Duke Ellington broke in Charlotte? No way, Mr. Zappa

“On 28 June 1969 the Mothers [of Invention] played the Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of the Charlotte Jazz Festival. .. [Frank] Zappa claimed that ‘before we went on, I saw Duke Ellington begging — pleading — for a ten-dollar advance. It was really depressing.’ After the show Zappa told the band: ‘That’s it, we’re breaking the band up.’ According to Zappa, if Duke Ellington had to beg some assistant for $10, what was he, Zappa, doing with a 10-piece band, trying to play rock ‘n’ roll? But there is something wrong with this story.

“In 1969 Duke Ellington was 70 and feted wherever he went….Ellington famously ate little but caviar and steak, and on a tour of India he had his filet mignon flow in from the States. It seems extremely unlikely that he was begging for $10, as Zappa claimed in ‘The Real Frank Zappa.’….”

— From “Zappa” by Barry Miles (2004)

Zappa apparently used the Ellington fabrication to justify his decision to disband the original Mothers, whose final performance would be less than two months later.

Did you know Ellington’s father was born in Lincolnton?


The original Frank Zappa: UNC, Class of ’30

frank zappa, sr.

“Frank Zappa Sr. was a [history] student at UNC from 1926 to 1930. He first made ends meet by working as a barber in town. In 1928 Zappa met fellow student Jack Wardlaw who was starting the Carolina Banjo Boys and convinced Zappa he could further supplement his income as a guitar player….

“Zappa bought a guitar in Raleigh and for the next three years played in two popular bands headed by Wardlaw…. In the Banjo Boys he played hillbilly and ragtime guitar, while in the Carolina Tar Heels he performed jazz music and Dixieland on both guitar and banjo.”

— From “Frank Zappa’s Musical Roots are from Chapel Hill” by Charly Mann at Chapel Hill Memories (March 12, 2012)

“[My dad went from Baltimore] to college at Chapel Hill, in North Carolina, and played guitar in some sort of ‘strolling crooner’ trio. (I still get birthday cards from the insurance company owned by Jack Wardlaw, the banjo player.) They used to go from dormitory window to dormitory window, serenading coeds with songs like ‘Little Red Wing.’ ”

— From “The Real Frank Zappa Book” by Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso (1989)

“One of these [serenaded] girls was Nel Cheek. It was a college romance, and Francis [Frank Sr.] and Nel were soon married. In November 1931 they had a daughter, Ann. Francis had graduated that summer and took a job teaching in Rose [Hill], North Carolina, but there he encountered prejudice: They didn’t like Catholics and they didn’t like Italians. There had been mounting problems between Francis and Nel, but the final break came when he decided to take a job teaching in Baltimore. Nel did not want to leave her family and friends in Chapel Hill. They divorced and Ann stayed with her mother.”

— From “Zappa” by Barry Miles (2004) 

The rock star Frank Zappa (Jr.) was born to Frank Sr.’s second wife in 1940 in Baltimore.

Ann Zappa, a retired educator, writer and Civil War re-enactor, lives in Chatham County.