Los Angeles, late 1962
. A bar-band's guitarist invites a drunken carpenter on-stage to sing "Work with With Me Annie". Louie Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the death of Frank Zappa, let us pause to celebrate the life and ponder the fate of Mother Ray Collins
, who passed away last December.
was one of Zappa's earliest collaborators, the Mothers' lead vocalist, an under-appreciated contributor to the Mothers' sound (and to "conceptual continuity"), one of a very small number of people to share song-writing credits with Zappa, carpenter, taxi driver, dish washer, world-class procrastinator, a perennial "where are they now" subject since 1968, and finally unofficial Village Greeter of Claremont, California.This post includes lots of quotes. Quotes by Ray Collins are in italics. Quotes by others are indented.
Raymond Eugene Collins was born 19 November 1937
(not 1936). He grew up in Pomona, California, son of a police officer. At Pomona High School, he played halfback on the football team.
He was really tough. Nobody messed around with him. — a classmate
He began his public performance career singing at school assemblies. He first heard R&B records in tenth grade, and learned to sing in that style.
He had a beautiful falsetto voice. — a classmate
Ray did not graduate, first because he’d skipped too many classes, and second because he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant and dropped out to marry her.
Doo Wop Days
After high school Ray sang with various groups, mostly providing falsetto backing vocals. He performed at some of the famous dances at El Monte Legion Stadium backing Chuck Higgins, Johnny Otis, and Joe Huston, among others.
All three of these band leaders are included in the Freak Out! list of influences. Chuck Higgins’s Pachuko Hop (1952) appears on the Memories of El Monte collection and is name-checked in the lyrics of “Jelly-Roll Gumdrop” on Ruben. The flipside is a song called Motorhead Baby, featuring the future Johnny “Guitar” Watson on piano and vocals.
Johnny Otis is a towering figure in west coast R&B; as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, record producer, television host, politician, minister, etc. His biggest hit was the original Willie and The Hand Jive (1958). His son Shuggie Otis also has a long musical CV, but his most relevant contribution here is that he provided the inspired bass part on Zappa’s Peaches en Regalia.
Backing Joe Houston, ‘Wild Man of the Tenor Sax’ on All Night Long could not have been much of a challenge for Ray.
Ray’s earliest known recorded
performance was on Little Julian Herrera and the Tigers
’ I Remember Linda
The Tigers were friends of mine, and . . . I just kind of went along to watch the session. Art Laboe said, "Can you do the falsetto?" or something. I think Little Julian wasn't too thrilled about it. . . . Art Laboe paid me ten dollars for the session. That's got one of the greatest sour notes in history, by the way, coming right out of the bridge.
But just as “I Remember Linda” started moving up the local charts, Julian Herrera was arrested for rape.
I was there that night. . . During the break, the police came and arrested Julian. We went on without him [but] it killed the record.
One of the things that I didn't like about the [Freak Out!] album was the fact that [Zappa] put Julian Herrera's name like in big letters . . . but my association with The Tigers and Julian Herrera had absolutely nothing to do with Frank Zappa or The Mothers.
Meeting Frank Zappa
Frank's band came in, playing pretty obscure [R&B]. Eventually I asked Frank if I could sing [with them]. [Afterwards] I told Frank, "I've got this idea for a song called How's Your Bird?
[The Steve Allen show was a tagline factory; ‘How’s your bird?’ was only one of many!
] Frank called me up a couple of days later and said, "I have written the song. Would you like to record it?" I said, "Yeah, of course."
These sides were all recorded in a flurry of activity in the early months of 1963 at Paul Buff’s Pal Studio.
I remember suggesting to Frank that we lock ourselves in the studio and not come out until we got a hit record. But we came out without a hit record-- but after having a lot of fun, of course.
How's your Bird?
(Zappa) b/w World’s Greatest Sinner
Baby Ray and the Ferns
Memories of El Monte
(Zappa / Collins)—
The Penguins. In 1960, Art Laboe had released one of the first oldies compilations, Memories of El Monte, a collection of songs by bands that used to play at the dances Laboe organized at El Monte Legion Stadium.
One day Frank said he and a friend thought of writing a song with that title. I said, "Let's do it." . . . I just sat down at the piano— and my piano playing is very limited, I can play the Earth-Angel type of changes – and the first line came immediately: "I'm all alone, feeling so blue. . .”
Ray did not participate in the recording, but to the end of his life, he received royalty payments as co-composer.
(Zappa / Collins) b/w Surf Along with Ned and Nelda
(Zappa / Collins) —
Ned and Nelda “Ned and Nelda” of course came about because of Paul and Paula[‘s hit record, “Hey, Paula”].
Everytime I See You
(Zappa / Collins) —
The Heartbreakers. Frank and I [wrote this] at the same piano in his house in Ontario [where we wrote “Memories of El Monte”]. . . . and then one day he said these guys, The Heartbreakers, had done the song in Cucamonga. I had nothing to do with that session; I wasn't there.
Love of My Life
Ron Roman. Dave Aerni recorded Ron Roman's voice on top of a track that Frank and I and Paul Buff had done that already existed, so I'm on there doing falsetto and background vocals.
Love of My Life —
The original version, with Ray's vocals restored, was finally released on Greasy Love Songs
. Some sources list Collins as co-composer, but I think this is incorrect.
Fountain of Love
(Zappa / Collins) —
unreleased original version, appeared in The Lost Episodes
Any Way The Wind Blows
unreleased original version, appeared in The Lost Episodes
(Buff / Collins) —
unreleased original version (with original spelling). Paul Buff had a track with no vocal and he didn't know exactly what to do with it. I said, "give it to me" and I wrote Deseri on top of it. I believe the original old version is better than The Mothers' "too clean" version. I think Francis Vincent Zappa [is the drummer], if I remember right. He's on foot-stomps, too. Or shoe-stomps — I think he didn't use his feet, just his shoes.
(Actually, Ray was incorrect, Zappa’s not on it.) Finally released on The Grandmothers' Looking Up Granny's Dress (1982) and later on Paul Buff Presents, vol. 1. This has a spoken introduction by Ray, where he refers to himself as Uncle Meat.
[Collins] turns in an absolutely gorgeous lead vocal, to say nothing of falsetto harmonies that more than rival the Four Seasons performances of the same period.—Skip Heller
Loeb & Leopold / The Sin City Boys
Ray and Frank performed parodies of folks songs in coffee houses during the Cucamonga period under these pseudonyms. Regrettably, no media of any kind seems to exist of these gigs.
We sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" as "Joe the Puny Greaser," and "The Streets of Laredo" as "The Streets of Fontana." . . . We were just doing it for a laugh, to have fun. . . . [We sang] about pimples and all kinds of other far out things that [became] the basis of some of the things The Mothers eventually wound up doing. — FZ
The Soul Giants
Frank and I had parted after making records in Studio Z . . . I was just doing menial work as a carpenter and drinking away my paycheck every week. . . . [the Broadside] hired a band called The Soul Giants. I used to get up and sing with them.
[The club's owner liked Ray's singing better than the bands's lead singer, and told them they could keep the gig on condition they replace him with Ray.] I always felt kind of bad about that, actually, but you know, I wanted to sing.
Three months later, they found themselves without a guitarist. Zappa (who was not there) always said that Ray Collins had “punched out” (guitarist) Ray Hunt in a fight. This bit of Zappa mythology was a recurring source of irritation for Ray Collins: Absolutely not. I never touched Ray Hunt in any manner, shape or form. I don't even remember shaking his hand. In any case, they needed a guitarist, and Ray knew one who had just become available; Ray called Frank just two days after the latter got out of jail following his bust for ‘conspiracy to commit pornography’ in early April, 1965. Within a month, as we all know, the band had become . . .
Here are some Pre-Freak Out!
studio recordings, featuring the four original Mothers plus short-term Mother Henry Vestine. These appeared on Joe’s Corsage.
(The original “Louie Louie” arrangement)
I Ain't Got No Heart
Any Way the Wind Blows
Nobody ever heard anything like that.
Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder
(Zappa / Collins). I was thinking about my ex-wife. . . Frank and I were in Cucamonga, and I said, " I got this idea about, 'Don't bother me . . . Go cry on somebody else's shoulder.'" He said, "Great!" So I sat down at the piano and started playing it, and Frank joined in. The spoken part on the album, is all just ad-libbed, right in the studio, about the khakis, and the Mexican input.
You Didn't Try To Call Me
. More of Ray’s ad libs in the fade.
Groupie Bang Bang
. An outtake from the Freak Out!
That's my favorite Mothers album.
The official Absolutely Free Complete Libretto
helps identify who sang what.
The Duke of Prunes
. Should Ray Collins have received a co-composer credit for “Duke of Prunes”?
Frank had this very beautiful tune called “And Very True”. The original lyrics I think were "Moonbeam through the night," something very loving — although Frank doesn't like love songs — and when we went in to record it . . . I [sang] "Moonbeam through the prune, in June, I can see your tits.”[sic] I just made it up on the spot. So later I told Frank, "I just made up those lyrics, so if not money," — although I didn't say "Don't pay me" — " I should at least get album credit for it." He says, "Just tell me what you want to put on the album." A couple days later, I said, "Well, just put 'Prune: Ray Collins.'" And he put the "Side 3" part. That was out of his own mind.
Call Any Vegetable
. The superior original arrangement.
America Drinks & Goes Home
. Another Collins monologue, at least partially ad libbed, though the gag about “Caravan with a drum sola” is part of Zappa’s conceptual continuity.
Garrick Theatre residency and stage ‘atrocities’
Regrettably, no sync-sound video seems to exist of the Garrick Theatre performances; we have only a few minutes of crazed home movies
, a few still photos [1
],and first-hand accounts:
The Mothers were doing a lot of instrumentals, a lot of times there was nothing for me to do, so I became sort of like the Jonathan Winters [of the group], where you throw him a hat, or three hats, and he'd do an hour routine or something. I just used to ad-lib things and do comedy with whatever was available. We started using fruit on stage, and stuffed animals. Frank brought in a doll, and that kind of started the whole thing. We started doing "nasties" to the doll, and I'd have the doll crawling up my leg, like I was a rock star and the doll was after my person. . . . we used to hook up [the stuffed giraffe] so whipped cream was coming out of its rear end.
Ray Collins came up with the giraffe. — Jimmy Carl Black
Sandy Hurvitz (Essra Mohawk), performed with the Mothers at the Garrick that summer:
Ray Collins . . . said to Frank one day, “What do you think of the name Uncle Meat for a rock star?” Frank thought about it for two seconds, pointed at me and said “You’re Uncle Meat”. After a couple of months I said "I really don't want to be Uncle Meat"! . . . Frank said "Okay . . . If you don't want to make money out of the name, I will."
We’re Only In It For The Money
One of the times Ray quit coincided with the sessions for Money
; which is a shame.
Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, Uncle Meat, Weasels Ripped My Flesh
Much of these three albums were recorded out of the same sessions.
To me, [Ruben ] was really a tribute to Ray Collins. That was Ray Collins' whole trip, man. He did most of the vocals . . . He was the doo wop guy. — Jim Black
Frank didn't discuss anything with me. I just went in and did the best singing I could possibly do. The parody was Frank's idea. I think Frank has the tendency to put down what he's doing in fear that it might not be accepted.
Ray Collins' lead vocal is pure gold. — All Music Guide
(Buff / Collins). This re-recording of the Cucamonga era track was released as a single and made it to #39 on KIOA in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jelly Roll Gum Drop
. The lyrics refer to “do[ing] the Pachuco Bop”; see Chuck Higgins under Doo Wop Days
Later that Night
. Ray’s fine fine superfine monologue quotes from the Velvetones’ cover of The Glory of Love
(1957), which in turn quotes Larry Darnell‘s I'll Get Along Somehow (pt 2)
(Collins). The only song in the Mothers / Zappa catalog credited solely to a band member. Apparently written, performed, and presented entirely without irony.
Fountain of Love
(Zappa / Collins)
Love of My Life
Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague
Mr. Green Genes
. I think you’re probably Out to Lunch
Quitting the Mothers
I think I quit the Mothers four times. . . I didn't like doing that stuff onstage. Too much comedy, too much making fun of stuff. . . . I wanted to make beautiful music. I was raised on Johnny Mathis and Nat 'King' Cole.
[Ray] was good [but] he didn’t enjoy singing [my lyrics]. In fact, one of the reasons he left the group was that he didn’t like the songs – he hated them. — FZ
[Ray] performed both the satire and difficult charts so well, that I never knew until much later that he really didn't like doing that stuff. Ray has always been a true vagabond, and resisted being tied down or being told what to do. He loved to sing, and he never gave a damn about money. — Art Tripp
Hit it, Zubin!
In May 1970, almost a year after 'firing' the band, Zappa called in ex-Mothers Ray, Don, Billy, Ian, and Motorhead and future Mothers Jeff Simmons and Aynsley Dunbar for a short tour culminating in a collaboration with Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic Orchestra at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. This show combines material from the anarchic Garrick shows and the premier of 200 Motels.
The May 09th Fillmore East show
. FZ stage introductions: "We are thrilled and delighted to have with us on the bandstand once again none other than the dynamic Mr. Raymond Eugene Collins."
The May 15th Pauley Pavilion show
. Ray is heard during the first 20 minutes of the show and again sporadically during the last 20 minutes. The last thing out of Ray’s mouth on this, his last public performance with Frank Zappa is, "It’s still bullshit."
I ran into [Jimmy Carl Black and his band] at the Ashgrove one night,
[in 1971] when I had just walked out of an apartment that I had to vacate 'cause I couldn't afford it, and had absolutely no place to go. And Jim said, "So why don't you join our band?" . . . They were in making a demo [of] songs to put on the [album] and they asked me for one; so we actually created [a] song in the studio, and I called it Mayonnaise Mountain.
But [that song] isn't really what Mayonnaise Mountain is . . . I suppose, when you don't get the opportunity to record all the ideas that you have in the world, you sort of throw them out any way you can. What Mayonnaise Mountain really is, is a shopping cart in a market, you know, which is piled with all the different things that people try to sell people, and are successful at it – you know, goo-goos and craggels and boggles, and cokes, whatever. All the junk of the world, piled on top of the shopping cart. That's what Mayonnaise Mountain really is.
" was re-issued, along with the original Cucamonga version of “Deseri” on The Grandmothers’ album Looking Up Granny's Dress
It appears Ray was basically homeless during much of the 1970s and 80s.
When he had a little money, he stayed at the St. Moritz Hotel, a fleabag next to the rehearsal hall, and when he was broke (most of the time), he floated. I let Ray . . . spend a couple of weeks on the sofa at my place. While he was there, he got a windfall — a check for $35.03 — total quarterly royalties for all the songs he'd written or co-written on the early Mothers albums. . . . [Not long after that], Frank asked me to tell Ray that he wanted to use him as a backup vocalist. I guess he didn't feel comfortable calling the front desk of the St. Moritz and leaving his old colleague a message. . . . Frank, I noticed, treated him quite indifferently . . . When I asked why, he snorted, "Too much acid". There had apparently been a fair amount of bad blood between them. — Nigey Lennon
Ray’s background vocals on the first two tracks of Apostrophe (‘)
[summer 1973] were his last contact with Zappa, and his last commercially released performance.
Ray moved to Hawaii in the late 1970s, to be with his daughter.
I met Ray Collins washing dishes in a restaurant in Lahaina, Hawaii in the summer of 1976. His daughter was going to Maui Community College. He was a very nice guy, totally friendly, and totally broke. He was sleeping on the beach and I slept there too. — Morgan Wright on Ray’s United Mutations entry
Ray’s daughter died in a plane crash in the early 1980s. He returned to California.
He [once had] a good paying job building sets for the movie studios. He told me he quit because he “got tired of the idiots”. — Art Tripp
I sang with [Andy Cahan’s] band the other night , out in Covina. I sang “Memories of El Monte”.
Ray joined the Mothers' class action lawsuit against Zappa in 1985. The suit was settled in 1991, and with his portion, Ray moved to Claremont, California, where he would stay until the end of his life.
Ray lived in a trailer provided by a friend until 2004, when he bought a 1986 Chevy Astro van and lived in it, parked in a church parking lot. He reportedly donated $20 to the church every month. His only income was Social Security and songwriting royalties.
At some point around 1993, Ray found the time, inspiration, and help to record a cassette of new songs
. These were never commercially released. I think of these as outsider music from a former pop star.
A song credited to Ray Collins, “Everybody’s Rockin’ But Me” appears on a 1995 release by a rump Fraternity of Man band.
This is probably Rays' last recorded musical performance; a bit of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”
rendered a capella
and al fresco
Death and Tributes
On 18 December 2012 Ray was admitted to hospital with a massive heart attack and he passed away on 24 December 2012. His remains were cremated; no service was held.
There was however an informal celebration of Ray's life in Claremont attended by about 200. People were invited to say a few words, and given chalk to leave a message about Ray wherever they best remembered encountering him. The local bakery filled its window with Ray Collins memorabilia, "in loving memory of our friend and loyal customer."
Last March, someone noticed
that Ray is visible on Google Street View
, sitting outside Some Crust bakery, one of his favourite hangouts. Until those views are updated, Ray is immortalized in Google Map’s server farm.
Here’s a Ray Collins tribute video
So who was Ray Collins?
He looked like an ex-hell’s angel that would bash your head in if you even talked to him . . . he turned out to be the most peaceful person I know. — Pamela Zarubica
A high-browed Viking.— Doon Arbus
One of the best vocalists Zappa ever worked with. — Barry Miles
One of the best singers I'd ever heard in my whole life. — Jim Black
He had the ability to sing really great but [at some point he concluded] that being a showman was bullshit. — Don Preston
I got into The Mothers to replace Ray; an impossible job, because no-one can replace Ray.— Lowell George
Motorhead's nickname was coined by Ray Collins. — Don Preston (But see "Motorhead Baby" under Chuck Higgins, above.)
Ray had a weird sense of humour, and he rarely repeated himself. It was fresh every night. Ray was an extremely funny person. Especially on stage. More on stage than not. — Don Preston
Ray was a little on the strange side . . . couldn't easily understand him. — Bunk Gardner
It took me a while to get to know Ray 'cuz he's kind of a private guy when he's not performing. — Art Tripp
I've tried to get Ray to sit in with the Grandmothers, but he won’t have anything to do with Zappa’s music at all. — Don Preston
When I walked away, I walked away with nothing. But that's my personality. Probably why I'm sitting here in the Claremont Village, going, “Huh?” . . . I've always walked away from things that were threatening, authority-wise – that's one of the greatest things in the world, to walk away from a job. . . . Money has just not been my friend. I wonder if it's a psychological thing. . . . I don't know why; money has always evaded me.
He would occasionally appear to be trying to get a band together, but no project ever moved beyond talk. — David Allen
I don't know what designate[s] me the non-doer on the planet. I still have plans to do things, you know, I still want to record, and sing. I love to perform. People will ask why it's been 40 years since I've been on stage. I don't know.
Ray and Frank
Ray [once told me about] the time Frank got into a donnybrook with a heckler and Ray had to dive in and rescue him.— Nigey Lennon
Frank and I always disagreed. . . . It started at the beginning of our association. We'd go like, on The Steve Allen Show, I'd say, "I want to get out there and talk to Steve too." I was always kept in the background.
[Ray] and Frank did not agree on a lot of things . . . A lot of band meetings were taken up with the two of them arguing. — Bunk Gardner
At a band meeting . . . the classic line was delivered by Ray Collins: “You need to go to Big Sur and take acid with someone who believes in God!” —FZ
That's out of context, of course. . . . [what I meant was ] "lighten up, Frank.” It [wasn’t] a major event.
An archetypal acid burnout victim. — FZ
Frank used to say, "Yeah, Ray gets all these great ideas and then I use them, I do them." But I noticed over the years that, either someone told him or he realized it himself, that that's not a good thing, to go around [saying] that somebody else [gave you] a lot of ideas that you had. . . . [But h]e says a lot of good things about me, too. So I got to look at both sides of it.
If you're a composer, you need a vehicle to bring your music to life. . . . It's fortunate that I had Ray Collins, because if I hadn't met him, I wouldn't have had any way to move into that kind of songwriting. – FZ
In that area of the world, it was nice to run into somebody like Frank Zappa. . . . We just liked each other instantly.
After it was announced that Zappa was ill, Ray called Frank's house in an attempt to see him one last time; the meeting did not happen.
Sometimes I wonder, when you're sitting around thinking why you're sitting around thinking — I've done that a lot — and wondered why it is that I've actually done very little recording and performing in my lifetime. If you just enjoy life, it's conducive to not being successful, you know what I mean? I just enjoy life.
Ray Collins sat down in 1989 for some rare on-air interviews with David Porter (KPFK) and Steve Propes (KLON). These are the source of most of the Ray Collins quotes available in the universe. Here's an edited transcript
(For the obsessed, audio exists online in the form of bittorrents, too.)
David Allen, writing for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
, got to know Ray in Claremont. His articles are the source of some quotes and most of the information about Ray's last years and days, and after:
Prism Films interviews, source of most of the former Mothers' quotes: