the ray collins interview

part one

        The following interview has been edited from three sources:

KEY:  RC: Ray Collins; SP: Steve Propes; DP: David Porter

Note: Just like a Frank Zappa album, the actual order of segments has sometimes been radically rearranged and changed.  But the overall sense, and the progression through the early albums in historical order has been preserved.
Not all musical selections are indicated.  When these can be deleted, they are, they are.  When they are necessary for the context, they are indicated.  Omissions of materials (station-specific or other, such as unrelated bullshit) are indicated by "..."
The KPFK program began with a collage tape of "Lieutenant Tragg" from an episode of Perry Mason-- one of the lines is quoted at the end of the taped interview.


DP:     I have a special guest in the studio this morning, a well-known actor, you may have seen him in Citizen Kane as political boss Jim Geffies, and probably as Lieutenant Tragg on Perry Mason; Ray Collins, welcome.

RC:     Thanks David, it's good to be here.  I had a lot of fun shooting with Raymond Burr-- it was great.  Having two "Rays" on the set caused a lot of commotion and confusion; it was a lot of fun.  A lot of people don't realize I am the same Ray Collins that was on the Perry Mason show, and also the same Ray Collins that was in The Mothers Of Invention.  A lot of people think the first Ray Collins is dead, and he is, and I am!  And-there you are!  Well, good morning, everyone!

DP:     Good morning--  no, actually, I'm pulling your leg.  (our) guest this morning is the lyric vocalist that gave the original Mothers their sound, also known to be singing with such others as Little Julian Herrera and The Tigers, and perhaps you remember a band called the Soul Giants that used to grace the Pomona area.  Do you think any of our listeners might remember The Soul Giants?

RC:     I hope not!  No, really- actually, The Soul Giants came up from Orange County with Jim Black and Roy Estrada, who were in The Mothers, and came into a club in Pomona called The Broadside, and I became part of the group there, and there might be some local band-type folks who would remember that group.  It was a lot of fun; it was a bar band-- a lot of good times.

SP:     (We're) going to be getting into the issue of Little Julian Herrera and The Tigers and a lot more music... with that early-- late '50s, early '60s Los Angeles sound-- we're making this up as we go along, believe me.  I'm going to... say good morning to a member of The Tigers who sang with Little Julian Herrera, in fact, he was the falsetto voice backing him on I Remember Linda.

RC:     Good Morning, Steve.

SP:     Good morning to you, and thank you for coming in.  I want to ask you about the song, I Remember Linda.  Now, you're the falsetto behind Julian Herrera, but you were telling me there's two falsettos on that record, right?

RC:     yeah, right.  When he's singing lead, I'm singing falsetto, and when he's not singing lead, he's singing falsetto.  By the way, that's got one of the greatest "sour notes" in history..  I don't know if you paid attention to that record, coming right out of the bridge, it's not a horrible note, but it's classic, I love it.  And I sing falsetto on the bridge, too-- although he told me not to.  Oh, by the way, Art Laboe paid me ten dollars for the session.

SP:  That much.

RC:  Yeah.

SP:  How much do you have left?  (laughter) When was it recorded, and under what circumstances?

RC:  Well, The Tigers were friends of mine, or acquaintances, from Pomona, and we were going along as a group.  And three of these guys-- James Thompson, Ron Ellington Shy, and Prentiss-- I forgot his first name-- they were recording already and performing with Little Julian, and so I just kind of went along with them to Hollywood, to watch them in session, and I just sort of-- Art Laboe, in the studio, said, "Can you do a falsetto," or "Do you want to", or something.  So I jumped up and did it right there.

SP:     So, when you came to the studio, you didn't really intend to sing--

RC:     No, uh-uh

SP:     --Art Laboe suggested it?

RC:     No.  And I think Little Julian wasn't too thrilled about it.  He was an overpowering, semi-unfriendly person at the time-- to me at least, anyway.

SP:     So it was a one-take situation-- since you talk about the sour note and everything, or did you guys hit that same sour note a various times?

RC:     I think various times.  That was Jim Balcom's band, by the way. Remember Jim Balcom, Cradle Rock?  Yeah, we hit that note several times. At least, it sounds "sour" to me.  Maybe not "out-of-tune" sour, just "sour."

SP:     That became a major LA hit record.  Did it surprise you when it did become a major LA record?

RC:     No.  You know, Art Laboe used to have his live show at Scrivener's Drive-In, and he had us there, talking, and of course I think you must know that Julian Herrera was arrested for statutory rape about the time that I Remember Linda started moving up on a local chart level; and it kind of killed the record, really.  So we went on without him, The Tigers. As a matter of fact, I ran into Ron Ellington Shy about four nights ago, and he was still angry at Julian after-- for that record dying because of what happened.

SP:     Well, it's only been-- what, about 32 years after the fact?

RC:     Yeah, right.

SP:     Well, I'd maintain my anger longer than that for major issues, too. You say Julian Herrera was not a "friendly" person.  I take it you guys didn't exactly hang out.  Was that your only instance of working with him? -- was that recording session-- or did you do live shows with him, too?

RC:     Yeah, we did live shows.  At the time, Johnny Otis had-- Willie and the Hand-Jive was a hit, and we performed at one of those type of shows that they don't have anymore-- which I wish they'd have again, they'd be a lot of fun-- where they'd show a movie, and then a live show, then a movie and then a live show, all day.

SP:     Where at?

RC:     In San Diego.  They had a local theater down there with a-- Johnny Otis's band.  It was a lot of fun, it was great to perform there.  I believe that's the only time we ever-- except for the night at a prom or a graduation dance (I forgot which city it was) which during the break-- I was there that night performing with The Tigers-- and Little Julian, during the break, the police came and arrested Julian, and we went on without him.

SP:     So you were there when the actual legendary arrest occurred.

RC:     Yeah, right.  They were pretty mean, adamant, kind of throw-him-against-the-wall-type trip, and took him away abruptly.

SP:     Describe Julian for us a little more fully, would you?  I mean, it was a rather terse description, though I'm sure accurate.  Could you give us some more-- a slightly fuller description-- of the guy?  Physically, or--

RC:     Yeah.  Physically, he was a very nice-looking young man-- like I said, I didn't hang around him very much.  He seemed to be involved with girls a lot--

SP:     Tell me about it!

RC:     --which I wasn't at the time, I don't believe.  I was more into singing with these guys than scoring chicks, although at that time we didn't very often.

SP:     What did you think of his talent?

RC:     I didn't think he was really talented, too much, he had the chutzpah-- is that the word?-- to get a record, which a lot of people-- they have that drive, more than they have the talent, which gets them the opportunities.

SP:     He was a fairly young guy, wasn't he?

RC:     Yeah.  I think he was probably younger than I was--

SP:     In his teens?

RC:     yeah, right, 17, 18 at the time.

SP:     Were you aware that there was an earlier record that I Remember Linda was adapted from?

RC:     Yeah--

SP:     Have you heard it?

RC:     At the time I'd heard it-- Julian even talked about it.  Ron Shy told me that he and James Thompson wrote I Remember Linda rather than Julian, and I think Julian got credit on the record, but Julian did tell me that it came from another source, a guy who had a record called something about Linda too, wasn't it?-- the first one?

SP:     Well, it's a Bay Area group, and it involves Bobby Freeman, it's the Romancers, it's called I Still Remember the Name Linda.

RC:     Oh yeah, right.

SP:     Did the name Linda mean anything to Julian?  Or was that just a name drawn out of a hat?

RC:     As a matter of fact, I think Linda was James Thompson's girlfriend.  And James Thompson, along with Ron Shy, evidently, possibly wrote it, whatever that means.  I mean, how can you write a song that was already taken from somebody else's song, anyway?-- under musical changes ("ice cream changes" as they call them)-- who wrote that, originally, anyway?  I don't know.

SP:     That's a heck of a question.  Ray Collins, with the questions.

Come on in closer to the microphone, and we're going to find out about The Romancers, Little Julian Herrera and The Tigers, and we'll be taking some phone calls from listeners.

RC:     Sounds like fun.

SP:     If we have the time-- well, we'll have the time, we'll make the time.  So anyway, we were talking about Little Julian Herrera, we were talking about I Remember Linda, there might have been a Linda, and songwriting.  Now after hearing The Romancers' I Still Remember-- which came out in 1955, and I Remember Linda came out in 1950-what?  Seven?

RC:     yeah, I believe, yeah.

SP:     What's your feelings about who really wrote it?

RC:     Well, obviously, The Romancers wrote it, if they wrote it.  Who was that?-- The Romancers-- who'd you say that was?

SP: Bobby Freeman was like 14 years old on that record.

RC:     Singing lead, or don't you know?

SP:     Ah, good question.  Bobby won't talk to me.

RC:     Oh really?

SP:     Yeah.  So we're going to get to the point where you met up with Frank Zappa.  How did that work into the story of The Tigers, and Little Julian Herrera?

RC:     Had absolutely nothing to do with it.

SP:     Thank you very much.  No, go ahead.

RC:     In fact, I was kind of put out, well, actually, by the FREAK OUT! album totally, when I saw it, as a package, and I got my first copy of it, and that's one of the things that-- I went up to Frank's house, and he wasn't home, and I wrote him a note-- and it said, he had it on his wall for a long time-- and it said, "The Mothers are on an uprising!"  And so we came back for a meeting-- But one of the things that I didn't like about the album was the fact that he put Julian Herrera's name like in big letters, like it was a major part of my life, or a major part in anybody's life.  But my association with The Tigers and Julian Herrera had absolutely nothing to do with Frank Zappa or The Mothers.

SP:     OK, so, here you are with The Tigers, you did two live shows and one record, right, basically?  And them the next thing you know, if we're already following the career of Ray Collins, is that you're co-writing Memories of El Monte with Frank Zappa, right?  Is that the next step?

RC:     Yeah, we did a lot of recording at Studio Z, or what turned out to be Studio Z, in Cucamonga.

SP:     PAL Recording Studio?

RC:     Oh yeah, I guess it was.

SP:     OK, now, when-- OK.  How did you get there, then?  What took you there?  Which I guess is the next step in your career.

RC:     I was in-- oh, by the way, my career has a lot of holes in it, a lot of periods of not doing anything!  --although I like holes--

SP:     Donuts?  Or-- do you hang around Winchell's a lot or something?

RC:     --yeah, I do, really.

SP:     OK.  Did you hear that "boom" this morning?

RC:     Uh-huh.

SP:     There was like a double sonic boom.  Everybody in Southern California woke up at 6:33 thanks to the space shuttle.  Go ahead.  Had nothing to do with what you were talking about!  I'm sorry.

RC:     I was living in Pomona, Frank was raised in Lancaster, I believe, and he moved to Ontario.  But in Pomona, there was a bar I used to frequent with my friends, and I was drinking there one night.  Evidently, they hired a band, and Frank's band came in there, and I heard him playing R&B stuff, which I thought was pretty bizarre, because they were playing pretty obscure things--

SP:     What was the name of his band at the time?

RC:     I don't know.  I don't really recall what it was.

SP:     How big a band?

RC:     Four pieces-- bass, drum, guitar, the basics-- maybe two guitars, I guess.  And so I eventually-- I just walked in there one night, and asked Frank of I could sing, and he said, "yeah, great!"  And so I got up and sang Work With Me, Annie and some R&B ballad things.  And we talked a little bit, and I told Frank, "Well, I've got this idea for a song called How's Yer Bird?  from the-- it was a Steve Allen saying, and so Frank said, "Oh, great idea!  I have access to a studio in Cucamonga.  Maybe we'll get together and do it."  So he called me up a couple of days later (we exchanged phone numbers, obviously), and he said, "I have written the song, How's Yer Bird?"  So he said, "Would you like to record it?"  I said, "Yeah, of course," so we went up to Studio Z and we did How's Yer Bird? with Dick Barber, "Gnarler," on snorts and vocal noises.  And on the other side was The World's Greatest Sinner, which was a song written by Frank, having to do, I guess, with the movie, "The World's Greatest Sinner," which Frank scored the film.  But it isn't in the film.  It was on the "B" side.

DP:     By the way, this is not-- you mentioned earlier that you went up to sing with Frank's band in The Broadside-- this isn't the one he's talking about in his book-- you were already in-- he was hired into, was it?

RC:     No, this was a band of his (at The Sportsman)-- his friends.  I don't know what they were called-- if they had a name or not.  I suppose they did.  I didn't really pay much attention.  I was just drunk, and singing Work With me, Annie and whatever-- Earth Angel probably, and local R&B favorites.  No, it was after Frank and I had recorded for a while that we actually got together, and then were apart for quite a few years, that I got hooked up with The Soul Giants at Pomona, which actually was about two blocks from where Frank and I met in the original bar.  And then Frank became part of The Soul Giants.

SP:     And then after How's Yer Bird?, Memories Of El Monte came after that.

RC:     Yeah, right.  So then we-- that was released on Donna Records, a Del-Fi subsidiary, -But then we just sat down one day-- he said, "A friend of mine-"-- I believe the "Oldies But Goodies" albums weren't even out.  I think the "Memories of El Monte" album was first, wasn't it?

SP:     On Starla?

RC:     Yeah, of Art Laboe's Oldies albums?  I think it was.

SP:     Oh yeah.  That preceded the "Oldies But Goodies" albums.

RC:     yeah, that's what I thought.

SP:     So did you take the title of that song by The Penguins from the album?

RC:     From the album, right.  From the title of that album, Frank said he and a friend of his had thought of writing a song from that title, so I just sat down at the piano and said, "Let's do it."  So we did it.  We sat down, and I remember the first line coming out, "I'm all alone, feeling so blue."  Then we wrote it, and-- actually, Art Laboe's responsible for adding in the different groups' names and The Penguins' impersonating those different groups.

SP:     Well, how did you have it originally, then?

RC:     It was just a song, telling about the dances at El Monte Legion Stadium.

SP:     So the part about the various songs, where they try to hit the same effect that the recordings had, you weren't into that at all?

RC:     No.  Art Laboe did that.

SP:     When you think of the finished product-- after he did that, do you think it helped the record?

RC:     Well, it could have been just as good without it, I believe.  In fact, Art Laboe's always had this thing about people recording R&B ballads too slow, so I think that he over-compensated and made Memories of El Monte too fast.

SP:     How's Yer Bird?-- written off of Steve Allen's little schtick that he did?

RC:     Yeah, right.  As a matter of fact, the band is called "baby Ray and The Ferns," and Steve Allen used to say, "How's yer fern?" too, along with "How's yer bird."  I was always a big Steve Allen fan.  Still am.

SP:     The cleverness never stops, huh?  Steve Allen hated-- or hates and hated rock and roll.

RC:     Yeah, I know, I--

SP:     How do you equate the two things?

RC:     Well--

SP:     Do you try?

RC:     No-- that really, except I think, in some ways, I think he's right when he does poetic readings, or used to do poetic readings of the words to rock and roll.  They were pretty classic.  And he'd do it like a poem. It's kind of funny.  But I didn't know that he actually didn't like it, supposing he evidently doesn't, I don't know.

SP:     Now, when you collaborated with Zappa on that, who did what?  Who did the words, who did the music?  How'd that come together? 

RC:     We did it, in the words of Jerry Lewis, "together-both."  I just sat down at the piano, and my piano playing is very limited, I can play the Earth-Angel type of changes, and I sat down and the line came to me, "I'm all alone, feeling so blue. Thinking about you," whatever the next  word is--

SP:  And you took it to Laboe because you had recorded with The Tigers for him before, or was that your contribution?

RC:     Yeah, and also Frank, I Believe, was the one who suggested taking it to Laboe, also because he had the album, "Memories Of El Monte" out, and it was an obvious place to take it to.  And he loved it right away, Laboe.

SP:     Oh, I'll bet he did!  Now of course, it was used in the movie "Colors", instead of the song Earth Angel, and I really think, in the movie "Colors" he tried to make people think they were listening to Earth Angel instead of--

RC:     Well, I know, over the years he has slipped it into the "Oldies But Goodies" package, and it wasn't an "oldie but goodie"-- it didn't come out 'til about 1961 or '62 or something like that.  But I didn't know that it was in there in the place of Earth Angel.  Obviously, at that Mexican house-party, Earth Angel would be the one to play.

SP:     Yeah.  I didn't say that that's the case, I say that's what I think.  That's my theory.  The royalty payments on that song must be a nightmare, because you don't pay royalties on one song, you pay royalties on You Cheated and Earth Angel and Night Owl, so that must make the writers of those songs real happy, so--

RC:     Yeah, well, legally, can't you do four bars of a tune on a record without paying anything?

SP:     You'll have to save that for the legal show.  I don't know.

RC:  You think so?

SP:     Do you think that's what happened there?

RC:     Oh yeah, we didn't ever have to pay royalties.

SP:     Oh yeah, yeah.  Flying Saucers.  That was a precedent case.

RC:     Right.  They were the precedent.

SP:     OK.  Now, on How's Yer Bird? (Baby Ray & The Ferns), who was in that group?

RC:     Frank, Paul Buff, who owned the studio at the time in Cucamonga, PAL Studio, as you call it, and myself-- and Dick Barber was the gnarly-snarler-snort-sound-maker on How's Yer Bird.  I believe that was it.  Maybe you recall the guy's name who Frank made "Heavies" with?  And a couple of surf records?  David or somebody?

SP:     Oh yeah.

RC:     Dave Aerni.

SP:     Dave Aerni.

RC:     yeah, right.


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