December 25, 2011 – Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood was born on May 8th 1942 in Arkansas City, Kansas and is notable for playing soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone, tambourine, vocals and vocal sound effects in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. He met Zappa at high school in 1956 in Antelope Valley in the Mojave Desert (also Captain Beefheart) and sat in with Zappa’s first band, R&B group The Black-Outs, at various performances, where he was often a highlight.
Then the brothers moved to Ontario, California, and started a new band, the Omens, which also included Sherwood. He would regularly jam with Zappa in a string of different groups, and eventually, in 1964, the Mothers.
He appeared on all the albums of the original Mothers line-up and the ‘posthumous’ releases Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, as well as certain subsequent Zappa albums. He also appeared in the films 200 Motels, Video from Hell and Uncle Meat. Jim later also contributed to various projects alongside his fellow Mothers alumni, including records by The Grandmothers, Mothers keyboardist Don Preston, Ant-Bee and Sandro Oliva.
The original madcap woodwind player of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Sherwood, an adept and classically trained multi-instrumentalist, played baritone and tenor saxophone, percussion and vocals to the Mothers of Inventions’ landmark first psychedelic records, including 1966’s debut Freak Out! and 1968’s Cruising with Ruben & the Jets.
A childhood friend of Zappa’s, Sherwood also performed on Zappa’s first solo album, 1967’s Lumpy Gravy, and in the 1971 avant-garde film 200 Motels. Sherwood later described his 200 Motels character as “in love with a vacuum cleaner.”
After the album’s release in June 1966 on MGM’s Verve label, the band went on tour, then in November that year took up a six-month residency at the Garrick theatre in New York, during which they played 14 shows a week. Sherwood was working for the band as equipment manager and roadie, and sometimes operated the lighting during the Garrick shows. These were a bizarre mix of music and performance art, featuring puppet shows and interludes when the band would pelt the audience with fruit.
It was when the Mothers made their first trip to England, in mid-1967, that Sherwood was finally hired as a full-time musician. It was the band’s vocalist and percussionist Ray Collins who gave Sherwood the nickname “Motorhead”, through his love of working on cars and trucks and motorcycles: “He said ‘it sounds like you’ve got a little motor in your head’, so they just called me Motorhead and that seemed to stick.”
Zappa told Rolling Stone in 1968:
Euclid James ‘Motorhead’ Sherwood I’ve known for 12 years. We were in high school in Lancaster together. He used to play baritone sax in the Omens. He has the ability to perform a dance known as the bug, which resembles an epileptic fit. He’s one of those guys you say, “I know this guy who’s really weird and I want to show him to you.” He was our equipment handler for a while and when we started the atrocities we started handing him our instruments to see what would happen. He played things more imaginative than the proficient musicians could lay down. It was just him against the machine in his mouth, a saxophone. He is also very proficient at dolls and visual aids.
After the Mothers of Invention disbanded in 1969, Sherwood still collaborated with Zappa and his bandmates; the group’s epic swan song, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, hinged largely on his aggressive instrumental theatrics.
Sherwood appeared on the further Zappa releases You Are What You Is (1981), Civilization Phaze III in 1993, the year of Zappa’s death, and the Läther box set, released three years later.
In the 1980s, Sherwood performed with the Grandmothers, and played on a couple of albums with them. During the 1990s, he joined forces with Billy James and his Ant-Bee project.
James, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Boston, wanted to express his fascination with psychedelic and experimental music from the 1960s, for which he assembled musicians from the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart’s band. Sherwood appears on three Ant-Bee albums, though by this time he had given up playing the saxophone and his contributions are limited to “snorks”, in which you “snort through your nose, sucking air in through your nose”. He added further snorks to Sandro Oliva’s album Who the Fuck Is Sandro Oliva?!? (1995).
Jim Sherwood passed away after a short but severe illness on Christmas Day morning December 25th, 2011 at age 69.