jcb interview (by alan clayson), june 2000
alan clayson tracks down the indian in the
mothers of invention part from frank zappa, drummer jimmy carl black is perhaps
the name that springs most readily to mind when someone mentions the mothers of
invention. "the special relationship between black's dogged steadiness and
zappa's wit was one key to the success of the mothers' sound", reckoned ben
watson. as sometime lead vocalist, jimmy was conspicuous on 1967's "big leg
emma" 45 and "lonesome cowboy burt», a highlight of
the 200 motels movie, while his introduction of himself as "the indian of the group" was a recurring theme on "we're only in it for the money". he was also a central figure in "if we'd all been living in california", a dialogue concerning corporate finance ("we're starving, frank'") on "uncle meat".
born in el paso on 1st february 1938, james carl inkanish black - a cherokee - was raised in anthony on the new mexican border. after leaving the us air force at the age of 20, he remained in wichita, kansas as a full-time drummer, with a style that reminded zappa "of the guy with the great backbeat on the old jimmy reed records".
requests for his services from local outfits found him rattling the traps for both the surfs and the keys, with whom black was first heard on disc, via 1962's "stretch pants" / "just a matter of time" on ultimate.
two years later he moved to los angeles, where he formed the soul giants with bass guitarist roy estrada. when their new guitarist suggested they rechristen themselves the mothers of invention in 1965, the saga became as much frank zappa's as jimmy's until the group's bitter dissolution at the turn of the decade.
before instigating a multi-million dollar lawsuit against his old boss, jimmy's post-mothers activities included two albums as leader of geronimo blach (named after the youngest of his five children), membership of captain beefhearf: magic band,
starting a building-and decorating business with arthur browr after the god of hellfire had relocated t~ texas - and, in 1981, a reprise of hi "lonesome cowboy burt" role for "harder than your husband" on zappa's "you ar what you is".
"the man who made off with the money", recorded with guitarist eugene chadbourne, may allude to the leggy dispute with zappa. this was settled in 1985, by which time black and the ex-mothers had commenced trading as the grandmothers. this tribute band to themselves is set to tour britain this summer before they return to their individual projects - which in jimmy case include solo releases; the farrel black blues band; and a role singing the self-referential "the indian the group" (plus a generous helping of beefheart as well as the expected zappa items) with the muffin men.
before taking the stage with the muffin men in april in london's worcester park, jimmy carl black - now resident in germany - recalled his intriguing professional career for rc.
jimmy carl black: i played solo trumpet in
my high school band, but i realised that there was no chance in rock'n'roll for
a trumpeter after elvis presley appeared at el paso colosseum in 1955. when i
saw the effect he had on those women, i said, "man, that's what i want to
do!" when i was in the air force - for which i volunteered rather than get
drafted into the army - i bought a drum kit and taught myself to play. i
listened hard to a lot of muddy waters and, especially, howlin' wolf
records, as well as watching other drummers and asking them how they did things. then i started in bands, and was earning more in a weekend than a month in the air force. the first was them three guys, a countryand- western trio - two guitars and drums, no bass. by the time i was discharged, i had a wife and three kids, but i was playing with a couple of successful wichita
bands.- ultimate pressed 1,000 copies of the keys' single, and sold them right away: they're real collectors' items. michael finnigan was organist with the surfs. later, he worked with jimi hendrix and crosby, stills and nash [and also janis joplin, dave mason and rod stewart].
q: why did you move to california?
jimmy carl black: we needed a change from wichita my wife's father lived in santa ana, near los angeles. california, man! hollywood! two weeks after we arrived, i met roy in a music store where my name was up on the board as an available drummer. we started the soul giants to play r&b covers with davy coronado on sax and two others. we were doing ok - $90 a week, not bad for 1964. then the singer got drafted, and we found ray collins. next, the guitarist got drafted, and ray mentioned a guy called frank zappa who'd just got out of jail. we auditioned frank, who was kind of freaky-looking, but i liked him a lot. within a month, davy coronado left, and frank said, "if you guys'll learn my music, i`ll make you rich and famous". he took care of half that promise. i got famous, but i damn sure didn't get rich!
q: what did you think of frank's music?
jimmy carl black: it was a challenge, but i loved it. he very patiently taught me how to play all those rhythms and time signatures. i'd never even played three- four before like in "how could i be such a fool" - but he knew i could do it. he also made us aware of modern classical stuff. he was into ravi shankar, too. "help fm a rock" is a raga.
q: when you made this transition, was it diffccult to find work?
jimmy carl black: no, because we were still doing "louie louie" fifteen times a night. but now and then, we'd slip in maybe "i'm not satisfied" or "you're probably wondering why i'm here", though one promoter warned us never to do that one again. frank hadn't written "who are the brain police" then.
q: to what extent did frank get ideas from other members of the group?
jimmy carl black: he was always recording us talking. "if we'd all been living in california" was from a band meeting. i never knew he'd taped it until it came out on "uncle meat". i wasn't credited. everything was "written, arranged and produced by frank zappa". ray got a bit of songwriting on "ruben and the jets", but he and frank didn't get along that well.
q: when did you start singing on disc?
on "big leg emma" - though frank had written "lonesome cowboy burt" a year earlier. brian wilson was there when we were rehearsing it.
q: one of the mothers' other drummers, billy mundi, quit in 1968 to join rhinosaurus. were you ever approached to defect to any other group?
jimmy carl black: no, but i wasn't interested anyway. i was too loyal to frank for my own good. by the way, i didn't think having two drummers was good with billy - even though he's a dear friend of mine - and so is arthur tripp, one of the best percussionists i ever played with.
q: how did that edition of the mothers disband late in 1969?
jimmy carl black: a week after a very
successful tour, frank called us together and said, "i've decided to break
up the band. your salaries have stopped as from last week." it was a big
shock. i had five kids to feed by then. when frank wanted to re-form the old mothers for
the world premiere of the 200 motels music with the los angeles philharmonic,
none of us wanted to do it - though he hired me as an actor for the movie. my
part was almost as big as ringo's - only the money wasn't.
at that time, i was getting geronimo black together. to me, our first album was our own stuff.than,in 1975,i did a tour with captain beefheart.the difference between his music and frank's was like night and day. frank was avant garde, but beefheart was the real thing, totally left-field. we rehearsed seven days a week, and maybe we'd play our instruments one hour in twelve. the rest of the time, we'd listen to him bullshit.
q: the next i heard of you was in a melody maker interview from your wife's el paso donut shop in the late 1970s.
jimmy carl black: we couldn't take california anymore. i had a zz
top-type band in el paso called the messilla valley lo- boys - which became big
sonny and the lo-boys after we cut a single, `funny money'. then there was an
album on consafo records. derroll, my second son, was on drums. all three
of my boys are musicians. geronimo's a real good guitar player
and songwriter. after big sonny, we moved to albuquerque,and i put out "welcome back geronimo black". we've just brought out a remastered version with extra tracks that have never been heard before. i also had five hundred pressed of "clearly classic", a solo album of a charity concert, backed by a local band. it was on clear plastic, and all the copies were numbered.
one day, frank rang to ask me to sing this cowboy song on his new album. the air fare was paid, and i was picked up by rolls royce at the hotel every day for the studio at his house. we were on good terms. the law suit hadn't happened yet.
q: when did arthur brown enter the picture?
jimmy carl black: when i moved to austin, texas in 1982. there was a big music scene there, but what with 600 bands and 100 places to play, you didn't play very often. so i ,started painting houses for a guy called matt fuller. lo and behold, arthur was working for him as well. i knew arthur as one of the most fantastic singers to come out of england, and we decided to go into business for ourselves as `the gentlemen of colour'. our firm lasted ten years, but he's my mate, one of my best friends in the whole world. we did an lp of r&b classics for voiceprint called "brown black and blue".
q: the grandmothers were up and running by then too?
jimmy carl black: yes. in 1980, we
each contributed a couple of tracks to a rhino compilation. my two - "trail
of tears" and "59 chevy" - were from geronimo black. then a
promoter in copenhagen booked us for six weeks in europe with a dutch bass
player, and sandero oliva, an italian guitarist who looks and plays just like
frank. i put another grandmothers together in 1988. four years later, we cut a
cd in austin, and i took it to europe to get a deal with muffin records,
eventually. it wasn't until 1993 that i actually met the muffin men. i was
appearing in manchester with eugene chadbourne, the free-est form guitar player
i've ever met. then the grandmothers did some gigs with the muffin men - and i
joined them to sing "willie the pimp" as an encore. i first toured
with them in march 1995. i also have a band in germany with richard ray farrell,
a guitarist, who wrote "the indian of the group" for me to sing on the
new muffin men album, "god shave the (vlueen". roddie gilliard and i
have also been working on my autobiography, entitled for mother's sake, for five
years. it should be out as both a book and a cdrom by christmas.