The first version of the Grandmothers came along in 1980 and naturally featured a triumvirate that had -- among many other things weird and Zappa-esque -- been photographed wearing dresses for the gatefold cover of the 1968 We're Only in It for the Money. Drummer and singer Jimmy Carl Black, the infamous "Indian of the group," plus former Army buddies Don Preston on keyboards and multi-instrumentalist Bunk Gardner, are certainly among the most versatile and entertaining players Zappa had ever hired. Zappa himself became the target of the new band's on-stage satire and was apparently particularly upset over a dummy of himself that was being used in various provocative ways.
This began a pattern of the Zappa family and its legal minions fighting with various members of the Grandmothers. In the case of the aforementioned ribbing of Zappa it was clearly an example of something actor Edward G. Robinson described perfectly in one of his gangster roles: "You can dish it out, but you can't take it in." Other legal wranglings involved the right to perform and record Zappa compositions and, most importantly, unsanctioned use of the actual name of the Mothers of Invention by greedy promoters. At one point in the early '90s, the Zappa estate quashed a new recording deal for the Grandmothers with a major label that was unfortunately not interested in working with the band unless it was allowed to use the name of the Mothers of Invention.
Black has pointed out in many interviews that the Grandmothers are not, strictly speaking, a Zappa cover band. The group's repertoire touches only on material from the Mothers of Invention days and also features songs by Black and Preston as well as much other appropriate cover material from the '60s and '70s. Some of the membership over the years has involved players from Zappa's later bands and projects, however. Black has detailed a lively anecdote when some of these younger musicians attempted to hijack a version of the Grandmothers, their goal being to replace some of the older members with younger upstarts. "I came down to breakfast one morning in the hotel and the first thing they said," Black recalls, "was to ask 'How would you like to be the only original Mother in the Grandmothers?'" Black says he answered their question with another question: "How would you like to hang it out your ass?"
Black, usually with Gardner and Preston and sometimes with original Mothers of Invention bassist and falsetto vocalist Roy Estrada, has been responsible for the most coherent and industrious versions of the band, one of which was seen in many American towns during a lengthy tour in 2000. Black's genius in this situation was to involve the aforementioned Europeans, who brought to the stage a combination of youthful energy and a looser, much less uptight attitude about Zappa music. Black had a version of the band with local musicians based out of Austin, TX, during his residency there in the '80s, but his version of the Grandmothers only really took off after Black became an expatriate in 1992 -- allowing him much easier access to the European audience.
Since 2002, Preston has become the de facto leader of the Grandmothers, shifting the band's base of operations to his hometown of Los Angeles and utilizing musicians from this area as well as the geographically altered name of the Grandmothers .
R.I.P. Jimmy Carl Black