Ruth Underwood, nee Komanoff, born 23 May 1946, a student of Ithaca College under Warren Benson and at Juilliard under Saul Goodman, no, not THAT Saul Goodman, was one of the most formidable musicians in the Zappa universe.
Now, listen to Ruth explain Zappa’s take on music theory. It’s darned interesting.
But, look, let’s be honest. I’m actually writing this post because I came across a photograph of Ruth Underwood looking damned hot, and I wanted to use it.
“Frank’s good. But Beefheart is the real thing.” (Jimmy Carl Black)
On December 17, 2010, again as we celebrated the rich mosaic of a holiday known as Zappadan, Don Van Vliet, or Don Glen Vliet, or Captain Beefheart, became among the legions of the Zappa cosmos that finally stopped refusing to die.
I must admit that I do not know enough about this Beefheart character. I know that Frank Zappa loved it when he sang. And I know where there is a good Beefheart documentary on YouTube.
I also know that watching the documentary makes me want to own and listen to more Beefheart.
Such as the Magic Band’s first album, Safe as Milk:
I didn’t do Ray Collins yet? No? How the hell did that happen?
First of all, there’s an exercise I always have to perform when talking about this fellow.
This is Ray Collins.
This is Roy Estrada.
This is an important distinction and one I often find difficult to recall. Ray, Roy, you know. Not to mention that they both sang in kind of high voices. But Ray Collins did so rather more adroitly than did Roy Estrada. And, not to mention that Ray Collins will not be in jail until age 93 as a convicted child molester, as, sadly, will Roy Estrada.
No, Ray Collins was the Original Voice. And, he had the added benefit of actual doo-wop cred. Check him out with Little Julian Herrera & the Tigers:
If you reviewed the Jimmy Carl Black interviews previously referenced, you know what the Indian of the Group thought of Ray Collins. “…in my opinion, one of the best singers I’ve ever heard in my whole life.” Hotcha. In fact, he couldn’t confirm it, but JCB’s idea about “Cruising with Ruben & the Jets” was that it was a tribute to Ray Collins “…’cuz it’s all Ray Collins’ trip, man.”
Here is, I think, the best example of what Ray Collins was capable of.
Or this. Or basically anything off of the “Cruising” album.
From the Miles biography, Zappa had some pretty high praise for Collins:
At this 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 someone 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 the kind of songwriting.
In other words, no Collins, no Freak Out!, and no Mothers.
A 2009 news article places Collins in Claremont, California, going kind of Rodriguez style, no fame, no riches, just a vibrant musical past. He gets enough to survive, he says, “But not enough to pick up women.”
It may very well be that, more than anyone, Det. Sgt. Jim Willis created Frank Zappa. Via Kill Ugly Radio:
Ontario Daily Report
1964, Ted Harp
2 A-Go-Go To Jail Cucamonga — Vice Squad investigators stilled the tape recorders of a free-swinging, a-go-go film and recording studio here Friday and arrested a self-styled movie producer and his buxom red-haired companion. Booked on suspicion of conspiracy to manufacture pornographic materials and suspicion of sex perversion, both felonies, at county jail were: Frank Vincent Zappa, 24, and Lorraine Belcher, 19, both of the studio address, 8040 N. Archibald Ave.
The surprise raid came after an undercover officer, following a tip from the Ontario Police Department, entered the rambling, three-room studio on the pretext of wanting to rent a stag movie. Sgt. Jim Willis, vice investigator of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, said the raid suspect, Zappa, offered to do even better — he would film the movie for $300, according to Willis. When Zappa became convinced the detective was “allright”, he played a tape recording for him. The recording was for sale and it featured, according to police, Zappa and Miss Belcher in a somewhat “blue” dialogue.
Shortly after the sneak sound preview, the suspect’s hope for a sale were shattered when two more sheriff’s detectives and one from the Ontario Police Department entered and placed the couple under arrest. Zappa, who recently was the subject of news story on his hopes to produce a low-budget fantasy film and thus bring a share of Hollywood’s glamour to Cucamonga, blamed financial woes for his latest venture. Inside his studio when the raid came was recording and sound equipment valued at $22,000, according to Zappa.
Also, a piano, trap drums, vibraphones and several electric guitars were stored among the Daliian litter of the main studio. On the walls, Zappa had hung such varied memorabilia as divorce papers, a picture of himself on the Steve Allen television show, a threat from the Department of Motor Vehicles to revoke his driver’s license, several song publisher’s rejection letters and works of “pop” art. Among Zappa’s completed musical scores were such titles as “Memories Of El Monte” and “Streets Of Fontana”. The latter, written before several utility companies had forsaken the budding composer, opens:
As I was out sweeping the streets of Fontana,
As I was out sweeping Fontana one day,
I spied in the gutter a moldy banana
And with the peeling I started to play …”
Assisting Sgt. Willis in the raid were sheriff’s vice investigators Jim Mayfield and Phillip Ponders, and Ontario Detective Stan McCloskey. Arraignment for Zappa and Miss Belcher next week will bring them close to home. Cucamonga Justice Court is right across the street from the studio.
When asked for assistance in this case, the A.C.L.U. replied, “We can’t take it, it’s not big enough for us.”
From the Miles biography:
Frank was a different person when he came out. He no longer believed anything the authorities told him. As far as he was concerned the American education system had failed him; it was a lie from start to finish, the reality was America was a corrupt, grubby little fascist state. He was determined never to be duped again. Tank C [His jail area] traumatized him for life and in many ways he spent the rest of his career shoving his pornographic tape down America’s throat, time and time again. He was determined to show Americans what their country was really like.
So. Three cheers to the narc who put Mr. Zappa on his path. Thanks, Friday!
“I’d like to clean you guys up a bit and mold you. I believe I could make you as big as The Turtles.” (L.A. disc jockey Reb Foster, to Frank Zappa early in his career.)
Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman were the heartbeat of a band that in 1968 released an album that I think was their CV for alignment with Frank Zappa and the Mothers.
The Turtles, known to most at the time for the single hit, “Happy Together,” released a concept album. On The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, the group pretended to be 11 different bands, with many different genres of songs. The album yields my favorite Turtles hit, “Elenore,” credited to “Howie, Mark, Johny, Jim & Al.” The album as a whole, as a project, as a concept, reminds me so much of “Cruising with Ruben & the Jets” that I would think it nearly impossible to discount the influenceâ€”except, perhaps, for the fact that they were released in the same year.
The album is available for listening on YouTube, and I think it is worth a listen for even the most casual Zappa fan, as it telegraphs these musicians to be the flexible, talented, and funny guys who would later play with the reconstituted Mothers.
I suspect that these guys were Mr. Zappa’s very favorite voices, right up until the reign of one Ike Willis. It’s why there was so much live material in that era: Because he had the voices. Why not showcase what they can do in an arena? That is all speculation, of course. But their voices, what Volman calls the “Incredi-Voice,” may be why you like a number of songs. T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong.” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way.” Or, perhaps most obviously, with David Cassidy on “Darlin’.” These two, perhaps the most venerable hams of the Zappa pantheon, have made a career of providing background vocals.
From the Miles:
Mark and Howard had known Zappa for years — the Turtles had appeared on the same bill with the Mothers at the Trip and the Whiskey and they saw the Mothers play the Garrick on several occasions and visited Frank at the Charles Street apartment in New York. Jim Pons, bass player with the Turtles (also shortly to joining the Mothers) was a friend of Gail’s from her pre-Zappa days on the strip. Not only that, but Kaylan was Herb Cohen’s cousin…
Zappa saw them backstage at a Zubin Mehta concert and hired them on the spot.
Along with being some darned prolific background vocalists, I think it’s interesting to note that it’s because of Kaylan and Volman that hip-hop artists have to clear samples with the original artists. Sadly, they did so by suing one of my favorite hip-hop artists ever, De La Soul, who had sampled from “You Showed Me”
to create “Transmitting Live from Mars.”
A recent interview:
And, a little something from the Gary Shandling show thing:
Sorry, if you’re Gary Shandling, that’s a boner moment right there.
When you’re a music fanatic, it’s difficult to broach the “favorites” issue. There are some areas, however, where I have the question nailed pretty much down.
Favorite Led Zeppelin song: It’s taken me decades, since I first heard Led Zeppelin in junior high school, to figure this one out. But when I get a Zeppelin sample going in my auditory cortex, 9 times out of ten, it’s “The Ocean.” This song in my book is Zeppelin perfection.
But I haven’t ever had any problem nailing down my favorite performance(s) on a Frank Zappa album(s). It is (pair of) performance(s) that I make sure to highlight every Zappadan. It is, in my opinion, the most brilliant musicianship ever to be exhibited on a Frank Zappa project, or, perhaps, anywhere. And we know that’s a statement that stretches from here to the moon Europa.
It is actually a set of two performances: The performance of Don “Sugarcane” Harris on “Directly From My Heart” on Weasels Ripped My Flesh and of Don “Sugarcane” Harris in “Little House I Used to Live In” on Lumpy Gravy. Number one in my book. Always and forever.
I always write about “Directly From My Heart” on December 5, the second day of Zappadan. Because December 5 is the birthday of Little Richard, the man who penned this amazing song. His performance of this song invents the visceral soul that this song invokes. Listen for the most brilliantly performed syncopation you have ever heard.
This song drags its hideous left foot. But it does it gracefully somehow, making it beautiful. And Mr. Penniman’s lilting voice shoots out over it and drags you in like an undertoad. Undertow. Whatever.
So. The source material is sublime. I love this song.
Then, I always haul out the Fenton Robinson version.
How could one not? Fenton, I think, lends the song considerable gravitas.
Then, there’s Sugarcane.
Don “Sugarcane” Harris, the “Don” of Don and Dewey of the mid-1950s, signed to the Specialty label, but the band did not score a hit. He was named “Sugarcane” by none other than Johnny Otis, the man who inspired Frank Zappa’s killer mustache. Funny how the dots connect in the Zappa cosmos.
Harris’ better known Zappa contribution was likely his part on driving “Willie the Pimp” on Hot Rats. Most people really like this song. I find it to be an annoying interruption on an otherwise brilliant album.
Regardless: Both the other contributions the one from Weasels Ripped my Flesh and Burnt Weenie Sandwich came out of those recording sessions. These are inspired, driving, passionate performances: The sound Charlie Daniels actually needed but sorely lacked on “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Here’s an early example of Mr. Harris’ soulful fiddle:
Go ahead; have a listen. Then a few examples of Mr. Harris’ solo work follow.
“Song For My Father” is one of those that you probably know but don’t know you know.
If I could someday shake this gentleman’s hand I would probably become a puddle on the floor. I would be more cool meeting Frank himself. But Don Harris. He is to the Zappa cosmos what Billy Preston* was to the Beatles.
I’ll never get the opportunity, sadly. Harris died in November 1999. But what amazing recordings for him to have left behind.
*Another one of my very very favorites. Billy was the shiznit. I am astounded that Mr. Zappa never snapped him up.
The lyrics of the song tell a true story: on 4 December 1971 Deep Purple had set up camp in Montreux, Switzerland to record an album using a mobile recording studio (rented from the Rolling Stones and known as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studioâ€”referred to as the “Rolling truck Stones thing” and “the mobile” in the song lyrics) at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino (referred to as “the gambling house” in the song lyric). On the eve of the recording session a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert was held in the casino’s theatre. In the middle of Don Preston’s synthesizer solo on “King Kong”, the place suddenly caught fire when somebody in the audience fired a flare gun into the rattan covered ceiling, as mentioned in the “some stupid with a flare gun” line. The resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex, along with all the Mothers’ equipment. The “smoke on the water” that became the title of the song (credited to bass guitarist Roger Glover, who related how the title occurred to him when he suddenly woke from a dream a few days later) referred to the smoke from the fire spreading over Lake Geneva from the burning casino as the members of Deep Purple watched the fire from their hotel. The “Funky Claude” running in and out is referring to Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival who helped some of the audience escape the fire.
A week later on Dec. 10, Trevor Charles Howell charged the stage and shoved Frank into the orchestra pit. The attack left Frank’s voice lower and one leg shorter than the other for the rest of his life.
Of course, Dec. 4 of 1993 sucked for Frank even more than that. This was the last day he refused to die. We of course call it “bummernacht.”
My favorite version of the song was not recorded by Deep Purple. My favorite version of the song was recorded by these Asians.
At my job, they have declared the entire month of December as a “free jeans” day. This greatly relaxes the usual dress code, which requires men to wear trousers and a tie and women to wear whatever they fucking please.
This however means that for the entire duration of Zappadan, I get to wear Zappa gear. I had lots of Amazon points, so I ordered some Christmas presents and also several Zappa t-shirts. I already own three. Now I’ll have a whole week’s worth.
Today it’s the Bummernacht shirt. Just a black shirt with a big Zappa face. Frank Zappa would have been 72 this year had he not quit refusing to die. Imagine what he would have done with the time.
Off to work soon. I’ve called in late for the first time in ages. Bygones. It’s the holiday.