Ray Collins: Zappa's Mouthpiece

By Steve Propes

Sh-Boom, March, 1990

Singer Ray Collins was a former member of a popular East Los Angeles doo-wop group called Little Julian Herrera & the Tigers when he met Frank Zappa, and the two of them worked together for several years. Ray was one of the original Mothers of Invention, and his voice was prominently featured on their doo-wop parody album, Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, as well as on Freak Out and Absolutely Free. He is no longer active in music.

SH-BOOM: How'd you meet Frank Zappa?

COLLINS: I was living in Pomona. There was a bar I used to go to, and my friends and I were drinking there one night. Frank's band came in there, and I heard him playing R&B stuff, which I thought was pretty bizarre because they were playing pretty obscure things.

SH-BOOM: How big a band?

COLLINS: Four pieces: bass, drum, guitar, the basics, maybe two guitars. I eventually got up and sang "Work With Me, Annie" and some R&B ballads, and I told Frank I had an idea for a song called “How's Your Bird" – it was a Steve Allen thing [on TV]. He'd also say, "How's your fern?" and that's how we came up with the name Baby Ray & the Ferns. So Frank called a couple of days later, and he said, "I've written 'How's Your Bird,' how would you like to record it?" So we went to Studio Z [Zappa 's studio in Cucamonga, east of Los Angeles] and did "How's Your Bird" backed up by "The World's Greatest Sinner."

SH-BOOM: So that came before "Memories of El Monte."

COLLINS: Yeah. We sat down one day and took that title from [deejay] Art Laboe's oldies album, Memories of El Monte, which was probably the very first oldies album. Art didn`t start putting out his Oldies But Goodies albums till later. Frank said he and a friend had thought of writing a song from that title, so I sat down at the piano and started playing "Earth Angel" changes. The first line came immediately: "I'm all alone, feeling so blue." It was just a song about the dances at El Monte Legion Stadium. Frank's the one who took it to Art Laboe [who owned Original Sound Records], and [Art] loved it right away. He's the one who came up with the idea of adding the names of different groups and having the Penguins impersonating them.

SH-BOOM: What did each of you bring to your collaboration?

COLLINS: I brought the style of being raised in Pomona, being raised on pop music by the 4 Freshmen, Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra and Jesse Belvin. I had recorded with the Tigers and performed at El Monte with Johnny Otis's band and [saxophonist] Chuck Higgins' band. Frank's influence was more the real blues, like Muddy Waters.

SH-BOOM: Then you joined the Soul Giants.

COLLINS: Yeah, they were playing at a club in Pomona. They had Roy Estrada, who became the Mothers' bass player, and Jim Black, [later] the Mothers' drummer. I'd get up and sing with them, and the club owner said they could stay if I became the lead singer. The Mothers evolved from that.

SH-BOOM: What was the concept of Ruben & the Jets, and how much did you have to do with its creation?

COLLINS: Not a lot. It was recorded in New York City, Ruben & the Jets and also the Uncle Meat album and part of Weasels Ripped My Flesh came out of that period. 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. I've never liked Frank's presentation of an album.

SH-BOOM: How did you fall out with Frank Zappa?

COLLINS: Even on the first album, Freak Out, in the original liner notes, Frank tells about how he and I always disagreed on the content of the album. It started at the beginning of our association. When we'd go like, on The Steve Allen Show, I'd say, "I want to get out there and sit down and talk to Steve too." I was always kept in the background.

The Ray Collins interview here is taken from Steve Propes interview on KLON August 8, 1989. Full transcription of radio tapes – The Ray Collins Interview.

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