The Mothers Of Invention

By Phil McMullen

Ptolemaic Terrascope, Autumn 1992

Few bands down the years have attracted as much media attention in one way or another as Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, and another potted history of the band is about as redundant as replicating reissue album sleeve notes in a glossy magazine and calling it a headline feature. That's not our style; and it would be insulting the intelligence of our readership to suggest that they don't know the broad details of the band and their history already. However, the recent news that Billy James of the band Ant Bee was working with several ex-Mothers and Grandmothers caused a flurry of interest at Terrascope Towers on two counts, initially that such a fascinating current-day artist (and the subject already of a feature in the magazine) should have linked arms with such legendary figures as Bunk Gardner, Don Preston and Jimmy Carl Black with a view to creating new music very much in the freeform avant-garde Mothers-day way, and secondly that here was a chance to chat to each one of them in an informal way and perhaps bring out a few points that the historians had missed in their endless reworkings of features, books, articles and magazines.

      We're going to start the series by hearing from the affable Jimmy Carl Black, a.k.a. Jimmy Inkinish, drummer on every one of the Mothers of Invention LPs from 1964 to 1971 (as well as Frank Zappa's 1980 album You Are What You Is) and subsequently leader of his own band, Geronimo Black, as well as being a founder member of that loose yet tight aggregation of former Zappa sidesmen The Grandmothers, a band that continues playing to discerning audiences to this day. His own recording career started in 1962 with a band called The Keys in Kansas, although we'll step back through the years initially to the point where Jimmy first became interested in music. Over to you, Jimmy Carl Black:


    My musical career started in 1958 in Kansas, where I was a member of the US Airforce. I think that's when I started playing drums – musical influences at the time were the blues mainly; Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and of course all of the R&B artists were high on my list. Plus I was into some jazz, and some country music. Just a little bit of Country music.

    In 1964 I moved to California, and two weeks after arriving I met up with Roy Estrada. Together we formed a band called The Soul Giants, played around for maybe a couple of months and then Ray Collins joined the band as lead singer. Right after that our guitar player, Ray Hunt, got drafted, so we were left looking for another guitarist. Ray Collins said he knew a guy that he'd done some work with before, Frank Zappa, who had been spending a little time in jail in San Bernardino County for selling pornographic tapes to the vice squad. Anyway, Frank came down and tried out with the band and liked what we did, and we liked what he did, so he joined. A month later the saxophone player, Davey Coronado, left the band which left the position of leadership wide open. Frank took over as leader, and his very words were "If you will play my music, I will make you rich and famous."

    Well, he made us famous.


    We called ourselves The Blackouts at first, and then we changed our name to Captain Glasspack and his Magic Mufflers for one gig and finally settled on the name The Mothers. MGM Records, when we signed the record deal, were the people who changed our name to The Mothers of Invention.

    Our first album was 'Freak Out'. I have fond memories of that record. We recorded it at TTG Studios, and I think we recorded the whole thing in three days, which shows how well rehearsed the band was. Tom Wilson, the producer, had never really met the band and was quite shocked with the material we were playing. 'Who Are The Brain Police' and 'You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here' were the type of songs that he wasn't exactly ready for. On the last night of recording we had $500 worth of rented percussion equipment, went into the studios and invited the freaks down to record with us. That's when we recorded sides three and four. Mac Rebannac, who later became Dr. John, played keyboards on the album although he didn't get credited on the sleeve; Paul Butterfield came down and played with us; Kim Fowley sang 'Help I'm A Rock' – it was a fun trip.

    'Absolutely Free', our second album, was also done at TTG, about five months after 'Freak Out' came out. Just before that happened Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Billy Mundi joined the band, and Elliot Ingber left. Also, Jim Fielder, subsequently in the Buffalo Springfield, joined as second guitarist for 'Absolutely Free'. 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It' and 'Call Any Vegetable' were written while we were in Hawaii just before 'Freak Out' came out, and we finished the album in New York. The band moved to New York to do the Garrick Theatre, and while we were living in New York in 1967 we went to Mayfair Studios and recorded 'We're Only In It For The Money'; I believe that album was finished at Apostolic, where we also recorded 'Uncle Meat' and 'Ruben And The Jets'.

    'Burnt Weeny Sandwich' was recorded in various places, including a lot of live recordings, as was 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh'. For the last two years of the band, we recorded every show that we played and recently Frank has put out those 'You Can't Do That On Stage Any More' samplers, one of which I understand from a friend of mine has about thirty minutes of the original Mothers of Invention live stuff on.


    The Mothers of Invention played the Garrick Theatre in New York for six months, two shows a night, six nights a week and on Fridays and Saturdays we would do three shows a night. In order to keep from getting totally bored of playing this place, we started to get theatrical ... There were several things that happened, but I think one of the best ones .that Ray Collins and I pulled off was the one with the tall giraffe. These girls in the audience had given us a tall model of a giraffe. We ran a plastic tube from behind the piano on stage along the floor, taped it to the leg of the giraffe, ran it up through the stomach and out through the tail and pointed it, the tail end of the giraffe, at the audience. Frank, by the way, didn't have any idea we were doing this. We'd gotten several cases of pressurised whipped cream and in the middle of the show, when Frank was doing some frenzied thing or another, we started squirting this whipped cream out through the tube. It squirted over at least the first three rows of people and since it was coming out of the giraffe's ass they thought ... well, they thought it was a pretty funny thing. And I did too. The rest of the audience just couldn't believe it.

    One time we had three marines up on stage. This was at the height of the Vietnam war. There were these three marines who didn't want to go to Vietnam, so we invited 'em upon stage and Frank had them ripping the heads off baby dolls yelling 'kill, kill, kill' – 'Life' magazine was there filming the whole thing, so needless to say they got out of the service.

    The European tour of 1968 was probably the most memorable of all the tours that the Mothers ever did. One thing that happened, and it was actually quite frightening at the time, was in Berlin. We had been on tour for about a month and finally got to Berlin where we were to play at the Sportspalast, a place where Hitler used to make regular speeches during the war. The S.D.S., Students for a Democratic Society, had contacted Frank and asked him to get the audience excited that night and then tell them to all go burn down the Allied supply dump. Frank informed them that we were a musical band and we weren't into doing that kind of thing, plus of course we wanted to go back to the United States after the tour and if we'd done something like that we would have never gotten to return home. So they told us that in that case, they would destroy our show.

    We were about 15 minutes into the show when we started to get showered with eggs. Then came these green pears that were like baseballs hitting us all and we didn't know where they were coming from. There was 10,000 people in that hall, and it was jam-packed. After the pears came a can of green paint; it went all over my drums, all over me, and Roy Estrada had this pair of white pants on which immediately turned green: It was then that they started ripping the iron railings from around the balconies, ready to throw those down onto the band. At this point Herb Cohen kicked the thing out of the way just as they threw it and instead of dropping onto us, it took out the first few rows of people. I mean, this thing came crashing down on a lot of people. We got off the stage pretty fast and went back to the dressing room but we couldn't get in because all the seventy or eighty security guards were hiding in there. Pretty soon a message came down that if we didn't get out on stage to finish the concert, they were going to come and get us. So we went. And we played the last part of the show with about 200 S.D.S. members up on stage with us – we couldn't even see each other to play. We eventually finished the show – and got the hell out of Berlin.


    Concerning the break up of the original Mothers; we had just got back from an East Coast tour, we'd been back about a week when I called Frank to ask him some question or another. We talked for a while and pretty soon he said "oh, by the way – I've decided to break up the band. You guys are now unemployed." I thought that was really cold, but that's the way Frank was. It wasn't a very pleasant experience at the time – we felt we were being very successful and didn't think that was called for, but hey ...

    I think that Frank considered that the Mothers of Invention weren't good enough musicians to do the things that he wanted to do at that particular point. I don't think that was true, but then again I wasn't writing the songs. I still think that if we had stayed together we could still be there just like the Rolling Stones, and made a lot of very, very good records along the way. In fact, the Mothers of Invention were really the only band that Frank Zappa ever had. All the rest of the guys have just been sidesmen. We weren't sidesmen – we were partners.

    Ray Collins quit in New York when we were doing 'Absolutely Free' and went to California for five or six months. Don Preston quit for about three months, and then they came back around the time that we started doing 'We're Only In It For The Money'. Ray was in the band through to 'Ruben And The Jets' and part of 'Uncle Meat' , and then he quit again for the last time. Around then Lowell George came into the band – Lowell had a band in California called The Factory, guys that had opened for us on several occasions. Lowell was very young at the time. He stayed with us for about eight months, just up until the time that we went to Europe. In 1969 Frank gave him his walking papers so to speak, told him that he thought Lowell ought to start his own band – I told him at the time that if he did, he should call it 'Little Feet' because he had little bitty feet. And, as it turned out, that's pretty much what happened.



    When the Mothers broke up, I formed a band called Geronimo Black. The band was named after my youngest son, whose name is Geronimo – Geronimo Black. Bunk Gardner and Tjay Cantrelli were in the band, also Denny Walley who went on to play with Frank for three or four years. We did our first record in 1972 with Uni Records which is part of MCA. I thought it was an excellent album and the reason it didn't happen was that three weeks after the record was released, they fired the President of Uni, Russ Reagan. He was the guy that signed Geronimo Black and was actually in charge of us – it was too bad, because we could have gone a long way had he not been fired. The second album, 'Welcome Back Geronimo Black', I put out in 1980 – it was lifted from tapes that we had done in the studio prior to signing to MCA, actually it was the tapes that had got us the deal with the record company and I always thought that they were even better produced and played on than the record that we did in the studio. Plus, part of that album is recordings that Denny Walley did of me on vocals, three songs that we did before I left California and moved back to Texas.



    In 1975, Frank Zappa was on tour. One of the people on the tour was Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet, who I've known since I met him in 1964 with Frank. They passed through El Paso on tour and I went and sat in with them. I got talking to Don and he mentioned that he was going to Europe later that Summer and asked if I would play drums for him. So officially, I joined the Magic Band in the Summer of 1975. We played the Knebworth festival in England and several other gigs, the last of which was at The Roxy in Los Angeles – and that's when I left. I couldn't really handle it. I loved playing with him, I learned how to play the drums backwards and he was a fun guy to play with but, he didn't have that much work and I wasn't about to move back to California. There were a couple of albums that came out of that, both bootlegs, but no commercial albums came out of the time that I was with him. I still think that he is the most avant-garde player in the world, and always will be. He's also a very dear friend of mine – and a heck of an artist.



    When I first moved to Austin, an old friend of mine was already living there. His name is Arthur Brown; I had done several gigs with the Mothers at which we had played with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Arthur and I formed a painting company, painting houses for a living, for probably six years together, and in 1989 I put together some musicians and went into the studio to do ten R&B classics, things like 'Unchain My Heart' and 'Smokestack Lightning' and 'Hound Dog', with Arthur Brown's interpretation of those songs. We put out an album together called 'Brown, Black & Blue' which is now kind of a collector's item, a very good record on Blue Wave Records in the USA. By the way, there's a picture CD around of that.



    In 1980, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, myself, Tom and Walt Fowler and Tony Duran took on tour to Europe a band called The Grandmothers. We also did some gigs in the States. That band lasted for probably a couple of years, several tours of Europe, and then I moved to Austin and about five years ago formed the present day Grandmothers, with Roland St. Germaine on guitar, keyboards and vocals – actually, he's the musical director of the band, does all the arranging and what-not – Ener Bladezipper on bass and vocals, Linda Valdmets on violin and vocals and Gerry Eli Smith on woodwinds and vocals. Bunk Gardner will also be joining us on our next tour, so we'll be a six piece band. We do about thirty of the old Mothers of Invention songs, at least two songs from each of the original Mothers albums, and then about 60% of our show is original material which I would have to say sounds an awful lot like how the original Mothers sounded! Highly arranged, witty, a lot of social comment We're recording our own CD album which will contain all original material, some of my own and various other songs that we do. It'll be a very, very tasty album I hope.



      About a month and a half ago I got a call from Bunk Gardner saying that a guy called Billy James was interested in me doing a little recording on one of his songs for an upcoming album that he's working on. I of course said that I'd do it, and Billy sent me a tape that he wanted me to do a talking part on, a song called 'Lunar Egg Clips Runs Amuck'. I did the recording and sent it back to him, and I was very, very impressed with the type of music that he's doing. It was very Mothers oriented, and the fact that he uses some of the best musicians that I've ever heard and that the material is definitely avant-garde – I enjoyed doing this very much and I'm looking forward to doing several other recording projects with him, possibly playing on tour with him and the Grandmothers.


Jimmy Carl Black is moving to northern Italy in October of this year, to accompany his wife who has a teaching position over there. He'd be interested in working with record companies as a producer and with bands who are looking for a drummer – anyone, in fact, who is willing to pay him to play. There's also the chance of some Grandmother dates in Europe – so watch out for this man, he's a remarkable musician and an equally remarkable story teller ...


Written, produced and directed by Phil – with thanks to Jimmy himself of course, and to Billy James for helping to set it all up. up.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)