Robert Martin Sez Hello
The first of the tapes transcribed from the Evil Prince's collection is with Robert (late Bobby) Martin. Interview conducted in North Hollywood on April 17. It appears to start with talking about the 1988 show in Finland, but this is missing, so we start right in with ...
The 1988 tour was my favourite tour, by far. It was the most fun for me, for a number of reasons. It was the first time, or the only tour that I did, where we carried a full horn section, with great players, as all the players always were, but it was also the first time that I was the primary keyboard player. So that was a lot of fun for me and very challenging. I don't have the chops of a Tommy Mars – not many people do – but I'm no slash; you don't get into [Biography|Frank]]'s band if you can't really play. But my primary function as a keyboard player was that I have a feel, especially for the old RnB stuff that Frank loves so much. I can play all the technical and demanding parts; that was no problem. I could also play the Bartok. It was interesting because on the previous tours, being a multi-instrumentalist was really one of the reasons that Frank liked me in the band. I could do a lot of different things. I wasn't really ever the guy to rely on for this blazing keyboard solo, but among other things, I could play the keyboards. So it was a big challenge for me to be the primary keyboard player on that tour.
So how did you become a multi-instrumentalist?
First of all, my parents were opera singers. They had the opposite lead roles in Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Mikado', a light opera. I grew up in Philadelphia in the Fifties. Aside from the classical background from my parents, they were also into lots of other kinds of music. My dad was into big band swing, so I heard all that kind of stuff. American Bandstand was there in the Fifties, with Dick Clark. There was always a lot of great jazz there. Coltrane was there for a while, and great players passed through to play in the clubs. The Philadelphia Orchestra has always been one of the best in the world.
I studied at the Curtis Institute with many of the principal players in the Orchestra and played under Eugene [Ormandy] or whoever was in town conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. So week after week, I was playing under the greatest conductors in the world. That was as a French horn player. That was what I did in terms of studying a classical instrument.
The piano actually was the first thing that as soon as I could reach the keys I started to mess around with, but I was always hearing all different kinds of thing. The first piece of music I remember hearing and identifying and asking for was Stravinsky's 'The Firebird'. I used to ask my mum to play that piece – I loved it. I responded to all different kinds of instruments and I liked the sound of many different things. I never really felt a powerful urge to just focus on one thing. I just liked all of music, all that I heard. So the piano came first. We had a piano at home and so that was the obvious thing to gravitate to. I studied very briefly; I hated piano lessons. At the time I started, I was just turning eight years old and that was when baseball started too, and I was much more into baseball and looking out the window watching my buddies play, and I didn't want to play these scales. I wanted to get out there. In fact, I was almost a professional baseball player. That was another career possibility, but I decided not to do it.
The next thing I picked up was a little plastic flute. My brother and sister and I all played these little flutes. Then when I was in fourth grade, I started with the French horn. In the third grade in the public school system in Pennsylvania at that time, which was a very good system then – things have changed quite a bit – they gave all of us kids music tests to see who had aptitude for music and wanted to be in the band. I was the only kid they ever had as a third grader who scored a perfect result on the music test. They said 'Give this kid a French horn'. I started to play it and did quite well at it and went on to Curtis eventually with that.
When I was about thirteen, I finally got a chance to do something I'd wanted to do for years. I was very much into RnB from an early age. The first thing I started to do on the piano was play blues just from ear, just by listening and understanding that and reproducing that. When I heard Ray Charles, I was just blown away. He had a tenor sax player called David 'Fathead' Newman, and when I heard Fathead, I said 'Man, I gotta make that sound. I gotta do that.' But I was already playing French horn and the band leader in the elementary school didn't want to have any part in giving me anything else because French horn players are real hard to find.
Then finally, when I got to seventh grade junior high, the band leader there was a sax player. He used to play big band things. He was also very reluctant, but because he was a sax player, he finally broke down and gave me one. The Summer I turned thirteen, he gave me an alto which I hated. I wanted a tenor, but all he had was an alto. So he gave me an alto and he gave me a book. In a couple of weeks, I taught myself all the scales and how to work the thing, and that Fall, I came back and said 'Look, I gotta have a tenor'. So he gave me a tenor and I started to play lead tenor in the dance band, having only been playing for a few months. I just loved it and was playing it all the time.
Soon thereafter, I started to play professionally. Aged thirteen, I started to play in bars, because I looked a lot older. I had this big 1950s hair, so I started playing with some pretty terrible bands (laughs), but I was out there doing it and it was fun. In Junior High, I started to pick up all the reed instruments. When I had been in elementary school, the bad kids would cut classes. What I would do was cut recess. When everybody was out playing, I would sneak into the band room and pull out trombones and baritone horns and teach myself to play these things.
By the time I got out of elementary school, I could play all the brass instruments, and by the time I got out of Junior High, I included all the reed instruments and flute which I liked also. I liked Roland Kirk and the things he did on flute. Those became the main things by then. I'd narrowed it pretty much down to four: the keyboards, the French horn, the saxophone and the flute. All the while, I was singing as well, but that was never a main focus. Everybody was so impressed that I could play all these things and really play them well.
What did you do as a singer?
Not very much at this time. Most of my singing was more in the classical style. I was in the choir, and during my final year at school, I was a bass. I had no high range at all at that time. I was the number one low bass in the Pennsylvania All State Choir. I could sing lower than anyone, but I had no high range at all.
Then that Summer between high school and college, as I was singing in these bands and playing rock music, my range started to increase. At that point, I wasn't singing lead. I was singing backgrounds, and then gradually this range started to appear. My father was an Irish tenor. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had this ridiculous range. I could sing really high because I wasn't hurting my voice. I wasn't trying to sound like James Brown or Wilson Pickett and just go for a gravelly sound, so I wasn't hurting my throat. But I never lost the bottom, so I ended up with a four octave range.
So you were really a boy soprano in the band, no falsetto?
Right (laughs). I would use the falsetto for effect, but I didn't use it because I had to. Interestingly enough, although it doesn't actually seem that unusual when I think about it, my falsetto doesn't really go any higher than my natural voice. I can sometimes squeeze out a top A, both with my falsetto and my natural voice. For most people, the falsetto range goes a lot higher.
By the time of my early twenties, I had left Curtis and the whole classical scene to go play in a bar band because I found these guys in the Philadelphia area who were just great. To this day, still one of my favourite guitar players is this guy that nobody has ever heard of. His name is Jimmy Zaleski; we called him the Dude; and he was like a combination of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Ornette Coleman, all on their best nights. He played with a rock style, but he studied with a guy named Dennis St.Billy (?) who Coltrane and some other people studied with, from time to time. There's a book by Slonimsky called 'The Thesaurus of Scales and Patterns' and he was into that as well. So here was this blues/Jeff Beck kind of Clapton sound, playing all this outside stuff, and it was just incredible.
We're playing in bars in the early Seventies. We're playing Allman Brothers and Santana, but we would blow the originals away. I was playing a Hammond B3 at the time and a Hohner clavinet that I would plug into the organ and it would come out the Leslie. We also had a bass player and a drummer who were wonderful. I'm still in touch with these guys. None of those guys ever kept on to get to the level I did, but in that bar band scene, there were great players, some guys that should have become famous.
That was like the proving ground for me after leaving the classical scene and really focussing on a more aggressive and a more improvisational style. Although we were playing pretty much in a rock idiom, we were more experimental than most rock that was going on at the time. Of course I was aware of Zappa; in fact we did some Zappa things in those bar bands. We used to do 'Dirty Love' and a few other things like that. I had first become aware of Zappa when 'Freak Out!' came out and when I heard that album, the year I graduated, the thing that struck me was the way he voiced the vocal harmonies. At that time I was still pretty much into the classical style of singing and I was studying harmony and theory, and it sounded like the inner voices were taken and put on the outsides, and everything was twisted around in a very quirky strange way. But it worked. It had the effect that he wanted.
Of course I really enjoyed his sense of humour about what was going on. At that time, everybody thought 'Jeez, he must be this drug-crazed freak', not knowing then that he was very much against drugs and that was one of the cornerstones of our discipline, that it just be impossible to try to do that music if you weren't totally clear and focussed.
When did you first meet Frank and did you have to pass an audition?
Oh yeah. Everybody's got audition stories, and a lot of them are horror stories, but mine was a lot of fun. I met Frank in 1981. I was doing the bar band thing in the early Seventies and then I got disgusted with it, because here were these great players with wonderful potential, but we weren't getting anywhere. We were just stuck in the bar band scene. We had tried producing demos and getting a deal, all that kind of stuff. We didn't have a good singer and I wasn't strong enough at that time as a singer to carry it either, although I was getting there.
So I left that and went back home to join an original jazz-fusion band in the Philadelphia area. That was a lot of fun and a great challenge. It was a new thing for me. I had good chops and I had background in a lot of styles, but I had never focussed on playing jazz. It was a band you've never heard of because it didn't last that long. Again, some great talented players. In fact, the soprano sax player played his sax through an amp with a pick-up on the reed, and interestingly enough, he was real into Duane Allman. Butch Trucks, the drummer with the Allmans, has a son who's about fourteen now and who plays slide and is just blazing. Steve Berlin, that was this soprano player, and he's now in Los Lobos; he's their honourary Jewish Mexican. He was in this jazz band, and he played the sax like a combination of a slide guitar player and a harmonica player. He bent notes and did all sorts of things that were very innovative. He doesn't play soprano very much any more as far as I know, but that was his thing.
That was back in 1975, and then I had a call to go to California to play with Ingrid Croce, who was Jim Croce's widow. That got me to San Diego and I worked with her for about six months, but nothing happened. She was trying to get a deal. So there I was, stuck in San Diego with not much of a music scene, I didn't know anybody, but in the interim, Steve Berlin had moved to LA. After six months in San Diego, I moved in with Steve, had to work in bar bands in LA for a while, which was so different to what I had experienced back East.
The music scene had changed a lot. Disco was starting to be the big new thing, and people didn't give a damn about good music. They didn't care if you played a blazing solo or not; they were just there to get drunk and score and dance. It was awful. I had to endure it for a while as I had to make a living. Then I started to make inroads into the studio scene and had enough work that I could thankfully leave this horrible LA bar band scene.
Then I got a call from a bartender that heard me play back East with the good bands, who had come into contact with Orleans. He had gone from being a bartender to being a sound man at one of the clubs where the better bands played in Philadelphia. He called me and said that Orleans were looking for somebody else to join the band. So I went to Woodstock and auditioned for Orleans, and was in the band. That was Fall of 1977.
Between then and the time the band started to do something, which was over a year later, I was on The Rolling Stones tour with Etta James whom I had started playing with as one of the first things I did when I reached LA. That was a lot of fun. I had a chance to play with someone that I had heard as a kid and really loved. I saw Etta on Bandstand when I was eight years old and a lot of other artists like that. Later in life, I had chances to play with some of these people, like Michael MacDonald, whom I really liked. I became aware of his work quite a few years before I toured with him. Playing with Etta was when I really started to get my vocal chops together. She could tell I had it in here and she would draw me out. We would do duets together.
That was all good preparation for being with Frank which would come a few years later. I did the 1978 Stones tour and then Orleans went into the Record Plant in New York and we did an album. Through into 1979, the album was released and it was doing really well. There was one cut that was the biggest hit the band ever had. Then there were some personnel weirdnesses, and the band broke up. So there I was again, in limbo. I had been sort of bi-coastal. I still kept my place in LA, but Orleans were based in Woodstock, so I was going back and forth. In the Fall of LA, I went back to LA, and I was struggling. I hooked up with Etta and did some things with her. The studio scene was starting to change, and there wasn't as much going on, so it was really tough.
In the Summer of 1981, I had another call from a guy who had been a sound guy with Orleans, named David Robb, and at this point he was working with Frank. He was watching Frank tear his hair out trying to find the last person for the band to do the 1981 tour. He had Tommy Mars, and Chad Wackerman and Scott Thunes had just joined the band. Ray White was in the band, but Ike wasn't. Ed Mann and Steve Vai were there, so it was a great band, but Frank was not able to find the last person to fill out the band. David told him about me, said 'I know a guy who plays a lot of things; he sings great; you ought to check him out. He's got a classical background.' So Frank said 'Yeah, give him a call; bring him down here.' Dave called me and said 'Be here tomorrow'. I had already heard some of the Zappa audition horror stories that people had endured. So I thought 'What the hell? I'm just going to wing this.' I'm not even gonna try to prepare anything. I knew a few things from back in the bar band days.
I went in, and first he had me sight-read some keyboard things. I think the first one was 'Envelopes'. Not easy at all, but with my classical background, I could read so it wasn't a problem. My technique wasn't blazing. When it got too difficult to get everything, I would just read the top line, so that he could see I was following the metric changes and the harmonies.
What do you think that piece was about? What was its point?
The point of 'Envelopes'? I don't know, I couldn't tell you. To me, it never had one (laughs). It wasn't my favourite Zappa piece. It had some interesting things going on harmonically, but it always felt a little tedious and purposely ugly to me. If that's the effect you want and you want to annoy people, then that piece did it for me. Sometimes that's what he was after. He just wanted to do something that would not be pretty, not be an attractive sound. I did find that with that piece, he could tell that I had the training and I had the comprehension, and the ability to go from 7/8 to 3/16 to whatever.
He had me continue to read a few more things on keyboards, then he didn't have anything written for French horn, so he asked me to play some other horn parts. For a French horn player, transposition is just a way of life; you have to know how to do it, because you must do it in the classical literature constantly. I transposed some sax parts onto the French horn and also some concert pitch parts from 'Strictly Genteel'. I did fine with that, then he had me transpose some keyboard parts onto tenor and that was very tough.
He had me play what was called at the time 'Mystery Studio Song'. [Ed] I don't actually know what the final recorded title was; it had three or four different names. It used to go into 'What's New in Baltimore?' (sings). A lot of it was in five, so I was sight-reading that and transposing it onto sax from a keyboard part. And he said 'Well, this is good. You're doing real well. I understand you sing real high and strong; let me hear you sing. What do you know?' I didn't have any Zappa songs prepared, so I said 'I don't know; 'Auld Lang Syne'.' He said 'Great, 'Auld Lang Syne', key of A' and the band starts to play the song. I sang it an octave higher than anyone would have expected, and it goes up real high. Everybody goes 'Woah', and he says 'You got it'. So, 'Auld Lang Sync' was the real capper.
On tour, you played saxophone parts on things like 'Black Page' in unison with Steve and Ed. How was that?
Well, again I never studied sax at all; I taught myself to play. With the classical background and the ability to know how to practise which is a big thing that a lot of musicians don't know ... With a challenging part to learn, you start at the beginning. You learn the first two notes, then add another, then another, and start slow, gradually increasing the speed. Finally you get it to the point where you can play it faster than you need to, so that at the correct tempo, it's easy. That's the process, and if it takes ten minutes or ten weeks, that's the process and you gotta do it if you want to get it. I knew that, so not being a trained saxophone player was a challenge for me, but my fingers work and mentally I knew how to approach it. I worked my butt off.
When I first joined the band, everyone else had been there for like a month, I think, rehearsing. So they had a huge head start, so it was really tough for me. It was the most challenging thing I'd ever dealt with. The highest level of classical stuff at Curtis prepared me very well but not completely, because with Frank I had to be there at that level classically, but I also had to be able, like everyone else, to play everything else, to play real authentic blues, real improvisational jazz, then spoof a country song and play heavy metal, but do it all authentically. You can't play tongue in cheek unless you can play legit.
He gave me this huge book of stuff to learn, all these charts, not only to learn them and get them under your fingers, but then to memorise it all. It was exhausting. I would go to rehearsals for eight hours, but before that, I would get up and practise for two hours, then go in and rehearse for about five or six hours before Frank would come in. Arthur Barrow was the Klonemeister, then Frank would come in and run us through some things, make changes and throw out half of what we'd done and make us do something new. By the end of the day, I was so tired that I could barely see to drive home.
That was the routine day after day for two months. By the end of that time, I had all the stuff down. But boy, it was the toughest two months I ever went through. It was the most exhausting thing. Mental focussing is a lot more exhausting when you really are so intently focussed, that digging a ditch is easy by comparison. It was however very rewarding. By the end of that first tour, or by the end of any Zappa tour, everybody's chops were just so up and I could sing forever. I was singing all the high harmonies and all the screaming rock and roll leads like 'Stevie's Spanking' that my vocals chops were just so strong. At the end of a Zappa tour, you are just at the peak of your musicianship.
Part two of the Robert Martin interview conducted by the Evil Prince in North Hollywood on April 17 1996 sees us starting with the 1984 tour; a bit like the first part did ...
How would you compare the tours of 1981 and 1982 with that of 1984?
I guess 1984 was probably my least favourite. Alan Zavod was the primary keyboard player on that tour, and he's also a wonderful player. I think for me, of all the keyboard players Frank ever had, Tommy Mars was the perfect foil, the perfect counterpart on keyboards to Frank. He just understood Frank's mind, aside from being a blazing player. He understood Frank and what he was trying to do, better than other players. There's guys who went through that band who were incredible like George Duke, but Tommy just really comprehended Zappa and was able to execute it as well. A lot of people get it in, but getting it back out is the problem. But we didn't have Tommy on that tour; not to say anything bad about Allan Zavod. I missed Tommy for his musicianship and his approach.
That was also the first time we went out without percussion. We were doing the MIDI thing, and we had all these DX7s MIDIed together. While that seemed wonderful at the time, the DX7 was kind of a doinky thin little sound and it just wasn't the same as a real marimba. Chad wasn't really using real drums – he had the kick and the snare – but the rest were pads. He didn't even have cymbals, did he? Did he have a real hi-hat? I don't remember; I think he probably did. It was a different sound. Frank was into it; it was like new, but I think the bottom line, when I go back and listen to things from that tour, the sound of the band just wasn't ...
There were great players and all, but there were some other things going on during the 1984 tour also. There were personnel problems. We had too many singers at first for one thing. The band for the first couple of weeks of the tour was different from then on. We had Napoleon Murphy Brock back in the band in the beginning, and Ray and Ike and Frank and myself, so we had five people that could really sing; well, if you include Frank in that (laughs). Four people who could really sing and Frank. It was just too much. What we did was they put me up one inversion higher from all the harmonies I used to sing, so now instead of a triad with Frank, Ray and me which was the 1981 tour, it was Frank, Ike, Ray and me, with me singing an octave higher than Frank's parts all the time, so it was a triad plus an octave. Not that I couldn't do it, but it was 'Why do we need to do this?' Some things I wasn't singing because Nappy was there, and one of us had to drop out because it was just too many. It did make possible some interesting things vocally from time to time. But there was some friction with Nappy and some of the other guys and he ended up leaving. The rest of the tour continued with everyone else.
1984 we did a lot of touring, two tours of America and a tour of Europe. We also had a problem with the repertoire. I remember one night, Scott Thunes and I ganged up on Allan – I think it was in Munich. We took him out to one of these big beer halls and sat him down and said 'Look Allan, we got to learn some more stuff, because we were getting tired of playing the same stuff all the time. He didn't have enough of the repertoire learned and memorised to enable us to do what we normally did. By the end of most of the other tours, we would have as many as like two hundred pieces that we could select from. Not just stupid little songs, but Zappa songs. That wasn't happening in 1984. So we kind of prevailed upon Allan to get some more stuff going, and by the end of the tour, it did improve a bit, but that kind of slowed things down a bit. That was one of the drawbacks of that tour.
Why did Frank hire Allan in the first place?
He was the best guy that came to audition that year. No other reason than that. That's pretty much what went on at any given time, on any given tour – who was the best?
Do you have remembrance of the most challenging things you were asked to do in Frank's band? And did you like to do the doo-wop as well?
Sure, yeah. I enjoyed that stuff a lot because that's a very important part of my background, being from Philadelphia. A lot of these groups standing around on the corners singing harmonies and all, that was a big part of what I grew up with. As far as challenging stuff with Frank, learning things like 'Black Page' on tenor and doing the transcriptions of that; 'Mystery Studio Song' which I played partially on tenor.
There are two bars of music in 'Drowning Witch' which are my two favourite bars of Zappa music of all, that nobody has ever heard, but it's just something that he wrote in the second keyboard part for a couple of bars that I just love. Every time I sit down to play, I like to play those two bars. The way he constructed his harmonies and melodies was a way that I used to do, before I met Frank. You take a melody that's not maybe all that unusual and then put very unusual harmonies underneath. Instead of harmonising the melody note with something like the third or the fifth, make it be the flat ninth of a different chord. That was something I always enjoyed about his music.
As far as challenging sax parts, there were things like 'Black Page'. 'Alien Orifice' was a lot of fun. I loved this one because I got to play very challenging things on sax and in the middle section, it went into a different melody and he had me change onto a solo violin sound on the keyboard, so I had to immediately think in a different key. To me, the challenge part evokes a feeling of 'Oh this is fun' rather this 'This is drudgery'. It's a great feeling when you meet something like that and get it. I remember many times taking my horn back to the hotel room, putting up with people banging on the walls and ceiling, but I knew I had to practise this stuff to get it down. There was one bar in 'Alien Orifice' that was very tough for me. It was fun, because I knew the end result would be good and I'd feel good about myself and contribute to this music.
As far as vocal things, it was a challenge to make the range he asked on a lot of these things without popping blood vessels by the end of the night. Being a healthy person and being an athlete, I think was a big part of it, because that was an athletic endeavour, singing that stuff (laughs).
That's like running a marathon. I always took real good care of myself. On the 1982 tour, we were in Linz, Austria, where I had my thirty-fourth birthday, and for a birthday present I gave the rest of the band a yoga demonstration to show them what a well maintained thirty-four year old body would do. That was the lifestyle I lived out there. This didn't happen on a lot of tours. On Zappa tours, there was not this whole party/drugs/booze thing going on, like on some other tours I'd done. I would get up early and walk through the streets of these places I'd never been to before and find out what was going on. Education to me is of paramount importance all through life. If you stop learning, you might as well be dead because in a way you are. The travel of these tours was my on-going education.
When I show the 'Does Humor ...?' video to my girl friends, they are ready to throw their hot pants at you (RM laughs) especially after 'Whipping Post'. So did you get all the girls?
That's funny too. I remember the 1982 tour ... For most of my life, I have had times when I have been sexually promiscuous, but when I was in a relationship, I was monogamous. I didn't fool around. I was in a relationship during the 1982 tour, so I was completely celibate for that entire time. But I do remember being a little frustrated with it sometimes, wishing that I wasn't (laughs).
You mention 'Whipping Post' – now that was a funny story too. I used to sing the song back in the bar band days; it was one of the first leads that I actually started to do. I loved the song and the way Greg Allman sang it. One day, out of the blue in rehearsals for I think 1981 or 1982, Frank said 'Do you know 'Whipping Post'?' I said 'Do I know 'Whipping Post'?' And he said 'Great. Teach the band and have it ready for tomorrow.'
The reason was that one or two tours previously, they were in Finland, and somebody was yelling for the song. Nobody in the band knew the song, or could do it if they knew it, and that became our big finale, our last encore. It was great fun for me, because even though it wasn't a Zappa song, we burned the hell out of it. I had a chance to really go at the end. Sometimes, it wasn't the last encore and would go into something else, so I had to invent some way to segue into the next thing. Greg would sing 'Good lord, I feel like I'm dying' and I remember one time I sang 'Good lord, I feel like I'm the walrus' and we would go into that song. That was one of the most fun things to do. When we would have our huddle before the show and we would see the setlist for the first time, I would check out which songs I had lead on. The shows when I had a lot of leads to sing were the ones I loved. I loved doing all the other stuff, but my main instrument is really my voice. The more I got to use that, the happier I was.
What were the funniest things about the 1988 tour?
To me, these were all the spoofs we were doing on the televangelists. As a rational man, I am an atheist. I don't understand how people can believe in supernatural beings; I just think it's nonsense. It's something I've studied a great deal. I did not come to this decision lightly. I am an avid student of philosophy and various things you wouldn't imagine, like economics. I despise Kant. I'm an objectivist. It is to me the only coherent non-contradictory philosophy there is, every aspect from the metaphysics to the epistemology to the ethics; all of it builds on a logical hierarchy. Nothing contradicts anything else; it all makes sense.
So anyway that was hilarious, these guys like Swaggart getting caught with hookers in hotels. Those guys are such sleazebags to me. They prey, like wolves on rabbits, on these essentially innocent mostly poor elderly people that can barely afford to feed themselves, and they get them to send their money in to these idiots who are spouting this nonsense stuff. I remember I think it was Oral Roberts who said he was visited by this nine hundred foot Jesus who said 'You have to come up with X amount of millions by this date or I'm gonna come and take your life', and I thought 'Great; he's not going to be able to raise that sort of money and he's not gonna get killed and it'll all be exposed as a big scam'. But even then, the people keep sending these guys money and I think it's evil. These guys that pose as religious leaders are evil, and Frank saw it too. I like a lot of the stuff that he did like 'Dumb All Over' and 'Heavenly Bank Account'. Any time he would spoof religion, I loved it (laughs).
Musically what were the most challenging things about the 1988 tour?
For me, it was being the primary keyboard player. On that tour, we did a lot more free-form kind of jazz. 'Jazz' is not a word that Frank ever particularly liked, but we did more free improvisational jazz-type music on that tour than any other tour I did. That was a lot of fun. Coupled with me being the primary keyboard player meant that I had to do that stuff and I had an opportunity to do it, to play very free keyboard solos from time to time. Actually I could do this better than playing 'inside', playing the changes. I had an easier time just going free, and creating my own harmonic structure.
You used to sing along too, like Tommy Mars.
Tommy does this really well too. He doesn't have the vocal chops; he's got very good vocal chops, not as a lead singer, but he can do that scat along with what you're playing. A lot of people probably think than when they hear a jazz player just really flying and playing all kinds of unusual things, that they don't know what they're doing and it's just happening – that's bullshit! The test and the proof of knowing in your ear what's happening is being able to sing along.
I liked the Frank Sinatra thing in 'Big Swifty' in Barcelona, 'Strangers in the Night'. Do you remember that?
That was for the monitor mixer, Marqueson. It was his birthday that night and we did some unusual things. In 'Whipping Post' that night, I changed the words around, something about Marqueson supposed to be having a hooker and it never happened, and he was all frustrated. I changed the words to reflect his frustration. That was one of the most wonderful things about that tour, that on any given night, whatever had happened that day on the news or the night before in the hotel or that day on the airplane could and probably would come out in the concert in some way. Frank would change some lyrics around and we would follow. Another aspect of that tour was Ike and I would always be trying to guess where Frank was going to go with the lyrics tonight and a lot of times, we all hit it together and guessed the same thing at the same time. There were a lot of laughs on stage, in the hotels, on the planes; we laughed a lot all the time. That was the last time I worked for Frank.
The last time I saw Frank was shortly before he died. Towards the end, he changed his approach socially a little bit. He became a lot more social and started to have Margarita Nights on Friday nights at his house and just invite people from the band, from the arts and film and we would have these wonderful eclectic conglomerates of people. Frank would be relaxing because he was weakening by then. It was hard to see him (sighs deeply). [Some sort of edit]
The 1984 tour was unusual because we opened that tour with a week at the Palace in LA. George Duke came up, and Aynsley Dunbar, and all different kinds of people. Now was that when Slonimsky came up? I don't know; maybe not. (It was Santa Monica 1981-Ed) But I do remember that he came up and he played on my keyboard rig. I stepped back and I watched him from behind to see what he was doing. It was very interesting. It was also a very emotional experience that we had in the Summer of 1994, the Summer after Frank died. A bunch of us were asked to put together an all-star band from different eras and do some concerts in Europe, in Germany. One evening we all went to dinner with one of the people who was connected to that thing and had been a fan for a long time. A few of us were just talking about old times... [RM breaks down again]
Would you like to tell me about some of your other collaborations? First off, Bette Midler.
I joined her band right after the 1982 Zappa tour. When I got home from that, I had a call. Now that was another nice thing about going into the Zappa band. After I got into Frank's band, I never had to audition for anything ever again (laughs). People just knew. I had the call to go and do Bette's tour, from one of the singers in her backing band. That was a wonderful band. I played organ and synth, a lot of fun. I'm very glad I wasn't the musical director at that time as Bette could be very volatile. It was a very professional show. She is a wonderful entertainer, with a fanatical following. Although the music was not as challenging technically as Frank's, it was fun because the band was great. At the end of that tour, the band changed up a bit and I took over as MD, but we basically did the same show but with a different band, so I kind of inherited the show as Musical director and I didn't have to really create much in the way of new things, just get the new band up to speed. It was a very high level spot for me to be in.
I did a recording session with him. It was a rainy night. I got a call from a trumpet player who used to do all the Stevie Wonder things, and Steve and I had done some things together. Steve rang to say 'Hey, I've just had a call from Prince. He wants us to come down the studio.' He was doing a session with Sheila E whom I had met years ago touring with Orleans. Her and her dad were playing for Stephen Stills. Prince wanted some horn parts on this very quirky 1950s beatnik thing that he had done. It was almost Zappa-esque, so they wanted these free jazz kinda beatnik horn things in there. Prince was very removed and stand-offish, and not with the guys at all. He came out and played some voicings on the piano. He knew what he wanted to get. He's not a trained musician but he knows in his head and with his ears what he wants and he's very good at getting it out. It wasn't really a wonderful experience or remarkable in any particular way.
That was really a treat. I had been called to sing with Kenny Loggins on a big kind of choir thing, this was at the Hollywood Bowl. Before the show was over, Paul kind of sent word to everyone who had been in the show that he wanted everyone to participate with him on 'Hey Jude'. When it was done, he went and shook hands with the band, then he looked across the stage at the choir. He looked straight at me, walked across the stage and came over and shook my hand. Working with all the people I've worked with was great, but singing 'Hey Jude' with Paul McCartney and having him come and shake my hand was just a pretty wonderful thing.
That was interesting too. That again came through Steve Berlin. Steve was producing Leo Kottke and called me to come in and play some organ. Somehow or other, Lyle heard what I did on Leo's record and he wanted some organ on this tune, so he called me to go and do that. I just went in and overdubbed this part. Lyle had heard me do some real choppy B3 funky stuff and that was originally what he had in mind for me to do on this song, but it ended up not really working that well.
That was a lot of fun. I co-produced Wilson's comeback album in 1987 on Tamla Motown. That was the first year in the Eighties that I didn't tour. I had started to see touring as a dead end. It's working linearly. I'd realised a long time before that to have any financial success in music, linear work is not the way to do it. You've got to get into a royalty and residual situation; you have to write a hit song, produce a hit record, sing a national jingle or something. I did that for a while. We met with Wilson before recording and selected material and Wilson liked us. I played some things that I had done and he was very surprised that this white guy could do this stuff. Everything was going fine; we did a remake of 'Midnight Hour', his big hit from the 1960s.
This was another wonderful chance to work with someone that I'd heard as a kid and been influenced by. Some of the record was played live, but some of it was sequenced and I did all the sequencing. Most people think of Wilson as doing up-tempo soul and dance stuff, but he can kill a ballad. He can sing a ballad that can tear your heart out; he literally had me weeping into the faders.
Unfortunately before the album was finished, Wilson had some problems with the woman he was living with. Her brother came to keep her away from Wilson and Wilson went on a bender. He started drinking and he's not someone who handles alcohol well. He has the nickname Wicked Pickett, really came true there and we had a heck of a time getting the record done because Wilson just kept getting drunk every day. He would come in and he couldn't sing, so it was difficult. Because of these problems, we didn't get the chance to finish things quite the way we wanted to before Motown cut off the budget (laughs), so it's not exactly the way it could have been, but there's some great stuff on the record.
The Moody Blues?
That was done at one of the first studios I ever worked at in LA. It used to be a house owned by John Barrymore. I believe the Moody Blues had a part interest in the studio. They're the kind of band who are used to taking an entire day to combine two acoustic guitar tracks down to one; that's the way they work. They had a couple of Justin Hayward songs that they wanted some horn sounds on. I went up and listened to them and told them what I though ought to happen. It was exclusively me overdubbing about nine tracks of sax, French horn and flute on the two songs. I did it in a few hours and they were incredulous; they could not believe this was happening. They're used to working so slowly. I made a lot of money for that one day.
How old are you now?
I'll be forty-eight in two months (June).
How do you make a living now? You have a studio?
I'm engaged to Cybil Shepherd ... (Phone interruption) She is the star of the Cybil TV show on CBS (which Channel Four have started to run-Ed). We met through music. I was called by someone in her band to come and help put together a song she was doing on the Tonight show, a gospel ballad. We've been together ever since. I compose and perform the music for her TV show which is not extensive. It's not a music intensive show and it's usually just little transition things. I do that in my studio at times, sequencing the drums. I'm a real good drum programmer. Way back in the bar band days, there was an after hours club that I used to go to where there was a band with two drummers and I used to go up and sit on the second drum set. I couldn't play a fill to save my life, but I could play time. I just really love to play good solid time. Having played for so many years with so many great players, like Vinnie and Chad, I know what they do and how they do it, and I also know what happens in a symphony orchestra. So when it comes to sequencing things, I can do it in a way that makes it sound unsequenced.
I also get the chance to do some odd things, some spoof advertising jingles and stuff. Cybil's character in the show is a struggling actress. From time to time she'll get a job singing. The creator and head writer of the show knew that I was a musician as they had been to see Cybil and I perform together. In one show, she had to sing this jingle for a product called Toasted Chickies, a snack food that tastes like chicken. They wanted a jingle for her to struggle with in the studio, where they were trying to make her sound like a chicken and she can't get it. The guy played the piece over the phone and he asked me I could help him out. The next day, I came in with a full-blown version of this jingle. They gave me a few more things in the next show, and two shows later they said 'Why don't you do the music for the whole show?' And that's something I've been doing ever since. It's been something I've wanted to get into for a long time, not only for the challenge of creating something new every show. From the time I was a kid, I remember looking at TV and films and listening to the music and how it interacted with the action.
The other thing I like about is that it's what I call 'mailbox money'; it's the residuals and the royalties. You work once and every time it gets played, you get paid. If the show goes into syndication a few years down the line, then the cheques will be much bigger and I'll be much happier. It also gives me the chance to work with the woman I love. Then we are going to do some live dates, in San Francisco and in London. It's just the two of us. It used to be a four piece band, but I took over. It's just impossible to make money playing cabarets if you have a band, especially with travelling. I have now pre-recorded and sequenced bass and drums – sorry to put you guys out of work, but hey! This way, we get the exact sound we want and it gives me a little more opportunity to shine. We do some things live ... Technology is a wonderful thing and I love it. After we do these live shows, Cybil's shooting a TV movie and I may be doing the music on that. We are also doing a CD at the studio which is on eight track hard disc. It's at Cybil's house in Encino, a very good working situation, because any time I want to, I can go out there.
Have you done any film soundtracks?
I would like to do that. So far it's only been TV. Anybody out there want to hire me? I can do it!
Do you make a lot of money?
I make a decent living. The budget for music on a comedy TV show, even though it is the top show on CBS, is not big. I don't make per week what I made on the last Zappa tour per week, but again it's residuals down the line.
An ideological questions: In Europe, musicians get paid after they have done the sessions, when the song is played on the radio. In America, you get paid once and then it stops.
It used to be that only the artists would get royalties for a record in the States. That issue has been addressed to some degree. What happens now is that every year in August, there is a fund that goes to pay musicians who have done recordings, a taste, a small portion of the royalties that have been earned by their work. It's not still anything that approaches what Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones make from the record. I think it's appropriate that the artists make the lion's share of the money, but it's also appropriate that the musicians get some of it too, because their work is being used again and again. So now there is what we call 'The Magic Cheque'; it comes every August and you don't really know how big it's going to be, but according to what you did the previous year and all the ones before too, you'll make some money from that fund which comes from the royalties on those records. It's a little better than it used to be, but still probably not what it ought to be.
Ed: Last issue, in the first part of this interview, mention was made of 'The Mystery Studio Song'. Andy G would like us to point out that this was also known as 'Furnished Singles', 'Ne Pas Deranger' and then eventually 'Moggio' and 'What's New In Baltimore?'