Back in 1964 when Alex Snouffer was looking to start up the band that would ultimately become Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band the first person he contacted and asked to join him was Jerry Handley. They had already had some experience of playing together, enjoyed the same blues-based music and got on well together. Jerry was to become the bass player. He played on all the early singles plus the “Safe As Milk”, “Strictly Personal” and “Mirror Man” albums. By all accounts he was an easy going and modest kind of guy (still is, in fact!)
Incredibly Jerry has never been interviewed before … unless you count his chats to John French for the “Grow Fins” sleeve notes and the “Through the Eyes of Magic” memoir, and his all too brief appearance on the Chrome Dreams “Under Review” DVD.
So, here at the Radar Station we are proud and very delighted to be able to present the first ever in-depth interview with Jerry about his time with the Magic Band.
Jerry with his Mosrite bass
(Copyright: Jerry Handley. Used with permission)
Are you originally from Lancaster and what’s your musical background?
My dad moved us out to California from Rock Island, Illinois in 1956. I heard Elvis back then and was a big fan of all his early stuff, Sun Records recordings etc. We lived in many houses all over the Antelope Valley. My dad was in the milk industry his whole life. We lost him the week before Alex died. It was a double whammy. I was 10 when we moved from Illinois and that was the start of some great rock and roll in the States.
At the age of 13 I first picked up an old National guitar. A lot of blues artists still use them. I didn’t know what it was at the time but I loved the sound of that thing … sounds much like a Dobro. I learned a few chords and played in several rock bands before we started Beefheart.
When did your first come across the guys who would later become members of the Magic Band?
I first saw Alex playing in a band called the Omens in 1962 I believe. They were a big RnB band with organ, sax and trombone. They sounded great. I met some of the younger brothers of the guys in the band and we started a younger version of the Omens. Frank Zappa also had his band called the Blackouts back then. They also sounded great. So we had some excellent bands to hear live at the various halls around town. I was 4 years younger then Alex and Don so I didn’t actually meet them till later.
I don’t really remember when I met Alex, but we started a band called the Solid Senders ’63 or ’64.We played around town for extra beer and gas money. Alex went to Lake Tahoe for a while and when he got back we got together and wanted to start another band. Doug Moon and I had been hanging out together and he was learning to play guitar. He also loved Blues.
You also may remember P.G. Blakely. I’ve known him since we were in the 7th grade. He played drums in the school band all through school. He was actually very under rated as a drummer. He just didn’t have the style we were looking for at the time.
I had met Don at a few parties and jam sessions around town, but since he didn’t play an instrument I never had played in a band with him until Beefheart. I remember he would whistle at these jam sessions and actually sound great. That’s when I knew he had a natural talent for Blues music. We all had that in common. We all loved the old traditional Blues.
Can you tell me a bit more about the Solid Senders. Who else was in the band? Do you recall what songs you were playing?
There was a guy who sang in that band named Terry Wimberly. Who if Don hadn’t come along would have probably been the singer for our new incarnation of a band. We had no idea where or if the band was going anywhere. We just wanted to play.
Most the songs we did back then were instrumentals. However, Terry was a good blues singer, but Don was the real deal when he came along. All this was happening around the same time period.
Did you ever hang around Zappa’s Studio Z? that seems to have been a place a lot of Lancaster musicians congregated at one time.
That was actually the first place I recorded anything. It was before I had got together with Don. I believe it was an incarnation of the Omens’ band. Frank would come up to the desert for jam sessions at my parents’ house and invited us down to Cucamonga to record in his new studio.
I remember the song we recorded was ‘The Death March Rock”. Wouldn’t that be great to hear now? Well it wasn’t long after that that Don came back to Lancaster and Alex, Don and I got together with Doug Moon and P.G.Blakely.
Early photo of the band relaxing: Doug Moon, Jerry Handley, Don Vliet,
Alex Snouffer, 2 unidentified girlfriends, Vic Mortenson
(Photo: Copyright Jerry Handley. Used with permission)
What were the early rehearsals of the Magic Band like?
We were trying to figure out what songs we could put together so we could play a dance in Lancaster. I remember one song by Ernie K Doe called “O Poo Pa Doo”. Another one we liked was “Heart of Stone” by the Stones. We also played “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MG’s. Don liked to sing “Boom Boom” by Hooker.
I actually tried singing “Big Boss Man” by Jimmy Reed. You would have got a chuckle out of that noise. We rehearsed at P G’s house a few times but primarily most of the rehearsals were at my house. My parents loved the band and they let us rehearse in their living room … which was great. It got us out of the garage.
Early rehearsals with Jerry’s parents in their front room:
Don Vliet (with maracas), Doug Moon (on vocals),
Jerry Handley (guitar), Alex Snouffer (bass), Vic Mortenson (drums)
(Photo: Copyright Jerry Handley. Used with permission)
I hadn’t heard Don sing before … mostly because he hadn’t done much singing … maybe a little with Zappa down in Cucamonga. It was a little rough at first but the more we got into the blues material we could see that was the right direction for us. Vic was brought in because P.G had problems with timing on the type of songs we were doing. I think it was all new to him and he just wasn’t into it like we were.
The first live show was at a hall called The Exposition Hall in Lancaster. As I recall we were well received except they looked at us a bit strange because we were growing our hair out and playing music that wasn’t in the top 40’s.
My father would help sponsor the dances with the milk company he worked for. We also got to be friends with the local DJ, who would talk us up on the radio.
After we recorded “Diddy Wah Diddy” the record label A&M told us it would be wise to start doing original material for the long run. We did one more 45 single with David Gates called “Moonchild” which he wrote. It turned out so-so. After that we worked the “Safe as Milk” album. It was our first album.
Early publicity shot: Doug Moon, Jerry Handley, Vic Mortenson,
Don van Vliet, Alex Snouffer
Can you tell me a bit about the Safe as Milk sessions
Well as I remember they went quite well. We seemed more organized then the albums later. It was great working with Ry and Taj Mahal played tambourine on “Yellow Brick Road”. Bob Krasnow and Richard Perry did a very good job on the mixing. We didn’t have the equipment they have now for recording, but all things considered it was a very interesting album.
It was recorded in the RCA, recording studio in Hollywood and the Monkees were recording at the same time next to us. We got to be good friends with Mike Nesmith. He would come see us play later in various places in Hollywood. Ry would later join the band for a short time. I think the band never sounded better then at that time period. Although I did like a lot of the stuff they did later on. Some of it was very exciting.
How did you manage to get a writing credit for “Plastic Factory”, when Don is notorious for not recognising anyone else’s input.
That was one song Don couldn’t deny me, because I was the only one who worked on putting the music behind his words.
Alex and I worked with Don on all the music trying to find ways for his words to fit the music. Later he would tell the band members what to play and add the words later. You have to judge for yourself if it was a better method.
If Alex and I had better business sense at that time we would have gotten a lot more credits on the albums we played on. But that’s the way it goes. Just more water over the dam.
There’s a story that “Call On Me” was written or inspired by Vic Mortensen. Do you know about that?
As for “Call on Me” being inspired by Vic. I have no idea about that. I remember it as the first original song that Don wrote. I remember working on the chords with Don. It started out as a folk ballad sound and ended up as a real rocker on “Safe as Milk”.
Can you recall what happened after the recording of “Safe of Milk” … there was the Mt Tamalpais concert.
Ry left after the Mt Tamalpais mess where Don Freaked out on stage. After Ry left we got a fellow named Jerry McGee. He was a studio guy who had played on most of the Monkees’ records. As you can imagine his style was quite different from ours. Don was getting into more exploratory music and Jerry was replaced with Jeff Cotton I believe.
On stage at the ill-fated Mt Tamalpais gig; Don’s back, Ry Cooder, Jerry Handley
Can you tell me any more about McGee? He seems to have been a strange choice … what was the story behind him joining the band.
I believe he was found through a contact of Bob Krasnow. He had a lot of contacts with studio musicians.
He was known for his finger picking and played the lead on the Monkee’s “Last Train to Clarksville”. I really enjoyed his playing. Between him and Ry Cooder we let some great players slip through our hands. But as you probably know Don was not the most congenial person to work with. I don’t think Jerry knew what he was getting into. He also played in a band called R.E.O. Speedwagon. They were in the movie “A Star is Born” with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristopherson. He was a very well rounded player.
Jerry and Alex and I lived in the same apt. building for a while in North Hollywood. We were all married at that time so things were fairly tame. My daughter just turned 40 years old. It reminded me how she used to sleep through our rehearsals and jam sessions with Frank Zappa back at my parents house in Lancaster. Ry used to come up there too. We had some great times. He showed Alex a lot about playing bottleneck guitar. Sure miss the old fart.
Between Don’s instability and the lack of work Jerry McGee had to move on. Jeff joined the band after that. He was an old friend of John’s from Lancaster. I believe they had played together in a band in Lancaster [Merrell & The Exiles]. Bill Harkleroad was also from the same group of musicians from Lancaster at the time. Don, Alex and I were from a little older generation. What you might call old school or old farts. Ha Ha.
The short-lived version of the band in 1968: Jerry Handley, Jerry McGee, Don van Vliet, Alex Snouffer, John French
Do you know if “Here I Am Here I Always Am” was played in open G originally. How soon did the Magic Band adopt open tuning playing?
[*Gary Marker’s comments from Beefheart mailing list: I have no idea, but “Here I Am” was recorded back when they were pretty much into standard tunings. And I think the open tunings crept in over the years. Alex and Doug would use open tunings on stage occasionally, but because this was back when the band couldn’t exactly afford to have an array of pre-tuned guitars up on the stand, this meant a lot of wasted time retuning between songs. So they’d retune and play a bloc of Delta-influenced stuff, with slides, then go back to standard tuning. Often, Doug Moon would attempt to play slide in standard tuning, but not well.]
In fact I wrote the chords on “Hear I Am”. I was playing around with 3/4 timing and used Major chords. Don had words that worked well with the music and that’s how it started. You’re right about the open chords. We couldn’t afford a lot of instruments, so we had the one small Gibson open tuned and the rest standard.
How would you describe how the band’s music changed between “Safe As Milk” and “Strictly Personal”? Was the change reflected in the live shows?
We were on the road doing all original songs, however Don was not collaborating with Herb Bermann any longer so the style of music changed at that time. The production on “Safe as Milk” was much tighter with Krasnow and Richard Perry. There were not many live shows at that time. We did a lot of rehearsing at the “Trout” House. The band had moved from Laurel Canyon by then. They were gruelling rehearsals. We didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Were those tours of Europe in 1968 a big adventure for you all? What memories do you have of them?
We did enjoy the trips to Europe. However there wasn’t a lot of time to sight see.
Playing “Electricity” and “Sure Nuff N Yes I Do” on the beach in France was a highlight.
My other memory of Cannes was meeting Paul McCartney. He did a little “jam” session in our manager’s hotel room. It was a lot of fun. He was very personable and likes to party. We met him at the nightclub we played at. He came up to the table Don and I were sitting at and invited us up to our manager’s room.
I seem to remember John Peel bringing us bags of Granola to eat because we didn’t have any money. He was always great to us. He first heard us at the Whiskey in Hollywood when we were still a “Blues” band.
Of course you’ve read about the fiasco at the London Airport, when we didn’t have the proper permits. That was memorable. Landing in Germany was also memorable. Their were guards all around with rifles looking at us like we were Martians. That’s when we had the Quaker hats and Alex had a German SS leather coat. We’re lucky we got out of the terminal. We rented all this “garb” at Hollywood costume before we left. We had fun with it.
Taking a five hour drive through the English countryside to Newcastle was great. What a beautiful country. We played at the same club Eric Burdon & the Animals played at. I remember seeing a lot of initials and names scratched by knives in the tables and walls. I guess it was a tough club at one time. We did all right as I remember but I can’t remember much.
Don and the band on tour in the UK in 1968: John French, Jerry Handley,
Don van Vliet, John Peel, Alex Snouffer, Jeff Cotton
John Peel was a real legend over here. He’s been greatly missed. It was all about the music for him and he was single-handedly responsible for creating the fan base over here for the Beefheart band.
I agree John Peel had the same excitement about the music that we had. We really appreciated all the work he did for us. With Don’s passing their will be many memories brought back that will mean even more now. We had many good times on planes and trains that I won’t forget.
There is a picture from Cannes Beach which shows Don playing that simran horn he had – was that a staged photo or did you perform something with him playing it. Do you recall where the horn came from and when he started playing it with the band? (I sent Jerry a copy of the photo with Don playing that horn – see below)
Well you got me there!! I couldn’t tell you what we were playing. There’s no tape that I know of.
He started playing it after listening to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. He was trying to infuse jazz into our music. That’s the first time I’ve seen the picture so your guess is as good as mine. It would be fun to know what we were playing.
How did the rehearsing work? Who led it? Were you able to develop your own bass lines or were things were directed by Don as they became later on?
John and I would do most of our rehearsals together in a separate small room off of the trout house. We would use a metronome to practice our timing. Getting ready for recording it would help get play tight together.
As far as bass lines I always did my own. Don would give rhythm ideas but I would try an fit what I thought would work the best.
Something you probably didn’t know was that I always played guitar before the Beefheart band. Alex and I had played in several bands where he and I were the guitar players. Anyway after Alex and I left Don went on to control the way the music was put together. John French can explain better than I how it was done. I’ve read “Through the Eyes of Magic” and think John did a fine job of recalling his time with Don.
Do you have any favourite Beefheart songs?
As far as my favorite songs I do have a few. Some of the stuff he did after I left was quite good. I loved “Circumstances” for one, “Click Clack” was a great train ride.”I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby” is a favorite. I love “When it blows its stack” “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” was a classic.
But I will tell you, personally I’ll never forget hearing “Diddy Wah Diddy” the first time on the radio. There was a D J named “Wolfman Jack” broadcasting from Del Rio, Texas. He told everybody to pull their cars over because they weren’t going to be able to drive. We were all out in the desert partying and it was a big thrill. So that song had what I envisioned our sound to be in the future
Do you think that originally being a guitar player meant you had a different approach to bass playing than other bass players? The sound you get on “Strictly Personal” and “Mirror Man” is quite distinctive … how was it achieved?
I did have a different approach to the bass. I played mostly rhythm on guitar, so I took that approach when playing bass. Not the typical bass lines you would hear from most bass players. It worked well for the Beefheart Band.
I used a “Guild” for a while then switched to a “Framus” later. I wish I would have kept the “Guild” but it was too heavy.
Presently I use four different types of electric and acoustic guitars to “plunk around” on. I still have a “Mosrite” bass. A group called the “Ventures” used them for many years.
The long “Mirror Man” tracks (“Mirror Man”, “25th Century Quaker” and 2Tarotplane” – these are my favourites by the way!) were these rehearsed much before going in to record them or were they mostly a jam in the studio? Do you have any memories of those recording sessions and how did they differ from the “Safe As Milk” sessions?
The “Mirror Man” and “Strictly Personal” albums did consist of “Jams” that were organised loosely and were played in the studio for more of a live performance feel to them. The “Mirror Man” sessions were mostly a group thing. We were all free to do our own parts. Alex was still the musical leader. It was a bit hurried as a session. I did like the ideas we had. We had some innovative ideas that just needed to be produced properly. Richard Perry did a nice job on “Safe as Milk”. That album was much more rehearsed and organized.
Did you use extra heavy strings on your bass? I believe Alex and Jeff did around the “Strictly Personal” time.
I used ‘flatwound’ strings for as long as I can remember. It was much easier to slide up and down the fretboard using them.
Interesting that you mentioned The Ventures, Jerry McGee went on to play with until quite recently. Do you remember his stint with the Magic Band?
Jerry McGee lived in the same apartment complex as Alex and I during his brief stay with the band. He was quite an accomplished musician and wasn’t really into what Don was doing.
I didn’t know he was with the Ventures. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have to check it out.
When did you hear the finished version of the “Strictly Personal” album? What was the band’s reaction to it? After the release of “Strictly Personal” was there a plan for the band to tour to promote it
In answer to when I knew of the phasing that was done on “Strictly Personal”. We were on tour at the time in England as I remember when Don told me about it. We couldn’t understand why Krasnow would do that to the album. He must have wanted it to sound more “Hip” for the time. The psychedelic thing was happening at the time. The band was not pleased at all.
As far as I remember there was no tour planned for the album. Alex left shortly there after. Then I left after Alex.
Don was making a power play to get younger players that he could mould easier.
When Alex and yourself left was it because you both decided you’d had enough or did Don just make it uncomfortable for you to be in the band?
As far as when I left the band, it was becoming far to uncomfortable at the Trout House for rehearsals.
I was becoming a nervous wreck, so I made a decision to leave. It wasn’t the same after Alex left.
I look back and realize that Don had much to do with manipulating how I felt. I was the last one left from the original band and he was going in a completely different direction from the guys that started the band. He had the power because he was”Captain Beefheart”. I don’t want to take away from the inventiveness of the music he made. It was just the way he did it that was bizarre.
At that time period Alex and I approached John French about splitting with Don. We had Jerry McGee at that time who was all for it. Don became aware of it and talked John out of it. Alex and I thought John had the talent to do the singing in which he has proven now with the Magic Band. He just wasn’t ready at that time. He was devoted to Don. That’s a little bit of info that’s never been printed.
I went back to Lancaster and started another band with some old friends called “Sharecroppers Convention”. It was another blues band. After that I got involved with sales and have been doing that ever since.
It’s nice not having to rely on any one other then your self to get things done. I miss the music, but not the turmoil if you know what I mean.
After you left did you keep in contact with Don and band?
I did go to a couple of their engagements years after I left. Don was pretty standoffish.
I would see Doug and Alex on occasion. We stayed friends till Alex’s death. I had seen him just a couple of weeks before. I took that very hard. He and I went way back. He was my mentor on guitar.
I stay in contact with Doug even though we live in different towns now. John and I also stay in contact although he is busy with the Magic Band.
As additional information I’m coming up my 40th year of selling recreational vehicles in Southern California. My wife and I have had 5 children of our own and at last count 12 grandchildren. So as you can see I’ve been pretty busy.
Magic Band reunion: Doug Moon, John French and Jerry Handley
(Photo: Copyright Jerry Handley. Used with permission)
My thanks to Jerry for his infinite patience and goodwill as I took far too long pulling this interview together!