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Blow Your Harmonica, Son: Craig 'Twister' Steward Remembers Time With Frank Zappa

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Joe Corsage, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
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Craig “Twister” Steward wasn’t the first Kansas musician to play with Frank Zappa. The most popular incarnation of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention featured drummer Jimmy Carl Black, who’d worked as a gas station attendant after the leaving the Air Force. Mothers’ saxophonist James “Motorhead” Sherwood was born in Ark City, though he called California home for much of his life. Steward says that Zappa’s Kansas connections, though loose, made their impression upon him. He was also impressed with the music which he heard thanks to a format that was still in its infancy during the 1970s: FM radio.

“If I took the word ‘rock’ and put the word ‘equal,’ I’d put Jimi Hendrix. With Frank, it’d be ‘FM equals Frank Zappa,'” Steward says. “It’s the music you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Nowhere else. ...Frank had that Jimmy Carl Black connection and then you had [‘It Can’t Happen Here’ from Freak Out!, which mentions Kansas]. Big news to your ears. So, I liked Frank for that, but I wasn’t really a Frank connoisseur.”

That was until he came face-to-face with Zappa in a Wichita club back in the early 1970s.

“He’d gone to the Fireside West, and he’d gone to a couple of other places and said to someone, ‘Is there anywhere where people are playing something a little more avant-garde?’ They said, ‘Well, there’s a group called Bliss. So, he made it [to where we were playing] and all of a sudden I heard, ‘Craig!’” Steward recalls. “There was Frank Zappa. I went over, shook hands with him. He said, ‘I’m going to go up and play. Would you come up and play a tune with me?’ Wonderful! So, we got up, and he said, ‘I’m going to get you out to Los Angeles for an audition. I thought, ‘Sure. Maybe he means it right now.’”

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Credit Courtesy Photo
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Craig “Twister” Steward

Zappa made good on his promise, and soon Steward walking into an audition and encountering renowned French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

“He’s got his loop machine on, distortion, [he was like] Jimi Hendrix on violin. I mean, killing it,” Steward recalls. “I went up to him and said, ‘Man, that was fantastic.’ He said, in a very heavy French accent, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘Je suis desole. J’ai eu un peu de francais.’ He got the biggest kick out of that, and we just hit it off.”

Also in that lineup of Zappa’s band were drummers Chester Thompson, who’d go on to play with Genesis, keyboardist George Duke, percussion virtuoso Ruther Underwood and her then-husband Ian, drummer Ralph Humphrey and bassist Tom Fowler. It was the lineup at the core of records such as One Size Fits All, Roxy and Elsewhere, Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation. But there wasn’t a lot of room for harmonica and Steward struggled to find his place in the music. After several days of struggling to find his way, he and Zappa spoke about the direction the band was going in.

“Frank, after the third day, called me over and said, ‘Well, Twist, what do you think?’ I said, ‘Frank, I need to go home.’ His head went back, and he said, ‘Good heavens! I’ve never had anybody say that to me before.’ He said, ‘Don’t think of this as a failure. You go home and practice and when I say, “Play this here, play that there, you’ll have your ear developed to where you can do that,”” Steward recalls.

He returned to Kansas, gigged around the state regularly and, in 1979 was invited to play on what would become one of Zappa’s most popular albums, Joe’s Garage.

“I got there a little later than the others. They had been there about three or four days, so I didn’t know any of the material. But I knew what John Lee Hooker sounded like,” he says.

Steward was tapped to play on a number of pieces, but one track, in particular, gave him a chance to shine with an extended solo.

“I was struggling with the harmonica I had a little bit and Frank said, ‘You’re overblowing, and you’re a little flat,’” Steward recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, maybe we’ll get this thing loosened up.’ So, then, the second time we did it and finished. When we came into the studio Frank kind of leaned back, I don’t know if he was smoking or not, and said, ‘That was good,’” Steward remembers. “He said, ‘We got it.’ He turned to me and said, ‘Oh, by the way, not a bad harp solo.’”

The Frank Zappa documentary Eat That Question plays in Wichita this week as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

 
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