25 Years Gone: We Miss You Every Day, Frank Zappa

I began my radio program on December 5th, 1993, with “Blessed Relief.” At the time, I was hosting a jazz radio show Sundays from 11 PM to 1 AM on WUSF 89.7 in Tampa. I had been on the air there since they started programming jazz seven days a week, back in 1979. During that time, I had slipped a lot of Frank Zappa’s jazz into my programs.

But this night, I programmed two hours of FZ’s jazziest tunes, the best memorial I could deliver, having heard Daniel Schorr eulogize him on the radio. Schorr was a brilliant American journalist, at the time a Senior News Analyst for National Public Radio.

Because Zappa was gone from our lives early on the morning of December 4th. Gone from our lives physically, but never gone from our hearts, our memories, or our earholes.

Zappa weaseled his way into my life in high school, when Al Sharp loaned me this funny-looking double record titled Freak Out. I listened to all of it but did not pay attention. That would change in college, fortunately.

I matriculated to Lehigh University in the fall of 1969. The very first day there, I stumbled into the basement of the University Center and discovered two student-run radio stations, WLRN and WLVR. I was indeed fortunate to exit four years later with a diploma given the amount of time I spent in that basement.

It was there I first learned about Zappa, from Mike Oates, The Oatman, who also turned me on to Captain Beefheart. There were others involved in that early indoctrination. Suddenly, albums such as Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Uncle Meat were part of my setlist on WLVR, the progressive station (WLRN was Top 40).

And then I pledged to a fraternity of amazing young men. Our hazing included listening to Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Cold Blood. And Zappa. Lots of Zappa. Lots and lots of Zappa, to be precise.

Everyone has regrets in life. I have many, high on that list deciding not to join my Theta Chi brothers heading to Carnegie Hall for Zappa’s 10.11.71 show. I would remedy that problem my senior with the opportunity to see him five times. The first was Grand Wazoo at The Felt Forum in New York (09.22.72). The next two shows were with the Petit Wazoo band, the legendary (and I mean legendary) second Halloween show at The Capitol Theater in Passaic NJ and then the first show at University of Pennsylvania (11.10.72).

For that Halloween show, our fraternity went to the Ticketmaster office in Allentown to purchase a block of 43 seats! We topped that 04.28.73 for a show at The Spectrum in Philadelphia with The Mothers and The Mahavishnu Orchestra with a block of 52 seats. And several of us went back to Passaic 05.09.73 for a weeknight show where the encore was almost an hour, Zappa insistent in working some bugs out of a few tunes.

By the summer of 1974, I was a student at University of South Florida taking classes toward a teaching certificate. I pitched a proposal to the student newspaper to cover the Zappa show coming to The Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg 07/13/74. I was allowed to witness the entire soundcheck (what a task master Zappa was!) and also allowed in for a group interview after the show.

Zappa, Bianca, Eddie Jobson & Patrick O’Hearn – photo courtesy of Fred Bellet

In 1976, I had joined a local music paper, , and again was allowed the privilege of attending the soundcheck before the show and a pre-show interview as well. Fred Bellet is responsible for the excellent photographs from that evening at The Fort Homer Hesterly Armory (10.14.76).

Photo courtesy of Fred Bellet

My last face-to-face with Zappa was a quick handshake before the band’s show at The Bayfront Center 09.16.78. And he came to the area three more times, The Jai-Alai fronton in Tampa 04.17.80, and two more at The Bayfront: 10.22.81 and 12.01.84.

The ill-fated 1988 tour didn’t make it to the South. After shows in the Northeast and Midwest in February and March, Zappa and Company did three solid months in Europe April through June. And then the band broke up, apparently centered around Scott Thunes. Some of my fraternity brothers did get to see this 12-piece band in Allentown.

I am not sure of the year, but some time before 1993 I had begun an annual homage on Mother’s Day evening with two hours of Zappa’s jazz music. The 1994 show took on added meaning, of course, and the following December I began Frank Zappa’s Birthday Bash, celebrating his birthday 12.21.40. Those continued until WUSF opted to automate the overnight programs, at which point I left the program.

Fortunately, I rejoined WMNF 88.5 in Tampa doing the Sunday evening jazz program (6 to 8 PM) in 2015, and Mother’s Day and the Birthday Bash are regular features. The 2019 Birthday Bash will be December 15. (You can listen online or later on archive at wmnf.org.)

I also have had the distinct privilege of seeing Dweezil Zappa’s outstanding band on numerous occasions. Anyone who has seen Dweezil play “Inca Roads” knows exactly what I’m talking about.

I love the music of Frank Zappa in all of its varieties: classical, metal, avant garde, doo wop, rock, pop, funk, reggae, and more. I am privileged to have seen him play, to meet him, to interview him, and to share my love of his music with as many people as I can.

25 years. Damn. There will never be another like him.

Zappa for President.

Here’s a sample setlist, this one when the show was three hours (now two) in 2016:

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