsed six days a week, eight hours a day when we weren't on the road. We were tight and could play anything. "Frank wrote a lot of music on the road, even in rehearsals because we'd do soundchecks that would last 2-3 hours, so that by the time we got back to L.A. we'd have 30 minutes of new stuff to record for the next album. Some of it was used and some probably resurfaced on Frank's later albums with his other bands. But while I was in the Mothers I was in the best band in the world, performance-wise. I know that.
By 1973-74 Black had tired of the Los Angeles scene and decided to move back to El Paso.
''That's where I'm from. I wanted to go home. Fuck L.A. The music scene's the same everywhere. It just didn't matter. I was tired of the Hollywood bullshit and hustle. Nobody we ever dealt with ever told us the truth. Just managers trying to make money off us, treating us like pieces of meat. But Frank was in a position to set himself up, and he did. After the Mothers broke up he would only sign up musicians as sidemen for his projects. See, when the original band was together we were all equal partners."
Once back in El Paso, Black joined a band called the Mesia Valley Boys, later redubbed Big Sonny & the Low Boys. They recorded one album and two singles. "We were just a typical West Texas boogie band, a lot like ZZ Top. But I was making more money in the band than I ever did in L.A."
After the Low Boys broke up, Black followed his girlfriend out to Albuquerque where she attended college. He then went to work for the Sound Warehouse record chain and in 1980 released the original demo tapes of Geronimo Black on an LP titled Welcome Back Geronimo Black. By 1983 Black decided to move to Austin.
By Black's estimation, there is probably no one else in Texas who has been on as many albums has he has, including Willie Nelson. But after four-and-a-half years of knocking around Austin and having fronted two bands, Black has had to earn his living painting houses instead of drumming. That's why he's decided to return to what he knows best-Mothers Music.
"Well, why not? I can't get the rest of the original Mothers together, although we recorded three albums together as the Grandmothers [Grandmothers Anthology, Volume One and Looking Up Granny's Dress for Rhino, and the Official Grandmothers' Fan Club Talk Album on Panda.] Don Preston and Bunk Gardner have expressed interest in doing it but I'd have to guarantee them big money because they're making more in L.A. as session players. Don, in fact, is scoring the music for a new movie. I don't know where the others are. But anyway, that's why I've decided to form the new Grandmothers." The new Grandmothers will include Lyle Davis on keyboards/vocals, Bro Betts on bass/vocals, Gerry "Eli" Smith on woodwinds, Mike Williams on guitar/vocals, and Black on drums/vocals.
"I think this band is what people want to see. The Zappa stuff," said Black. "There's a lot of Zappa freaks. So why not have a band with one of the original Mothers in it? I want to make this band so tight that Frank could walk into a club with his guitar and plug in and play the music, if he himself remembers it. Just the way we used to do it. I want to play music that means something, man, and Zappa's music is challenging. He's such an innovative writer. He writes great music. And if the people who turn out to see us are Mothers fans, they won't go away dissatisfied. Frank doesn't play this stuff much anymore, and these tunes that we're going to do can make some Mothers fans cry when they hear 'em."
Black runs down 25 songs that the new Grandmothers are already rehearsing, including: "Harder Than Your Husband," "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," "Peaches En Regalia/Oh No," "Electric Aunt Jemima," and "Dog Breath."
Black at 50 is a recovering alcoholic. ("I could have one beer right now and get right back on it. But it's been over two years since I've had a drink. And it's true what they say about Indians. Booze really f__ks us up.") He's got five kids and five grandkids. He also has a dream. Not to become rich – although it wouldn't hurt to win a slice of that $16 million Zappa pie – but to play the kind of music that still means something and make a decent living at it. He's that different drummer that you sometimes have to follow.
"I want to be on the road a lot with the Grandmothers. I want to get a deal with a major record label and not be on a small independent label that can't do anything for you. But I guess being on a small label is better than not being out at all. I keep making records because I don't want people to think I'm dead. My new one with the Mannish Boys is a really good R&B album. I've also got one in the can with Arthur Brown on which we re-do some classic old R&B and blues tunes. Just great. He's a monster singer, Arthur is.
"I still like living in Austin, even if you can't make a living here as a musician. I want to get something happening here because I'm from Texas, but I'd just as soon move to Europe. There's a lot of Mothers fans over there. I'll just go wherever it works. That's the key. I'm not ready to start settling for anything else just because it may be easier. Not yet."
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