Today is the last day of Zappadan, and it marks kind of a special number for its observers, as if Frank Zappa had continued refusing to die, he would have been 80 years old today. I didn’t do a lot of work here this year; the pandemic has kept me busy as I am one of the fortunate Americans who has continued to procure an income throughout. But there has been tweeting, there has been tumblring, and there has been Spotify playlist-making.
If there’s one tune I kept coming back to and often keep coming back to with Zappa, it’s “King Kong.” The best performance of this I have not found available on CD nor mp3 yet, it’s from this BBC show, 1968.
Among the fascinating stuff about this performance is that Bunk Gardner Ian Underwood seems to be plugged in, Eddie Harris style, something I’m not sure they ever did again. And of course, who gets the first big solo? Motorhead, who honks on a bari sax for several bars, though Underwood will use the amp to some effect later.
Then, boy oh boy does Don Preston freak out.
The tune, I feel, does what it says on the tin, as in, if King Kong were approaching you, say, walking across some river to shore, this is the theme song you’d hear.
I’ve looked for years for evidence that Frank Zappa knew that Jaco Pastorius existed.
I have just found it astonishing that their paths never crossed or, more to the point, that Jaco never played for a Frank Zappa outfit.
I’m guessing that Jaco’s reputation as being somewhat of a showboater or his reputation for utilizing certain chemical substances preceded him. Or maybe Jaco was too busy making Joni Mitchell sound even more amazing.
However. This year, I have found a small, but reassuring, nexus. Cue drummer Chad Wackerman. Just for fun, we’ll drop in right at a drum break with Wackerman, Chester Thompson, and Terry Bozzio (this was originally broadcast via The Drum Channel, after all):
“I was a percussion major at Juilliard. I mean this was back in the times of dynasties in music. I thought that I would love it. And all of that derailed for me, it just crashed and burned, when I heard my first Frank Zappa concert. I just suddenly realized, I don’t want to be a timpanist in an orchestra. And I don’t want to be a triangle player in an orchestra, to have to sit in the back row onstage to play my three triangle notes. That was not anything that appealed to me from the moment I heard Frank’s music. And it’s not that I was inexperienced as a listener with other popular music, or music theater or any of that. Frank embodied everything, everything that showed me in that one concert that I wanted to do that. I would sit in my orchestration classes at Juilliard, in my baroch history, these classes taught by the greatest people on Earth. One day, I was in one of the piano practice rooms, and I was absolutely not even allowed to be there because that’s ‘just for the pianists.’ And there I would be trying to recall the melody or the melodic shape of ‘Oh No.’ Nobody was there, and on this fabulous grand piano, I played that piece to the best of my recollection. And I can tell you, probably within 30 seconds, an officer of the school came in, ‘what are you doing?’ I’m just playing this beautiful music. ‘It doesn’t sound like any music you are supposed to be playing here.’ And I said, it’s 20th century music, what are you talking about? It’s by a living composer. ‘Get out.’ And, if you want to hear that piece on the piano, it could live in a concert hall, it was that type of music that he could produce that was a product of everything that was in him, but you couldn’t really categorize it. You couldn’t say oh yeah, that’s rock and roll, because it wasn’t. It’s jazz, no, it really wasn’t. It’s pop music, no, not at all. Well, what the hell is it?
And I knew that it had changed my life. That’s the thing. I didn’t live my life and then look back on it and go yeah, that was the life-changing moment. I walked out of that theater and I was actually disoriented. My whole world had been shaken up.” (Ruth Underwood, in the beautiful documentary, Zappa)
For many years, I have spent some time and space at this point in the Zappadan holiday space celebrating and acknowledging the birthday of one Richard Wayne Penniman, due to his significant influence on Zappa and to rock and roll generally, and of course, his contribution of one of Zappa’s finest sonic achievements, the performance of the Penniman-penned “Directly From My Heart” from the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh, featuring the astonishing Sugarcane Harris on fiddle and lead vocal.
Here’s an early recording of the tune by its tunesmith:
It was 2013 when I came across a vital book, David Kirby’s Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which argues convincingly that while many casual music fans may relegate Little Richard to the novelty act bin, Little Richard was, indeed, one of the most earth-shaking forces in rock. And, Kirby is absolutely right. Before him, everybody crooned. After him, more and more they wanted to howl. Little Richard led the way; he taught everyone else what sort of energy to bring to the party. He was the Architect.
And every year I write this here, and every year, I’d fantasize that there would be a comment from the man himself. This year I don’t even have that. Because this is the first year we observe Dec. 5 without him here to make the planet prettier. Yes, Little Richard stopped refusing to die in May 2020. He was 87.
Of this he was well aware. The linked article above offers a bit of video that cracks me up: Richard at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Watch him state the obvious. Watch the audience’s reaction. Every human in that building gave up the standing O to Little Richard taking his well-deserved credit. Because sometimes the truth just rings out.
Take solace, though: Little Richard was bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993, not to mention four Grammy Hall of Fame recognitions for “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and the album Here’s Little Richard.
In the July 2020 Rolling Stone tribute, they let Richard have the last word, as quoted from his 1971 album, King of Rock and Roll. I’ma swipe the quote and do the same here:
“We got everybody here tonight. We got black folk. We got white folk. We got red folk. We got brown folk. We got yellow folk. We got real folk. We got love folk. I want you all to know that I’m here tonight, and I’ve been talking about love for a long time. Because, honey, I’m the man that started it all. The Emancipator of Soul and the King of Rock & Roll, from Macon, Georgia. I want you to know that I’m here to be offered tonight in the fullness. That the beauty is still on duty. Let it all hang out with the beautiful Little Richard from down in Macon, Georgia. I want you all to know that I am the Georgia Peach. Let all the womenfolk say ‘Whoooooo!’ Let all the men say ‘Ugh! Oooh, my soul.’ A man walked up to me yesterday and said, ‘Little Richard, don’t you know that James Brown can beat you dancing?’ I said, ‘Beat me dancing? But have you ever thought about that he don’t look like me?’ Shut up! I am the star. And don’t you ever forget it.”
I have always thought that the most remarkable thing about Zappa’s “King Kong” is that it sounds like King Kong. It is huge and frightening and potentially deadly, but it is also lumbering and vulnerable. One of the greatest Mothers tracks. I also note that in some performances of this song, they are playing around a lot with the “plugged-in” saxophone sound. I wonder if Zappa listened to Eddie Harris.
Here is a fabulous performance of it for the BBC in 1968. Bari sax honking by Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood.
It’s weird, but I always get a little excited this time of year, this day, as if I’m actually lighting the candles on Little Richard’s birthday cake.
It is a luxury that Little Richard’s birthday falls within the Zappa Solstice. Of course, if the information I read on the Facebook today is correct, so does Louis Cole’s birthday. But that’s another matter altogether. Hi, Louis Cole!
Little Richard, 87 today, penned a song that became one of my favorite Mothers performances ever caught on tape. Track two off of Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the song is called “Directly from my Heart,” and it features Don “Sugarcane” Harris in a blistering fiddle performance. But this thing would not be half what it is without the stellar source material, the song that drags its left foot so beautifully.
This is not going to be a long, drawn-out post. I have done that previously. I do recommend on this auspicious occasion that the average humble music listener might want to take a moment away from one’s gorging diet of Zappa, and Mothers, and Beefheart, and Geronimo Black, and listen to something by Little Richard. And, if you’re curious, settle down with author Richard Kirby’s masterpiece, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock and Roll. It will change your life.
Happy birthday, Georgia Peach. Health and comfort to you.