To the unaware, the combo name of the Grandmothers must seem pretty sedate, maybe something like an oldies combo that shows up to play senior citizens' recreation centers. Yet not only do the various incarnations of this ensemble play music that is quite rowdy, even lewd, but the developments best summarized as "the politics of the band" include several lawsuits and enough attempted coups to keep a Latin American dictatorship busy for a decade. In the aging but still beating heart of the Grandmothers there is an essential connection to the music of avant-garde rock legend Frank Zappa. In his early years Zappa joined a typical California bar band called the Soul Giants. Eventually he changed the name of this band to the Mothers of Invention and changed the repertoire from R&B and doo wop to the challenging, innovative avant-garde rock he became famous for. Members of the Grandmothers invariably include some of the original Mothers of Invention, sometimes players whose history even goes back to the Soul Giants themselves.
Who these players are at any given time is part of the intrigue of the Grandmothers, although not always a good part. In terms of auxiliary members who do not actually have a direct employment history with the Mothers of Invention, the band has gone well beyond anything Zappa accomplished in terms of involving an international cast of players dedicated to interpreting his music. While Zappa mostly hired American musicians, important members of the Grandmothers have included Dutch bassist Ener Bladezipper and Italian guitarist Sandro Oliva.
In some ways, the entire existence of the Grandmothers can be interpreted as a kind of extension of a feud former members of the Mothers of Invention had with Zappa concerning music business subjects of extreme seriousness such as performance royalties and publishing credits. Forced out in the cold by Zappa's decision to disband the original Mothers of Invention in 1970, some of the players desiring continuing music careers were no doubt encouraged by the feelings of some Zappa fans. Their opinion, revolting to Zappa needless to say, was that this early group represented the high point of Zappa's career, at least in terms of a certain type of audacious, nearly surrealistic humor.
The first version of the Grandmothers came along in 1980 and naturally featured a triumvirate that had -- among many other things weird and Zappa-esque -- been photographed wearing dresses for the gatefold cover of the 1968 We're Only in It for the Money. Drummer and singer Jimmy Carl Black, the infamous "Indian of the group," plus former Army buddies Don Preston on keyboards and multi-instrumentalist Bunk Gardner, are certainly among the most versatile and entertaining players Zappa had ever hired. Zappa himself became the target of the new band's on-stage satire and was apparently particularly upset over a dummy of himself that was being used in various provocative ways.
This began a pattern of the Zappa family and its legal minions fighting with various members of the Grandmothers. In the case of the aforementioned ribbing of Zappa it was clearly an example of something actor Edward G. Robinson described perfectly in one of his gangster roles: "You can dish it out, but you can't take it in." Other legal wranglings involved the right to perform and record Zappa compositions and, most importantly, unsanctioned use of the actual name of the Mothers of Invention by greedy promoters. At one point in the early '90s, the Zappa estate quashed a new recording deal for the Grandmothers with a major label that was unfortunately not interested in working with the band unless it was allowed to use the name of the Mothers of Invention.
Black has pointed out in many interviews that the Grandmothers are not, strictly speaking, a Zappa cover band. The group's repertoire touches only on material from the Mothers of Invention days and also features songs by Black and Preston as well as much other appropriate cover material from the '60s and '70s. Some of the membership over the years has involved players from Zappa's later bands and projects, however. Black has detailed a lively anecdote when some of these younger musicians attempted to hijack a version of the Grandmothers, their goal being to replace some of the older members with younger upstarts. "I came down to breakfast one morning in the hotel and the first thing they said," Black recalls, "was to ask 'How would you like to be the only original Mother in the Grandmothers?'" Black says he answered their question with another question: "How would you like to hang it out your ass?"
Black, usually with Gardner and Preston and sometimes with original Mothers of Invention bassist and falsetto vocalist Roy Estrada, has been responsible for the most coherent and industrious versions of the band, one of which was seen in many American towns during a lengthy tour in 2000. Black's genius in this situation was to involve the aforementioned Europeans, who brought to the stage a combination of youthful energy and a looser, much less uptight attitude about Zappa music. Black had a version of the band with local musicians based out of Austin, TX, during his residency there in the '80s, but his version of the Grandmothers only really took off after Black became an expatriate in 1992 -- allowing him much easier access to the European audience.
Since 2002, Preston has become the de facto leader of the Grandmothers, shifting the band's base of operations to his hometown of Los Angeles and utilizing musicians from this area as well as the geographically altered name of the Grandmothers West. The latter change seems hardly necessary as Black himself has lost interest in the project, dissolving his European version of the group in favor of activity with groups such as the British Muffin Men, whose set list includes much Zappa as well as songs by Captain Beefheart and the Beatles. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi