An integral part of Frank Zappa’s band the Mothers of Invention, Ruth Underwood stayed mostly in the background on stage and in the studio, filling the sound with her indispensable contributions on marimba, harp, xylophone, vibraphone and drums. Her reputation, as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, has only grown since the Mothers disbanded in the ‘70s. Ingrid Jensen, after taking a look at the musical legacy of Ruth Underwood, declares her ‘the undisputed queen of rock ‘n’ roll percussion’.
It was 1967 when Ruth Komanoff first saw Frank Zappa perform in New York City, where the Mothers of Invention were playing a six-month residency at the Garrick Theatre, and Ruth was in the process of completing her musical education at the prestigious Juilliard school.
A classically trained percussionist from the age of 16, Ruth was astounded by the seemingly incongruous combination of humor, theatrics and consummate musicality that defined the avant-garde freak show she saw that night at the Garrick Theatre. She was instantly hooked.
“Oh, In the Sky”-The Mothers of Invention at the Garrick Theatre, 1968:
In a 1993 BBC television interview, Ruth remembered the enthralling experience of seeing the Mothers of Invention perform for the first time, and the far-reaching effects it had on her: “I remember being very upset when they finally finished their stint at the Garrick Theatre and went back to L.A. I felt as if the real heart had gone out of New York City, and I had to get back on with my conservatory music training life, which seemed very dull after this.”
“One never knew what to expect,” she continued. “There were some nights that you just heard pure music and other nights…Frank would just sit in a chair and glower at the audience. Sometimes there were more people on stage then there were in the audience. Because of that, Frank even got to know some of us by name. There were so few hardcore Mothers freaks then that we were all very noticeable to him.”
“I remember Stravinsky being played. I remember droning music going on for ages and then in the middle of all of that, the song that then became ‘Oh No, I Don’t Believe It,’ sort of breaking through the clouds, and it just shocked me, how anything could be so beautiful, and how such beautiful music could come out of such bizarre looking people.”
In the weeks that followed, Ruth found it impossible to be content with tame conservatory attitudes to what music could and couldn’t be, and after being reprimanded for picking out a Zappa melody from memory on a piano, she became even more resolute in her decision that a classical career was no longer what she desired.
In May of 1969, Ruth married Ian Underwood, who was then the Mothers of Invention’s keyboardist. She began to collaborate musically with the band, playing marimba, harp, xylophone, vibraphone and occasionally drums, as well as making a special appearance in Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels, inexplicably billed as the “Fake Drummer.” (But then 200 Motels is a fairly inexplicable movie. To give you a sense of the extreme levels of weirdness 200 Motels reaches, I’ll just say that Who drummer Keith Moon’s performance as a hysterical, manic-depressive nun-groupie is one of the comparatively quieter moments.)
200 Motels (1971)-trailer
Ruth is easily spotted in the myriad clips of Mothers of Invention performances found on YouTube. She appears slim and alert, her frizzy auburn hair pulled into a ponytail, dressed in blue jeans and a crocheted bikini top. Bent energetically over the marimba, her obvious joie de vivre at participating in the musical conversation is a delight to watch, as is the hypnotic speed and delicate birdlike motions with which she moves the mallets over the marimba. She’s anything but stone-faced during the performance, smiling broadly, her eyes alight with excitement. There’s a kind of infectious happiness that stems from watching her play.
Ruth Underwood explaining how Zappa got the sound for “St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast (Rollo Interior)”:
Zappa wrote “Rollo Interior,” (part of the “St Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” suite on the album Apostrophe(‘) ) with Ruth’s marimba in mind. Ruth once commented in an interview that she loved “Rollo Interior,” specifically because Zappa wrote the exact music for her that she would have written for herself, had she possessed the knack for composing. (Her insight into Zappa’s writing technique proved an invaluable addition to Alex Winter’s critically acclaimed documentary, Zappa.) She does receive one writing credit alongside Zappa, for the song “The Black Page #1 (Piano Version)” which is found on the album Zappa in New York, 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition.
“The Black Page # 1 (Piano Version)”:
Despite working frequently with Zappa in the studio, Ruth never considered the idea that she might play with the Mothers on tour. She explained the reasoning behind this in an interview for the documentary film Apostrophe/Overnite Sensation: “We had no instruments that could compete with electric instruments. There were no such things as electric marimbas. And so, I was able to get tremendous satisfaction from doing some recording with him, but the idea of traveling, of being a member of the band, was something that seemed completely out of reach for so many reasons, and not the least of which was we didn’t have the technology for it.”
“And then one day, he said to me, “You know, you could make your marimba electric,” and…I thought, “Well, this sounds just wonderful!” and then he said, “What they do is they drill into each bar,” and as soon as he said “drill,” you’d be drilling into my body because I owned at that time one marimba, the one that I had had since I was sixteen years old and to drill into that—that was just not going to happen.”
Ruth’s horror at the idea of her precious marimba having to undergo such experimental procedures was soothed when Zappa said that if she had her marimba electrified, he’d agree to have his vibraphone undergo the same treatment. Ruth knew that the vibraphone had been one of Zappa’s most cherished instruments for years. She figured that if Zappa was willing to risk it, she’d risk it too.
Luckily, the operation was successful, and both the marimba and the vibraphone were electrified. Now that she had the proper technology for playing percussion in a touring rock ‘n’ roll band, Ruth began to play live gigs with the Mothers. The electric marimba immediately proved a priceless addition to the live presentation of the band’s intricately layered sound.
Ruth remembered in an interview years later: “It was extraordinary…I’ll never forget the day we plugged it in for the first time…it was deafeningly loud. He (Frank) looked positively gleeful. He looked almost maniacal. Like you know, “Now I can rule the world! I’ve got all the percussion at my disposal.” It was an extraordinary thing. I’ve seen him happy on a number of occasions, but that day was special. That was almost like Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 James Whale picture, you know: ‘It’s alive, it’s alive!’”
In 1973, Ruth became an official member of the final line-up of the Mothers of Invention. She subsequently appears in Roxy the Movie, a concert film of the Mothers’ 1973 performance at the Roxy in Hollywood. On the experience of working in tandem with Zappa, Ruth described in an interview: “The bottom line with Frank was that he wanted to and needed to get the best that he could from everyone. That was of paramount importance to him, and I think that’s why he got such…extraordinary results. He saw what each of us could do, and he wouldn’t settle for anything less than that.”
“Approximate”-Frank Zappa & the Mothers:
The final incarnation of the Mothers disbanded in 1976. Ruth separated from Ian Underwood in 1986. She continued to live in Los Angeles, but she lost touch with Frank Zappa.
In 1993, Ruth heard that Zappa had fallen ill (he died in December of that year.) She got in touch and the musicians reconnected, leading to her spending four days at Zappa’s house, sampling marimba tracks for the recordings that he continued to produce despite his fragile health.
She worked tirelessly to help preserve Zappa’s musical legacy after his death, writing engaging liner notes for two re-releases (Halloween ’73 and Roxy by Proxy) and proving an invaluable source in multiple documentaries covering his life and work. As of late, it’s rumored that she leads a quiet life, and devotes much of her energies to volunteering as a music teacher for underprivileged students.
“Inca Roads”-Frank Zappa & the Mothers, 1973:
Ruth Underwood’s reputation is unmistakably that of an icon, as revered among the present generation of percussionists as Jimi Hendrix or Poison Ivy Rorschach are among guitarists. YouTube comments under videos that feature her carry an almost reverent tone. She’s a hallowed figure, respected as much for her barrier-breaking act in being the only female musician to tour with the Mothers of Invention as for her multi-instrumentalist virtuosity.
Someday, I hope I’ll walk into a record store and see a Ruth Underwood poster tacked up; as the undisputed queen of rock n’ roll percussion, she deserves nothing less.