The Hippo


Apr 18, 2019








Ike Willis. Courtesy photo.

 JigsMusic Presents Ike Willis Project and Micki Free

When: Sunday, April 29, 7 p.m. 
Where: Jewel Music Venue, 61 Canal St., Manchester
Tickets: $20 at (21+)

Ike Willis performs Zappa and own music at Jewel


 By Michael Witthaus
Were it not for a late ’70s encounter with Frank Zappa, today Ike Willis might be a lawyer, instead of a musician with three-plus decades in the trenches, playing with the iconoclastic master and nearly a dozen Zappa-inspired bands formed in the wake of his passing — along with solo efforts like Ike Willis Project, which stops in Manchester on April 29.
When the Mothers of Invention played at Willis’s Missouri college, he wrangled a spot on the event crew. He begged for the job so he could watch, and maybe pick up a guitar trick or two. But after the sound check, he unexpectedly fell into conversation with his hero in the green room during the staff dinner. Pretty much everyone there was afraid to look Zappa in the eye, but for some reason Willis found him easy to talk to.
When Willis mentioned he was a guitarist, Zappa invited him back to his dressing room to chat while he set up for the show. He asked if knew any of his songs; Willis nodded. Zappa handed him his guitar, and a surprised Willis played the best version of “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy” he could under the circumstances. Zappa liked it, and he joined in singing. His band wandered in one by one, and an impromptu jam session ensued, leading to an audition invitation at tour’s end. 
A little over a year later Willis joined the Mothers of Invention, and he would become the longest-serving member. His first appearance on record was as the title character in the 1979 triple album Joe’s Garage; he appeared on 20 more albums.
Willis’s ability to take instructions was a big reason for his longevity. Zappa was a famously demanding boss, a stickler for sidemen to articulate his musical vision. A studious fan going back to his early Freak Out days, Willis fit right in. 
“What I am best at is following directions, and they made perfect sense to me,” he said in a recent interview. “He beat the s*** out of me; he worked me hard, and as long as I was following directions, I had no problem.”
Right before Zappa died in 1993, he made Willis promise to carry his music on. 
“He had me come down from Oregon at the time so he could give me my final instructions — to keep his music alive, and how to go about it,” he said. “He always said, ‘Look, I’m not going to be around forever, and I want you to be ready.’ He taught me everything he could teach me, and he was really good to me.”
A brief remission of Zappa’s prostate cancer brought a ray of hope and talk of a 25th anniversary remake of the movie soundtrack 200 Motels with ex-Mothers George Duke and Flo & Eddie. 
“It was going to be a big band, with the London Philharmonic, but suddenly around early October, he called me and said ‘relapse’ — and that’s when he said I should get down there as soon as I could,” Willis recalled. “It was very sad, heartbreaking; he was in a lot of pain. Frank was like a surrogate big brother, or father — but always a very dear friend.”
Since making his final promise, Willis has appeared with a myriad of Frank Zappa tribute bands, including ZAPPATiKA, Ossi Duri, Project/Object, Pojama People and Ugly Radio Rebellion. He’s also appeared with Brazil’s Central Scrutinizer Band and Elio e le Storie Tese, an Italian group.
There is another group that he didn’t appear with for a long time, the one led by Zappa’s son Dweezil. Family matriarch Gail Zappa kept it from happening until her death in 2015. 
“She hated my guts since I was 20 years old, but she was in charge — she held the money,” Willis said. “As soon as she was no longer with us, Dweezil called.”
Zappa was aware of his wife’s enmity toward Willis. 
“He protected me from her,” he said. “We were friends; according to her, musicians were not supposed to have close friends.”
The show in Manchester is devoted to Willis’s solo music, along with a healthy helping of Zappa selections. When he was in the Mothers, Zappa always encouraged his solo projects. 
“Frank was my biggest fan and supporter; he loved my stuff, and he taught me a lot of valuable lessons,” he said. 
Willis also recalled telling Zappa he wouldn’t leave the Mothers unless he was dragged away. 
After he surpassed Duke’s tenure record, “Frank congratulated me; then he said, ‘OK, let’s get back to work.’” 
Willis added he never had a problem toggling between two worlds. 
“I didn’t think he was going to die, though. I still don’t get it. But we have to carry on.” 

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