Original drummer in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention

Lewis is a Times staff writer.

Jimmy Carl Black, the original drummer in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, a band that helped define the sub-genre of art rock, died of cancer Saturday. He was 70.

He died in Siegsdorf, Germany, according to Roddie Gilliard, who performed with Black in recent years as part of the Muffin Men, a British group that specialized in performing Zappa’s music live.

A note on Black’s official website stated, “Jimmy passed away peacefully. . . . Jimmy says hi to everybody and he doesn’t want anybody to be sad.”


He moved to Germany in the 1990s after marrying a German woman following the death of his first wife. “I like the lifestyle,” he said in 1995. “I can make a living playing music in Europe, and I haven’t been able to do that in the States since the 1960s.”

James Inkanish Jr. was born Feb. 1, 1938, in El Paso, but was reared in nearby Anthony, N.M. He changed his name after his mother married Carl Black, Anthony’s first mayor. He lived in Anthony for 19 years, started playing piano at age 6 and took up trumpet in high school but switched to drums when he joined the Air Force in 1958 because “there weren’t any trumpets in rock ‘n’ roll.”

Black moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and formed the Soul Giants with Roy Estrada and Ray Collins. When the group’s guitarist was drafted, they hired Zappa, who took over as leader and changed the band’s name to the Mothers of Invention, promising, “If you guys will learn my music, I’ll make you rich and famous.”

“He took care of half of that promise,” Black quipped later, “because I’m damn sure I didn’t get rich.”

The Mothers carved out a niche in the pop music world with Zappa’s rhythmically complex compositions and eccentric worldview that reflected his passion for contemporary classical music. His songs required Black to master tricky, frequently shifting time signatures that few rock drummers could handle.

Zappa disbanded the Mothers in 1969, much to the dismay of Black and the other group members. But Black appeared in Zappa’s 1971 art-house film “200 Motels” and went on to play in a variety of musical collaborations. Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993.

Black quit playing music entirely at times, once earning a living working in a doughnut shop and later as a house painter and decorator.

Besides the Muffin Men, Black often teamed up with North Carolina experimental guitarist Ed Chadbourne in a duo they called the Jack and Jim Show. He also played in the Farrell-Black blues band with guitarist Richard Farrell and in a seven-piece group called X-tra Combo.

He reunited with former Mothers Bunk Gardner and Don Preston as the Grandmothers, performing vintage Zappa songs and other original compositions laced with similarly irreverent humor and political commentary.

“Zappa got most of his funniness from us,” Black said in a 2000 interview with the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune. “I think humor does belong in music. What we try to do is give the people a show where they have a good time. I like people to get their money’s worth.”

Black is survived by his second wife, Monika; three sons, all of whom became musicians; three daughters; and several grandchildren. No services have been announced.