What Frank Zappa recorded during his first studio session, 1961
A few months back, we told you about Frank Zappa’s earliest known recording, “Lost in a Whirlpool.” That song, captured circa 1958/59, was put to tape using amateur equipment. A couple of years later, FZ stepped into a proper recording studio for his very first session. In January 1961, he recorded two compositions, and both would subsequently be re-worked into songs by his group, the Mothers of Invention. But decades would pass before the original, historic recordings saw the light of day.
In late 1960, Zappa started working at Pal Recording Studio in Cucamonga, California. The facility was owned and operated by Paul Buff.
“[FZ] just came in one day in 1960, when he was around 20, as a person who wanted to record some jazz,” Buff remembered. “He had some musicians, and wanted to rent a studio. Probably for the first year or so I was associated with him was doing a combination of recording jazz, producing some jazz records, and was also writing some symphonic material for a local orchestra that was supposed to record some of it. He was very jazz-oriented . . . He played clubs, and played all the jazz standards . . . He did a lot of original compositions, and he’d play things like ‘Satin Doll’ for a few dollars and a few beers.” (from the liner notes for The Lost Episodes)
Joe Perrino & The Mellotones; Frank Zappa, far left. FZ played weekend gigs with the lounge band in the early ‘60s.
During the initial session at Pal, Frank recorded an original jazz composition entitled “Never on Sunday.” FZ played guitar and was joined by five additional musicians on the track, which was arranged in the bossa nova style.
Does that melody sound familiar? If you’re a Zappa fan, it surely does. Frank placed a 1963 re-recording of “Never on Sunday”—which was also taped at Pal—as the closing piece for his 1968 solo debut, Lumpy Gravy.
But the most famous rendition of the song includes vocals and is on the third album by the Mothers of Invention, We’re Only in It for the Money (1968). Frank had attempted to pair lyrics with the melody as early as 1965 or so (see the mid ‘60s demo, “I’m so Happy I Could Cry”). The words on the definitive vocal version, “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” reveal a surprising embrace of hippie ideology by the famously sardonic Zappa.
Okay, let’s return to the 1961 session, as another original Zappa work was captured on the very same January day. “High Steppin’,” also a jazz piece, again features FZ on guitar, along with a smaller group of musicians than on “Never on Sunday.”
For another section of Lumpy Gravy, Frank incorporated “High Steppin’,” raising it an octave. The result was the track “It’s From Kansas.”
The 1961 recording of “Never on Sunday” remained unreleased until its inclusion on the posthumous FZ compilation, The Lost Episodes, in which it was given its later title, “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.” Both the 1961 and 1963 versions of “Never on Sunday,” along with “High Steppin’” (at its original pitch) can be found on the 2012 box set, Paul Buff Presents: Highlights from the Pal and Original Sound Studio Archives (2012). The three tracks are credited to “The Pal Studio Band.”
By the mid 60’s, Paul Buff was in financial trouble, and in 1964, he transferred ownership of Pal over to Zappa, who renamed it Studio Z.
We’ll leave you with a 1978 instrumental version of “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.” Recorded live in New York City on Halloween—FZ’s favorite holiday—it was included on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 6 (1992). This is the last known instance of Frank playing the song in concert.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Lost in a Whirlpool’: The earliest known recording of both Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart
‘Metal Man Has Won His Wings’: Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa’s early ‘60s R&B band, the Soots