We recently passed on the sad news that original Mothers of Invention vocalist Ray Collins had died on December 24th. A couple of days later we received a note from drummer Art Tripp (through his friend Christopher Garcia), who worked with both Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Here are Art’s memories of Ray Collins:
It’s not quite dawned on me yet that Ray Collins is no longer in this terrestrial world. Since the late 1960’s it had always been a type of comfort to me to know that Ray was around. And Ray did get around. A child of the 1930’s, he came of age in the 1950’s when times were good. He developed a free spirit and a resistance to labels and rules. His fine tenor voice got him work in prominent L.A. doo-wop bands; but he took other types of work as well. One of them was a good paying job building sets for the movie studios. He told me he quit because he got tired of the idiots.
He joined up with Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black in the Soul Giants. When their guitar player quit they hired Frank Zappa, a musician Ray had worked with earlier in the 1960’s. Soon the Mothers of Invention were born, and Ray helped front the band, and was its lead vocalist for the next three years. His ribald and off beat sense of humor was a perfect complement to the unclassifiable group.
When I joined the band in 1968, it was as if I’d died and gone to heaven. The humor, the iconoclasm, the musicianship, and the wide variety of music were a perfect fit. And to me Ray was the fountainhead of the basic nature of the band. Yet later that year Ray’s distaste for the group’s musical direction compelled him to announce that he was leaving the group. I was stunned. Everyone was shocked. How could he quit when the group was getting so popular, and starting to provide us with so much work? But off he went, and I felt that he took the spirit of the Mothers with him.
Ray had his own convictions, and he was never one to veer from them. He resolutely held to his beliefs no matter what the popular course. As a man of the people, an everyman, Ray was a true free spirit—a Beatnik, and a wanderer.
I have many memories of Ray. We played the Grammy Awards in ’68 at the plush NY Hilton. Steve Allen was the host that year, Woody Herman and his Herd was the house band. When they drew the curtain up for our performance Ray walked over to Steve and said, “How’s your bird”? Allen let out a big horse laugh, and the guys in Herman’s band doubled over in stitches.
Ray joined us for a last gig in San Diego in 1969. During the show Ray improvised a gag which lampooned Jim Morrison’s “exposure” on stage a few weeks prior. Morrison’s antics had sent shockwaves throughout rock ‘n roll, and people suspected he’d gone too far. So Ray’s satire caused the entire audience to come unglued.
We kept in touch over the years. A few months ago my wife and I went out to L.A. to visit old friends. We got together with Ray down at the venerable Phillipe’s Restaurant near Union Station. Afterwards we spent some time at Olvera Street, then we walked down to Union Station to see Ray off on his train back to Claremont. After a few final words, he turned and walked down the tunnel to his train. As I watched him go, I knew that it would be the last time I was to see Ray. Yet I never would have dreamed that he’d be gone in six months. Goodbye, old friend. I can hear you singing to them in heaven.
– Art Tripp