Frank Zappa Talks About His Early Doo-Wop Days & Says, Radio Today Is Crap!
By J.P. Cantillon
Sh-Boom, March, 1990
The name Frank Zappa does not immediately conjure up visions of rhythm and blues, but in fact the Lancaster, Califomia, native got his start in the music business writing, singing and producing doo-wop and R&B duets (with Ray Collins). Remember "How's Your Bird?" and "The World's Greatest Sinner" by Baby Ray & the Ferns, or the Heartbreakers' "Everytime I See You," both from 1963? Well, Frank Zappa was on those records. The 1961 West Coast hit "Memories of El Monte" by the Penguins (of "Earth Angel" fame) was written and produced by Zappa. In 1964, the Hogs sang "Loose Lips Sinc Ships" for the Hanna-Barbera label – yep, Frank again. Then there's Bob Guy, whose "Letters From Jeepers" will be loved long after the Platters are forgotten (but not until then). You guessed it – Bob was Frank Zappa.
Even after he and Ray Collins formed the Mothers of Invention, they couldn't keep away from their roots. For example, "Plastic People" on their second LP, Absolutely Free, was a takeoff on Richard Berry's 1956 recording of "Louie Louie." A later album, Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, has gone down in history as the greatest doo-wop parody – but it was excellent doo-wop nonetheless, with songs like "Deseri" and "Jelly Roll Gum Drop."
Along with such '60s groups as the Rolling Stones, Them, Traffic and Led Zeppelin, Zappa's Mothers of Invention expanded rhythm & blues in ways never previously imagined, by incorporating classical music, swing jazz and other diverse styles. But Zappa was never content to just push the boundaries; educated in chamber music and orchestra percussion and inspired by revolutionary composer Edgard Varèse, Frank took the R&B form, shook it, and stretched its premise so out of shape that the music became something else. Frank's first album, Freak Out (1966), has been credited by Paul McCartney as the blueprint for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Now busy with the digital remastering of his early work for release on compact disc (on Rykodisc, Pickering Wharf, Bldg C-3G, Salem, MA 01970), Frank is awaiting the television debut of Normal Life, a sitcom based on his family and starring his daughter Moon Unit and son Dweezil. And thanks to his newfound fame as a spokesman against censorship, he says he's even contemplating whether to run for President of the United States!
SH-BOOM: When were you first exposed to rhythm and blues, particularly the doo-wop sound?
ZAPPA: I can't say the first time I ever heard a doo-wop record – and we'll use that definition to be quintet or quartet music or that kind of harmony – but the first time I heard anything that resembled rhythm and blues was on a radio in my parents' car. We were driving around and I was turning the channel and I came across this unbelievable noise that I liked right away. I believe the song was "Work With Me, Annie" [by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters]. My parents went crazy and forced me to turn it off.
SH-BOOM: And you were hooked from that first time?
ZAPPA: Yeah. I said, "That sounds good to me. All right, this is something I would like to do." I didn't give a [beep] about "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" Who needs that? I spent the next few days going through the dial, trying to find that sound. Then I went to a record store to see if I could find out what this mysterious new phenomenon was. I bought a couple of 78s. I didn't even have a record player.
SH-BOOM: Do you remember the first record you bought?
ZAPPA: Yeah, my first was "Riot in Cell Block #9" by the Robins. [The Robins on this 1955 release were an early version of the Coasters; the lead singer on "Riot" was Richard Berry, who later wrote "Louie Louie."]
SH-BOOM: Were you playing instruments at the time?
ZAPPA: I played drums until I was 12, but not like a drum set. I was playing orchestral percussion, and I didn't change to guitar until I was 18, so I had a little bit of music in me. I wasn't a dancer, so I didn't buy the stuff because I liked the beat. I just liked the way it sounded.
SH-BOOM: The way the harmonies came together.
ZAPPA: Yeah. But see, I liked blues – just guys singing the blues and playing the guitar – as well as the group harmony records, which is not true of other collectors. There are people who like doo-wop music but they can't stand to listen to the Howlin' Wolf [records], and vice versa.
SH-BOOM: What radio stations in Los Angeles were you listening to then?
ZAPPA: Well, the big-time disc jockeys were Dick Hugg, who was called Huggie Boy, Art Laboe, Johnny Otis and Hunter Hancock. My favorite was Johnny Otis because he had the best taste in the records that were played. [Otis was also a bandleader whose biggest hit was 1958 's "Willie & the Hand Jive."] Sometimes, when the weather was right, you could pick up Wolfman Jack out of Texas. I wasn't that wild about what he played, because it really seemed like people were just getting money to play things on the air. In fact, one night I heard him say, "If you want me to make your record a hit, you just send $25 to the Wolfman, and I'll play your record."
SH-BOOM: Were you writing then?
ZAPPA: I didn't start writing rock 'n' roll songs until I was in my 20s. I was writing chamber music since I was 14.
SH-BOOM: Was your exposure to chamber music through your parents?
ZAPPA: No, I just ... it's really twisted. I'd never seen an orchestra score, but I'd seen some piano music. I had art ability when I was a kid, so I thought, well, I'll just start drawing music, I'll find out what it sounds like. Just as naive as that, and I just started drawing music.
SH-BOOM: When did you first compose a doo-wop song?
ZAPPA: Probably it would be "Fountain of Love" or "Love of My Life" [both from the Cruising With Ruben & the Jets LP]. At that time I was working with Ray Collins, who could sing all this kind of stuff. If you're a composer, you need a vehicle to bring your music to life. If you write for instruments, you need somebody who can play it, and if you write vocals, you need somebody who can sing it. It's fortunate that I had Ray Collins, because if I hadn't met him, I wouldn't have had any way to move into that kind of songwriting.
SH-BOOM: Do you go to the doo-wop shows playing around town nowadays?
ZAPPA: No, I don't go to concerts. I try to avoid them.
SH-BOOM: And I understand you don't listen to the radio either. '
ZAPPA: What's to listen to?
SH-BOOM: What was the turning-off point for you?
ZAPPA: 1962, roughly.
SH-BOOM: Was that because of creeping commercialism?
ZAPPA: I remember being delighted driving around Cucamonga and turning on the radio in '62 and hearing Them sing "Mystic Eyes." [Editor's note: Them's "Mystic Eyes" was released in 1965.] I thought we had just reached a new high in radio broadcasting. I had never heard anything like that on the [beepin'] radio. Soon thereafter, it was bland, it was boring .... The broadcast industry is a very big disappointment.
Broadcasting in the U.S. refuses newness. You could have the best new idea for music in the world, and you won't get it on the radio [today], because the people who program the stations want to have only the things which sound alike, so that the whole audio package isn't disturbing. It's just going to be one endless stream of commercial nonsense, 24 hours a day.
SH-BOOM: Do you have an idea why oldies and classic rock formats are so popular these days?
ZAPPA: It's an advertising decision. In fact, what they have done, they haven't really given you the '50s and '60s music – they've given you the smell of it, and they've shown you an automobile while you listen to it. They are just trying to deliver a positive stimulus to your brain because you have a positive recognition of the good old days from that song, and while you are having a little positive twitch, they show you a product. That's what's happening. It has been absolutely perverted. That's all it is. That's your '50s and '60s revival, and mark my words, you wait 20 years down the road and you're going to be seeing pictures of cars with Tone Loc rapping away in the background for that positive buzz.
J.P. Cantillon lives in Santa Barbara.
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