Tuesday, August 18, 2009
October 27, 1967: The Napoleon Five featuring Napoleon Murphy Brock, Fireside Lounge, San Mateo, CA
For fans of the 1973-1975 versions of The Mothers of Invention, lead singer and tenor saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock seemed to be custom designed from the Grand Wazoo lab. A versatile singer, fine soloist (on tenor and flute), disciplined ensemble player and hilarious foil to Frank Zappa and George Duke, Brock was an anchor for the 1974 "One Size Fits All" sextet, as well as the bands that preceded and followed it. When I was fortunate enough to see the Mothers of Invention at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos on July 21, 1974, Brock was the visual foil for all the phenomenal music coming out of the bandmembers' fingers. Brock has turned up in various ensembles over the years, but I had always wondered where he had developed both his skills and his engaging mix of onstage cool and smarm. This long-lost article in the October 27, 1967 San Mateo Times provides some important clues.
The article tells us that Napoleon received his college degree in physiology, and worked for three years at a school for Mentally Retarded Children, a considerably different background than some former members of The Mothers of Invention. The Napoleon Five had just finished a date at The Carousel in Las Vegas, and were starting an extended engagement at the Fireside Lounge. Its hard to be certain (my access to papers is somewhat random), but they were there for the next few weeks at least, probably through most or all of November. Based on the configuration of the band--Napoleon, a female singer, two guitars, bassist and drummer--they probably played a danceable mixture of pop and soul hits, with a bit of rock and blues thrown in. No doubt the group could play "Caravan" with a drum solo, if so requested.
The Fireside Lounge was at 2322 El Camino Real in San Mateo. The El Camino Real ran parallel to the Highway 101 Freeway (and still does), and it was the main commercial strip for every town on the Peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. By day the stores on El Camino Real sold washing machines, cars or groceries, and by night the bars and movie theaters filled up with people who lived in work in the South Bay suburbs. Each town had a few "lounges" that served dinner and drinks with a band for dancing. The style was a miniature version of a Nevada lounge, if without the gambling, and many of the groups who played the Nevada circuit also played the El Camino Real lounges. Jerry Garcia cheerily referred to the El Camino clubs as "divorcee bars", and he may not have been entirely wrong. In the mid-60s, people over 21 with jobs, who liked music, didn't aspire to go to the Fillmore or its equivalent, but they did like to dance and listen to music that wasn't too far from what was being played there.
Most of the groups who played the Fireside Lounge featured older musicians--older as in 30 years old--who did not figure in future rock or jazz history, but there were exceptions. In August 1965 (the exact date is uncertain) a newly formed Palo Alto band called The Warlocks played there, the first of many gigs in the ensuing months on the El Camino Real strip. Starting in mid-November, The Fireside Lounge added a "breakfast show" on Saturday and Sunday mornings, from 2 to 6 am (effectively late Friday and Saturday night) where no liquor was served. The featured act at the November breakfast shows was a popular local band called Sly And The Family Stone, already a South Bay legend.
We can add future Mother of Invention Napoleon Murphy Brock to the list of interesting performers who played the unheralded Fireside Lounge. By the time Zappa seems to have discovered him, he would have been an established music business veteran, even if he was not apparently a big part of the recording scene. The Circle Star Theater, where I saw Napoleon with the Mothers in 1974, was the largest venue on the El Camino Real, just a few miles North of the Fireside Lounge, and no doubt not the first time on the Zappa tour where Napoleon played the big room instead of the Strip.