Despite Ray Collins’ international presence in the famed Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa, he was essentially a local guy. Collins was born in Pomona in 1936, the son of a policeman, and attended high school in the city, dropping out before graduation to marry his high-school sweetheart after she became pregnant. In the mid-1960s, Ray was the lead singer in a local R&B cover band called The Soul Giants. Collins eventually fired the group’s guitarist and invited a musical collaborator from Rancho Cucamonga to take his place. His name was Frank Zappa. Collins had first heard Zappa in 1962 at The Sportsman in Pomona and upon Zappa’s joining the Soul Giants, the two formed a great relationship and changed the name of the band to The Mothers. Later adding “of Invention” to the band name, the group became known for its avant-novelty antics, imbued with iconoclastic parodies.
As a singer, Collins gave The Mothers of Invention a unique falsetto voice reflecting the sounds of his earlier days singing R&B, doo-wop, and pachuco (Latino street music). Collins can be heard extensively on The Mothers of Invention’s first two albums, Freak Out!(1966) and Absolutely Free (1967). He also sang on a few cuts on the Mothers of Invention’s doo-wop inspired album Cruising with Ruben and The Jets (1968). Departing the group in 1968, Collins felt the Mothers of Invention’s music was incorporating “too much comedy and making fun of stuff”, where he just wanted to make the kind of “beautiful music” that Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole sang. Despite his departure from the Mother’s of Invention, Collins would continue to occasionally collaborate and contribute to Frank Zappa projects through the mid-1970s.
Following his time with the Mothers of Invention, Collins worked as a taxi driver in Los Angeles and dishwasher in Hawaii, leading a nomadic life and supplementing his income with royalty and social security checks. Collins settled in Claremont in 1991, residing in the city for the rest of his life. Ray lived out of a camper at a friend’s house and later, in his own van when the friend moved away. Ray would start his day off at Some Crust Bakery when their doors opened at 6:30am. Other than his preference for their coffee, manager, Scott Feemster’s unique music-friendly mix tapes heard in the bakery may have also been a draw for Ray’s patronage. Later in the day, Ray’s preferred spot was on the bench outside the Village Grill as if he were “open” for drop-by conversations.
Throughout his wanderings in the Claremont Village, Ray’s discussions with local musical acquaintances would occasionally lead to plans to start a new musical project, unfortunately nothing ever materialized. Instead, relevant discussions often included old movie music, crooners, and the similar wanderings of eden ahbez (composer of the song “Nature Boy” ). Ray was adamantly opposed to his occasionally misperceived image as a panhandler and never accepted charity. Instead, Collins preferred to be thought of, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, as the Village Greeter who enjoyed interacting with passersby both young and old.
Ray Collins’ unmistakable presence in Claremont has not been forgotten and to this day, residents continually speak of his contribution to the culture of the music of the 1960s and are proud to claim him as a Claremonter. Anyone who was familiar with Ray will undoubtedly consider his absence like an open mouth with a missing tooth. Ray Collins passed away in 2012.
Photography by Althea Sachs