In the fall of 1977, Frank Zappa came to St. Louis to play a show at Washington University. Not exactly headline news; Zappa and his band had been international touring staples on the rock circuit since 1966. But this particular show found a student named Ike Willis at the right place at the right time, a coincidence that catapulted the St. Louis native into the cult-rock limelight happily absorbed by Zappatistas the world over.
Willis was born and raised in University City's backyard, coming of age in the Richmond Heights neighborhoods of the county's central corridor. He spent his first year of high school at Maplewood Senior High and finished his education at a boarding school in Georgia. But St. Louis was in his blood, and to St. Louis he returned. "I came back and went to Wash. U.," Willis recalls. "I hung out at all the familiar hangouts -- Blueberry Hill, Cicero's."
Music was a constant in Willis' life. He took up the guitar at a young age, and though his rock and soul influences run the traditional gamut from the Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Santana, he was never pigeonholed in a particular genre of music. "My mother was a jazz singer, and I was brought up being able to appreciate and listen to all types of music," he says. "My training was a bit more multidimensional as a result."
Willis found a perfect multidimensional bedfellow in Frank Zappa. With compositions too complex to be punk and lyrics too subversive to be pop, Zappa's music circa 1977 ended up lodged in a purgatorial no man's land that countered the counter-culture. By the late '60s, his first band, the Mothers of Invention, had made a name for themselves by creating a half-satiric, half-psychedelic rock hybrid. For Billboard-balking souls repelled by Fleetwood Mac, unmoved by the Talking Heads and suffocated by the disco inferno of the late '70s, Zappa's mongrel music was the alternative.
The search for the ultimate rock amalgamation piqued Willis' curiosity: The then-twenty-year-old student arrived at the quad early that afternoon in '77 to "take notes from the master." On a leave of absence from the rigors of the political science and pre-law undergraduate track at Washington University, Willis hoped to glean a few tricks of the trade from Zappa himself. His hopes were more than realized. "We ended up meeting backstage after the sound check," Willis remembers. "We just hit it off."
That's an understatement. The next summer, Willis' phone rang: Zappa was on the other line, and he spoke the words that are every young guitar player's wet dream. "He ended up inviting me out to LA to audition for the band," Willis says. "When he called, I was just finishing up with summer school." He pauses for a moment, then laughs. "So I guess I'm still on a leave of absence from Wash. U. and a few credits shy of graduating."
By June of 1978, university life was a memory, and Willis was an official member of Zappa's band. He moved to Los Angeles, which was to be his home base for the next ten years, the last ten that Zappa toured. "It was great," Willis says, "scary but great. I was only 21, traveling all over the world and playing in front of thousands of people."
Even if you've never heard the music of Frank Zappa, his image comes to mind easily enough. Pictured as a wild-haired, mustached madcap with a glint in his eye that could spark madness or genius, he embodied his role as the ringmaster of one of rock & roll's great circuses. He was a prophet of satire, and his legacy lives on over 40 albums that span his three-decade career. The first album that Willis appeared on was the infamous 1979 release Joe's Garage. A concept album devised to make Americans take a good long look in the mirror, Joe's Garage is driven by Willis' mouth, though it's hard, even 25 years later, to swallow everything that comes out of it.
"Some things offend people," Willis says, defending the material. "The whole point is social commentary. The people who get offended are the people who carry themselves in the way we were satirizing. Frank got his material from newspapers, politicians, American life. This isn't something he made up.
"We live in America, and we do some pretty stupid things," he continues. "When someone like Reagan tried to get ketchup declared a vegetable -- well, that's pretty stupid."
It's clear that Ike Willis wasn't a puppet, onstage or in the studio. He was an active, contributing member of the community that formed around the band. He appears on just under 30 Zappa releases, most notably Joe's Garage and the 1984 mock-musical Thing-Fish. "I got my two cents in there a lot," Willis says, referring to the recording process. "It wasn't a matter of asking; it was just how Frank and I worked together. On some albums I had a lot more contribution than others."
The experience of living and working in such a freeform and accepting environment is an invaluable one for any musician. From Zappa, Willis learned how to be a professional performer.
"Zappa told me that touring is not for everyone," he says. "It's a very special thing. 'Take advantage of it,' he said. 'Get the most out of it.' And I did."
Before Zappa died, he asked Willis to make sure that his music stayed alive. Thus began the second incarnation of Willis as a player in the Zappa community. Since Zappa's death in 1993, Willis has proved that he learned much from the master, not just in theory but in practice. Over the past ten years, he's redefined himself as a musician and refined his prominent stage presence, performing his own and Zappa's music across America and from Italy to Australia. "I consider him one of the greatest composers of the second half of the twentieth century," Willis says of his mentor. "There are things that carried over into what I do -- his high standards, the logic and the common sense, his pure integrity."
Ike Willis has no desire to be a Zappa clone, to sound like Zappa when he performs or to write music that evokes Zappa's work. The whole process of original composition is an evolutionary one, and if even one person likes it, Willis considers himself successful. Though intent on pursuing his solo interests, Willis was true to his word, and within a couple of months of Zappa's death, he had contacted various Zappa tribute bands. "There was not much time between the time that he died and my second career," says Willis, "a career bringing his music to his fans and new people."
This week Willis returns to St. Louis to play one of his old haunts, Cicero's, with the New Jersey-based Zappa tribute band Project/Object. Founder André Cholmondeley approached Willis in 1997, and for the past five years the band has been touring in various forms, bringing Zappa's music to audiences as it was meant to be heard -- live. This particular tour is unusual in that it not only features Willis but reunites him with two of his "dearest friends," vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock and keyboard player Don Preston, both former Zappa bandmates and post-Zappa legends in their own rights.
"I always look forward to coming back and playing in St. Louis," Willis says. "One of these days what I really want to do is come back and play a show at Wash. U."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.