The Mothers Tapes (Spool Three) – Don Preston

By Phil McMullen

Ptolemaic Terrascope, Summer, 1993

Continuing the series of interviews with former members of The Mothers Of Invention organised for us by Billy James (of the band Ant Bee, who has been recently recording with various ex-Mothers and Grandmothers). This issue it's the turn of keyboard and bass player Don Preston – a man whose career with Frank Zappa spanned the period 1966 to 1974, with time off for good behaviour in between, effectively from the LPs 'Absolutely Free' through to 'Roxy & Elsewhere'. Add to that stints with artists as varied as Carla Bley and Nat King Cole, Leo Sayer and Jack Bruce, the Fraternity of Man and The Residents and you have one prime target for the Terrascopic treatment: so without further ado, we'll skip to sunny Los Angeles for the Don Preston interview (courtesy of the patent Terrascope Self Interviewing Technique, no strings, mirrors or artificial stimulants used throughout ... )



I grew up in Detroit, my father was a musician who started out playing saxophone and then switched to trumpet. He was offered the lead trumpet part in the Tommy Dorsey band, settled in Detroit and became the staff arranger for NBC. I had sporadic lessons on the piano from the age of about five, although not from my father. When I joined the Army I was posted over to Trieste in Italy and was stationed in an Army band there along with Herbie Mann and a bunch of other people.

I also shared a room with Buzz Gardner, who later became a Mother – he was Bunk Gardner's brother. Still is, as a matter of fact.

I suppose it was about 1951 when I started playing bass; I was over in Italy and I had these Benzedrine inhalers – I'll never forget it, they were extremely strong and I sort of did one of those and walked the eight miles into town. Went into this club where a group was playing ... there was a bass stood in the corner with nobody playing it so I jumped up on the stand and started to play, which I'd never done before in my life. I played for, like, six hours and then walked the eight miles back to my barracks. Never did get a blister.

So I suppose my first band was the 98th Army Band, within which we formed small groups so we could jam and play jobs around Trieste.

Herbie Mann was very helpful when I first started playing; I didn't even know what a bridge was, and after I learned what a bridge was I promptly forgot them a number of times ... When I went back to Detroit I started playing with people like Paul Chambers and Elvin Jones, played with Elvin for about a year in an after-hours club and then moved to Los Angeles and started playing bass around here.


One day around 1962 or '63, I don't remember exactly when, I received a call from Frank Zappa. He had an audition at a club in Santa Ana and he needed a keyboard player – it was typical of the organ/tenor sax/guitar trios that were popular at the time. So I went over to Zappa's house and we played the audition and ... didn't get the job.

We actually played 'Oh No' at the audition, which I thought was kind of bizarre because it wasn't that kind of a club. During the rehearsals though I happened to browse through Zappa's record collection and saw that he liked a lot of the same composers as I did, that we had similar musical tastes.

Several months after that I was having these open free sessions where we would improvise to films of microscopic life and other art films that I would get out of the library. I invited Zappa to come and play in this band, and we jammed for a while. Zappa liked a lot of it and was actually in the process of starting to make films himself, so we would use some of his films to improvise on.

During about late 1965, I hadn't seen Zappa for year and a half or so and he suddenly turned up at my house looking just the way he did on those early Mothers albums, which was kind of shocking to me because I hadn't seen a lot of long hair at that time. I didn't know who it was at first. He started telling me about this band he had, telling me that they were touring a little bit, and I asked if I could audition for them – which I did, but he just said "sorry, Don – but you don't know anything about rock & roll so you can't be in the band right now ..." which was true.

Right after that I started getting work in rock bands though, even went to Hawaii with one band called The Forerunners and a year or so later! asked again to audition for Zappa's band, went down and did it and got the job.


I remember that we recorded 'Absolutely Free' at TTG Studios on a four-track, I'm pretty sure that's what it was. I certainly remember that it took an unbelievable amount of takes – every eight bars we would do about 28 takes, because there would always be something wrong. Sure, the whole band was playing live and since about half the band couldn't read music and we were playing from memory, there would be a lot of mistakes made. We would just keep going over and over stuff. Since you only have four tracks, you have to kind of play it live.

'We're Only In It For The Money' – I think that was done at Apostolic Studios in New York, and one of the interesting things I remember about that is doing the album cover. We all had to wear dresses; my dress was I think $200 which at the time was quite a large amount of money for a dress. They were all like that, and the set itself was quite incredible, all these mannequins and vegetables that you can see on the sleeve – it was really amazing. I don't remember much about the recording of that album, but ... it came out and sounded pretty good.


[In late 1970, a 'personnel shakeup' led to the departure of Ray Collins, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Art Tripp]. To explain how that original band broke up is really hard. There are many, many reasons ... I think Zappa was dissatisfied with some of the performances of the band, the limited nature of some of the people like Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black who couldn't read music – they did play some very complicated stuff, but it just wasn't complicated enough. Zappa wanted the very best sight-readers in the world to read his music, and unfortunately when he got these great sight readers they had absolutely no personality, which is why the band sounded the way it did after that. That's certainly why it looked the way it did, anyhow.

But, who knows what the real reason was in the end? Maybe some of the band were getting laid more than Zappa – I really don't know. But, it was a big shock to all of us, it was like when you've been married ten years and all of a sudden your wife leaves you. It was the same feeling, because we were all of us very close and we'd been doing this for quite a while and ... it was just a big shock. Some of the guys in the band were so hurt that they never spoke to Zappa again, other than legally anyway. Myself and Ian Underwood appeared in the next two bands, although after a certain point I just couldn't take any more and I left.


The 1971 band was of course put together with Aynsley Dunbar [drums], George Duke[keyboards] and Jeff Simmons [bass] plus a couple of Turtles [Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who together recorded 'Chunga's Revenge']. I was asked by Zappa to be in the band after 'Live At The Fillmore East', because some of the guys in the band didn't like the then current piano player [Bob Harris].

So I joined the band and we did a lot of touring and everything for about a year, then at Montreaux there was a fire and all our equipment got burned and a week later [December 1971] Zappa got thrown into the orchestra pit at the London Rainbow and that was the end of that band. But for some reason, and I'm not sure what it was, Zappa never contacted anyone. He never really said "you're fired" or anything, he just never got in touch.

He then got another band together with George Duke, the Fowler Brothers [Tom and Bruce] and Ruth and Ian Underwood – and I went on tour with them throughout the United States, also did the album 'Live At The Roxy' with that band. That was the last time I was in the band, I finally had a falling out with Zappa and couldn't do any more.


I don't know that I ever worked with Geronimo Black [the 1972 band put together by Jimmy Carl Black with Tjay Cantrelli, Bunk Gardner and Ray Collins amongst others], I recorded with them and might have appeared once or twice but that was just about all I did, until I started this band The Grandmothers that is with Jimmy and Bunk. We did several tours of Europe and I don't know if it was successful or not, but we sure had a lot of fun and it was really good to see that there were still fans over in Europe who wanted to see that band. I thought we played some good music.

I formed a number of bands after that which were all kind of jazz-rock groups Raw Milk, Loose Connection and Ogo Moto for example. I still had ties with Zappa in those bands, they were all sort of offshoots of what Zappa was into.

Eventually I finally got it all out of my system and went back to my own roots which were jazz of course, and started recording with John Carter, Carla Bley ['Escalator Over The Hill'], Gil Evans ['Where Flamingoes Fly'], the Residents ['Eskimo'] and a whole bunch of people. I also toured with Al Jarreau and with Lou Rawles, and somewhere between there I toured with Leo Sayer for three years as his musical director. The thing with John Carter was the most exciting for me, I recorded four albums and he was one of the most phenomenal musicians I've ever worked for – totally brilliant, and a great person too.

Over the last few years I've been performing with my own group, either a trio or a quartet, mostly playing the West Coast although I also did a jazz festival in Finland. I've yet to get a recording deal, but I'm working on it. Playing with Ant Bee is very exciting and I look forward to doing more stuff, I think we could do real well together and if it happens it would be great.

You should ask me some questions about my philosophy about music, like I think you have to push the limits of any art form and music is one of the major elements that progresses humanity. Art is the impetus for all the other technologies of life ...

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