Who were Zappa’s most impressive musicians?

Written by on December 4, 2020

All of them. You had to be a “motherf*cker” (musician slang for “a great player”) to even get an audition with Frank. That’s where the name of the band “The Mothers” came from. The record company execs added “of Invention” later and without Frank’s permission, after someone hipped them to what “Mothers” really means.

Others have already posted some excellent choices here. So, with that in mind, let’s just recap a few of the “best of the best”:

Adrian Belew: guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist. A dynamic and engaging performer with superb range.

Read: Bohemian-rhapsody

Terry Bozzio: a maniacal, ultra-high energy drummer, he was like a show within the show.

Tommy Mars: Keyboardist extraordinaire. I’ve read that he’s also a composer. I’m not familiar with any of his compositions.

Patrick O’Hearn: Terrific bass-player. And he sings.

Read & Listen: Eddie Van Halen

LET US PAUSE FOR A MOMENT AND BOW OUR HEADS (to better see our handheld devices). Here we see Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, Tommy Mars and an Austrian Keyboardist and composer named Peter Wolfe (not the Peter Wolfe from the J Geils Band), along with Patrick O’Hearn, in action. What a treat!

Napoleon Murphy Brock: singer, multi-instrumentalist, a gifted entertainer. According to legend, Frank saw Brock playing with a band at a bar in LA and thought he was pretty good. So, Frank approached Napoleon to ask him to audition. Brock allegedly replied, “Well, I’d love to, but I’m not familiar with your work, so there wouldn’t be much point in trying to audition.” (Something like that.) But Frank was so impressed with the guy that he said, “OK, well we’re having a rehearsal tomorrow, so why don’t you just come down and listen. And if you like the band, you’re in.” HOLY MOTHER OF FRANK! An open pass to just “join the band”! Not too many guys got that, I’m sure.

Vinnie Colaiuta: Yep! Another drummer. Member of the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame and the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame. Frank seemed to go through a lot of drummers. Or maybe the really good drummers just had really full schedules.

Read: Phil Collins

George Duke: The legendary keyboardist worked with Frank – off and on – for over twenty years.

Howard Kaylan: One half of the legendary vocal duo “Flo and Eddie”, their bizarre yet strangely compelling vocals and wacky humor propelled the band back in the early 1970s when The Mothers were first starting to gain some traction.

Mark Volman: The other half of “Flo and Eddie”. In my mind – and other than Frank’s own superb writing – these two are more responsible for vaulting The Mothers onto the world stage than any two other musicians I can think of. They were the Sound of the Mothers for years.

Read: First Female Drummer – Rock Band

EDIT: Thanks to the enthusiastic response to this humble post, I feel compelled to add just a bit more “background” to the scene. Here we see “Flo and Eddie” in a previous incarnation as (you guess it!) the staid and stolid ’60s hipsters “The Turtles”:

And here, we have a rendition of Frank’s “Dog Breath”; a typical sound and arrangement from the “Flo and Eddie” period. Notice the evolution in Kaylan and Volman’s vocals (sorry I couldn’t find any video with acceptable sound quality. Video production was still rather unsophisticated in those days):

What’s not widely known is that Frank always wanted to be a classical composer. He spoke about this ambition often in interviews. Finally, toward the end of his career, he had time and money to produce an orchestral version of this same song. If I could hazard a guess, I would say it’s probably the original version that Frank heard in his head from the very beginning. All written and scored by the Great Man himself, of course. Frank didn’t conduct this piece (although he did conduct others at this show) because he was very ill (cancer) at the time:

Thank you for indulging me in that little divertisment. We now return to our “Top Zappa Musicians Countdown”:

John Lennon: Yep! That John Lennon. Need I say more?

Bobby Martin: Another excellent keyboardist and also an exceptional vocalist with wonderful range and dynamics.

Jean-Luc Ponty: The French violin virtuoso and composer. Played with Frank’s band for quite a long time.

Tina Turner: I swear to God it’s true! If you ever listen to Frank’s mid-seventies stuff and thought, “That sounds like Tina Turner!” you were right! Ike Turner insisted she NOT be credited. WTF Ike?

Ian Underwood: Multi-instrumentalist – woodwinds, keyboards, guitar, vocals. Played for Frank for decades, off and on.

Ruth Underwood: A gifted percussionist. Watch the video; you can tell she LOVED playing in this band! Coincidentally, the wife of Ian Underwood. In the following video, you not only get to see Ruth in action, but also Napoleon, George Duke, Chester Thompson – another great Zappa drummer – AND (a special bonus) real-life analog (not digital) claymation by long-time Zappa associate and world-renowned artist, Bruce Bickford!

Steve Vai: Not much needs to be said here that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. Started with Frank when he was just some kid named “Steve” who happened to live down the block. The rest is history. Here, Steve gives us some insight as what auditioning for Frank was like:

Don Van Vliet: Yes! The legendary Captain Beefheart!

Chad Wackerman: An understated drummer who is always, always, always “dead on”. Perfect for Frank’s later touring ensemble. Plus, what a perfect name for a drummer!

Johnny “Guitar” Watson: The Legend Himself.

It should be remembered that everyone in any of Zappa’s bands was great. You couldn’t even get an audition unless you were a great player. The foregoing, in my mind, are some of the “best of the best”.

Hope you enjoyed it!

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