The Soul Giants were a struggling R&B; cover band in Pomona in the mid-1960s when lead singer Ray Collins fired the group's guitarist and invited a musical collaborator from Rancho Cucamonga to take his place. His name was Frank Zappa.
The band soon began morphing into the Mothers of Invention, the avant-garde novelty rock group that was Zappa's vision. But Collins' "extraordinary pop-operatic vocals best conveyed" the band's "not-so-mock rage," according to the New Rolling Stone Record Guide.
When tension with Zappa caused Collins to leave the band in the late 1960s, he also essentially left behind his music career. For a time, he drove a taxi in Los Angeles and in recent years had lived out of his van in Claremont.
Collins died Dec. 24 at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center after a heart attack. He was believed to be 75.
His death was confirmed by his grandson, Jai Jimenez.
The singer was critical to the early sound of the Mothers because he was steeped in doo-wop and pachuco, the Latino street music that began evolving in the mid-20th century and is a fusion of swing, boogie-woogie and up-tempo blues with mambo rhythms and Mexican influences.
"When the music world was going over-the-top psychedelic, the Mothers pulled back and got into what is called 'greaser roots,' which Ray had a direct connection to," Domenic Priore, coauthor of the 1960s music history "Riot on Sunset Strip" (2007), told The Times this week.
About 1961 Collins met Zappa after seeing the maverick musician perform at the Sportsman Tavern in Pomona. They soon began collaborating on a series of obscure singles released under various fantasy band names.
"We just liked each other instantly," Collins said in a rare interview published in 2009 in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
With Zappa, Collins co-wrote the 1963 single "Memories of El Monte" for the Penguins, basing it on chords from an earlier Penguins' doo-wop smash, "Earth Angel." The song pays tribute to El Monte Legion Stadium, then a popular local venue where Collins had performed.
He also knew the stadium through his affiliation with Little Julian Herrera and the Tigers, a Chicano-style doo-wop group that often performed there. When the group recorded the 1957 song "I Remember Linda," it featured Collins singing falsetto.
Once Zappa joined the Soul Giants, they quickly renamed themselves the Mothers; the "of Invention" came later, "thanks to a skittish MGM records," Rolling Stone said in 1993 when Zappa died of cancer at 52.
Collins sang lead on the Mothers' debut album, 1966's "Freak Out!," later described in the Rolling Stone Record Guide as "rock's first experimental music masterpiece."
Decades later Collins simply said: "Nobody ever heard anything like that."
He also sang lead on the band's freewheeling second album, 1967's "Absolutely Free," and the next year contributed to its fourth album, "Cruising with Ruben & the Jets," helping to infuse it with doo-wop and the pachuco sound he knew so well, Priore said.
Tired of the satire and comedy he was required to perform onstage with the Mothers, Collins quit the band in 1968, saying in the 2009 interview: "I wanted to make beautiful music."
Instead, his days as a musician were largely over. He performed several more times with the Mothers and received a "modest legal settlement" from Zappa for his contributions to the band, according to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin article.
After moving to Claremont in 1991, Collins became such a familiar sight in town that he jokingly referred to himself as the "village greeter."
The son of a policeman, he was born in Pomona. Biographical references give conflicting birth years but his grandson said he thought Collins was born in 1937.
At Pomona High, Collins sang tunes from the Great American Songbook at assemblies but dropped out to marry his high school sweetheart after she became pregnant, his grandson said.
The marriage ended in divorce. His daughter from that union, Julie, died in a plane accident in the early 1980s. In addition to his grandson, Collins is survived by a brother.
When asked why he hadn't been onstage in 40 years, Collins didn't have a ready answer but offered one theory in 2009: "If you just enjoy life, it's conducive to not being successful.... I just enjoy life."