Best known as the lead vocalist on early Mothers of Invention albums, and for contributions to other Frank Zappa projects through the mid-1970s, Collins was the son of a local police officer and grew up in Pomona, California singing in the choirs at Emerson Junior High and Pomona High. He played halfback on the football team, but left school his senior year to get married to his pregnant girlfriend. He began his musical career singing falsetto backup vocals for various doo-wop groups in the Los Angeles area in the late 1950s and early 1960s, performing at some of the famous dances at El Monte Legion Stadium backing Chuck Higgins, Johnny Otis, and Joe Huston, among others. His earliest known recorded performance was on Little Julian Herrera and the Tigers’ “I Remember Linda” in 1957.
Collins elaborated on the event: “The Tigers were friends of mine, and I just kind of went along to watch the session. Art Laboe said, “Can you do the falsetto?” or something. I think Little Julian wasn’t too thrilled about it. Art Laboe paid me ten dollars for the session. That’s got one of the greatest sour notes in history, by the way, coming right out of the bridge.”
But just as “I Remember Linda” started moving up the local charts, Julian Herrera was arrested for rape. “I was there that night. . . During the break, the police came and arrested Julian. We went on without him [but] it killed the record.”
Collins met Frank Zappa in 1961 after noticing him perform at the Sportsman Tavern. Collins was there drinking when the R&B foursome that included Zappa set up and began to perform, and was delighted by the band’s selection of obscure cover songs. Zappa was also a writer of sardonic, musically adventurous songs. “We just liked each other instantly,” Collins said. They shared a love of a wide range of music, including doo-wop, and an admiration for TV comic Steve Allen.
Collins and Zappa struck up a musical partnership for much of 1963, performing folk song parodies at L.A. clubs, recording novelty numbers at Zappa’s Studio Z and co-writing a doo-wop tribute, “Memories of El Monte,” for the Penguins.
The two hung out and performed together sporadically as a mock folk duo, recording a single as Ned & Nelda and began performing parodies of folks songs in Cucamonga coffee houses under different pseudonyms including Loeb & Leopold and The Sin City Boys.
Zappa recalled those lean times: “We sang ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ as ‘Joe the Puny Greaser’, and ‘The Streets of Laredo’ as ‘The Streets of Fontana.’ We were just doing it for a laugh, to have fun. [We sang] about pimples and all kinds of other far out things that [became] the basis of some of the things The Mothers eventually wound up doing.”
In 1964, drummer Jimmy Carl Black, bassist Roy Estrada, saxophonist Dave Coronado, and guitarist Ray Hunt formed The Soul Giants, an R&B cover band that performed at the Broadside Club in Pomona. Collins joined by accident after the band auditioned at the Broadside, the club owner insisted that Collins, his friend who was doing construction work on the venue, would have to replace the singer if the band wanted the gig. “I felt kind of awkward about it, someone firing someone else and giving me the job,” Collins said.
When Hunt was let go, Collins suggested Zappa and phoned him up. He auditioned and was accepted in April 1965. The Soul Giants at this point played popular dance numbers like “Louie, Louie,” “Gloria” and “In the Midnight Hour”, but within two years the Soul Giants became the Mothers and began writing original songs, prompting Coronado to quit.
The band, which changed its name first to the Blackouts and then to Captain Glasspack and His Magic Mufflers, performed Zappa’s experimental rock music in front of baffled drinkers at such bars as the Red Flame in Pomona, the Shack in Fontana and the Tom Cat in Torrance, according to author Barry Miles’ biography “Zappa.”
“Eventually we went back to the Broadside in Pomona and we called ourselves the Mothers,” Zappa said in an interview quoted by Miles. “It just happened by sheer accident to be Mother’s Day (May 9, 1965), although we weren’t aware of it at the time. When you are nearly starving to death, you don’t keep track of holidays.”
After they were signed to Verve Records in 1966 by record producer Tom Wilson, the name was lengthened to the Mothers of Invention at their record label’s insistence. Collins was the lead vocalist on their earliest albums, including “Freak Out!”, a double set which includes the single “Who Are the Brain Police?” along with “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” and the 12-minute “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.”).
It was followed by 1967’s “Absolutely Free” and “Cruising With Ruben and the Jets” from 1968, but Collinse sat out 1968’s “We’re Only in it for the Money” and soon left the band. Zappa had effectively assumed control of the band, leading to tension. Collins had been ambivalent about the Mothers ever since Zappa relocated the band from Pomona to Hollywood to pursue a record deal.
“I think I quit the Mothers four times… I didn’t like doing that stuff onstage. Too much comedy, too much making fun of stuff,” Collins said in an interview in 2009. “I just wanted to make beautiful music. I was raised on Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole.” In 1968 Ray quit The Mothers of Invention, but continued to contribute to other Zappa projects through the mid-1970s, then effectively left his music career behind and never performed afterwards. “When I walked away, I walked away with nothing. But that’s my personality… I’ve always walked away from things that were threatening, authority-wise, that’s one of the greatest things in the world, to walk away from a job… Money has just not been my friend. I wonder if it’s a psychological thing… I don’t know why; money has always evaded me.”
He supported himself for a time as a taxi driver in Los Angeles, and also as a Hollywood movie set construction worker, but spent much of his time since leaving the Mothers without a roof over his head. In Hollywood, he ate out of dumpsters. “Some of the best food I’ve ever had came out of dumpsters,” he said. In the late 1970s, his daughter began attending community college in Maui, and Collins helped support her by washing dishes in Lahaina and sleeping on the beach. After she died at age 26 in a plane crash in Hawaii, he returned to California in the early 1980s.
He had a complicated relationship with Zappa, whom he admired and liked personally, but whom he and the other Mothers later sued for money they believed was due them in 1985. For his work with the band he received a small settlement from Zappa and moved to Claremont in 1991. Zappa died in 1993 at age 52; Jimmy Carl Black died in 2008.
After his Claremont friend moved away in 2004, and he no longer had a place to camp, Collins bought a 1986 Chevy Astro van and lived out of it. He eluded Claremont’s ban on overnight street parking by parking in the Metrolink lot or out of town, and during the day would move his van from space to space in the Village to avoid tickets. Another spot was a local church that he sometimes attended and he reportedly donated $20 to the church every month. His only income was Social Security and songwriting royalties.
His family and friends sometimes helped him, and he had gone through periods of having a place to stay, but would always run out of money, but never panhandled or asked for charity. He spent the last eight years of his life living out of a van. His only income was Social Security and songwriting royalties, which he joked was enough to survive on but “not enough to pick up women.”
With his chest-length white beard, bald pate and long hair, he was a familiar sight in downtown Claremont, where he generally spent his days strolling the sidewalks, sitting on benches and chatting.
He claimed to have written a lot of songs, and he filmed himself in recent years for a documentary he never finished. He turned down requests to join the Grandmothers, a band of Mothers alumni, using the excuse that he didn’t want to perform Zappa songs. A song credited to Collins called “Everybody’s Rockin’ But Me” appeared on a 1995 release by a rump Fraternity of Man band.
Many around town knew him and found him a gentle presence and lively conversationalist. “The conversation was always a fun combination of news, weather, one-liners, regional and musical history and a general appreciation of things,” said Michael Felten, a city employee who invited Collins to a party for the first birthday of Felten’s son.
On the morning of December 18, 2012, Collins had phoned the Auto Club because he couldn’t start his van, which was parked outside the library and across from City Hall. When a mechanic arrived, Collins was unresponsive in the front seat.
Musician Patrick Brayer, a friend who was passing by, stayed with Collins until paramedics arrived and later visited him in intensive care. An employee from Some Crust Bakery showed up at the hospital at the same time, telling Brayer that Collins had stopped by the bakery that very morning and “was just as happy and energetic as usual.”
Diagnosed as having suffered a heart attack, he remained in a medically induced coma for nearly a week until taken off life support. He was 76 years old.
His remains were cremated; no service was held, but there was an informal celebration of Ray’s life in Claremont attended by about 200. People were invited to say a few words, and given chalk to leave a message about Ray wherever they best remembered encountering him. The Some Crust Bakery filled its window with Ray Collins memorabilia, “in loving memory of our friend and loyal customer.”