George Duke and Frank Zappa's Mothers

As told to Charles Waring

Mojo, August 2010


I was working with my trio with [violinist] Jean-Luc Ponty in a small rock club in Los Angeles called Thee Experience on Sunset Boulevard, and Frank Zappa came in.[1] I was steeped in jazz so I didn't know who Frank was, but I knew this could be a turning point in my life so I played a Fender Rhodes piano with my feet, my head, anything I could come up with. And Frank kind of liked it. He wanted to do an album with Jean-Luc, who said, "I'll do it if I can bring my piano player," 'cos Jean-Luc wanted somebody from the jazz world with him. So I worked with Frank on Jean-Luc's album King Kong [2] and at the end of '69 I did a gig with him at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles at UCLA. It was with a big orchestra. [3]

About a month later I was at my mum's house for Sunday lunch. The phone rang. She picked up and said to me, "There's somebody named Zuper on the phone." I said, "Zuper? Who the heck is Zuper? Oh, you mean Zappa." So I picked up the phone and he said "I want you to join the Mothers." I said, "The who?" He said, "No, not The Who, the Mothers." I didn't even know who The Who was. I thought he was putting me on, but he sent me a ticket and asked me to see him the following week so he could check me out to see if I was cool. We went in the studio and recorded Chunga's Revenge.


Frank was an interesting character. He didn't take himself too seriously, but he was a perfectionist. He knew what he was talking about, what he was looking for. He was the first musician I ever met that seemed to know as much about the technical side of recording as he did about the artistic side. As a bandleader he was a taskmaster – very tough. If you didn't play parts right, you were in trouble. He'd call you out on stage. I got called out once: "George has made a mistake and he's going to play it for you by himself." So I had to play this piece with a lot of notes in it as a punishment. I never made a mistake again.

I learned so much with Frank. When I joined the band I was a musical elitist. I was a jazz player and that's all I wanted to know. The guy was so intelligent that I figured out I needed to be there to learn something. He got me to play synthesizers. He would tell me, "Music is a white canvas, you can paint any picture on it you want."

I left in 1970 after we had cut 200 Motels [4] to join Cannonball Adderly's band. Frank didn't like it but he understood -- Cannon was a jazz hero of mine. I stayed with him until 1973, but rejoined Frank's band – he paid well. I stayed until 1976, when I formed a band with Billy Cobham. But my time with Frank was invaluable, because he tore the musical elitism out of me. And thank God he did.

1. The correct date is September 1969, not November 1969 (C. Ulrich)

2. October 1969 (C. Ulrich)

3. May 15, 1970 (C. Ulrich)

4. February 1971 (C. Ulrich)