Jim Sherwood: Core member of Frank Zappa's The Mothers of Invention

 

Jim Sherwood's ever-shifting role with The Mothers of Invention was emblematic of the unconventional and iconoclastic approach favoured by Frank Zappa, the group's maverick leader, guitarist and composer. Credited with "noises" on Freak Out!, the landmark debut on which Zappa and his cohorts waged a "low-key war against apathy" in 1966, Sherwood was promoted from "equipment handler" to full membership of The Mothers on their first European visit in 1967.

The following year, he contributed baritone and soprano saxophone to We're Only in it for the Money, whose gatefold sleeve pastiched the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – Sherwood, then the eighth member of The Mothers, is the only one facing the camera (a reverse of Peter Blake's design, which has Paul McCartney with his back turned). The album lampooned the flower power movement yet made the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, as did Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the 1970 compilations of live material and studio outtakes issued after Zappa announced the end of the original incarnation of The Mothers. Sherwood also appeared on Lumpy Gravy – nominally a Zappa solo project (1968) – the doo-wop homage Cruising with Ruben & The Jets (also 1968) and Uncle Meat (1969), on which his credit reads: "Pop star, frenetic tenor sax stylings, tambourine, choreography, obstinance & equipment setter-upper when he's not hustling local groupies."

One of four siblings, Euclid James Sherwood was born in Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1942, and grew up in California. When he was 12, the Sherwood family moved from San Bernardino to Lancaster in the Mojave Desert, where he met both Don Van Vliet – who later adopted the stage name Captain Beefheart – and Zappa. "Frank and I just hit it off. We were always swapping blues records," he recalled.

Sherwood occasionally guested with The Blackouts, a band featuring Zappa on drums. When Zappa moved away in 1957, the group evolved into The Omens, with Alex St Clair on guitar and Sherwood on baritone sax. They played rhythm'n'blues covers and Sherwood became infamous for his "ability to perform a dance known as the bug, which resembles an epileptic fit," as Zappa told Rolling Stone magazine in 1968.

The Omens broke up in 1962 and, after a spell working in construction in Lake Tahoe, Sherwood joined Zappa who was honing his composing and production skills at Pal Recording Studio, soon renamed Studio Z, in Cucamonga. "I even lived in the studio with Frank for about six months. We would get a lot of people over there to do things," he said of Van Vliet's visits, the experimental sound collages they devised, and their multi-media on a low budget approach. "It was 16mm movies. Weird stuff that Frank eventually used in Uncle Meat."

In 1964, Zappa hooked up with the vocalist Ray Collins, the drummer Jimmy Carl Black and the bassist Roy Estrada in the Soul Giants, the core line-up of what became The Mothers on Freak Out! and Absolutely Free, the group's 1967 follow-up. Sherwood served as roadie and was soon nicknamed "Motorhead" because he always seemed to be fixing an old car or a motorbike. "That seemed to stick. I've been called that ever since," he reflected.

When The Mothers moved to New York for a six-month residency at the city's Garrick Theatre in 1967, Sherwood became a mainstay. "That was one wild time. Frank figured that most people's attention span was about five minutes at most. So we'd do really bizarre things, little puppet shows. I was doing the lighting and I'd take vegetables and hang them on a wire. Once we had three Marines who were getting shipped out to Vietnam. They got up on stage and took a doll and ripped it to pieces. Incredible stuff."

Having appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London in September 1967, The Mothers completed We're Only in it for the Money in the US and returned to Europe in the autumn of 1968. By the following year, the line-up had swelled to a nine-piece, with each member on a weekly wage of $200. The expenditure swallowed up Zappa's songwriting royalties and contributed to his decision to break up the band. According to Sherwood, "Frank wanted to go in a different direction. We talked about it. There could have been other ways around it, but I agreed with him."

In 1971, Sherwood appeared in 200 Motels, the baffling feature film made by Zappa and director Tony Palmer. "Frank wanted me to play a newt rancher in love with a vacuum cleaner. I don't know what that had to do with anything. The rest of it was based on abstract ideas of how strange it is to tour, the bizarre people you encounter and all the weird things that go on."

Two years later, Sherwood joined Ruben and the Jets, whose mainman, Ruben Guevara, had brought Zappa's doo-wop conceit to life and recorded For Real!, their debut album sanctioned and produced by Zappa. Over the next two decades, his name cropped up on a variety of Zappa releases, mostly of an archival nature. He occasionally guested with The Grandmothers, a group of Mothers alumni, and worked as a plumber and for the California highways department in San Jose.

"I feel honored to have spent time with Frank and the other guys in the early group. We played off the feelings of each other. It was a family group," he said. "It was the individuality of everyone in the band that created the whole effect Frank wanted. Frank loved it and thrived on it. His music is something I enjoy listening to all the time. It's always new and different and incredible."

Pierre Perrone

Euclid James Sherwood, saxophonist: born Arkansas City, Kansas 8 May 1942; married; died Los Angeles 25 December 2011.

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