STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
While interviewing Napoleon Murphy Brock about the upcoming show with the Ed Palermo Big Band, I asked him about his album “This Is What Frank Zappa Heard.” I had read about how Brock and Zappa first met during my preparation for our interview, but his retelling of the story is so great that I wanted to include it as a companion piece.
“‘This Is What Frank Zappa Heard’ is a live recording of the night that Frank Zappa and I met. I had a band called Communication Plus. The night that Frank walked into the club… the story is his road manager came out to have a good time. He saw this line of people on a Wednesday night at this hotel club, a club in the hotel called the Red Noodle. He asked the bouncers, ‘What’s going on in there?’ They said, ‘It’s Communication Plus, that’s why all these people are lined up.’ He said, ‘Who’s Communication Plus?’ They said, ‘Well, get in line and find out.’
“He came in and saw me and went to the hotel and woke Frank up and said ‘you have to come and see this guy. He’s up there playing bongo drums, saxophone, flute, dancing and singing and having more fun than people on the dance floor.’ Frank got dressed and he and Gail [his wife] came down. They sat in the back of the room because there was no place else to sit.
“After hearing my band Communication Plus perform for 2 hours, he walked up to me and said… ‘Hello my name is Frank Zappa and you’re my new lead vocalist.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are. I’ve never heard of you. Are you a musician?’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What do you play?’ He says, ‘Guitar.’ I said, ‘Really? Frank Zappa, why haven’t I heard of you before?’ I said, ‘Do you record music?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’ve never heard it on the radio and I listen to all the stations, classical and country as well. So what kind of music do you play?’ He says, ‘Well, it’s a little controversial.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK.’
“The bottom line is I rejected his offer. He made me an offer to be in his band as the lead vocalist and front man. I rejected his offer and thanked him for his compliments. Before I walked away though, I said, ‘By the way, who’s in your band?’ He said, ‘George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty.’ I said, ‘Whoa, stop a minute. George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty, they’re musicians in your band?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, George Duke is my idol, number one, and I totally respect Jean-Luc Ponty. If George Duke is in your band, I can’t say that I’ll join your band but I will come and listen because I don’t even know what kind of music you have but if George Duke is there, you’ve got to be really good, really good, because I know all about George Duke.’
“I had recorded that whole night not knowing that he was going to be there because I didn’t even know who he was. I recorded because that was part of my method for making the band improve how we sounded and how we played. I would make tapes and we would critique the tapes and then rehearse the next day and improve upon it.
“After all these years and all these things that you know… people would ask me the question, ‘What were you doing when Frank Zappa first met you?’ This is a live recording of what he heard and this basically turned out to be my audition tape.
“He used what he heard and went back and told George Duke and Jean-Luc and Ruth Underwood and Ralph Humphrey and the Fowler Brothers, ‘I have a new lead vocalist coming, a front man.’ They said, ‘Do we get to hear him?’ Frank says, ‘No, he’s coming to listen. If he likes what he hears, he’s in the band.’ They said, ‘We don’t get to hear him?’ He said, ‘You don’t need to hear him. I know he’s the one that I’ve been looking for for years.’
“I even asked him, ‘If you just met me how can you have been looking for me for years?’ He said, ‘Listen, I’ve been looking for you for years and now I found you.’
“What Frank really hired me for (was) to be an interpreter, to interpret his music for the audience but not just interpret it by speaking, but by singing, by choreography and by animation. That’s why if you look at the videos, you’ll see an animated front man. That’s what he wanted and he saw that. That’s why he said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for a long time.’ I was already doing it. He didn’t have to tell me or teach me. I already understood the concept.
“That’s how it all happened. So I released the CD, and I titled it appropriately, ‘This Is What Frank Zappa Heard’ because that’s what Frank Zappa heard.”