Meanwhile, the resorts in Lake Tahoe were shutting down for the winter and Alex decided to fly south. He soon got in touch with his old friends Jerry Handley and Don Vliet.
Well, when I first got back from the Lake Don was one of the first people I went to see, cause he and I had been pal-ing around before I left. I didn't really go over there for any musical thing, except that Jerry had mentioned to me that he played harp. [...] Yes, I started the band, I hand-picked everybody, except for Vic [Mortensen]. [...] We started the Beefheart thing and we played good blues for a long time. In fact, that's how we got noticed down in Hollywood. Nobody could do it as well.
Snouffer frequently visited [Studio Z] and jammed with various musicians in between odd jobs collecting money from slot machines in Lake Tahoe and playing in cover bands.
Alex St. Clair [...] calls me and says, "I'm putting a group together and we're gonna play tonight. You're gonna sing, Van Vliet." He's a real Prussian, you know? I said, "Give me a minute, will you? I never sang anything. I don't know anything about music." And he says, "Tonight you're going to sing." I must have sounded like a burro or something. And he says, "That's horrible, man." I say, "I told you." But he says we're gonna do it anyway, and it'll get better. So that's how I went onstage in Lancaster, California. Out of paranoia, I took some of my art things with me. I took a Hoover Superchief Vacuum Cleaner-one of those really heavy ones with a Mars light-and plugged it into the amplifier during the intermission. I had these Mexican ducks, you'd call them jumping beans, and I got a single spotlight on them and even unveiled them with a little curtain I brought. I was doing an artistic show, and the people dug it. That's what got me on the wrong track, because I went on into that.
When I first got back from the Lake (Tahoe) up there, Don [Vliet] was one of the first people I went to see. 'Cause he and I had been pal-ing around together before I left, so I didn't really go over there for any musical thing. Jerry [Handley] had mentioned to me that he played harp. I thought, "OK," (doubtfully)—you know. (Laughs) I'd heard him play sax a few years before, and I thought, "This oughta be good," you know.
[...] Sure enough, he was (good) . . . I would say, far as I am concerned, he's the best white harp man that I've heard, and probably takes out half the blacks with him. Know what I mean? Know what I'm saying? I mean, that dude was flat good, man!
The beginning of this whole Captain Beefheart thing was getting together with Frank. So Frank and Don and I were getting together. Then Alex came back into town and we got connected up with Alex and Jerry [Handley] and we started talking about doing some things musically and we got together and partied and jammed. The next thing you know we were talking about putting a band together.
[...] We were all partying and having a good time, and Jerry (had) kept The Omens going . . . he was the guitar player in The Omens, in their last days.
We were putting a new band together, (me and) Doug, who had been playing for a while. I had been hanging out with (him) for a while. He was interested in the blues. We'd get together and just jam a little bit. Doug and I . . . and Alex and then there was this fellow I went to school with since I was in sixth or seventh grade, P.G. Blakely. [...] He'd been playing drums a long time, all through school. He was one of the best drummers in the Valley.
[...] So we had two guitars, bass, drums and then we didn't have a singer. That's when Don came up to Lancaster having played with or recorded (with Zappa), I guess, I don't know what. They were experimenting with movies and music down in Frank Zappa's studio in Cucamonga.
I noticed that Jerry's guitar was always out of tune on the high notes, you know. I would watch him tune it, and he would say, "That's it!" and I would say, "No, it's not, man!" And he would hit a chord and, sure enough, he was out. So I watched that for a while and finally talked to him because we needed a bass man anyway, 'cause his bass strings were always on, always right there, it was the highs he couldn't hear real well.
So this all came about that we discovered that Jerry was struggling with his pitch. The band really took form when we realized that Jerry had a very good sense of timing, rhythm and feel. He really felt those bass notes. Then it clicked, "Hey, maybe you should be a bass player." When we put him on bass, he was right into it. That was the first incarnation of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band even before there was a name. PG on drums, Jerry on bass, then I went on guitar and Alex came back from Tahoe. He ended up on guitar. He's the one that picked up that Jerry should be on bass, because Alex is sharp, really really sharp.
We were trying to figure out what songs we could put together so we could play a dance in Lancaster. I remember one song by Ernie K Doe called "O Poo Pa Doo". Another one we liked was "Heart of Stone" by the Stones. We also played "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MG's. Don liked to sing "Boom Boom" by Hooker.
I actually tried singing "Big Boss Man" by Jimmy Reed. You would have got a chuckle out of that noise. We rehearsed at P.G.'s house a few times but primarily most of the rehearsals were at my house. My parents loved the band and they let us rehearse in their living room . . . which was great. It got us out of the garage.
I hadn't heard Don sing before . . . mostly because he hadn't done much singing . . . maybe a little with Zappa down in Cucamonga. It was a little rough at first but the more we got into the blues material we could see that was the right direction for us. Vic [Mortensen] was brought in because P.G. had problems with timing on the type of songs we were doing. I think it was all new to him and he just wasn't into it like we were.
The first live show was at a hall called The Exposition Hall in Lancaster. As I recall we were well received except they looked at us a bit strange because we were growing our hair out and playing music that wasn't in the top 40's.
Before Mortensen was invited into the band, Paul (PG) Blakely had held the drummer's position for a short time. [...] Vic Mortensen's first contact with the rest of the band members was during this period of Studio Z.
OK. Now I met the guys from Lancester. Like I said, Frank and I would stay there most of the week. Those guys would come down on the weekend. Don and Doug and Alex would come down from Lancaster and we would jam.
Vic Mortensen reports that he had been coaching Don on the basics of blues harmonica on his various visits to Studio Z.
Frank and I would sit around in the studio [...]. We got to playing on the character of Captain Beefheart, and I had already met Don, and I knew who he was, although he didn't call himself that, he was only going to be cast into that character if the screenplay ever got done. Anyway, Captain Beefheart was supposed to be a magical character. His thing is what he could do if a (container) of Pepsi were opened, he would drink the Pepsi Cola and he could make magic things . . . he could appear or disappear. I told Frank, I said, hey wouldn't if be cool if Captain Beefheart had a Magic Band, and wherever he went, if he wanted the band to appear, he would drink a glug of Pepsi, and "BINGO" there's the band right behind him, 'jukin.' We had a laugh about it and he thought it was pretty clever and blah blah.
Now, Don wasn't there at the time, but about three days later, a few days later I was down in Montclair—I was living in Montclair at the time—I got a call from Don. He said, "I'm starting a band. Would you like to play in it?" and I said, "I think that's cool"—because we had all played together and we knew we could work together. And I said, "What are you gonna call the band?" And he said, "Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band" and I said, "Far out!" I didn't even discuss it . . . I am sure he had heard it—the only place he could have heard it—was from Frank.
At the time we were starting this blues band, Don came up from Cucamonga. I was on the phone with Alex or Don, one of the two, and they said, "Well, we've got a name for the band, Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band" . . . I just cracked up laughing, man.
So when I went up to Lancaster, I got my drums in the VW bus and off I go [...]. Anyway, I got up to Lancaster and that is when we started rehearsing at Jerry's house.
A promising opportunity presented itself in 1964, when guitarist Alex Snouffer (later known as Alex St. Clair and Alex St. Clair Snuffy) returned from a Lake Tahoe casino club gig to form a new Lancaster combo. "I'd known Don back in high school," he recalls. "He played damn good harp, and he knew all that Howlin' Wolf stuff, so he seemed right."
Also recruited for this group were guitarist Doug Moon (who had done some work with Van Vliet and Zappa at Studio Z), bassist Jerry Handley, and drummer Vic Mortensen. It took a few months for the ensemble to arrive at a name that seemed to fit. As Moon remembers, "We all felt a sense that something was happening that was out of the ordinary—it was all kind of magic. We were driving around in Don's Jaguar, and we tossed the name Magic Band around, and about a half an hour later, we said, 'This might be it.'"
And so it was. In 1965 the group scored a big breakthrough by appearing at the Teenage Fair at the Hollywood Palladium. It was there that The Magic Band met the Rising Sons, which featured an 18-year-old Ry Cooder on guitar. Ry taught Snouffer and Moon some slide licks, adding yet another element to The Magic Band's sound.
My new best friend, Victor, had a real-life rock and roll cousin who lived in a trailer in the desert, with the outrageous name of Captain Beefheart. Vic titillated me with this information more than once before inviting me to see his group, the Magic Band, perform at the Teen Fair at the Hollywood Palladium. [...]
The next night was the long-awaited [Rolling Stones'] concert at the Long Beach Arena [May 16, 1965]. I might have thrown my bra on stage with some of the other crazed girls, but I was sitting next to Beefheart.
"He was in a band with Frank Zappa called Captain Beefheart," Karen [Luly] said. "He wasn't that good on bass guitar."
By the end of '65 Beefheart and the band had signed a two-single deal with A&M Records. Slated to produce was David Gates, then a rising young songwriter/producer who would go on to fame in the early '70s as the key member of the soft-rock quartet Bread. As Snouffer tells it, Gates had a hand in choosing a cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy": "He came down to a rehearsal and asked us if we knew the song. We played it, and he said, 'I've got some ideas, man . . .'" The band cut the tune with Snouffer sitting in on drums, replacing a recently-drafted Mortensen. Rich Hepner, a friend of the band's from Denver, handled Alex's guitar duties.
Released in March 1966, "Diddy Wah Diddy" was a hit in Southern California but failed to make the national charts. (Competition from another version of the song by The Remains, a Boston-based group, may have been a factor.) For the band's follow-up, A&M released their version of "Moonchild," a sort-of-psychedelic tune written by Gates that failed to attract much attention.
Recorded in mid-1967 at RCA Studio-B in Hollywood, the album that would be titled Safe As Milk began the unraveling of the first Magic Band. Actually, there already had been some changes—after Mortensen's departure, Paul "P.G." Blakeley took over on drumming duties, to be, in turn, replaced by John French, formerly with the Lancaster group Blues In A Bottle. Augmenting Snouffer and Moon for the sessions was Ry Cooder, brought in to add his distinctive slide touch, though he was still not yet a full-fledged Magic Band member.
Both Snouffer and Moon remember the Safe As Milk sessions as growing increasingly tense as time went on. At Beefheart's insistence, parts and arrangements were changed, and he asserted his band leadership in less-than-gentle ways. The outcome of all this was Moon's departure from the group midway through the project, though much of his guitar work remained on the tracks. [...]
On the eve of the group's scheduled performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival, in June 1967, Cooder quit the band, forcing them to cancel what could've been a career-making opportunity. Don replaced him with Jeff Cotton, another Lancaster-based musician, and resumed performing later that summer.
Bob Krasnow, the man who brought Beefheart to Kama Sutra, left the label and attempted to sign him to another company under questionable legal circumstances. Before contractual matters were firmly in place, Krasnow went into the studio with Van Vliet and the reconstituted Magic Band to record Strictly Personal at Hollywood's Sunset Sound in April and May 1968. [...]
Things took a turn for the worse after Beefheart turned in the master tapes for the album and headed out on a European concert tour with the band. While they were gone, Krasnow added phasing and other special sonic effects to the sound and released the album on his own newly created Blue Thumb label. What started out as a cleanly recorded blues-rock effort was marred by these psychedelic noodlings (later dubbed by Beefheart as "Lysergic Bromo-Seltzer").
[...] Whatever the merits of the album, Strictly Personal went largely ignored, and by the time of its release in November 1968, both Snouffer and Handley had called it quits. Down but far from out, Beefheart moved with his remaining bandmates into a house on Entrada Drive in Woodland Hills (at the outer edge of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley) and began to recruit replacements.
You know, at one time Elwood Jr. Madeo tried up for Captain Beefheart's band. But it didn't work.
[...] Frank [Zappa] suggested a guy to Don that went way back to their days in the desert. He was known as Junior Madeo and he lived in the Bay Area. Frank flew him down for a few days. Junior stayed with us. It was a totally different atmosphere in the house having him there. Don was, of course, on his best behavior. There were no tantrums and none of the tension that usually existed in the house. Junior was a balding jazz player who sounded a lot like Joe Pass. He had a similar kind of guitar as I recall—a red Gibson 335—actually very much like the guitar Jerry [Handley] sold to Ry Cooder.
My impression was that he did not at all fit in to the style of music in looks, personality or style. He was technically really a good player, but it was all rapid-fire scales and flat pick strumming and soloing. He taught Jeff [Cotton] and Jerry a number of exercises and ways to improve their playing and I had the feeling that he probably made part of his living by giving private lessons. He was a very likeable guy, and the time he spent with us was inspiring in some ways and in others, it was just going through the motions of him being there for a few days. I knew he wasn't the guy. He left unceremoniously with a promise of "we'll be in touch."
[...] Jeff and I got together and talked after Madeo flew home, which was in June of 1968. Don was willing to give him a try, but Jeff and I felt that Junior was completely wrong for the band, although we all liked him. It was at this time, in the true tradition that "misery loves company," that Jeff and I cast our votes for Bill Harkleroad as Alex Snouffer's replacement.
At the same time he was rehearsing with Beefheart, he recorded a few tracks with FZ, along with members of both The Mothers and the Magic Band.
El plays lead guitar, formed and was the leader of the Ramblers. [...] Those were memorable days, we were all so young in many ways. Frank had a lot of respect for Junior as a guitarist. Years later Frank flew him from San Francisco to Los Angeles several times for album recording session.
The sessions we did at Whitney for Trout Mask Replica were great! We had a wonderful time. Later, when the Zappa thing folded up and I was getting ready to leave L.A., Don says, "When I do my next album I want you to record it!" I said, "Great, I'd love to!" He says, "OK, I'll send for you." I kind of forgot that, and time went by—six months to a year. All of a sudden I get this call from Don, "Come on out—I'm making a new album and I still want you to do it." So I got on a plane and flew out there.
A side note here—Herbie Cohen told me, "OK, when you're doing these sessions we need you to be 'our man' in there. Beefheart has a way of wasting studio. So without upsetting him, we want you to kinda keep things moving so it doesn't get needlessly expensive." Great. So now I had two roles.
We got into the recording studio at the Record Plant. We were working on stuff, getting some tracks down, and things were going along fine. It was day three or four. We were working on a track and Don was asking me for some kind of really special "locomotive" sound on his voice. We were experimenting with multiple microphones and strange placements and stuff. It got to a point where I had to make a mild but obvious executive decision like, "Let's move on, we're spending too much time on this" or "Let's keep it rolling." It wasn't a big deal. Well, Beefheart exploded! Went ballistic on me! Suddenly it was, "I'm the boss here and you have nothing to say about this! Who do you think you are? You're done, you're fired, get out of here, beat it!" Wow, this is a guy I'd been real close friends with up until that instant. I never did understand that—that was that! I went to see Herbie, got paid in full, and went home! And Don and I haven't spoken since. To this day I have no idea what that was all about.
Clear Spot didn't even make it as high on the U.S. album chart as The Spotlight Kid, peaking at #191. The Magic Band's lineup continued to be in flux—Ingber had left as Clear Spot got under way, followed by Estrada. Alex St. Clair Snouffer came back from exile to rejoin the group on guitar for tours in 1973, allowing Mark Boston to take up the bass again.
Parting company with Reprise, Beefheart entered an odd phase of his career that linked him with some unlikely company. By some chain of events, he began working with manager Andy DiMartino
In 1975, Frank Zappa was on tour. One of the people on the tour was Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet, who I've known since I met him in 1964 with Frank. They passed through El Paso on tour and I went and sat in with them. I got talking to Don and he mentioned that he was going to Europe later that Summer and asked if I would play drums for him. So officially, I joined the Magic Band in the Summer of 1975. We played the Knebworth festival in England and several other gigs, the last of which was at The Roxy in Los Angeles—and that's when I left. I couldn't really handle it. I loved playing with him, I learned how to play the drums backwards and he was a fun guy to play with but, he didn't have that much work and I wasn't about to move back to California.
So it was only about a week after they finished that tour that I went out to L.A. for six weeks of intense rehearsal. [...] We used the rehearsal room at Discreet Records, which was the company that Herb and Frank had set up. [...] Frank was around the building most of the time so I saw him just about every day. He had some sort of studio there and was listening to all the road tapes from the Bongo Fury tour. [...]
At the start of rehearsals, there was Drumbo and me on drums, the "Winged Eel Fingerling" (Elliot Ingber) was on guitar and spaced out of his mind as usual at that time, and a guy named Greg Davidson on the second guitar. We still didn't have a bass player.
Drumbo was a great guy and he taught me everything about Beeheart's music that pertained to the tour. I had a lot of fun with him and he was one hell of a drummer.
[...] I knew this other guy (he had played with Geronimo Black briefly) who I thought could play this music. The guy's called Buell Neidlinger and he was a monster bass player. [...] Buell had also done some stuff with Frank in the past, but it seems that he and Frank had had a serious falling out. So, when Buell went to the rehearsal on the first day, Zappa came flying out of the office, pulled Beefheart off to the side and side, "That guy ain't playing in your band because he's not gonna rehearse on these premises and in fact, we want him out here right now!"
[...] Someone (I think it was Denny Walley) suggested Bruce Fowler. He said, "Put his trombone through and octave divider and let him play the bass!" So that was the beginning of the Bruce Fowler Air Bass! He'd had a pick-up on his trombone from the Mothers tour and had been experimenting so it was a logical step to try it out. He became Bruce "Fossil" in the Magic Band.
[...] So, we did six weeks of rehearsals, but in reality there might have been 90 minutes of rehearsing done each day, because the rest of the time was spent listening to Don's bullshit, Man!
[...] Beefheart told Greg that he had to have a name for The Magic Band and so immediately his name became Greg "Ella Guru" Davidson. So I said, "Well, how about me?" and Beefheart said, "Well, you're Jimmy Carl Black!" and I said, "No, if I'm gonna be in The Magic Band, I want a name too!" So he just said, "OK, you're Indian Ink Con Safo!" and I said, "Perfect!"
[...] We only played four shows. The first was a TV show in Chicago called Sound Stage, then we went and played the Knebworth Pop Festival in England and it was the most people I ever played for in my career. There were over 250,000 people at that festival and it was scary. We finished with two nights at The Roxy, which were added later on.
Very special thanks to the now extinct and missed Detlef Jürgens' Beefheart Timeline site.Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos