Tea With Frank Zappa

Posted: January 2nd, 2024

Sometimes items, like music can conjure up memories from deep within and when I found this poster it brought a story back to the front of my brain. It’s for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s first gig in Birmingham, which would kick off their first ever full UK tour in 1969. A rare find indeed and one that has been restored and laid onto linen. It took me back to a time when I first discovered Mr Zappa in all his glory and had an extraordinary experience with him.

I had tea with Frank Zappa! Say what? Read on and I’ll tell you the tale.

Let’s travel back to February 1977. Frank Zappa returned to the UK to play his first dates since 1973 and I was there as a somewhat confused 15-year old punk. I remember being musically conflicted but I reasoned that Zappa, and the albums Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation in particular, had got me through being at boarding school. Zappa may not have been a punk but he had an anarchic attitude which appealed to me. Anyone who railed against the status quo was, and still is, alright by me. So off I went to the Hammersmith Odeon and was enthralled by this master of stage presentation. It was a show. He was a hero. So when he asked members of the audience to come up and sing on Dinah-Moe Humm, a track from Overnite Sensation, I found myself jumping up on stage. I don’t remember if I was the only one or one of many. All I knew is I sang my heart out. Was I heard or wasn’t I heard? I don’t honestly know but I do know that at the end of the track Zappa came over to me and said something along the lines of “Hey kid, I’m busy after the show but why not come to my hotel tomorrow and we’ll have tea together.” The word tea was stretched out and elongated and was just so Zappa! But then, that’s who he was. “Speak to my man, John, over there and he will arrange it.” I was pointed in the direction of a big bald guy, who I would discover later was his bodyguard, John Smothers. He took me off to the side of the stage and said, “Ok. You come to our hotel tomorrow at 11 and I’ll meet you in the foyer of the hotel and then you can meet Frank. It’s The Dorchester Hotel. Can you do that?”  “I will be there!” I exclaimed and he guided me back out front.

The next morning my Mum gave me a lift up to town in our Chelsea blue Datsun Cherry. She dropped me off at the hotel door and I wandered in with all ten of my records, which I was hoping Zappa would sign. It never crossed my mind that he may not be there and had just been fobbing me off. But he was a hero of mine and I knew he wouldn’t let me down. In I went and sure enough there was John in the foyer. I went over and introduced myself. He was expecting me and handed me a square badge for Zoot Allures which had been the last album release, and John beckoned me to follow him. He took me to a table, which was loaded with sandwiches, cakes and a big pot of tea and asked me to sit down. I sat down in The Dorchester Hotel and waited for Frank Zappa to join me… for tea!

But not for long, as Frank Zappa arrived on the dot of 11. No messing, no fuss. He shook my hand and sat down and poured us both a tea. It was no great discussion on his work or why he had waited so long to come back to the UK, but he was charming and commented on me being quite the fan and that’s when I asked if he would sign my albums, and as he took them he commented, “That’s a lot of records to sign!” “Well, it’s not as many as you’ve made!” He looked at me, smiled, put the records in front of him with his first album Absolutely Free on top and as I passed him my black Tempo pen, he said, “I’ll sign the first one to you and then the rest it’s just my signature. Ok?” “Oh yes. It’s ‘To Ceri’, that’s me,” As he started writing, I quickly added, “It’s a C at the front, not a K. C-E-R-I.” He graciously adjusted mid-flow. (There’s only 4 letters in my name but they’ve caused a lot of problems over the years!) He signed all my albums and then we were done.  He handed the pen back to me, and asked me my favourite albums and songs. I told him that when I discovered Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation, I fell in love with them and discovered things on every listen. I stopped short of doing my Frank Zappa impressions and crying out lines from the songs, “But I got a crystal bottle, he said, and held it to the light, and I snatched it all away from him, and showed him how to do it right.” Zappa sat and drank his tea and we chatted for a few minutes more. With his tea drunk, he stood up, shook my hand and said goodbye.

And with that he was gone. John Smothers turned to me and said, “No hurry, finish up here. Have a few more sandwiches.” And then he was gone too. Probably only ten or fifteen minutes of my life but what an event. I was not the same person who entered the hotel.

I had no hunger. I was sated. I headed for the exit and found my Mum just round the corner. I loaded my swag into the car and we set off for home. They say never meet your heroes but just sometimes you meet one and it is deeply satisfying. And that was a perfect day because I had tea with Frank Zappa.

Footnote: I have lost many things over the years. Wonderful ephemera, great books, beautiful records but the signed Zappa records have always stayed with me. I have kept them close to me. Perhaps it was because it was the first musical encounter that I had engineered for myself. I had jumped onto a stage and had been accorded a wonderful prize. And it’s still a story I can tell to you all these years later. We must continue to dream. And we all have heroes.

This rare poster is available here.