By T.E. Mattox
e played with Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, the
Muffin Men and Howlin' Wolf. He fronted his own bands, including Jimmy
Carl Black and the Blues, The Mannish Boys, Geronimo Black, the Soul
Giants and the Grandmothers. As an original member of the Mothers of
Invention, Jimmy Carl Black and his band mates were often considered
the counter-counter culture. What hippies were to the Summer of Love,
the Mothers were to the Burnt Weeny Sandwich. While the Beatles shouted
they wanted to 'Hold Your Hand,' the Mothers screamed "My Guitar
Wants to Kill Your Mama.' When protesters demanded an end to Viet Nam,
the Mothers became the clear and present 'Voice of Cheese.' Reviewers
and critics used terms like 'caustic, disemboweling' and 'brilliantly
vicious' when describing their music, yet today their influence continues
to impact artists, fans and musicians the world over. From Bonnie Raitt
to Andy Warhol, the Mothers of Invention in some form or fashion had
a profound effect on each of us.
I ran into Jimmy Carl Black in Europe back in the early
90's and when we sat down to talk, our conversation began almost 30
years before with the formation of a band called the Soul Giants. "Well,
in 1964 I'd just gotten out of the Air Force at McConnell Air Force
Base and I moved to California. I started playing with Roy Estrada on
bass and we had a band called the Soul Giants. Probably about three
or four months into the band, the singer got drafted, and Ray Collins
joined the band. We had to get rid of our guitar player, because he
wasn't what was really happening and Ray said he knew this guy named
Frank Zappa. So Zappa came and auditioned for the band, passed the audition
and a month later he took over the band and the rest is history."
Jimmy Carl Black in the studios of Southern Europe's
Best rock radio station, Z-FM. circa: 1992. Photo: Yachiyo
I'd heard the band had several different names before
you settled on the Mothers of Invention? "We were actually called
'the Black Outs', 'the Bat Men', one gig we played as 'Captain Glass
Pack and His Magic Mufflers', and then it was just 'the Muthers.' M-U-T-H-E-R-S."
The Mothers of Invention were originators on so many
levels, both musically and visually. How did the visual and theatrical
performances start? "It was just things that we did to keep
from getting bored. Actually, the band was a highly-rehearsed band,
I mean a lot of times people said, 'well those guy's sound real bad.'
But it was meant to be that way. That was exactly the way Zappa had
it planned. He wanted sometimes to sound bad. But you know, Frank's
a self-taught musician, he barely got out of high school. Although he
has honorary PhD degrees from a lot of the music schools in the United
States. I mean, he WAS a self-taught musician
.but he's a GENIUS!"
Can you tell us a little about a few of the shows from
the Garrick Theater in New York? "We played six months there,
it was an off, off Broadway show called, 'Absolutely Free.' Of course
it wasn't absolutely free, but that was the name of the second album
the Mothers did. And one night these girls had given us this giant giraffe
and so we ran this tube up this giraffe's leg and underneath the tail
and stuck it out. We got behind this keyboard; Zappa didn't even know
we were going to do this. Myself and Ray Collins, we were bored at the
time so we got about ten cans of pressurized whip cream and in the middle
of 'King Kong' or one of those songs, the audience was all intense and
all of a sudden we started squirtin' this whip cream right under the
tail of the giraffe and sprayed the first three rows of the audience.
(laughing) I think the Wall Street Journal was there reviewing
the show that night and they called us, 'Hell's Angels without their
The Mothers played at the Fillmore West a lot. "The
Fillmore West and East, we played both of them and they were great because
back then they had the psychedelic light shows happening where they
used the gels and were projecting them on the walls
it was just
a whole feeling."
Jimmy Carl Black -
Geronimo Black publicity photo
You were friends with Bill Graham. "Bill Graham,
one of the greatest guys ever in the world and it's too bad we lost
him." (Graham perished in a helicopter crash in October of
1991, returning from a rock and roll show.) "I was really saddened
by that. Bill Graham was a good one, a very good friend of mine."
You said the band rehearsed a lot? "The band
was highly-musical, we rehearsed
when we weren't on the road, we
rehearsed eight hours a day. It was a job and if you didn't go to rehearsal
you didn't get paid."
How many of the Mothers albums are you on? "To
date right now (1992) I think there's 26 discs that I'm on that
are finally out. There's a new one out that just came out about three
months ago. It's called, 'You Can't Do That on Stage - Vol.5' It's a
70-minute CD of all original Mothers of Invention (material)
from live shows and it's an excellent album. Lowell
George was playing with us at that time, you know the originator
of Little Feat. Lowell used to be one of the Mothers, when he was a
real young kid."
Do you have any favorite recordings or albums from that
list? "My favorite album is 'Cruising with Ruben and the Jets,'
because there's not any stops, not a lot of frog noises and stuff. And
plus I like R&B and so does Zappa. Zappa's a big R&B fan and
a good player of R&B."
No, No, No was also on that album
No, No' and 'Cheap Thrills' was off of that album."
Any special memories from those sessions? "One
day all of us refused to go into the studio, till Frank paid us. And
so he said, 'Well, I don't care if you guys come in.' And he did 'No,
No, No' and 'Cheap Thrills' that night by himself. He played all
the instruments. Did a drum loop; he played the drums on it. Then he
did a bass loop, I mean he did everything! All the vocals
himself on those two songs. It's what we get for not going into the
Can you talk to us a little about 'Freak Out?' "Well,
Tom Wilson (who also produced some of Bob Dylan's earliest material)
worked for MGM Records and he's the one that signed the Mothers of Invention.
He came in and heard us play one song and it was called, 'Trouble Coming
Every Day.' It was about the Watts Riots. And he thought he was signing
an R&B band. When he walked into the studio the first day and we
started playing 'Hungry Freaks, Daddy' and 'Who are the Brain Police?'
he didn't know what to think. It freaked him out, is what it did! And
actually that's where the term, 'freak out' came from. Kids use it all
the time, 'Aw he's all freaked out.' Well the Mothers started that term."
The Mothers had such an enormous impact on everyone,
especially other musicians. I read that the Beatles were even fans.
"I know that the Beatles did like the Mothers, I think John
Lennon more than Paul McCartney." (laughing) "We did
a take- off
'We're Only in It for the Money' is a take-off of the
Sgt. Pepper album cover. We wore dresses for that. Aw man, I hated that!
(more giggling) The dumbest thing I ever did
.but not really.
It was the best thing I ever did actually, for my musical career."
Jimmy Carl Black in drag from the Mothers
album 'We're Only in It for the Money'
One of my favorite albums was Uncle Meat. "'Cruising
with Ruben and the Jets' was recorded at the same time 'Uncle Meat'
was. We did two albums in the studio at the same time."
Uncle Meat was a double album, that's a huge amount
Jimmy is nodding his head, "Oh yea, and plus
they had just released 'Mother Mania.'"
Now, I'm freaked out
Man, you guys were
some sort of productive
"We put out a LOT of records,
in that short period of time. But 'Uncle Meat' was actually the beginning
of the classical, a pretty heavy classical influence. 'Dog Breath, in
the Year of the Plague' was on that album. 'King Kong' was on that album
in a Jar.'"
The 60's were a tremendously diverse time
in American History; the British Invasion, the Summer of Love, the drug
culture, Woodstock, the Viet Nam war
. "You know there
was never a song on any of our albums that was against the war. He (Zappa)
didn't do that. What he was singing about was social injustice in the
United States; the Great Society, the Establishment is what he was mainly
singing about. You know Frank is a very political guy, very political.
And he's a smart guy about it. He's got good ideas about what
should happen in the country. He has his own beliefs about how
this government should be run
in fact he was thinking of running
for President. I don't know how serious it was, but it could have never
happened because of his illness. But I would have voted for him because
he does have some good ideas and this country actually needs
country needs something to happen. I just came over here (Europe) from
the United States two months ago. You know, we're not in that good a
shape over there. I don't really like some of the things that are happening
in the cities. It's dangerous to be there. Literally, for your
life, dangerous to be just about any place in the United States right
now. It's too bad. And it's going out to the urban areas, little towns
now, not just the big cities. I'm hoping that we get lucky here and
have a good President that really wants to do something for the country."
"Jimmy Carl Black
a great guy!
We met in the 60's when he was in Zappa's band. They came to Miami
where I was living and we hit it off right away. Jimmy and Bunk
Gardener were two of the 12 guys I knew when I came to California
What's your most lasting memory of the making of 200
Motels? "My birthday! Ringo gave me a party. It was the most
beautiful thing I'd ever had. I mean he brought this 15-pound birthday
cake in for me, 10 or 12 bottles of champagne. I mean it was a real
party and for Ringo Starr to do it was the biggest thrill of my life.
Because I'm an avid, avid Beatle fan, from the beginning I always
Earlier you mentioned Lowell George of Little Feat.
"He was a great guy. In fact he had feet about this big.
(Jimmy spreads his hands about 6 inches apart) I wish they could
see it. I mean he had little feet. And I told him if you ever
start a band you out to call it, 'Little Feet.' But I meant f-e-e-t.
And he did. (Little Feat) But he was one of the best slide guitar
players that's ever been. Him and Ry Cooder, and he learned from Ry
Cooder. That's who taught him how to play slide."
Speaking of talented musicians, you've played with a
few in your lifetime. "People I've jammed with in the 60's
and it was just because all of us were doing it together, you know we
happened to be playing together. But I've played with Hendrix, I've
played with B.B.
King, which was a great thrill of my life to get up and sit in with
B.B. King. Chuck Berry, the Howlin' Wolf. The Mothers did some recording;
I think it's on 'Bathing at Baxters' with the Jefferson Airplane. We
played with Country Joe and the Fish, the Doors. I knew the Doors before
their first record came out, and watched Jim Morrison get thrown out
of the Whiskey A-Go-Go
for saying the 'F' word on stage. Elmer
Valentine, the owner of the Whiskey came up
'you got five minutes
to get off that stage and out of my club and never back in here again.
Take your equipment and go,' and literally threw them out of the
club for saying that word on stage. Things have changed."
Let's talk a bit about the post-Mothers
started a band called 'Geronimo Black' with Bunk Gardner and Denny Walley
who played later on with Frank. And then I had a band called, "Big
Sonny and the Lo Boys.' We were a West Texas Boogie band, like a West
Texas ZZ Top band."
On that Big Sonny album there was some unusual technology.
"We used a talk box, one of the first times I've ever heard
a talk box used."
Album 'In Heat' by Big Sonny and the Lo Boys
When I picked up the Geronimo Black LP, I also noticed
a name I recognized from my days in Los Angeles. He's an internationally-known
harp player that most of you know as 'Icepick.' His name, of course,
is James Harman and he told me in no uncertain terms, "Jimmy
Carl Black was a great guy; we go back a lot further than those recordings
in the 80's. We met in the 60's when he was in Zappa's band. They came
to Miami where I was living and we hit it off right away, and just like
Heat invited me to come to California and they would help me start
which they did. Jimmy and Bunk Gardener were two of the 12
guys I knew when I came to California in '70."
Harman's memories of that time also included other new
faces and a lot of club dates and college gigs. "There was Geronimo
Black, my band (Icehouse Blues Band), Black Oak Arkansas and a band
from Toronto, called Bush. We were the four new bands on the scene in
the LA area. For instance, we would trade off opening and headlining
Fridays and Saturdays at the Irma Hotel in Van Nuys. We also played
many concerts together all over SoCal, so I used to see Jimmy quite
James Harman lights it up in concert. Circa: 1988.
Photo: T.E. Mattox
"Much later when they decided to do the Grandmothers
project they used my drummer Roger "Meatball" La Chasse, so
Jimmy could sing out front. They asked me to play some harp on a couple
of songs. Denny Walley had left Captain Beefheart by then and was playing
guitar; Tom Leavey was playing bass, Andy Khan was playing piano/organ,
Bunk and TJ were playing saxophones and damn, they had a mighty thick
sound back then. We always had a good time, because we were all serious
I did notice that your name was spelled 'Harmon' on
the album jacket. "I didn't remember that my name was misspelled,
but you know some minimum wage hippie chick at the label did that. Most
of my old photos were stolen by my first ex-wife, so I have no physical
evidence of my past." (Is it just me or is anyone else disturbed
by the thought of somebody stealing ANYTHING from a guy named 'Icepick)
"I know I have some of us at gigs with Geronimo Black here somewhere,
but can't put my hands on them right now; I don't know what more to
add, but yeah
Jimmy was a great guy. The last time I talked to
him he was living in Germany I believe, and seemed happy."
Album jacket from Geronimo Black
I'm truly amazed by the longevity of the Mothers
still have fans around the world and their popularity remains even today
though they rarely, if ever, get airtime on the radio. "I just
did an interview with this fanzine magazine in Mestre (Italy) right
down by Venice, called 'Debra Kadabra.' They send it out to, I don't
know how many thousands of people in Italy who are big fans of the Mothers.
And they've got these fanzine magazines all over the world."
Where are the rest of the Mothers now? "Most
of them are in California. Don Preston, Bunk Gardner lives there. Roy
Estrada lives there, Ray Collins lives there. Art Tripp is now
Doctor Tripp. He's a chiropractor maybe three miles from Beefheart in
Trinidad, California. And nobody knows where Billy Mundy's at, and Motorhead
think he's in San Jose. Motorhead is a carpenter. I just spoke to him
about two weeks before I left. I haven't talked to Ian in a while. Ian
Underwood's a big studio guy in L.A."
When was the last time you worked with Frank? "I
did an album with Frank in 1980, called 'You Are What You Is.' I sing
another country and western song called, 'Harder Than Your Husband.'
It's an excellent album."
(Zappa would lose his battle with cancer in December
1993. He was 52 years old.)
Tell us a little about your latest project, the Grandmothers.
"From Austin, and will hopefully be over here (Europe)
before too long, on tour. We do thirty of the old Mothers of Invention
songs, exactly like the record. Most people have never heard them played
live because the Mothers are gone. But this band can play those songs
exactly the right way. Frank would be proud of us. We do Peaches En
Regalia, a lot of stuff, that's the kinda' stuff we do."
Jimmy Carl Black and the Mannish Boys album
issued on Amazing Records.
Anybody I didn't ask about? "In Austin, Texas
when I first moved there. I couldn't make a living playing music, there's
too many musicians in Austin. So, I started painting houses. And my
partner in the painting business was a guy by the name of Arthur Brown.
The 'God of Hellfire' himself, was my partner in the painting business.
He still lives in Austin. And we recorded an album and it's called,
'Brown, Black and Blue' Arthur Brown and Jimmy Carl Black. We released
it about two and half years ago. It's an excellent album. Oh you'll
like this one. What we did, is we took all the old R&B classics
like 'Unchain My Heart' and 'Fever.' Howlin' Wolf songs but with Arthur's
interpretation as a singer. Arthur Brown is one of the most magnificent
singers that's ever walked this planet. And he still lights his head
on fire! (laughing) Oh yea, the God of Hellfire, he's got one
of those helmets that he still lights his head on fire when he performs.
He performs with the Grandmothers, he sits in with us all the time."
What are you listening to currently? "Mainly
I'm sorry to say man, but I'm not real thrilled about
some of the new music. You know, I don't like what they're saying in
some of the words. I don't think it's healthy. I think some of these
guys don't realize how much power they've got and how much power is
in the words of songs that millions of kids listen to. Because those
kids listen to that, and they take that seriously
I mean, let's
sing about saving the planet, that's what's important. And I'm not putting
it down because that's fine if that's what they want to do, that's okay.
I wouldn't dare want to censor anybody's music, that's not my trip.
It's just that's not my choice. I like the music of the 60's
because it was for real; it was from the heart. All the music, I mean
there was a lot of good music from the 60's; Jimi Hendrix, Cream, all
those people were real, serious musicians."
What's next for Jimmy Carl Black? "Well, who
knows about the future? I know one thing; I'm in music for the duration.
And I'm going to be in Italy for a couple of years, at least
longer. Jimmy Carl Black and the Blues will be playing around, come
out and hear us if you want to enjoy some good music."
True to his word, Jimmy Carl Black was in music for
the duration. According to his website, Jimmy passed away peacefully
November 1st, 2008. He says hi to everybody and he doesn't want anybody
to be sad.
It won't be easy.