EUGENE WEEKLY 8-4-2022
The Legend of Stinkfoot
Tribute band Stinkfoot Orchestra stays true to the work of Frank Zappa
Stinkfoot Orchestra, a Frank Zappa tribute band named after one of his songs, is tackling the iconic musician’s body of work and will perform with a former key member of Zappa’s band at the WOW Hall 8 pm Friday, August 5. That key member, Ike Willis, is a musician who performed with Zappa during the ’70s and ’80s.
Nick Chargin, the leader of the group, says the endeavor to start a Zappa tribute band was a project that began before COVID-19. He says his original plan was to lead a band that could perform Zappa’s work in the Bay Area around the late musician’s 80th birthday.
Chargin’s plans to play shows around San Francisco were delayed due to COVID. But during that time, he says the band dug into Zappa’s work to have it ready for the stage. “In many ways, COVID was our friend,” he laughs.
At the start, Chargin says he had former Zappa bandmate Napoleon Brock jam with the band. Brock performed on some of Zappa’s popular albums, including Hot Rats and Apostrophe(’), and after the session, Chargin recalls Brock telling him, “‘Frank would’ve been proud. You did good.’”
“That was pretty much it for me. I was happy right there. I could’ve died the next day,” Chargin says.
In addition to humorous lyrics with biting social commentary, Zappa’s approach to songwriting is often seen as unconventional. His songs often feature xylophones as prominently as guitar, so Chargin had to find bandmates whose talents are used more in an orchestral setting.
To perform Zappa’s work on stage, Chargin assembled a 10-piece band, including horns as well as guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. The group has players from various genres, from classical-oriented xylophones to jazz-based saxophones and salsa-focused trombonists.
“People have come from all different worlds,” Chargin says. “It’s a testament to the music that it crosses so many boundaries. There’s something for everybody.”
Chargin’s Stinkfoot Orchestra includes Willis, who performed with Zappa on stage and in the studio from 1978 to 1988. That decade was one of Zappa’s strongest, Chargin says, when Zappa released Joe’s Garage, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar and You Are What You Is.
But Chargin says the band won’t be limited to songs from that Zappa era. “I’ve been conscious about bringing in songs from all different eras,” he says. Stinkfoot’s setlist also includes songs that Willis didn’t record with Zappa, such as “Muffin Man,” “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It,” “Inca Roads,” “Peaches En Regalia” and more.
Zappa’s work has been performed by many tribute bands since his death in 1992, from groups formed by former bandmates to orchestral groups like Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt to Zappa’s own children. Zappa’s eldest son, Dweezil, had led a tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa. That band was sidelined by his family, who filed cease and desist orders.
Although Chargin hasn’t spoken with the Zappa family, he says that he hasn’t received any legal demands to stop touring.
And for Chargin, going on the road to perform with a key member of Zappa’s band from the ’70s and ’80s is what he was hoping for when he assembled the group. “For me, the ’88 ensemble was the ultimate,” Chargin says. “That was what I was going for.”
Interview: Zappa Band Alum Ike Willis & Stinkfoot Orchestra’s Nick Chargin
Read an interview with Ike Willis, (longtime Zappa Band alumnus) and Nick Chargin (Stinkfoot Orchestra bandleader, singer and keyboardist).
By Ted Silverman Jul 27, 2022 • 1:04 pm PDT
During the late summer of 2021, I was privileged to meet (via Zoom) with singer/saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock and Nick Chargin, the San Jose-based keyboard wiz, singer, and leader of the South Bay’s premier Frank Zappa tribute band: Stinkfoot Orchestra.
It’s now mid-summer 2022. A full year after Stinkfoot Orchestra emerged from San Jose, the band is back and preparing for action. Due to scheduling conflicts, Napoleon Murphy Brock is unavailable to tour until fall 2022.
In lieu of Napoleon as frontman, Chargin called in special guest and long-time Zappa-band-alum, Ike Willis, a seasoned veteran of one of the most popular phases of Zappa’s long tenure and an intimate confidant of one of rock’s most iconoclastic figures.
Ike Willis brings a wealth of experience to this iteration of Stinkfoot Orchestra. He served as frontman, and guitarist for Frank Zappa from 1978 until Frank’s final tour in 1988. Over the past 30+ years he has fronted, guest-starred or collaborated with a wide array of Zappa-faithful tribute acts from all over the globe including The Muffin Men, Pojama People, Banned from Utopia, The Others of Invention, Central Scrutinizer and Zappatica to name but a few.
I had the recent pleasure of catching up with Nick and meeting Ike over an hour-long phone chat. Our conversation included Ike’s introduction to Frank, his experience performing alongside Napoleon Murphy Brock, his hopes for the upcoming Northwest tour with Stinkfoot Orchestra and more.
My first question broached the subject of how Ike got started playing with Frank Zappa and how Napoleon Murphy Brock (Nappy) served as an influence?
Ike Willis: Nick Chargin called me a couple of months ago, and told me what was happening with Napoleon. It was a great karma type of a thing, you know, because right afterward, right after I had moved out, I had been down in L.A. and I was on tour with my Chicago band, Brothers Rage. We had just come through the Northwest and then back to Chicago. The day I got back to Los Angeles was when the nationwide lockdown happened because of the pandemic, so that was the last time I was on the road. A month after that, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and it was very, very weird. Now I’m back. I am not back 100% completely, but I’m getting close. There was a time for a while I could not walk. My cancer was all in my bones and stuff. It took us a few months, but I am doing this new hormonal treatment, no chemo, no radiation, and it’s working quite well. I’m walking, I’m talking. I can move my arms. I can do all that stuff. I’m back to at least halfway performance level.
Denise and I have been together since our first day of college in 1974. Our advisor wanted to take us on a field trip, you know, so my best friend Jeff Hollie, who played saxophone on Joe’s Garage – he and I and my wife started out as freshmen at Washington University in St. Louis. We have been together since then. Jeff’s the one who was “savvy,” on everything Zappa, he had all the albums. When our advisor suggested a field trip, the first thing Jeff said, was, “I want to go to a Zappa concert.” He somehow talked our advisor into taking us on a field trip to our first live Zappa concert. It was the Roxy And Elsewhere Tour with Frank, the Fowler brothers, George Duke, Chester Thompson, Ralph Humphrey on drums, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Ruth Underwood. That was what I call “the dream band,” and they were doing all this stuff and Nappy was the frontman. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. I was just amazed! From that point on, Nappy influenced everything that I did. As far as vocals and as a performer and being a frontman was concerned, especially with Zappa stuff. I learned a lot while watching him. I mean, from that first day on, you know, and it was amazing.
A couple of years later, Frank came to Washington University in St. Louis, to do a concert for the Sheik Yerbouti Tour. I was backstage because I was on the local crew and I wound up meeting and talking with him. He took me backstage to the dressing room and made me sing and play guitar. Then he invited me out to L.A. to audition for the band. So after I graduated in ‘78, he flew me out to L.A., and essentially, I never left.
Later, in 1984, Frank called Napoleon back into the band so it was Ray White, Bobby Martin and me, and that’s when I first met him physically, and we just hit it off and began performing together, which was awesome. I enjoyed being able to perform with one of my idols.
After Frank died, one of my main Zappa bands was Project Object. The bandleader, Andre Chumley, (Andre Cholmondeley) invited Napoleon to join the band. We wound up performing together for years.
Ted Silverman: Napoleon seems to brings swagger, bravado, and drama to all he does.
Ike Willis: Swagger, bravado? Yeah, that’s him.
Nick Chargin: Yeah. He hasn’t lost an ounce of it. I would not have expected that – to have every iota of that still.
Ted Silverman: Ike, Nappy has certain songs that fans identify him that he brought to the Stinkfoot repertoire. What material are you bringing to this new iteration of Stinkfoot?
Ike Willis: Well, anything from the Joe’s Garage era. That was my first album with Frank. You know, like, “Outside Now,” “Joe’s Garage,” “Wet T-Shirt Night,” “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee,” and “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up.”
Ted Silverman: Ike, you are probably the foremost expert on the international spread of Frank Zappa’s music. How does Stinkfoot Orchestra rate, given your history of working with all these bands and the intimate knowledge that you have in performing this music?
Ike Willis: I started touring in Europe in ’78 when I was 20-years-old. In Europe, we’re still gods. Zappa is god. I still get what happened. There was a point where I had 15 new Zappa tribute bands all over the world. I’m now down to about 10 and now 11 with these guys. My first performance with Frank Zappa was a gig with Vinnie Colaiuta in Germany, in Albert Einstein’s hometown [Ulm], in front of 125,000 people. Since then, the action hasn’t slacked off.
Ted Silverman: Must be a satisfying feeling to have that kind of love around the world?
Ike Willis: Oh Yeah.
Nick Chargin: Ted, You attended our first gig back in September. I told you back then that I plan to be a slave driver with this musical assemblage. I’ve added a lot of material. There was a lot that we had already added before bringing Ike onboard.
The thing for me that has been the most gratifying with this project has been the level of gratitude that we’ve been shown by audience members. I’ve been in some pretty good bands before, you know, but I’ve never played in a band where after the show, people come up to you with tears in their eyes, just thanking you profusely. They are so grateful.
Ike Willis: After Frank passed on the audiences are so thankful and so grateful. I miss him so much. Even I have to have my Frank fix, you know what I’m saying? I miss playing this stuff. I miss performing this stuff. I miss Frank a lot, as well as the audiences from here, to Europe and everywhere. That is why they come up after the shows, with tears in their eyes, just like Nick said because they have to have their Frank fix as well. You’re hearing it performed legitimately. Frank told me before he passed away to play it like you learned it. Just like he taught me. It’s got to be the way it was written and performed. Those were my only instructions from Frank. He said, “don’t change anything; don’t ad-lib, don’t try to get cute, don’t try to spruce it up, don’t change the key that it was written in. Play the songs like I taught you.” Frank used to rehearse us. He used to rehearse our asses off man. We put in 10 to 12-hour days, five, six days a week. We play them exactly the way I learned them. My only question is, which tour? The only difference is, which album or tour is the arrangement based upon which album? That’s all I need to know.
Ted Silverman: Allow me to digress here. Zappa fans are passionate people that are not everyday, normal rock fans; this is not everyday rock music. This is something that takes a deeper level of dedication, intellectual curiosity, and passion. This is why you have a fan base that is so strong and all over the world.
Ike Willis: Exactly. There are fans all over the world, and especially the ones that are musicians themselves. These fans take notes. They bring their notepads and their manuscript paper, and they take notes on each song and each and each arrangement. If we screw up, or if there is something that has changed, they will let me know about it. Dead seriously. They take notes.
Ted Silverman: But they also key into the content of the lyrics, not just the arrangement and with this, you are getting a more intellectually curious fan. This is not, you know, folk or hard rock from the 1970s. This is deeper music with searing societal criticism that appeals to certain people.
Ike Willis: Exactly. They don’t mess around man. If there is any deviation, lyrically, or musically, they are going to have something to say about it. I get the third degree every night. I am loyal. I’m very loyal to Frank. OK? If there is one thing you will notice about Ike Willis, and it’s why I was with Frank longer than anybody else, it’s that Ike Willis follows directions. The main reason that Frank kept me around for so long is that I did what he told me to do. That is how it has always worked for me.
Ted Silverman: It’s also that, (per my research,) Frank stated that you are a “living cartoon,” and also that you were his musical encyclopedia.
Ike Willis: Exactly. Yeah. We shared the same love of those live cartoons, and, just the silly shit, the silly stuff. From the day we met, we just started talking about that kind of stuff. We’d just break out laughing and that was within less than a minute after we met, you know? I was just a college student, but we hit it off right off the bat, because we liked the same stuff.
Ted Silverman: I got a lot of real insight out of your YouTube conversation with Gerry Fialka. (Longtime Frank Zappa tour assistant, archivist and factotum.) At first, I was like, “who is this guy?” Then I researched who he was. What a bright light. I mean, just in terms of all the intriguing people he references.
Ike Willis: Oh, yeah. Gerry is one of the most brilliant people I have ever known and ever met. He came on board with us in the mid-‘80s. He is an astoundingly astute and brilliant person. He really is one of my best friends. Gerry’s the kind of guy that Frank loved to have in his orbit.
Ted Silverman: I watched him jamming concepts into your ears and saw you exploding with thoughtful replies.
Ike Willis: Frank would do that too, on purpose. I’d be in the middle of the show, trying to sing things or perform my songs. Frank would often tiptoe over next to me and then whisper something in my ear while I was trying to do my god damn job. I was on the floor, literally on the floor, cracking up. Because we got in that habit after my second year in the band. Frank permitted me to start doing stuff like that because up until then, there was no ad-libbing. Once Frank opened the floodgates, I had official permission to start filling it out with him too. I would start doing the same thing. You know, we would have contests between ourselves, who could crack the other one up the most, while we were trying to do our job.
Ted Silverman: Well, there’s the deadly seriousness of the concept of, “project object,” that conceptual continuity thing, but you’ve got to have the humor layer in this as well.
Ike Willis: It’s nothing without the humor. It does not work unless that certain sense of humor and comedy and cynicism is there.
Nick Chargin: It’s the same thing with comedians. It used to be that people listened or, you know, read philosophers, but we don’t really have philosophers anymore. We have comedians, you know, for example, George Carlin’s job, as a comedian was very important. He put his social commentary out there in such a way that people could grab onto it, and identify with it.
Ted Silverman: No doubt. Everything George Carlin said was the truth.
Ike Willis: Frank knew George Carlin, and he knew Lenny Bruce. I think they operated with a similar philosophy and attitude. That is what I loved about Frank.
Nick Chargin: These are our philosophers, you know, these are modern-day philosophers. Frank was very conscious.
Ted Silverman: I think many people out there did not get the sarcasm, and took the message, in a way it wasn’t intended. A lot of people did not understand what the cynicism and sarcasm were about and that was part of the calculation of his humor, he knew that a portion of the people wouldn’t have the intellectual depth to figure it out.
Ike Willis: Yeah, that is exactly the thing. Many, many people did not. They thought they knew what he was talking about but they misinterpreted it. Many people totally missed the picture. When I met Frank in college, I was studying political science and law. I was on my way to law school. I understood every time I listened to Frank, anything political or anything considered political: I knew exactly what he was talking about, politically. When he hired me, it was in the last days of the Carter Administration, and the beginnings of the Reagan [administration]. Frank and I, were on the same page. We read the newspaper the night before each show. He’d always come in with commentary about the previous day’s political activities, and ad-lib. I was right there with him on the same page and many people just didn’t get it.
Ted Silverman: Democracy was in ruins well before that, but Frank’s pointing out Ronald Reagan’s hypocrisy was a major influence upon my collegiate sense of humor and consciousness of the bigger picture at that time. That stuff was the beginning of what we are facing today. One can only imagine how Frank would manage today’s current events?
Nick Chargin: Oh, my God. Can you imagine if Frank was still alive?
Ike Willis: I guarantee you this: if Frank were still alive, there would have been no Donald Trump. There would have been no Trump presidency. He always thought Donnie was a moron anyway, Frank knew Trump, and he would stay at the Trump hotel. Whenever we were in New York Frank would stay at the Trump Tower. Trump would try to invite Frank to his little soirees and stuff like that, so he could show Frank off, but Frank thought Trump was an idiot, which he is. I guarantee you, as a political scientist; if Frank were present, there would not have been a Trump presidency.
Ted Silverman: Well, it is good to know that Frank had that kind of under-the-hood political mind.
Ike Willis: Frank was a libertarian. His basic message was, “think for yourself.”
Ted Silverman: Ike, putting aside the baggage of ego and emotion, your health issues and everything, you occupy a privileged place. Your audience is very special. It is not the typical rock music crowd. It’s a deeper, more thoughtful, more intellectual, group, more comprehensive in their thinking.
Ike Willis:That is very true. That the entire point. Our audiences were people that had a brain. Yes. Many of the people that listened to us were doctors, professors, and scientists.
Ted Silverman: People without a short attention span that could that reason with deeper sauce.
Ike Willis:v Exactly, and that was very important to us. The main thing about the cynicism and the comedy and where the humor came from, is that if you cannot laugh at yourself, and you can’t find the humor in everyday things, then you’ve got a problem. By and large, our fans are capable of actually thinking for themselves.
Ted Silverman: Comes to mind that everyday rock band fans are playing hangman while Frank Zappa fans are doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Nick Chargin: Yes – but in ink!
Ike Willis: That’s the impressive thing about them and what gives me pleasure. Also the fact that I am still doing this — I am doing it for them, and for Frank. It was a privilege for me to be able to perform and to be a part of this person’s orbit. I have always thought that Frank was the most intelligent human being I have ever met.
Ted Silverman: That is beautiful Ike. I do not want to exhaust you much further and I am grateful for what you’ve brought to our conversation. Can you give me some idea of what you have planned for this tour with Stinkfoot Orchestra and what you hope to bring to it?
Ike Willis: Based on what background information I have on the band and my knowledge of Nick, and what he always told me that he was aiming for, Nick is on the right track. If I am right, I am going to be very pleased with this band.
Ted Silverman: I am going go out on a limb here and say from my experience seeing them rehearse and play that, you will be!
Ike Willis: I probably won’t be surprised, but I’d like to be pleasantly pleased.
Ted Silverman: I am biased as a fan. But having witnessed Stinkfoot live, having spoken to Nappy, having seen him perform in this context, with this band, it’s a very compelling unit. These folks are extremely tight. They stick to the playbook. You are going to be pleased. I hear the passion within Stinkfoot. This band is serious, lighthearted – but deadly serious about it.
Ike Willis: That’s what I expect to feel when I get up there. This music is historically important, and I feel almost a sense of duty, you know, I think it is important that we keep this going, you know?
Ted Silverman: You are paying tribute to the Frank’s conceptual continuity. Something that has been so consistent through the entire Zappa era.
Ike Willis: It is our duty. I know that on any given night. We could be somebody’s first exposure to this music. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Because there is always going to be somebody out there who is experiencing Frank’s music for the first time, and there are going to be people. Some of them bring their kids or their grandkids, it always happens.
With Nick Chargin’s direction, singing, playing, and management of Stinkfoot Orchestra and the inclusion of Zappa stalwart, Ike Willis, contributing his particularly unique stamp of authenticity to the proceedings, it is well worth the time and ticket cost to attend an upcoming performance.
For this tour, Stinkfoot Orchestra with Ike Willis will be a 14-piece unit. Baritone singer Mike Boston has had to exit the tour due to a recent injury.
If the past is any guide, what fans can expect of these shows is tight, close-to-the-mark performances, with all the elements in place and the knowing “twinkle-in-the-eye,” levity that comes with the best live-Zappa performances. Huge horn arrangements, hair-raising guitar solos, strong ensemble vocals augmented by Ike Willis’ cartoon-character delivery of the most cherished selections in the vast Zappa repertoire, interspersed with skillfully arranged instrumental passages.
Stinkfoot Orchestra, Napoleon Murphy Brock bring Zappa classics to Humbrews Friday
ARCATA – In the 29 years since Frank Zappa died, countless ensembles have cropped up, attempting to replicate the absurdist virtuosity of a Zappa show. Few, however, can boast the participation of one of Frank’s most revered lead singers.
This Friday, May 20 at Arcata’s Humboldt Brews, you can behold just such a rockin’ teenage combo – in this case, the 15-piece Stinkfoot Orchestra (SFO) – deploying their sonic Zappa distortion field.
Further elevating the escapade will be a genuine Zappa alumni, the man Frank himself hired to front his band – Napoleon Murphy Brock. The legendary sax man and singer (and vivid storyteller) was part of the Zappa band that included George Duke, Ruth Underwood and Chester Thompson, and sang on classic FZ tunes such as “Pygmy Twylyte,” “Cheepnis” and “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy.”
On being asked to appear with a Zappa-oriented band, Brock he reviews their demo tape to hear whether or not the music is being performed “correctly.”
That’s no small feat when the tunes are festooned with Frank’s trademark tricky tinkertoys, polyrhthymic note blizzards, knots of nested tuplets and the occasional rampaging giant poodle. Not all make the grade, but the SFO did.
“I know the difference,” Brock said. “I was there.”
The band’s exertions are well appreciated by Zappa fans.
“People come up to me teary-eyed at shows, saying, ‘We can’t possibly fathom the amount of work that goes into pulling this off, but we appreciate all the work you put into doing it right’,” said SFO founder Nick Chargin.
That requires carefully balancing the labors of a 6-piece horn section with the rock and percussion side of things, plus deft pacing of the ultra-demanding songs
“Everything is coordinated,” Chargin said, for maximum musical coherence. “There are considerations on many different levels.” A “pretty intense medley” of full-band songs will be followed by more basic Frank fare that gives the horn section “a chance to breathe,” and for the multi-instrumentalists to switch off with each other.
While organizing a small plattoon of musicians to play difficult music for nominal compensation is a heavy lift, love and luck have played their role as well. “So many serendipitous things have happened,” Chargin said. These include being hooked up with key musicians such as mallet man Shota Otaguro (essential for the authentic Zappa flavor), Frank-fanatic bassman Joey Fabian and, of course, having benefit of Mr. Brock’s limitless exuberance.
“He’s full of infectious energy, and hasn’t lost a note of his range,” Chargin said. “The universe is on our side. Frank is smiling down on us.”
In an interview, Brock is full of reflections, observations, reverance for Frank and gratitude for having been part of “the Conservatory of Zappa Music.” And he has a message for Arcata music fans.
“If they miss this show, they’re doing themselves incredible psychological harm,” Brock warns.
The Stinkfoot Orchestra Featuring Zappa Alum Napoleon Murphy Brock Makes Debut In San Jose
Watch videos and check out the setlist for the band’s first performance celebrating the music of Frank Zappa.
By Ted Silverman
San Jose-based singer and keyboardist, Nick Chargin expended a great deal of effort, over a span of the last two years, to reinvigorate the music of Frank Zappa, as delivered by Frank’s hand-picked frontman of the 1970s: San Jose’s one and only, Napoleon Murphy Brock (aka “Napi.”) This effort resulted in the recent debut performance of The Stinkfoot Orchestra at San Jose’s Art Boutiki Gallery on Friday, September 11.
This comfortable but intimate room played host to a pre-show VIP meet and greet, followed by a high energy, professionally executed review of the best of the Napi-era Zappa repertoire, along with a few choice vocal and instrumental gems from other eras, delivered by The Stinkfoot Orchestra.
Chargin (formerly of the Blissninnies, among other bands) gathered a cohort of extremely talented and musically adept to support the effort of presenting this much-loved but often challenging material. As bandleader, Chargin offered Napoleon the opportunity to jump backward in time and be the face of the music.
The Stinkfoot Orchestra featured a blazing six-piece horn section with John Hassan (baritone saxophone), Jo Major (tenor and soprano saxophone), Paul Degen (saxophone/flute) Mike McWilliams (trumpet/flugelhorn), Kevin Kono (trumpet) and Mark “DBone” DeSimone (trombone). The orchestra’s rhythm section consisted of masterful percussion and vibraphonist Dillon Vado, ace-drummer Michael Palladino and rocking bassist Josh Baker, along with the exceptionally talented guitarist Tomek Sikora who delivered fantastic tones, fleet-fingered accuracy and a remarkable touch in rendering this fully composed music. Improvisations occurred but they were rare, which really emphasized the challenge put before Tomek.
Backing Napoleon at every turn, the orchestra featured Chargin’s effervescent personality, vocals and driving keyboards, along with a trio of expressive backup vocalists – Mike Boston, Lainey Leone and Suzi Baker. Napoleon Murphy Brock delivered most of the night’s vocal drama and contributed tenor sax and flute in complicated compositions like, “Echidna’s (Arf of You), from the Live at the Roxy era.
In a July interview I undertook with Napi, he stated, “I appreciate the fact that they prepared themselves properly. They learned the music properly, they play the right notes and they are articulate about it. I didn’t have to come in and teach anything. If they weren’t doing it correctly, I wouldn’t show up. I mean, the standard is high.”
Chargin teed up the evening’s entertainment by introducing the entire 14-piece band with the strains of “Zoot Allures,” as the foundational theme. A suite of songs from the 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere album followed, which included “Son of Orange County,” “More Trouble Every Day,” and the epic, ”Penguin in Bondage,” all delivered with skill, humor and tongue-in-cheek excellence. “City of Tiny Lights,” from Frank’s 1979 opus, Sheik Yerbouti followed.
Sliding backward in time to 1972, “Blessed Relief,” an instrumental track from the Grand Wazoo, led back toward the present with another track from 1979, “Outside Now,” from Joe’s Garage Acts II & III. “Dirty Love,” from Overnight Sensation (circa 1973) had all the grind and nastiness of the album track with Napoleon expertly covering the vocal originally laid down by trumpeter Sal Marquez. With all the time-shifting, it was not surprising that “Dirty Love,” flowed seamlessly into “Magic Fingers,” from 1971’s 200 Motels LP.
“Florentine Pogen,” from the 1975 LP One Size Fits All, led to, “Uncle Remus,” from the 1974 LP Apostrophe. Toward the tail end of the set, Napoleon headed for the green room. The Stinkfoot Orchestra showed off their incredibly tight instrumental chops (laced with playful humor) by applying their skills to the familiar “Joe’s Garage,” from the eponymously named LP, released back in 1979. SFO did a terrific job in emulating all the novelty factors of the voice-over elements in “Joe’s Garage” to great effect, led by the close vocal emulation of Zappa by Boston and “nagging neighbor,” hilarity by Baker.
After a brief intermission, the second frame of the night kicked off with, “Camarillo Brillo,” from Overnight Sensation with a seamless transition toward a pair of tunes that Napoleon considers the heart of his contribution to the Zappa repertoire, “Village of the Sun,” and “Echidna’s Arf of You,” from 1974’s Live at the Roxy double LP (and movie). From there, things got cynical and dark with Napi’s expertly delivered take on “I’m The Slime,” from Overnight Sensation. “Advance Romance,” from 1975’s Bongo Fury followed by “Sofa #1” from One Size Fits All concluded this suite of tunes from the 1970s.
“Heavenly Bank Account,” from 1981’s You Are What You Is followed by a swing back to the ’70s with “Zomby Woof,” and “Montana,” from Overnight Sensation and then “Inca Roads,” from One Size Fits All concluded the pre-encore portion of the show.
The four-song encore was rich with classics starting with FZ’s contribution to The Real Book, “Peaches en Regalia,” from 1969’s Hot Rats, let guitarist Sikora blaze adeptly on guitar backed by the full-power of the SFO six-piece horn section.
“Muffin Man” from Bongo Fury was charmingly delivered by Napoleon with its existential musings on the nomenclature of baked goods and sexual confusion. The classic “Cosmik Debris” was one last comic offering for the night, with even more drama saved for the evening’s ultimate gem, “Andy,” from One Size Fits All, which put an emphatic exclamation point on this debut demonstration of devotion to the life and music of Frank Zappa.
The Stinkfoot Orchestra with Napoleon Murphy Brock admirably delivered all the musical virtuosity, compositional non-conformity, and satire of American culture that Frank Zappa distilled within his extensive oeuvre. Word has it that Napi is “all in,” for further live performances and Nick Chargin and The Stinkfoot Orchestra are currently making plans for fall shows and expanding their already broad repertoire in order to entertain stalwart Zappa-nuts and brand new fans.
The impression left upon driving home from this experience was one of deep appreciation mixed with laughter and amazement. The Stinkfoot Orchestra is more than worthy of your time and money.
Set One: Zoot Allures (Band Intros) > Son of of Orange County > More Trouble Every Day, Penguin in Bondage > City of Tiny Lights, Blessed Relief > Outside Now, Dirty Love > Magic Fingers, Florentine Pogen > Uncle Remus, Joe’s Garage
Set Two: Camarillo Brillo > Village of the Sun, Echidna’s (Arf of You) > I’m the Slime > Advance Romance> Sofa #1 > Heavenly Bank Account > Zomby Woof, Montana > Inca Roads
Encore: Peaches en Regalia, Muffin Man > Cosmik Debris > Andy
Introducing The Stinkfoot Orchestra Featuring Zappa Alum Napoleon Murphy Brock
(Not) just another band from San Jose!
By Ted Silverman Aug 18, 2021 • 1:53 pm PDT
As a passionate student and devotee of the history of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of the most talented yet under-appreciated frontmen of the 1970s: Napoleon Murphy Brock. Brock, (referred to by his close associates as “Napi,”), is best known for his humorous and animated work singing and playing saxophone and flute with Frank Zappa in the 1970s.
His stint with Frank encompassed work on albums like Apostrophe, Roxy & Elsewhere, One Size Fits All, Bongo Fury, Sheik Yerbouti, Have I Offended Someone and Thing Fish among others, and vocal performances on songs like “Village Of The Sun,” “Cheepnis” and “Florentine Pogen.” Napi also played a key role in a number of Frank Zappa’s movies and documentaries including Baby Snakes, A Token of His Extreme, Roxy The Movie and more.
“Frank Zappa only had one frontman and his name was Napoleon Murphy Brock. And that frontman was also someone he hired to interpret his music, not just to sing it. I sang songs that he could not find anyone to sing, because they couldn’t understand what the hell was going on.” — Napoleon Murphy Brock
In his post-Zappa-life, he led the Grand-Mothers of Invention alongside Zappa-alums, Roy Estrada, Tom Fowler and Don Preston, served the sax and vocals role in early iterations of Zappa Does Zappa alongside Dweezil Zappa and Steve Vai (winning a Grammy for his performance of the song “Peaches en Regalia”) and continues to perform and record under his own name.
My recent chat with Napi took place via Zoom meeting, with some assistance from keyboard wiz and Zappa-phile Nick Chargin who along with Napi is rooted and based in San Jose, California. Nick’s musical footprints in the Bay Area music scene include playing keys for regionally renowned bands, Blissninnies and Elephino. Nick was in on the Zoom call and he, along with a few of his Bay Area running partners, are responsible for putting together The Stinkfoot Orchestra, a 15 piece Tribute to Frank Zappa featuring Napoleon Murphy Brock: the latest fully evolved, fully orchestrated homage to the history and legacy of Frank Zappa’s music.
My starting point for our discussion was geographic in nature. My initial question was why the debut performance of the Stinkfoot Orchestra, slated to occur on September 11 was taking place in San Jose?
“Well, it’s my hometown,” Napoleon said. “I was born here. I graduated from high school here. I went to San Jose City College and San Jose State here. I love San Jose. I told people about San Jose before Burt Bacharach … I was telling people this long before any of this happened because I knew about the passion and the love. My family, my father’s family, was the first Afro-American family in San Jose, California. So yeah, I have a passion about San Jose. I learned Broadway in San Jose. I was doing high school plays, Guys & Dolls and stuff like that. And the San Jose Opera Company came and drafted me out of high school to work with them for four years. That’s how I learned Broadway. And that’s how I learned theater.”
It is worth noting that despite having lived in San Jose most of his life, the upcoming Stinkfoot Orchestra performance will mark the first time Napoleon has ever had the opportunity to play Frank Zappa’s music in his hometown.
The band’s history is explained on their fledgling website:
In the early months of 2019, South Bay musician Nick Chargin (keyboards and vocals) got a wild hair up his ass.” Best known for his work with the successful Bay Area cover band, the Houserockers, Nick had the idea of assembling an ensemble to acknowledge one of his greatest musical influences – Frank Zappa. The goal he set was to perform a handful of shows in the winter of 2020 ( which were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic) in celebration of what would have been Frank’s 80th birthday.
But it couldn’t be just any band … There had to be horns. There had to be a mallet player. There had to be backup singers. This had to be more than a band that was capable of playing “all the right notes” – it had to be a band that was capable of performing Frank’s music with accuracy and integrity.
I asked Napoleon about how Nick and the Orchestra prepared for their debut and subsequent performance.
“Well, I appreciate the fact that they prepared themselves properly,” Napoleon said. “They learned the music properly, they play the right notes and they are articulate about it. I didn’t have to come in and teach anything. If they weren’t doing it correctly, I wouldn’t show up. I mean, the standard is high.
“It’s music that’s ahead of its time. Time definitely has not caught up with it yet, and it probably never will. And because of the construction of it and because of the genius of the creator, there’s a certain standard that has to be followed. If that standard is not followed, it’s obvious immediately. There is no questioning whether it’s there or not. It either is or it is not. If it is not, then I have to exit.”
“One of the things, as far as putting the instrumentation together, orchestrating this and finding players, you look for different things with different players, like the trumpet players, it’s best to have people who are classically trained,” Chargin added. “With your sax players, It helps to have some jazz influence in there. We’ve got mallet percussion too, you know, and Dillon (Vado), he’s a monster, man, pulling off Ruth Underwood’s lines. That’s not an easy task, man. That stuff is really hard.”
Our discussion focused on the immense cognitive and physical challenge of internalizing the complexity, scale and scope of Frank’s compositional legacy and the dedication, mastery and skill it demands from those Frank hired. The challenge remains for musicians skillful and adept enough to tackle it in the post-Zappa era.
Napi explained his perspective on the subject at length:
“You have to understand what his music represents and the type of music that it represents, I would never have gone with Frank if he had insulted me on our first meeting. He was very smart and he was a genius. I understood part of his genius because he walked up to me and he said, ‘Hello, my name is Frank Zappa, and you’re my new lead frontman and lead vocalist’ …
“Because of the element of jazz that’s incorporated in his compositions, that’s where the scripting or the space for improvisation lives. But before you get to the improvisation, you have to first play the conversation. In things like a ‘Echidna’s Arf,’ you could be a half a tone off and think you’re right, and you could be completely wrong. And mostly, conservatory musicians catch it because of their training. If you don’t have conservatory training or a level of training that’s near and severe — all of these elements are necessary, just to understand the music. And then you have to learn how to play it.
“Now that’s the crux of the biscuit for Zappa right there. If you could start with that, you have to retrain your brain. Maybe you all used the left side before. Well, you need to use the right side. Now you have to open your mind and understand that music is two things. Frank said it. Duke Ellington said it. ‘There’s only two kinds of music. Good and bad.’ How you play. It is one of the determining factors and whether or not it is good or bad because you’d either play it right or wrong.”
The debut performance of Stinkfoot Orchestra is scheduled for September 11 at Art Boutiki in San Jose.
Please check back later for updates.