Paul C. Buff is name-checked on the cover of "Freak Out!" (1966) under the heading "These People Have Contributed Materially In Many Ways To Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them"; he is also mentioned in "The Real Frank Zappa Book" (1989) as an "amazing gentleman" (see the chapter "Let's Get Into Show Business").
Inventor, engineer, artist, composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, Buff was a key player in an early turning point not only in FZ's career, but surf music in general, and the nature of the recording industry itself.
Paul Conrad Buff grew up in Cucamonga. Joining the Marine Corps, after graduating, he trained in aviation electronics. He returned to civilian life and took a job making parts for guided missiles at General Dynamics. After a few months at the "Bomb factory", as FZ would refer to it, he was bored with his job so he borrowed $1000 and, knowing nothing about the music business, set up the Pal recording studio in Cucamonga. Recording studios were usually controlled by the big record companies at that time so he could offer a cheaper alternative for would-be bands to record. His lack of knowledge and finance meant that the studio produced a different sound from the major studios which became known as the "Pal Sound". He worked with groups such as the Surfaris ("Wipe Out"), The Chantays ("Pipeline"), and many others.
In 1960, Ronnie Williams introduced FZ to Buff. Paul, Frank, Ronnie, Ray Collins and Dave Aerni recorded a bunch of 7" singles at Pal recording studio between late '60 and 1963. Buff claims to be the "Godfather of Snorks" and other such early Zappa noises..., although, according to Ray Collins, this title should go to Dick Barber.
In 1963, Buff got the opportunity to work with Art Laboe at Original Sound in Hollywood where he engineered the Run Home Slow soundtrack recording. By mid 1964 FZ had moved into the Pal Studio and in August FZ purchased the studio from Buff for $1000, his Fender Jazzmaster guitar and a set of drums. FZ recalled (in TRFZB): "In other words, I agreed to take over his lease and the rest of his debt." FZ renamed the studio as Studio Z.
Buff continued to work at Original Sound recording groups such as The Strawberry Alarm Clock and Sugarloaf. He set up Allison Research Inc. to produce and market the studio equipment he had designed. Allison Research flourished and Buff moved to Nashville. Here he became interested in developing photographic lighting equipment and set up the White Lightning company. Over the years this has become a leading supplier of professional photo lighting equipment.
For some musical impressions:
- Slow Bird (02:11) and Blind Men's Buff (01:47) by Paul Buff
- Cathy My Angel (02:14) and 'Til September (02:27) by The Pauls
As a guest DJ on Dr. Demento in 1980 Zappa played Buff's song "She's Got A 60-Cycle Brain".