In 1965 [FOOTNOTE Zappa always claimed much of what follows happened in 1964, but as shown at http://globalia.net/donlope/fz/misc/1965-69.html the most reasonable timeline for these events has it as 1965.], Frank Zappa was desperate for a gig. Studio Z had been closed down almost as soon as it had opened, thanks to his arrest on pornography charges, and he had no money, no artistic outlet, and no prospects.
So when his old songwriting partner Ray Collins, who was singing with a band called The Soul Giants, fell out with the band’s guitarist and called on Zappa to join them for a while, he agreed straight away. The gig was a straightforward one — play Louie, Louie, Midnight Hour, Wooly Bully, and anything else that would get people up and dancing with minimal effort. But the band themselves were interesting.
They were one of the small number of mixed-race bands playing the bar circuit — while Collins was white, bass player Roy Estrada was of Mexican heritage and drummer Jimmy Carl Black was Native American — which gave the band members an outlook and sound that suited Zappa rather more than the white musicians in LA (who irritated Zappa with their tendency to play very little but jangly suspended D chords). Zappa was particularly impressed with Black, who was one of the best drummers on the circuit, but he didn’t get on very well with the band’s leader, saxophonist Davey Coronado. Zappa believed that the band could have some success if they played original material, while Coronado insisted that they’d get fired if they played anything the bars’ customers didn’t know. Zappa eventually persuaded the rest of the band that he could make them rich and famous if they played his songs, Coronado quit, and the band promptly got fired from every bar job they could get, especially after, on Mothers’ Day, they changed their name to The Mothers (a sure sign that Zappa had taken over the band — he’d previously led a trio called The Muthers).
However, they slowly but surely moved up the ladder, going from playing the outskirts of LA to playing the city itself, where they fell in with the arty crowd based around Carl Franzoni and Sue Vito. Artist Mark Cheka agreed to co-manage them, and brought in Herb Cohen, an actual professional manager who had managed the Modern Folk Quartet among others, who got the band better bookings, playing top LA nightclubs like The Trip and the Whisky A-Go-Go.
They added a second guitarist, Henry Vestine, an astonishingly fluent blues player, who quickly left because he was only interested in playing the blues. But while Vestine was in the band, Herb Cohen persuaded Tom Wilson, a record producer for MGM, to come and see the band at the Whisky.
As Zappa always told the story, Wilson agreed to sign the band based on hearing only one song, the straightforward blues protest song Trouble Every Day, in the belief that they were a white blues band in the style of the Paul Butterfield Band. Whether this is true or not, this was a very lucky combination, for while Wilson was best known for producing folk-rock hits by Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan (including Like A Rolling Stone, one of the few chart hits Zappa appreciated), he had started his career running an independent label putting out the most extreme jazz he could, and had produced Sun Ra’s first album and early recordings by Cecil Taylor. Wilson was thus probably the only producer in America who had both the commercial clout and the musical adventurousness to sign such a different band.
But even between getting signed and making their first record, the line-up continued to change. Vestine quit, and was replaced by Jim Guercio (later of the band Chicago), who was himself replaced by Elliot Ingber, the former guitarist of the Gamblers. Collins quit and rejoined, in what would become a pattern for him. And Zappa was still searching for a keyboard player for the band — one possibility was session pianist Mac Rebbenack, who was getting tired of playing Wrecking Crew dates for Sonny & Cher records and wanted to play something more interesting, but who fell out with Zappa over drug use (Rebbenack was a user of most things, while Zappa was very much against use of any intoxicants other than tobacco and coffee).
Rebbenack did play, as a session player, on the first session, but quickly walked out, and for the most part the album was performed by the line-up of Zappa, Collins, Estrada, Black and Ingber, with session musicians only adding additional colour.
Freak Out!, the band’s first album, was the first double album in rock and roll [FOOTNOTE It was released the week after Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, but was recorded first.], and its opening track is one of the great opening salvos of any rock band ever. Over a riff parodying the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, played by Estrada and session guitarist Carol Kaye[FOOTNOTE Kaye claims it’s her on 12-string doubling the bass on this track, rather than a second bass. While she is not always the most reliable of sources, she is credited as a member of “the Mothers’ auxiliary” on the album, and it seems reasonable to take her word in this case.], with simple clanking piano chords and odd vibraphone notes, Zappa and Collins double each other sneering through a lyric that was punk ten years before punk was invented — “Mr. America, walk on by your schools that do not teach/Mr. America, walk on by the minds that won’t be reached”, before a sarcastic kazoo breaks in.
It’s classic sneery garage punk, and had Freak Out! been the Mothers’ only album, they would be remembered in the same breath as bands like the Seeds or the Standells. But Zappa already had his mind set on bigger things, and he was going to need a bigger band.
And that wasn’t the only change that needed to be made. Verve refused to put the record out, not because of the content, but because of the band name, thinking that Mothers, being short for “motherfuckers”, would stop the record being played on the radio.
So out of necessity, they became the Mothers of Invention.
Hungry Freaks Daddy
Composer: Frank Zappa
Line-up: Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals), Ray Collins (vocals), Roy Estrada (bass), Elliot Ingber (guitar), Jimmy Carl Black (drums), Carole Kaye (12-string guitar), Eugene DiNovi or Les McCann (piano)[FOOTNOTE Three pianists are credited in “the Mothers’ auxiliary” on the record sleeve, but Mac Rebbenack only played on the March 8 session, while this track was recorded on March 9. Either of the other two could have played the part.], Gene Estes (vibraphone)
Original release: Freak Out! The Mothers Of Invention, Verve V6-5005-2
Currently available on: Freak Out! UMC CD