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The Magic Band

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The Magic Band
The Magic Band at a reunion show in Manchester, England in 2014
The Magic Band at a reunion show in Manchester, England in 2014
Background information
OriginCalifornia, USA
GenresBlues rock, avant-rock
Years active1964–1982
Past membersSee members

The Magic Band was the backing band of American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Captain Beefheart between 1967 and 1982. Originally Beefheart had simply been the lead singer of the group, formed by guitarist Alex St. Clair, but eventually they morphed into a backing band for him. The rotating lineup featured dozens of performers, many of whom became known by nicknames given to them by Beefheart. Longtime members during the band's heyday included drummer/arranger John French (a.k.a. Drumbo), guitarist Bill Harkleroad (a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo), bassist/guitarist Mark Boston (a.k.a. Rockette Morton), percussionist/keyboardist Art Tripp (a.k.a. Ed Marimba), guitarist Jeff Cotton (a.k.a. Antennae Jimmy Semens), and guitarist Elliot Ingber (a.k.a. Winged Eel Fingerling). Ex-members of the Magic Band formed the short-lived group Mallard in 1974.[2] The Magic Band reformed in 2003, without Beefheart.


The members of the original Magic Band had come together in 1964. At this time Don Van Vliet (later dubbed Captain Beefheart) was simply the lead singer of the group, which had been brought together by guitarist and former classmate Alex St. Clair. As in many emerging groups in California at the time, there were elements of psychedelia and the foundations of contemporary hippie counterculture. In this early incarnation they were a blues-rock outfit.[3]

The group was therefore promoted as "Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band", on the premise that Captain Beefheart had "magic powers" and, upon drinking a Pepsi, could summon up "His Magic Band" to appear and perform behind him.[4] The strands of this logic emanated from Vliet's Beefheart persona having been "written in" as a character in a "teenage operetta" that friend Frank Zappa had formulated,[5] along with Van Vliet's renowned "Pepsi moods" with his mother Willie Sue and his generally spoilt teenage demeanor. The name "His Magic Band" changed to "the Magic Band" in 1972.

The group played numerous car-club dances and juke joint gigs, and won the Teenage Fair Battle of the Bands.[6] (The Teenage Fair was an annual event held at the Hollywood Palladium in the 1960s. It was sponsored by radio stations and had rides and various merchandise booths with music- and youth-related items. Bands performed.) In late 1965, the group landed a contract for recording two singles with the newly created A&M Records label with Leonard Grant as their manager. At this time musical relationships had also been struck with members of Rising Sons, who would later feature in the band's recordings. The A&M deal also brought some contention between members of the band, torn between a career as an experimental "pop" group and that of a purist blues band. Working with young producer David Gates also opened up horizons for Vliet's skills as a poet-cum-lyricist, with his "Who Do You Think You're Fooling" on the flip side of the band's first single, a cover of the Ellas McDaniel/Willie Dixon-penned hit "Diddy Wah Diddy". Fate and circumstance, not for the first time, would befall the band's success upon its release – which coincided with a singles cover of the same song by the Remains.[7] The initial line-up of the Magic Band that entered the studio for the A&M recordings was not that which emerged by the second release, "Moonchild", also backed by a Vliet-penned number, "Frying Pan". A 12" vinyl 45rpm mono EP/mono mini-cassette tape was later released in 1987, with the four tracks of the two singles, plus "Here I Am, I Always Am" as a fifth previously unreleased song. This release was titled The Legendary A&M Sessions, with a red-marbled cover and (later) members Moon, Blakely, Vliet, Snouffer and Handley seated in a "temperance dance band" photo-pose.

The original Magic Band was primarily a rhythm and blues band, led by local Lancaster guitarist Alexis Snouffer, along with Doug Moon (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass), and Vic Mortenson (drums), the last being rotated with and finally replaced by Paul "P.G." Blakely. For the first A&M recording Mortenson had been called up for active service and Snouffer stood in on drums, with a recently recruited Richard Hepner taking up the guitar role. By the time the single was aired on a pop television show, P.G. Blakely was back in the drum seat. He then left for a career in television and was replaced by John French by the time the band cut their first album, as the first release on the new Buddah Records label.

Personnel in the Magic Band for Beefheart's first album, Safe as Milk, were Alex St. Clair, Jerry Handley and John French. Earlier meetings with the Rising Sons had also secured them the guitar and arranging skills of Ry Cooder, which also brought about input from Taj Mahal on percussion and guitar work from Cooder's brother-in-law Russ Titelman. Further guests to this line-up included Milt Holland on percussion and the all-important and controversial theremin work on "Electricity" by Samuel Hoffman. It was perhaps this track, above the others, which caused A&M to view the band as "unsuitable" for their label with what was seen as weird and too psychedelic for popular consumption. Thus, this album was recorded for Buddah, with the band signed to Kama Sutra, which left them close to penniless after extricating themselves from A&M. A large proportion of the tracks on this album were co-written with Van Vliet by Herb Bermann, whom Vliet initially met up with at a bar gig near Lancaster. Part-time Hollywood television actor and budding scriptwriter Bermann and his then wife Cathleen spent some time in Vliet's company prior to this release.[8] Bermann would later write for Neil Young and script an early Spielberg-directed television medical drama. Gary "Magic" Marker (the "Magic" added by Beefheart) was involved in early session work for this release, and his involvement with Rising Sons was also instrumental in acquiring the skills of Cooder, upon an unfulfilled suggestion that Marker might produce the album.[9] Marker would later lay down two uncredited bass tracks for Trout Mask Replica before being replaced by Mark Boston.

French worked on five more Beefheart albums, while Snouffer worked with Beefheart on and off on three more albums. Bill Harkleroad joined the Magic Band as guitarist for Trout Mask Replica and stayed with Beefheart through May 1974.

Relationship with Beefheart[edit]

While appearing humorous and kind-hearted in public, by all accounts Van Vliet was a severe taskmaster who abused his musicians verbally and sometimes physically. Vliet once told drummer John French he had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and thus he would see nonexistent conspiracies that explained this behaviour.[10] The band were reportedly paid little or nothing. French recalled that the musicians' contract with Van Vliet's company stipulated that Van Vliet and the managers were paid from gross proceeds before expenses, then expenses were paid, then the band members evenly split any remaining funds—in effect making band members liable for all expenses. As a result, French was paid nothing at all for a 33-city US tour in 1971 and a total of $78 for a tour of Europe and the US in late 1975. In his 2010 memoir Beefheart: Through The Eyes of Magic French recounted being "... screamed at, beaten up, drugged, ridiculed, humiliated, arrested, starved, stolen from, and thrown down a half-flight of stairs by his employer".[11]

The musicians also resented Van Vliet for taking complete credit for composition and arranging when the musicians themselves pieced together most of the songs from taped fragments or impressionistic directions such as "Play it like a bat being dragged out of oil and it's trying to survive, but it's dying from asphyxiation."[12] John French summarized the disagreement over composing and arranging credits metaphorically:[13]

If Van Vliet built a house like he wrote music, the methodology would go something like this ... The house is sketched on the back of a Denny's placemat in such an odd fashion that when he presents it to the contractor without plans or research, the contractor says "This structure is going to be hard to build, it's going to be tough to make it safe and stable because it is so unique in design." Van Vliet then yells at the contractor and intimidates him into doing the job anyway. The contractor builds the home, figuring out all the intricacies involved in structural integrity himself because whenever he approaches Van Vliet, he finds that he seems completely unable to comprehend technical problems and just yells, "Quit asking me about this stuff and build the damned house."...When the house is finished no one gets paid, and Van Vliet has a housewarming party, invites none of the builders and tells the guests he built the whole thing himself.

Most of the group quit after the recording of Unconditionally Guaranteed in 1974, owing to years of allegedly abusive treatment by Beefheart, lack of compensation, and dissatisfaction with his new crossover direction. Beefheart's subsequent recordings in the late 1970s would enlist a new cast of younger musicians under the Magic Band heading.


Receiving only a "grumpy" reception from Van Vliet,[11] the Magic Band re-formed in 2003 with John French on drums, lead vocals and harmonica, Gary Lucas and Denny Walley on guitars, Rockette Morton on bass, and Robert Williams on drums for the vocal numbers. The initial impetus came from Matt Groening, who wanted them to play at the All Tomorrows Parties festival he was curating. For their subsequent European tour, Williams left and was replaced by Michael Traylor.

John Peel was initially skeptical about the re-formed Magic Band. However, after he aired a live recording of the band playing at the 2003 All Tomorrow's Parties festival on his radio show, he was at a loss for words and had to put on another record to regain his composure. In 2004 the band did a live session for him at his home "Peel Acres".[14] They played over 30 shows throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, and one in the United States.[15] They also released two albums: Back to the Front (on the London-based ATP Recordings, 2003) and the live album 21st Century Mirror Men (2005).

The group disbanded in 2006 but re-formed in 2011, with Lucas and Traylor replaced by Eric Klerks and Craig Bunch respectively, to play at ATP once again (which was due to take place in November, curated by Jeff Mangum).[16] The festival was postponed until the following March but they honoured the other UK and Ireland dates which had been booked to coincide with it, the new line-up being dubbed "The Best Batch Yet" by Beefheart song-title-referencing commentators. They returned to play the rescheduled ATP and more UK gigs in March 2012, followed by a European tour in September and October. They toured Europe again in 2013 and 2014.

The re-formed band's repertoire was initially drawn mainly from the Clear Spot and Trout Mask Replica albums, with some of the latter's songs performed as instrumentals, allowing the intricacy of the instrumental parts to be heard, where they had previously been obscured by Beefheart's vocals or sax. During subsequent tours the setlist has been expanded to include a more representative selection of Beefheart's repertoire. French has described the set as "a play which should be rolled out from time to time".


With Captain Beefheart:

The Magic Band solo:


Original run[edit]

Classic era[edit]

  • Alex St. Clair – guitar, drums, musical director (1964–68; 1972–74; died 2006)
  • Jerry Handley – bass (1964–68)
  • John French (Drumbo) – drums, vocals, guitar, musical director (1966–69; 1970–71; 1975–76; 1977; 1980)
  • Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens) – guitar, slide guitar, vocals (1967–69)
  • Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo) – guitar, slide guitar, musical director (1968–74)
  • Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) – bass, guitar (1968–74)
  • Victor Hayden (The Mascara Snake) – bass clarinet (1968–69; died 2018)
  • Art Tripp (Ed Marimba) – drums, marimba, percussion, piano, harpsichord (1969–74; session guest:1969, 1978)
  • Elliot Ingber (Winged Eel Fingerling) – guitar (1970–71; 1971–72; 1974–76)
  • Roy Estrada (Oréjon) – bass (1972–73; session guest:1969)


  • Doug Moon – guitar (1964–67; session guest:1969)
  • Paul G. Blakely – drums (1964–65; 1966; died 1995)
  • Vic Mortenson – drums (1965)
  • Richard Hepner – guitar (1965–66)
  • Ry Cooder – guitar, slide guitar (1967)
  • Gerry McGee – guitar, slide guitar (1967; died 2019)
  • Gary "Magic" Marker – bass (1968; died 2015)
  • Jeff Burchell – drums (1969)
  • Bruce Fowler (Fossil) – trombone, air bass (1975–76; 1978–80)
  • Greg Davidson (Ella Guru) – guitar, slide guitar (1975)
  • Jimmy Carl Black (Indian Ink) – drums, percussion (1975; session guest:1969; died 2008)
  • Denny Walley (Feelers Rebo) – guitar, slide guitar, accordion (1975–78)
  • Jeff Moris Tepper (White Jew) – guitar, slide guitar (1976–82)
  • John Thomas – keyboards (1976)
  • Eric Drew Feldman (Black Jew Kittaboo) – bass, keyboards (1976–81; session guest:1982)
  • Gary Jaye – drums (1976–77; died 2011)
  • Robert Williams (Wait For Me) – drums, percussion (1977–81)
  • Richard Redus (Mercury Josef) – guitar, slide guitar (1978–79)
  • Richard Snyder (Brave Midnight Hat Size) – guitar, slide guitar, bass, marimba, viola (1980–82)
  • Gary Lucas – guitar, slide guitar (1980–82)
  • Cliff Martinez – drums, percussion, glass washboard (1981–82)

Reunion era[edit]


  • John French – drums, vocals, saxophone, guitar, harmonica (1966–69; 1970–71; 1975–76; 1977; 1980; 2003–2017)
  • Mark Boston – bass, guitar (1968–74; 2003–2017)
  • Eric Klerks – guitar, bass, iPad (2009–2017)
  • Andrew Niven – drums (2013–2017)
  • Max Kutner – guitar (2014–2017)
  • Jonathan Sindleman – keyboards (2016–2017)[1]


  • Denny Walley – guitar, slide guitar, accordion (1975–78; 2003–14)
  • Robert Williams – drums, percussion (1977–81; 2003)
  • Gary Lucas –guitar, slide guitar (1980–82; 2003–09)
  • Michael Traylor – drums (2003–09)
  • Craig Bunch – drums (2009–13)
  • Brian Havey – keyboards (2016)



  1. ^ a b "The Magic Band Farewell Tour 2017 – Captain Beefheart Radar Station".
  2. ^ Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 1595. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  3. ^ Ankeny, Jason. "Captain Beefheart – Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 21 November 2022.
  4. ^ Courtier, Kevin. Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica (3313), p. 32, London: Continuum Press (2007)
  5. ^ "Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People". The Captain Beefheart Radar Station. Archived from the original on April 7, 2007. Retrieved March 17, 2007.
  6. ^ French, John "Drumbo" (2010-01-11). Beefheart: Through The Eyes of Magic. Proper Music Publishing. ISBN 9780956121240.
  7. ^ "Beefheart vs The Remains". Discogs.com. Retrieved July 18, 2011.
  8. ^ Johnston, Graham. "The Captain Beefheart Radar Station – Herb Bermann interview pt 1". Beefheart.com. Archived from the original on October 20, 2008. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
  9. ^ "Grow Fins CD box set booklet p.38 [also in vinyl set booklet]". Discogs.com. April 3, 2009. Retrieved July 18, 2011.
  10. ^ teejo. "Don't argue the Captain". Freewebs.com. Retrieved July 18, 2011.
  11. ^ a b "John "Drumbo" French: Through The Eyes Of Magic review and interview" diskant.net. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  12. ^ Barnes 2000, p. 59
  13. ^ Barnes 2001, pp. 815–816
  14. ^ "Radio 1 – Keeping It Peel – Sessions – 2004". BBC. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
  15. ^ "Captain Beefheart Up Sifter: Magic memories". Beefheart.com. Archived from the original on August 17, 2009. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
  16. ^ "ATP curated by Jeff Mangum". Atpfestival.com. Retrieved July 18, 2011.

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