Alex St Clair

Guitarist with Captain Beefheart


Alexis Clair Snouffer (Alex St Clair), guitarist: born 1941; married; died Lancaster, California c5 January 2006.

Despite the fact that he retired from music in the mid-Eighties and has been concentrating on painting for the last 20 years, Captain Beefheart remains a major influence on the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Fall, David Byrne, Kate Bush, John Lydon and a host of other groups and singers.

A genuinely original and arresting performer with a growly voice, a multi-octave range and something of a reputation as a hard taskmaster, Beefheart - né Don Van Vliet - defined alternative rock when he recorded the Safe as Milk album with the Magic Band in 1967. Alex St Clair (sometimes spelt St Claire) - real name Alex Snouffer - was one of the original guitarists with the group and helped shape their sound from their inception in 1964 via their deranged cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" single released in 1966 and on to the groundbreaking Safe as Milk.

St Clair left at the end of the following year, after completing work on the Strictly Personal album, but stayed on speaking terms with Beefheart. Indeed, he rejoined the Magic Band in 1972, touring with them the following year and contributing to Unconditionally Guaranteed, their 1974 album for Richard Branson's Virgin Records.

Born in 1941, Alexis Clair Snouffer grew up in Lancaster, California, and played trumpet in the Antelope Valley High School band, where he met Frank Zappa, who was on drums. By the late Fifties, both Snouffer and Zappa had moved on to guitar, were playing rhythm'n'blues covers in various bands and hanging out with their friend Don Van Vliet.

Before going on to worldwide notoriety with the Mothers of Invention in the late Sixties, Zappa recorded soundtracks for a couple of B-movies. In 1963, he used the proceeds to open his own Studio Z in neighbouring Cucamonga. Snouffer frequently visited and jammed with various musicians in between odd jobs collecting money from slot machines in Lake Tahoe and playing in cover bands.

Determined to create more challenging and original music, Snouffer came back to Lancaster in 1964 and recruited the guitarist Doug Moon, the bassist Jerry Handley and the drummer Paul Blakely. As Van Vliet recalled in a 1973 interview:

"Alex St Clair called me - you know, the fellow who was on Safe as Milk. He had a great influence on Jimi Hendrix when he was in England. Anyway, he calls me and says: "I'm putting a group together and we're gonna play tonight. You're gonna sing, Van Vliet." He's a real Prussian, you know? I said, "Give me a minute, will you? I never sang anything. I don't know anything about music", and he says, "Tonight, you're going to sing." I must have sounded like a burro or something. And he says: "That's horrible, man." I say: "I told you." But he says: "We're gonna do it anyway, and it'll get better."

Things didn't so much get better as weirder for the group now calling themselves Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band after the talented frontman considered making a film called Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People. Snouffer embraced the idea of using aliases and creating stage characters and took up the moniker Alex St Clair.

In 1965, the freaky group appeared at Hollywood's Fourth Annual Teenage Fair and won a new Fender guitar. Bizarrely, St Clair briefly switched to drums when Blakely left and the guitarist Rich Hepner and then Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jim Semens) stepped in but, by the time they recorded their two singles for A&M - "Do Wah Diddy", produced by David Gates of Bread fame, and "Moonchild" - in 1966, John French (a.k.a. Drumbo) had joined and he was back on guitar.

However, the A&M bosses Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss passed on the original version of Safe as Milk which the Magic Band had cut and the group signed to Buddah in 1967. They set about re-recording the material with Richard Perry and Bob Krasnow producing. Perry added the up-and-coming guitarist Ry Cooder - then in the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal - to the mix and the combination of his slide and St Clair's and Cotton's staccato interplay formed the perfect accompaniment to Beefheart's mighty growls on "Sure 'Nuff'n' Yes I Do" and the stomping "Electricity". But Cooder's tenure proved short-lived and his departure forced the group to cancel a planned appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Now married, Alex St Clair felt increasingly uncomfortable as Beefheart's approach grew ever more dictatorial. The guitarist eventually left the Magic Band at the end of 1968, after two European visits which included a showcase at the Miden music conference in Cannes filmed for French television and two John Peel sessions, as well as shows at the hip London club Middle Earth. He also played on the sessions for both Strictly Personal and Mirror Man, an album which wasn't released by Buddah until May 1971.

St Clair backed Denny King on the Evil Wind is Blowing album but returned to the Magic Band at the tail-end of 1972, joining a line-up which featured the guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo, the bassist Rockette Morton and the drummer Art Tripp III.

He played on the Unconditionally Guaranteed album but left again in 1974 as matters came to a head between Beefheart and the Magic Band, who left en masse. Rollo and Morton formed Mallard and signed to Virgin while Beefheart recruited a completely new Magic Band and St Clair opted to go back to the US. In the Eighties and Nineties, he had a succession of odd jobs, from bartending to gardening, and spent some time in rehab. He was found dead in his apartment earlier this month.

In 1978, Beefheart recorded a song entitled "Owed T'Alex" on the Shiny Beast (Batchain Puller) album. Co-written in the Sixties with the poet Herb Bermann, the impressionistic lyrics depicted St Clair's motorbike visits to his mother in Carson City.

Pierre Perrone

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