The difference between being in the right place at the right time and making your own breaks may be slight. But for longtime Frank Zappa guitarist and vocalist Ike Willis, it led to a career.
“There’s one question asked of me all of the time and that’s how did you become Frank’s guitar player,” said Willis with a laugh as talked about forging a relationship both onstage and off with the legendary musical genius that was Zappa. “Frank was playing at my college back in 1977 and I really wanted to see the concert, so I volunteered to be on the crew. So I was schlepping equipment. Before his soundcheck, we made eye contact and he called me over. We started chatting and we really hit it off well, so after the soundcheck he asked if I wanted to come hang out with him and the band in the dressing room.
“Once we got back there he asked me if I played an instrument, and of course I answered yes. … He asked me if I knew any of his material and he handed me his guitar and we jammed, and then the whole band joined in eventually, and we jammed for quite a while.
“He told me that he was going to be holding auditions for a guitarist, and asked me to come out to L.A. and audition, and it was really a great experience. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever hear from him again, but a short time after I got back I was sitting in my dorm, and they told me that I had a phone call. I passed the audition and the rest, as they say, is history (laughs).”
Willis began playing guitar at the age of 8, and although he has an established solo career, he is perhaps best known for his days in the Zappa Universe, and often tours with various Zappa tribute bands from all over the globe.
“There are many Frank Zappa tribute bands out there, 14 of them around the world, and I’ve played with just about every one of them,” he said with a laugh that was almost as big as his down-home personality. “I often perform with Project/Object and as many as I can, because I made a promise to Frank that I’d keep his music alive by playing it as he showed me. Frank was a very generous man and was very good to me, and doing so is fun and very rewarding.”
Currently on tour performing his own music as well as that of his mentor, Willis keeps a busy schedule yet has still managed to find the time to create.
“I’m working on a new CD right now. I’ve got most of the songs written. I try a few out to see how they go over, but I’ll be recording and finishing up a new CD of my material, hopefully by early 2018.”
Now, however, he’s enjoying time on the road and will be doing several shows on the East Coast, including one at the intimate Stanhope House in Stanhope, Oct. 7.
Willis is excited to reconnect with the fans.
“The two biggest cult followings in rock music are the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa,” he stated, with pride in his voice. “There’s a huge cult of fans that are very loyal to me and to Frank’s music. They buy everything, they are at every show, they just don’t stop and they’re absolutely great! No matter where we go, we still have lots of fans, and right now the band is sounding good, looking good. We’re ready to go.”
Willis expresses gratitude as he reiterates what Zappa and his music meant to him, and the opportunities that have been wrought from that chance meeting back at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Frank was a very generous man, as I said. I remember the first gig that I did with him; to this day, it’s one of my fondest memories. Well, my fondest memory was actually getting to meet Frank for the first time and then that first gig. We played a festival with 125,000 people. Genesis was on the bill, The Scorpions, Joan Baez, John McLaughlin; it was the most amazing thing to me. Talk about starting off with a bang (laughs).
“I was also asked to be the voice on Joe’s Garage, and I’ve gotten voiceover work and more out of that. So it was the gift that keeps giving.”
Willis and his band (which includes his wife on percussion) will take a week or two off after the East Coast dates before heading back out on the road.
To catch a show or discover more about Willis, his music, his new book or Zappa, visit ikewillis.com.