Robert ‘Bobby’ Martin sang and played keyboards, sax and French horn for Zappa between September 1981 and June 1988.
Before then, Martin was a big part of the ‘Philly sound’: his French horn can be heard on a number of major hits from the 1970s, including Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) by The Delfonics, Betcha By Golly, Wow and I’m Stone In Love With You by The Stylistics, Me And Mrs. Jones by Billy Paul, Back Stabbers and Love Train by The O’Jays and If You Don’t Know Me By Now by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.
Martin says of this period, “It was an amazing experience, cutting my studio teeth at the level of one gold record after another, back in the day when we had 30 people all moving air in the same room at the same time. Great players, great songs and great arrangements by Gamble, Huff and Bell.”
In the 1990s, Martin enjoyed a five-year relationship with the actress Cybill Shepherd and became the musical director of her successful CBS sitcom, Cybill.
In 2000, he made a guest appearance on The Persuasions Sing Zappa – Frankly A Cappella, along with Bruce Fowler and Mike Keneally.
In 2013, Martin became the musical director of the reformed Banned From Utopia, whose line-up over the next few years would include Ray White, Ed Mann, Tom Fowler, Ralph Humphrey, Arthur Barrow, Chad Wackerman and Albert Wing.
In 2019, Martin joined ‘The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa’ hologram tour band, where he remains, alongside fellow alums Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes and Ray White – but no longer the Hologram.
I first made contact with him in 2008 when a friend brought his Look Great Naked At Any Age website to my attention. He readily agreed to answer my questions – and also to be put in touch with the Arf Society regarding appearing at a future Zappanale, which he first did the following year.
It took several months to get this interview together, but it was worth the wait.
Tell me about your earliest musical experiences.
The first piece of music I remember identifying and asking for was Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was 2½ years old. It’s such visual music and I had vivid images in my imagination about what the sounds suggested.
My parents were both opera singers and growing up in the 1950s in Philadelphia, I was exposed to an amazing variety of music. My parents were into all kinds of music and there was always something playing on the old RCA Victrola.
My grandmother worked at RCA in Trenton, New Jersey and I still have quite a collection of 78 RPM records. I was watching American Bandstand before Dick Clark was on. The original host was Bob Horn. Rock and roll grew up in Philadelphia as the nation tuned into the phenomenon and I grew up right along with it.
There was an active jazz scene and John Coltrane spent quite a bit of time there to study with a teacher named Dennis Sandoli.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has always been one of the best in the world and I remember outdoor summer concerts at the Robin Hood Dell Theater. Years later, when I went to the Curtis Institute, I would study with many of the first chair players that I admired so much as a boy.
Music always made perfect sense to me. We had an old Lester spinet piano when I was growing up and I taught myself to play all the music I was hearing as soon as I was big enough to reach up and touch the keys.
From a very early age, I recognised both chord progressions and melodies and was able to play them back after one hearing.
You say you’re self-taught, but didn’t you have some formal musical training: you can read music, right?
As I mentioned, I began playing piano as soon as I could reach up and touch the keys, even before I could see them. By the time I began to take lessons at age eight, I already knew how to play blues and compose strictly by ear. I took lessons for a short time and learned to read music, but preferred what I was able to learn on my own and quit the lessons.
I had no formal lessons on French horn until I’d already been playing for ten years, then plunged into intensive classical studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[i]<![endif]>
I’m entirely self-taught on saxophone and vocals.
Okay. How did you get to work with Frank?
There are so many horror stories about top-notch musicians crumbling at a Zappa audition, but my audition was a blast!
Zappa’s guitar tech for the 1981 tour, Dave Robb, used to work for Orleans when I was in that band in the late 1970s. Dave called me and said Frank needed one more musician for the tour and told me to come down the next day.
I realised there was no way to prepare for a Zappa audition in less than twenty-four hours, so I decided not to try to prepare at all and just go down and do what I do.
He had me sight-read various keyboard parts and whenever something was technically beyond me, I would just play the right hand.
So he could tell I was able to follow the crazy polyrhythms and metric modulations.
Then he had me transpose keyboard parts on tenor sax and French horn. Being a classically trained horn player, transposition is a way of life, so it was no big deal, but certainly not easy to transpose Zappa melodies on sight!
He had me sight-read The Black Page on tenor sax from a keyboard part. The beginning of the melody moves fairly slowly, so that was no problem, but when it got to the fast sixteenth notes, I would just play the first note of each group through that section in order to stay on top of it.
Then he said, “Well, you can obviously read and play. I understand you sing really high and strong. Let me hear you sing something. What do you know?” I hadn’t prepared anything, so I just said, “I don’t know – Auld Lang Syne?” So Frank turned to the band and said, “Auld Lang Syne, key of A.”
Back then, I had a pretty bizarre range and could sing a high “G” an octave and a half above middle “C” with no problem in natural voice, no falsetto. So I sang the tune an octave higher than anyone expected, in natural voice. Frank literally sat there with his mouth open and I knew I was in.
I did every tour from then on. I didn’t have to audition for anything after that, since most people in the business know that if you can handle Frank’s music, you can handle anything.
I was asked to join Bette Midler’s band strictly on reputation and things just went on from there. I spent most of the 1980s touring the world with major stars.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[ii]<![endif]>
What do you remember of the MTV performance in 1981?
That was my first Zappa tour – I still had a moustache! I just watched some footage from that show and the energy was amazing. It’s great to see Frank when he was young and healthy.
As I recall, at one point, the audience was passing a rubber raft around over their heads. It was a wild night, Halloween in New York City: killer band, amazing music – great to have been a part of it with Frank, Tommy Mars, Steve Vai and all the rest.
Which was your favourite tour with Frank?
1988, hands down. The band was flat out amazing and I was the primary keyboard player for the first time. We had a superb five-piece horn section, so I didn’t get to play sax and very little French horn. But it was such a blast to hear those guys play! We did some really elaborate re-arrangements of old material and a lot of free-form blowing as well.
And your memories of the 1988 band’s demise?
Not a happy subject and not an easy one to talk about, since it turned out to be not just the demise of the 1988 band, but the demise of Zappa tours as such.
Essentially, the feeling of camaraderie within the band disintegrated due to what I would describe as poor social skills on the part of one band member in particular. He was a colleague, a friend and an intelligent and gifted musician, so I don’t choose to name names here. I had a better relationship with him than most of the rest of the band, partially because he respected my heavy classical background.
When personal differences within the band began to affect what was happening with the music onstage, we all knew something had to change. A rift developed in the band and there was a move to try to convince Frank to make a personnel change.
I was actually surprised that Frank seemed more intent on maintaining control of the individual band members than he was with fixing what had become an obvious musical problem. He wasn’t going to let the band force his hand on making a change, even though the music was suffering and he cancelled the remainder of the tour.
Needless to say, we were all disappointed, since the band was just so ridiculously good.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[iii]<![endif]>
You referred to when Frank was ‘young and healthy’. Were there any signs of his ill health in 1988?
None that I was aware of, or anyone else to the best of my knowledge.
When did you last speak to Frank?
Frank became much more social towards the end and had many eclectic gatherings of very diverse people at his house on Friday evenings. The last one was only a few weeks before he died.
You’ve made one solo album – what does it sound like?
I landed a deal with MCA in 1982 and had in mind to do a record that would be kind of like Ray Charles meets Steely Dan, because that’s the way I write, or one of the ways. But my producer and manager and the label had a very different idea of what they wanted. The result was a compromise that didn’t really please either me or them.
It didn’t matter, though, because a few weeks after it was released, MCA was bought by a large conglomerate and virtually everyone at the label was replaced.
Me and the new regime didn’t really connect and we just said goodbye to each other and that was it.
When and why did you decide you preferred being called ‘Robert’ over ‘Bobby’?
I honestly never liked ‘Bobby’, it sounded like a baseball player. Not that that’s bad and I thought about being one professionally. But I turned 40 in 1988 and decided it was time to go by the ‘grown-up’ name my parents gave me and I asked Frank to start introducing me as ‘Robert’.
He was totally cool about it.
Are you happy to talk about your time with Cybill Shepherd – as her musical director?
Cybill is more talented as a singer than most people give her credit for. She was understandably nervous about covering an Aretha Franklin tune for an episode of her TV show, but we worked together on it quite a bit and she pulled it off really well.
She’s incredibly focused and has a remarkable work ethic. We played cabarets in NYC, London and LA, sometimes with a quartet and sometimes as a duo with bass and drum tracks that I pre-recorded.
She was great with an audience and always gave an engaging, entertaining performance.
We were together for nearly five years and there was a lot more good than bad.
What are your recollections of The Persuasions’ Frankly A Capella sessions?
It was fun, it was quick, they liked me, I liked them, not much else to report.
Aside from the Banned From Utopia, have you worked with any other Zappa alumni since?
No, just Banned From Utopia. I did a performance with the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1994 called The Purple Cucumber, featuring music by a number of European composers in the style of Zappa. But I was the only Zappa alumni involved.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[iv]<![endif]>
I’ll be performing at the 20th Zappanale in Germany this August with some other alumni.
How did you become involved in The Purple Cucumber<![if !supportFootnotes]>[v]<![endif]> project?
They called me, I said yes. It had a bit of an academic overtone, but it was fun. I think the orchestra members truly enjoyed it.
What are the chances of you being a Zappa Plays Zappa special guest at some point?
I have no idea, but I’d be happy to do it.
Interview conducted on Friday 22nd May 2009. The complete interview with Robert can be found in Andrew’s book Frank Talk: The Inside Stories Of Zappa’s Other People (Wymer UK, 2017).
Photo of Robert with the Idiot Bastard (and Uncle Ian)
taken in Bad Doberan on 14 August 2009 by J-Roc.
<![if !supportFootnotes]>[i]<![endif]> When Martin sings a ‘a big ol’ cadenza’ during the song Planet Of The Baritone Women on the Broadway The Hard Way album, Zappa butts in with: “Robert Martin from Philadelphia, Curtis Institute graduate, 1971. Let’s hear it for him!”
<![if !supportFootnotes]>[ii]<![endif]> Martin has worked with the likes of Prince, The Moody Blues, Lyle Lovett, Gladys Knight, Glenn Frey, Michael Bolton, Etta James, David Sanborn, The Stylistics, The O’Jays, Sheila E and The Blues Brothers.
<![if !supportFootnotes]>[iii]<![endif]> Martin talked to me some more about the tour, for my Zappa The Hard Way book.
<![if !supportFootnotes]>[iv]<![endif]> The ‘rock band’ included former Muffin Men Andy Jacobson (keyboards), Andy Treacey (drums) and Jake Newman (bass).
<![if !supportFootnotes]>[v]<![endif]> The project was the brainchild of Belgian radio producer, Zjakki Willems.