When I was in my performing years, I often saw the sun come up before going to bed because I would have worked until 2 AM or later. So 6 AM was usually reasonable to be in bed by. Then sleep til 3 or 4 and get up and get ready for "work". There were times when playing was work, but more often that not that was the time we put up with all the other stuff for. We loved playing.
Well, one morning about 8 or so, I get this call that woke me up because I had probably only been in bed about 2 hours. And I hear this drunk voice saying to me "Zappa wants you" and he kept repeating it. Thinking it was a bad joke I hung up. I was playing with Kudzu at the time and later that morning Little Phil called me and told me that he was in Richards, one of Atlanta's top rock clubs at the time, the night before and they announced that if anyone knew how to get in touch with me to have me call them. So this time, being Phil, I gave it more thought and called Richard's. Sure enough, Zappa's road manager had left a number for me to call. I called and we worked out the necessary finances etc. and he told me there would be a ticket at such and such a counter at the airport and I would meet them in Chicago and they would pick me up at the airport. A ton to swallow because it happened so fast and the answer had to be right then.
Frank's bass player had broken his finger and Frank had seen me playing at Richards with Kudzu while he was in town to perform maybe two years or so before this. I remembered we had had quite a conversation after our set and I even told my wife that I felt like it was an interview. But nothing ever happened so I didn't think too much more about it. Now I had to call Creig and Jimbo and tell them I had to leave with no notice. I was torn because I loved those guys and we depended on each other, but I had to go.
Now I don't like flying, but in just a matter of hours I'm flying by myself to Chicago. In the season of the Hawk! It was about October if I remember correctly. Cold. But they picked me up as promised and carried me to the hotel where I met the band and got re acquainted with Frank. I was shown my room and rested a minute or two and Frank called and said "How bout I buy us dinner in your room". He was buying anyway since my expenses were part of the deal, but I certainly said yes. We had some very interesting conversation. I began to learn that he was really something special. He certainly didn't tell me that, but you could just tell. He had that same love and devotion for his craft that I had, but he had the business acumen to put it all together on a much higher level. I respected that about him. And one other thing stood out that he said - "If you do drugs, don't do 'em around me. That's the stupidest thing any musician could ever do". That's all he said on the subject, but he made himself very clear.
He gave me the music written out in sheet music and a cassette player with the music on it that I had to learn in 24 hours. I got to hear it performed one time that night and I would go the next night. Gulp. But the player sitting in that night wasn't too impressive (this is not a knock. That music was impossible to walk on and do cold) and I knew I could at least do that so that boosted me a little. It was still scary though. Zappa's music is incredibly complex in places and it wasn't like jamming a 3 chord blues progression. We adlibbed in places, but not like blues. It was very structured chaos. But it was exciting to try to meet the challenge.
After a couple of nights I began to have a feel for things and it became fun. Tom Fowler, the bass player I was replacing til he could heal, would be introduced with all the musicians but would be introduced as Tom Fowler on Pointer. He would take a pointer and point to the root note of the next chord we were going to, and that got me through the first couple of nights in a rather humorous way. It was a bit like a traveling circus without the lions. On second thought, there might have been a lion or two.
I don't remember how many dates we did, but it was usually 2 or 3 nights on and one off. We had a 7 or 8 course meal that we all went out together for on Thanksgiving. I had no complaints with how He treated the band. He expected a lot, but you didn't mind trying to live up to it. Ruth Underwood, the percussionist at the time, was about as good as I have ever seen, but then so was George Duke on Keyboards. Oh, and Chester Thompson on drums. Just phenomenal musicians. Truly wonderful chaos!
Then In December we went to Caribou Studios in Colorado to record for, seems like it was a week or so. I don't know who owns it now or if it is still in use or not, but what a neat place. It's my understanding that Elton John wrote and recorded his Caribou album there. The Beach Boys were on the register as having just left. I think that some of Chicago's people owned it then. They had taken an old ghost town and rebuilt the log cabins and put a grand piano in each where the musicians stayed two to a cabin and the cabins were two bed room. Up close to the timberline. The snow was incredible. I can see how you could write a whole album there. Coffee over a grand piano each morning looking out on miles of unbroken snow with the occasional pine. I'll never forget it. I think I wound up playing a song or two on the One Size Fits All album and also a few on the Lather album.
He and I were night owls while the others would head out pretty soon after we were done for the day. One night he showed me a progression on guitar, again, don't know if he was just seeing what I was like on guitar or what, but we jammed on and on for a bit and finally he asked me if I was getting tired and I said jokingly "no, I just got my fingers stuck in the strings". I didn't realize that he had recorded all of that, and It wound up on one of his albums, I think Lather. Not sure though. He didn't use everything right away. Some of this came much later.
Well, December rocked on and after Caribou we went home for Christmas. I went back out after Christmas and we rehearsed for the New Years Eve gig, I think it was in Long Beach. This time I was on guitar. Toms hand had healed enough for him to take back over. The adventure was coming to an end. I was at my peak as a bass player about that time, but I was not an accomplished guitar player for that level at all. But that was Frank. He found a way to let me play that New Years Eve Gig and it actually went well all things considered.
So that was my whirl wind experience with Frank Zappa. I'm thankful I got to rub shoulders with one of the truly great composers of that era. He did the rock stuff to pay the bills I suppose, but he also wrote much more serious compositions, some of which have been recorded by orchestras. One can only wonder what compositions lie in his music library.
I returned home with enough money to buy my first 4 track recorder. I spent a couple of months creating backing tracks for some songs and found some places to play as a solo act by using the tracks as backing. There was no Karaoke back then, but I guess that's what I was doing. Then I get the call that my Kudzu band was needing a bass player again.
I headed home!