Ruth Underwood
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Music

“Ladies and gentlemen, watch Ruth!” an onstage Frank Zappa said of his percussionist, RUTH UNDERWOOD (born 1946). “All through this film, Ruth has been thinkin’ What can I possibly do that will amaze everyone?” The answer was lots, for the former Ruth Komanoff — a Long Beach, New York native gone to Ithaca College and then Julliard — could do nearly anything with mallets or sticks. In 1967, she saw the Mothers Invention at Garrick Theater and was astonished, returning often during their residency there. Then, standing outside a Miles Davis concert one night with her brother Charles, Zappa walked by. My sister is a brilliant marimba player, insisted Charles. Come audition, Zappa replied. And she did, earning a spot on 1969’s epochal Uncle Meat, the same year she married Mothers’ saxophonist Ian Underwood. While Ruth appears in the Greatest (Low Budget Orchestral) Rock Movie Ever, 200 Motels (1971), it wasn’t until 1973 that her brilliance became widely known. Zappa was nearing his apogee as a jazz-rock composer and even among virtuosos like Jean-Luc Ponty and George Duke, Ruth was awesome, as “Cosmik Debris” (see below) and much else demonstrates; Zappa in New York (1978) has Ruth all over it. What was it like? “It was the greatest experience of my life, and the most terrifying,” Underwood would later recall. “It was educational and enriching, and also backbreaking, grueling, sometimes lonely, terrifying — it was fucking unbelievable.”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Hergé and Robert Moog.

READ MORE about members of the Blank Generation (1944-53).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.