Ray Shirley White Sr. was vocalist/guitarist for Frank Zappa from 1976 to 1984. He was also to have been a part of the ill-fated 1988 world tour, but had to be substituted at the eleventh hour.
He can be seen in the Does Humor Belong In Music? (1985) and The Torture Never Stops (2008) home videos, and heard on numerous Zappa albums – including Zappa In New York (1978), You Are What You Is (1981), Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982), The Man From Utopia (1983), Them Or Us (1984), Thing-Fish (1984, as Owl-Gonkwin-Jane Cowhoon), Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985), the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series (1988-92), Buffalo (2007) and Philly ’76 (2009).
After FZ passed away, Ray played in a series of jam bands, including Grateful Dead spin-off KVHW (with Steve Kimock, Bobby Vega and Alan Hertz), Car Trouble, The Big E, Don’t Push The Clown, Brother Dog and Talking Shoes.
In 2002, he appeared as a guest on the Banned From Utopia’s So Yuh Don’t Like Modern Art album.
In 2007, he joined Zappa Plays Zappa and can be heard on Dweezil’s Return Of The Son Of... (2010) live album.
After leaving ZPZ, he toured with Project/Object featuring Ike Willis and appeared as a special guest at Zappanale, playing with the Muffin Men and others.
Since 2013, he has been part of the reformed Banned From Utopia with Robert Martin and often plays with Roister, an ever-evolving band that also occasionally includes Tom Fowler, Ike Willis and Ed Mann.
In 2019, Ray became a key member of “The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa” US and European hologram tours (alongside Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes, Robert Martin and Ed Mann), was featured on the 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Zappa In New York and released his first solo album, A Wrinkle In The Plan. It seemed a good time for a chat.
All thanks to Sam Ward of Treacherous Cretins for making the connection.
Last year, when I interviewed Ahmet, he told me you’d finally been in the studio recording lots of new music. I first saw you in action with Ahmet’s father at the Hammersmith Odeon in February 1977. How come it’s taken all these years to get your debut album together!?
I got into a very positive groove, writing and recording every day. There are 100 albums recorded and ready to mix.
Some people choose music for fame and fortune, but music chose me. Music has always been – for me – about the creative process. I have always enjoyed those small moments of connection with the ethereal. It’s like a child being born: a very personal thing. I’ve been asked about what I’m writing, what I am thinking...so, the opportunity came. The right place, the coolest friends. And so, the time is now.
As my mother used to say, “It’s not when you get there, but that you get there.”
There’s a live version of the title track of your album online from 2013, with the Art of Ill Fusion. Do any of those guys play on the album?
The track that’s out there by the band I jammed with, should have never been released! It was a train wreck.
So who plays on the album?
I played all of the instruments on the album, but Chad Wackerman added his wonderful drumming on one track.
It’s a very positive sounding record. Tell me about the lyrical inspiration for some of the songs.
Most of the stories come from personal observations, mixed with some historical lessons.
You’ve clearly taken very good care of your voice – what’s your secret?
Ah, the voice! As you may know, I believe in God, so when I sing, I sing to a place that is greater than I am…I open my mouth, believe that whatever I seek to do is already given, and there it is. Blessed.
Will the album be released in any physical format? A lot of us older guys still like to hold these things in our hands!
As soon as a stream of revenue starts to happen, of course I’ll release the album on CD.
So there is more new music to come from Ray Shirley White Sr?
With 100 albums worth of material recorded and ready to mix, I will have to release an album a month, just to be alive when the last album is released!
Yes, there is much, much more to come.
And what of the Bizarre World of Frank Zappa band – any more dates in the offing?
I hope The Bizarre World tour kicks off again, but meanwhile the band will be doing more shows (without the hologram) because we all enjoy playing together.
Will Ed Mann be involved in any future gigs?
I hope Ed will do some of these shows we’re doing (non-Hologram). He is one of my favourite human beings on this planet! He has true sight and such a great heart!
When we had Mike Keneally on the ZappaCast in 2016, he talked about wanting to play alongside Ray White one day. The irony of course is that had you toured with Frank in 1988, we might never have heard of Mike.
Were you aware of his amazing abilities before the Hologram band?
I had heard about Mike, but we never connected. Everything happens when it’s supposed to happen.
Are you able to clarify why you didn’t actually make the 1988 tour?
I left rehearsals for that tour due to a family safety issue.[i]
Did Frank ever talk to you about his proposed six-piece band – comprising himself, you, Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes and Mats & Morgan – that would continue after the ‘Broadway The Hard Way’ band disintegrated?
No, I never spoke to Frank about that possible band combination.
Can you recall your last conversation with Frank?
Frank and I talked during his battle with that nasty disease, and he would ask me when I was coming down to LA to see him. He said, “Time is getting short.” I asked him, “Are you waiting to see me?” He said, “Yes.” I answered, “Well, you’re still here!” He laughed.
Okay, back to the beginning. How did you first get the gig with Frank – was it on Lady Bianca’s recommendation?
Lady Bianca…a truly great woman, a fantastic musician, and a great human being. She called me about the audition, and life as I knew it changed.
What music had you been playing before FZ – with Bianca?
I only played a few shows with Bianca’s band. I was already playing with an original band at the time, which included Tony Smith on drums, Archie White on keyboards, Larry Wong on bass, Ron Leung on percussion and Arnie Baruch on sax.
Bianca was, and is, a friend of the family – a lifelong friend, I might add. She introduced me to Frank, and away we went.
How do you feel singing some of Frank’s lyrics – Illinois Enema Bandit, for example?
I had no problems singing Frank’s songs. They were like scenes in a movie. Hit your mark, deliver your lines in a believable manner, and enjoy the journey! [ii]
I can only imagine how it must have felt to record in the vocal booth with Ike Willis, Frank, Robert Martin, and Bob Harris at UMRK. Can you describe it?
Recording with the guys from the band at UMRK was like being on a cool playground…when you’re ‘in the moment’, you have no idea of the magic that’s being created. Sometimes ‘fun’ took the lead, and lyrics would change. But the solid foundation was always Frank’s music.
Ike describes the pair of you as “The Othello Brothers”.
The name “The Othello Brothers” was thrown out in the midst of a conversation with Ike, Thomas Nordegg, and me. Thomas said (in one of those boisterous moments that Ike and I used to share), “You guys are like The Othello Brothers.”
I wanted to form the band, but no one could see the image.
It was a shame that Napoleon Murphy Brock only performed at the start of Frank’s 1984 tour. How did those three voices sound together then?
With Napi, the voices in that band were crazy cool!
During your tenure with Zappa Plays Zappa, there was a place for some improv/storytelling from you. Where did you get your inspiration from for those moments?
The improv with ZPZ…whatever the word, or phrase, that was yelled out, I was standing on the edge. It was like jumping out of a plane, and one second later asking yourself “Did I put my parachute on?” It’s do or die, your mind changes gears, and with a certain amount of prayer, and a lot of bravado, it happens.
What led to your decision to leave ZPZ?
Leaving ZPZ was strictly a business decision.
Obviously you have played with a number of Zappa alums in Banned From Utopia. Using up to five words, describe Tom Fowler.
And Ed Mann?
A true spirit in life.
Down to earth cool.
Illumination of love.
And finally, Robert Martin.
Two mothers birthed two brothers.
Excellent! Thanks for your time, Ray.
Thanks for keeping the flame lit, and the music flowing. The Journey Is The Prize.
Interview conducted on Sunday 6th October 2019. Photo of Ray taken by the Idiot Bastard at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 25th September 2007.
[i] Ray has told others that he received a phone call telling him that the police had planted drugs in his home and were staking it out, awaiting his return. He apparently arranged for someone to 'clean up' before he returned.
[ii] In 2023, Scott Thunes wrote of Enema Bandit (on Reddit) that, "Ray White doesn’t wanna do it anymore because he feels that the song takes actual sexual assault far too lightly and he believes the original survivors probably don’t take too kindly to the fact that this song exists at all."