Column: Ray Collins, a gifted musician and wayward soul
Ray Collins, the singer who hired Frank Zappa to join the Pomona band that became the Mothers of Invention, died Monday at age 75.
A Pomona native and Claremont resident, Collins was admitted to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center on Dec. 18 after a massive heart attack. He had been in a medically induced coma until Saturday, when he was taken off life support.
Collins sang with various local bands after leaving Pomona High School in 1956. In 1964, he joined the Soul Giants, an R&B cover band that performed at the Broadside Club in Pomona.
In need of a guitarist, he suggested Zappa, whom he had met in 1961 and who lived in Ontario and Cucamonga. Zappa was also a writer of sardonic, musically adventurous songs, and within two years the Soul Giants - whose members included drummer Jimmy Carl Black and bassist Roy Estrada - had become the Mothers of Invention, were signed to Verve Records and recorded their 1966 debut album "Freak Out!"
Collins sang lead on some tracks of that album as well as 1967's "Absolutely Free" and "Cruising With Ruben and the Jets" from 1968. He sat out 1968's "We're Only in it for the Money" and quit the band.
"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."
Other than a few appearances with Zappa in the 1970s, Collins effectively left his music career behind for an aimless existence.
He supported himself for a time as a taxi driver in Los Angeles and by washing dishes in Hawaii, where he lived on the beach.
For his work with the band he received a small settlement from Zappa and moved to Claremont in 1991. He lived on a friend's property for more than a decade and spent the last eight years 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.
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 Dec. 18, 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 the morning of his heart attack and "was just as happy and energetic as usual."
Information on survivors and services was not immediately available.
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