In the high desert of California, they were referred to simply as “Beefheart.”
Don Van Vliet acquired the habit of singing along to vintage blues records while hanging with high school chum Frank Zappa. Founder Alex Snouffer formed the Magic Band in late 1964. And, by early 1965, the powerful and charismatic local blues combo had made quite a name for itself locally as “the band” for local dances at the fairgrounds. By late ’65 the inclusion of master guitarist Rich Hepner explosively changed the group’s chemistry; dances morphed to concerts – with the dancers choosing to sit on the floor, captivated by this white blues band that seemed to transform Exposition Hall into a spellbinding Louisiana swamp.
In early 1966, the band signed with A&M Records. Producer David Gates (of Bread fame) was assigned production duties, and the first result – a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” – stunned everyone. Famed Del Rio, Texas DJ “Wolfman Jack” introduced it by saying “OK everybody on the highway, you’d better pull over, cause here comes Captain Beefheart with ‘Diddy Wah Diddy.’”
Ill-fated times intervened with the coincidental cover of “Diddy” by an East Coast group – The Remains – which was releases almost simultaneously on the Epic Records label. Confusion and chaos reigned, and the songs dropped from the charts quickly. Founder Snouffer reflected: That’s a record label’s, personal manager’s, and band’s nightmare.” Undaunted, Gates penned a follow-up to “Diddy,” entitled “Moonchild.” The band arranged it themselves – interpreting Dave’s guitar/voice demo. Gates reaction: “Boy, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this!”
Van Vliet had also penned his first recorded compositions – “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling” for the B-side of “Diddy” and “Frying Pan” for the B-side of “Moonchild.” Van Vliet went on in later years through many incarnations of Magic Bands to create the most avante-garde rock music ever recorded, but the roots of these early pieces echo throughout all the later works.
--John French, Lancaster, CA.