Jimmy Carl Black: Drummer and vocalist with The Mothers of Invention
Thursday 06 November 2008
"Hi boys and girls, I'm Jimmy Carl Black, and I'm the Indian of the group". This was how the drummer and occasional singer with the original line-up of The Mothers of Invention would introduce himself on stage and on record.
Led by the guitarist, composer and singer Frank Zappa, this incarnation of the Mothers, as they were known, to the dismay of their record label MGM, released five ground-breaking albums and three compilations between 1966 and 1970. Zappa and his cohorts waged "a war against apathy", asking "Who Are The Brain Police?" on their 1966 debut album, the double-set Freak Out! Then, when all around them were singing about peace and love, they turned on the hippies and took a caustic, contrary stance with We're Only in it for the Money in 1968. Not only did the lyrics to "Who Needs The Peace Corps?" lampoon the flower power movement – the line "I will love the police as they beat the shit out of me on the streets" was only reinstated on the CD reissue in 1986 – but the gatefold sleeve was a pastiche of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with the dress-wearing, long-haired and moustachioed Black at its centre.
"I didn't like that dress 'cause it didn't fit but I thought it was a great picture," the drummer said in a recent interview. "We weren't the first band to do a picture in drag, the Rolling Stones were. If it was good enough for them, then it had to be good enough for us. I had no idea that We're Only in it for the Money would be considered a classic piece of musical history and I don't think Frank did either."
Black sang lead on the "Big Leg Emma" single in 1967 and also played on the albums Absolutely Free (1967), Lumpy Gravy – nominally a Zappa solo project (1968) – the doo-wop homage Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (also 1968) and Uncle Meat (1969) as well as the compilations Mothermania (1969), Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (both 1970). He featured on many subsequent releases from the Zappa archives and appeared in Zappa's movie 200 Motels (1971) as "Lonesome Cowboy Burt". He enjoyed filming 200 Motels in the UK, especially since two of his favourite drummers, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, were involved.
Though Zappa led two more incarnations of The Mothers in the Seventies, the original personnel helped fashion the experimental sound and inventive style the composer explored throughout his career. "It was a challenge but I loved it," Black said. "He [Frank] very patiently taught me how to play all those rhythms and time signatures. He knew I could do it."
Away from Zappa, the drummer worked with Geronimo Black, a short-lived group he formed with Bunk Gardner of The Mothers, with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, appearing with them at the 1975 Knebworth festival, with the British vocalist Arthur Brown, and with the avant-garde instrumentalist Eugene Chadbourne. He also played Zappa's music with various Mothers alumni in The Grandmothers and toured with The Muffin Men, the Liverpool group who revisit Zappa and Beefheart material.
Born James Inkanish Jnr in 1938 to Native American parents, he was adopted by Carl Black, who his mother married the following year. He grew up in Texas and played the piano as a child, but took up the trumpet in his teens and was the soloist in his school band. He switched to drums after seeing Elvis Presley in concert and enlisted in the US Air Force in 1958.
In 1964, he moved to Los Angeles, fell in with the bassist Roy Estrada and the vocalist Ray Collins and formed The Soul Giants. Zappa replaced their original guitarist and assumed leadership of the group, renaming it The Mothers.
"Frank was kind of freaky-looking, but I liked him a lot," Black recalled. "Frank said, 'If you guys learn my music, I'll make you rich and famous'. He took care of half that promise. I got famous, but I damn sure didn't get rich!"
Within a year, the group secured a deal with Verve after they were spotted performing "Trouble Every Day" at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. By the time they recorded Freak Out! they had evolved far from their roots as a cover band and were taking pot shots at the emptiness of American culture and consumerism. Their mélange of jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, rock, sound collages and musique concrète went against the grain of most pop music in the Sixties but, much like their label-mates the Velvet Underground, they have proved hugely influential. In particular, they informed the skewed, satirical world view of the Simpsons creator Matt Groening and strongly influenced the European underground in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
Despite a residency in New York through much of 1967, and a successful European tour the following year – which included an appearance on the BBC television show Colour Me Pop – the Mothers, whose line-up had swelled to a nine-piece, broke up in 1969 under the financial strain and Zappa's dictatorial approach.
"Frank was the BOSS," Black said. "There were no arguments about music because if you did, he would show you where the door was. Period. We just got a phone call from him stating that he had decided to break up the band and your salary has ended as of last week. That is pretty cold in my opinion, after all the loyalty we had given him through the years of starving for his music."
Following the failure of Geronimo Black he went back to Texas in 1973 and worked in a doughnut factory while playing the odd gig with The Valley Loboys. In 1980, he guested on five tracks on Zappa's You Are What You Is, including "I Don't Want To Get Drafted" and a revival of the Lonesome Cowboy Burt character on "Harder Than Your Husband" – "I even got paid," Black quipped.
He subsequently hooked up with Brown to perform as well as run a painting company in Austin called The Gentlemen of Color. "We would paint anything that didn't move – but mostly houses," he said. "We painted a shitload of them, and sometimes people who knew who we were from the old days would have us sign the house after the job was done."
In the mid-Nineties, Black moved to Europe and lived in Italy and Germany. He toured with Chadbourne and various incarnations of the Grandmothers and also played with the Muffin Men as well as making sandstone sculptures. A charity concert in his memory will be held at the Bridge House 2 in Canning Town, London, on 9 November.
James Inkanish Jnr (Jimmy Carl Black), drummer, singer and songwriter: born El Paso, Texas 1 February 1938; three times married (three sons, three daughters); died Siegsdorf, Germany 1 November 2008.
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