Essra Mohawk is better known to Zappa fans as Sandy Hurvitz. During her brief tenure with The Mothers at New York’s Garrick Theater in 1967, she was introduced as Uncle Meat.
Zappa was to have produced her first album, Sandy’s Album is Here at Last! (released on his Bizarre label in 1968), but delegated the task to Ian Underwood.
Her voice can be heard on the track N. Double A, AA from the Zappa album Lumpy Money (2009).
As well as performing with The Mothers, Mohawk has worked with Gary Lucas, Jerry Garcia, John Mellencamp, Carole King, Kool & the Gang, Al Jarreau, Bob Weir and Keb Mo.
Since releasing her first record, The Boy With The Way, as Jamie Carter in 1964, she has released a dozen or so albums and has had her songs successfully covered by the likes of the Shangri-Las (I’ll Never Learn, 1966), the Vanilla Fudge (The Spell That Comes After, 1968), Cyndi Lauper (Change Of Heart, 1986), Tina Turner (Stronger Than The Wind, the b-side of I Don't Wanna Lose You in 1989) and country singer Lorrie Morgan (Hand Over Your Heart, 1991).
Ahead of her first ever European tour, which included an appearance at Zappanale, she found time to chat with me.
How and where did you first meet Zappa?
I was visiting New York with two friends from LA that I had met in Philly when they came to see Cal Schenkel. We were walking down Bleeker Street in the Village when we saw Frank coming our way. He was headed towards the Garrick Theater, where he and the Mothers were playing every night. The LA girls yelled out, “Ben Frank’s! Cantors!”, two popular hangs in LA that Frank was familiar with, so he let us all in for free and that’s how we met!
What attracted you to Frank?
His music, his performance, his band, his whole deal! I loved Freak Out! the first time I heard it and I was blown away after hearing the Mothers live in New York a year before meeting Frank and being asked to join the band!
What are your memories of that period – the individual Mothers?
I’ll start with Ray Collins, the smooth lead voice of the Mothers. His demeanour and spirit were as gentle as that velvety voice. He came up with the name ‘Uncle Meat’ at one of our rehearsals, telling Frank that he thought it was a great name for a rock star. Frank immediately spun around and pointing at me, proclaimed, “You’re Uncle Meat!”
Bunky Gardner was the gentleman of the band. His hair and beard distinctive and well-groomed. His playing was perfection. He was extremely talented like the rest of the band, but not as crazy! A Taurus like myself, he was down to earth but never down and dirty. Bunk always seemed to have it together. He was the most refined member of the Mothers. A kind and friendly man. I can’t remember him ever losing his cool.
Jimmy Carl Black was also down to earth while at the same time stretching up to the moon! He was bigger than life. A great performer, full of fun and mischief!
When I first joined the band, he handed me a fat joint to give Frank – knowing Frank didn’t smoke pot and would freak out at the sight of a joint! “Tell him it’s from the guys!” he said and I, unsuspecting, complied. After Frank screamed for me to take the unlit joint away, I did so running back into Jimmy who was having a good laugh with the other guys over the prank!
I loved Jimmy. He was one of a kind! I last saw him in 2000 when The Grandmothers came to Tennessee. Half of the band stayed at my house here in Nashville while they readied themselves for their US tour. There’s a great photo of me and Jimmy taken in Memphis! It’s hard to believe that he’s no longer with us. It’s a huge loss.
Billy Mundi used to call me ‘Peanut’. He was a kind friend and we remain friends to this day. He has been through a lot with his health for years due to advanced diabetes. He’s had heart attacks and amputations, facing it all with courage and a smile (and his loyal wife and caregiver, Patti).
It was over Billy’s playing that Frank and I disagreed the first day we started tracking my album with the Mothers. Billy really started to cook during the ride out, after the charts that Frank had written ended. So I asked Frank very respectfully if we could record it again with Billy playing like that from the top so that the track would cook right away rather than having to wait till the end of the song.
Frank’s response was less than supportive. Let’s just say the session ended badly. I ended up walking out. I was an inexperienced youth of 19 and many years away from learning patience, tolerance and restraint.
By the way, the song we began recording was the one we performed every night at the Garrick: Archgodliness Of Purpleful Magic. I can still remember Frank’s guitar line, which I’ll be teaching to Sandro for Zappanale where the song will be heard as close as possible to how the Mothers played it, for the first time since 1968!
It was quite an honour to have my song included in the Mothers’ set.
The only other song in the set not written by Frank, was a beautiful instrumental called Epistle To Thomas composed by Don Preston in memory of his son who had died as an infant. The piece was progressive and celestial, slow and exquisite. Of all the songs performed nightly by the Mothers, it was my favourite! Don Preston is a unique and sensitive musician.
I’d love to hear Epistle To Thomas!
I truly wish I could hear it again. It was so incredibly beautiful.
And Sandro? You mean former Grandmother Sandro Oliva? He’ll be playing with you at Zappanale?
Yes, that very Sandro! He is a great guy and a great musician; I call him the Italian Frank Zappa!
Getting back to Billy, several years ago he visited me here in Nashville. I took him to a studio where he could produce a singer he was working with. While we were at that studio, something very mystical happened: as we sat on the couch during someone else’s session, suddenly – in the middle of the song they were recording – the two horn players began jamming, transforming the music into exactly how the Mothers sounded when they improvised at the Garrick Theater in 1967!
Billy and I looked at each other in amazement. We both recognised and knew what we were hearing. It was as if the spirit of Frank had taken over the room. We marvel about it to this day. It was so beautiful. Transcendent and orgasmic! It was nothing short of the unique sound of Frank Zappa and the original Mothers of Invention.
So it felt like my heart was being ripped out when the people whose session it was erased over it and in its place recorded a very bland and unmemorable horn line. There was nothing we could do. It wasn’t our session.
Billy and I both agreed that special moment of music existed briefly just for us, commemorating our reunion after over three decades since we had played together in the Mothers! We almost got to be in another band together – Rhinoceros – but that’s another story.
Roy Estrada used to close his eyes while he played his bass on stage with the Mothers. Every now and then he’d open his eyes, look around confused and ask, “What show is this?”
I was never sure if he was kidding or he actually was playing in his sleep. He never missed a note so my guess is he was awake!
Meanwhile, after all these years, I will be seeing him again at Rochefort-en-Accords where we may get the chance to play together again for the first time since 1968! Thinking about the possibility of us jamming together at Rochefort brought tears to my eyes. If it happens, I hope someone videos it. Music history in the making!
The Mother I’ve had the most contact with over the years is Don Preston and, even though we haven’t been in touch lately, I consider him a close and lifelong friend. I hear he’s in Europe playing with Roy.
It’s because Don didn’t feel well when the new keyboard arrived that Frank asked me to play it for him so he could hear how it sounded. The only music I knew how to play was my own. As I began playing, I started to sing along. That’s all Frank had to hear. He instantly recruited me for the Mothers!
I know you’re unhappy with Sandy’s Album... can you tell me a little about the recording of that and what led to Frank ‘sabotaging’ production?
Not long after I walked out of that first session, Frank delegated the production to the newest member of the Mothers, Ian Underwood. In Ian, Frank found an obedient soldier, albeit not the most inspired musician.
In all of my over 40 years of recording experience, I’ve never witnessed a more inept or insensitive ‘producer’. Ian was good at only one thing: wasting studio time. He actually erased one of my best vocals for no rational reason. I was with a friend who witnessed it and was shocked when Ian gave the lamest reason I ever heard. He said he couldn’t mix it which, of course, is absurd as it wasn’t a mixing session. We were recording my vocals.
He would spend days putting down his own horn parts and then erasing them over and over! Not a single note of his noodling – thank goodness! – ever ended up on the album.
Production ended before the album was even close to being finished. A raw demo, it was released after I left Zappa, the Mothers and New York for LA and a deal with Reprise being offered to me by Mo Ostin, with David Geffen offering to help. My second album was finished to my satisfaction and released on Reprise in 1970.
Ultimately, I forgave Ian. He was young and didn’t know any better. I ran into him years later in LA. He seemed surprised and appreciated that I treated him kindly and forgave him for screwing up my first album all those years ago.
It still has merit, even though it’s so bare bones, as it shows the songs I wrote and my voice and piano playing at 19 and 20.
Tell me about the track Bizarre Beginnings on your Revelations Of The Secret Diva album.
Frank was demoing a bunch of my songs in a row to consider for the album and we were just finishing up recording Woman (which appears on the album) when I got silly during the ride out. So Frank joined in with his, “Bo, bo, bo!” and kissed me three times at the end, in time to the music. It was the beginning of our romance.
When and why did you move out of Frank’s orbit?
Things deteriorated between us at about the same rate the album progressed. I guess it all came to a head one day when Frank dropped by uninvited and physically forced me out of my own session.
The details of this event and much of what I’ve shared with you, are in my book – a continual work in progress that I hope to finish and release before too long.
At any rate, before I left Bizarre, I ran into Mo Ostin who was then vice-president of Reprise (he went on to become president). Upon hearing me sing at Steve Paul’s Scene in Manhattan, he approached me and asked me to come to Reprise which ultimately resulted in the recording and release of Primordial Lovers.
Did you have any subsequent contact with FZ?
On two occasions. Once, years later, when I was staying with my mom in Philadelphia – Frank used to introduce me on stage as “that strange little person from Philadelphia” – the phone rang. Mom picked it up and came to get me, telling me Frank Zappa was on the phone. He called to let me know, “We’re doing more music and less bullshit these days.”
I was amazed – and continue to be – that he carried my words with him for years, as I used to tell him how much more incredible his music was than the low-brow humour. I enjoyed a lot of the humour too, just not when it made fun of someone – though no one ever seemed to mind; guess I was overly sensitive when I was 19.
It meant a lot to me that Frank felt compelled to call me and tell me that. I didn’t realise that my thoughts were so important to him until that phone call.
I was equally surprised to learn that after I left the Mothers, he later instructed his vocalists to sing jamming and jumping octaves like I had done. I just developed my vocal jam style from improvising with sax players while in the Mothers. It’s what came out naturally.
Apparently Frank liked that sound enough to incorporate it in the band later with other vocalists. If that is indeed the case, I am honoured. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention certainly had an influence on me!
Frank and I ran into each other one last time, also in Philadelphia. This time in the mid-1980s. We both had been invited to the Chestnut Cabaret for a special Halloween show being put on by Stella, Philly’s late night horror movie hostess – in the same vein as Elvira.
When we spotted each other at the event, we were drawn together like magnets and had ourselves a good long hug. Any negativity that might’ve existed years before that moment was banished forever, replaced by the deeper reality of the love and respect we had for each other.
I am certain that we would’ve worked together again had he not fallen ill soon after our final embrace.
Sorry, but getting back to Sandro: how did you two hook-up – I assume it stems from the Grandmothers staying with you in Nashville 11 years ago?
Yep. You are correct in your assumption. We stayed in touch always hoping I could get over there and we could play together. After several failed attempts, it finally came together for us this year!
So how do you feel about the ‘hit’ interpretations of Change Of Heart and Stronger Than The Wind?
I think they both did a great job. Especially Cyndi who released Change Of Heart as a single that went to Number Three! That was a dynamic recording!
Tina did a beautiful job on Stronger Than The Wind too. It was recorded in London to the tune of $50,000. A lush recording, but it was dropped from Foreign Affair after it was originally going to be the statement song of the album. It finally became the b-side on three different singles; one in England; one in Germany; and it was the b-side of Look Me In The Heart in the US, which is what led me to nickname it, ‘Stronger Than The A-Side’!
Both singers stayed pretty true to the way I sang the songs on the original demos. I’m very happy with both of their versions.
Years later I sat down at the piano and re-wrote Change Of Heart, transforming it from an up-tempo 80s pop song to an R&B ballad. The new version is on my Essie Mae Hawk Meets The KillerGrooveBand CD.
How did the Beefheart cover come about?In 2005, I was asked by Philadelphia producer Mike Villers to sing on a track for a special compilation CD of Philly women singing Captain Beefheart entitled, Mama Kangaroos. Mike sent me a fantastic track of Party Of Special Things To Do, recorded by EDO, an incredible Philly band!
I overdubbed my vocal and all of the backgrounds here in Nashville. I’m very proud of the results!
Rightly so! Any chance we’ll hear you and Gary Lucas play The Devil’s Gotta Move Along at Zappanale?
You betcha! Gary and I were just talkin’ about it on the phone! We’re both looking forward to it!
What else can we expect to hear in Germany?
We’ll be playing songs from every decade of my career, including songs from my first album when I was signed to Frank and Herb Cohen.
By the way, I continued to work with Herbie until right before he died in 2010. We worked together to have that album reissued last year by Collectors Choice Music. He was a pleasure to work with.
We’ll also be performing songs from my second LP, Primordial Lovers, my 80s LP, E-Turn and songs from my more recent CDs – Essie Mae Hawk Meets The KillerGrooveBand, Love Is Still The Answer and Revelations Of The Secret Diva – plus a song from You’re Not Alone.
Along with my own music, we’ll be doing a couple of songs from the Mothers and a Captain Beefheart song.
Interview conducted on Monday 27th June 2011. The complete interview, together with another one I conducted alongside Bob Dobbs at Zappanale a few months later, can be found in my book Frank Talk: The Inside Stories Of Zappa's Other People (Wymer UK, 2017). Photo of Essra with Jimmy Carl Black taken by Jim Hinchliffe in Memphis in Y2K.
 Don Preston told me: “The name of the song Essra was speaking of is the first song I ever wrote, called Aegospotomas – named after a Greek river. It's on the CD called Retrospective on Crossfire.” A version with Bunk Gardner appears on Preston's Vile Foamy Ectoplasm.
 Estrada did not make it to the festival: he was incarcerated at the time, awaiting trial on a charge of child molestation.