Robert "Frog" Camarena on Playing with Frank Zappa and His New Band, Forty-Seven 51

Not just anyone can say they used to jam with a highly acclaimed musician like Frank Zappa -- but Valley based Latin/funk rocker Robert "Frog" Camarena can -- he played in Ruben and the Jets, a group produced by Zappa, and backed the songwriter up.

Camarena is 64-years-old now and has traded in his East Los barrio for an Arizona zip code, but he's far from calling it a career. He's got a new band together, Forty-Seven 51, that continues the sideways, raunchy funk of Zappa and the legendary Ruben and the Jets, and is scheduled to perform Friday, September 28, at Goat Head Saloon in Mesa.

Up on the Sun: Tell me a little bit about Forty-Seven 51. How long have you guys been playing together?

Robert Camarena: Well, we've been together for quite a while now, but it's been different members coming in and out of the group. Out here, it seems like there's a tendency where the players don't really stick around very long. This is an original project that's been a long time in the making. The songs themselves have been around for a while but its come together really well. I've come together with some really good players and they've put their hearts into it and here we are.

I've heard about that revolving door for musicians. Why do you think that's the case here?

Maybe because there are a lot of transplants here. But it seems like they're the ones that have the drive, that want to be something ... that reach for the stars. And some people out here have a tendency to not care. I come from a long background of music. I played with some heavy cats before. I've played with Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck -- a lot of people.

I was hoping you could talk a little more about that. How did your time with Zappa influence you, and how have you come into your own as a musician?

I'm not really different from him, brother, but I miss him. Frank had a major influence in my life when it came to writing music. I took my Latin background and a lot of the movements he taught me, and I ran with that. I recorded with him on Apostrophe, Live At The Roxy and Elsewhere, Overnight Sensation, and One Size Fits All. There were a lot of heavy people in those, so I learned a lot. It's a different kind of existence. There was more meaning to it. How'd you guys hook up?

I hooked up with Zappa after he put up an audition for his project, Ruben and the Jets. I was asked if I knew a guitarist and a keyboard player. I said, "Sure I do -- I know some great people." Then I asked if he needed any singers. I'm the kind of person that, when I see a door open I run for it. So I grabbed my guitar and I jumped in my car and went to the audition. I was leaning by my friend Johnny Martinez's keyboard when Frank comes up to me and asks, "What do you do?"

Like a fool I told him, "I'm probably the best damn singer you ever heard." He laughed, I laughed, then he said, let's hear it. After that he told me, "You're a damn good singer; you're in the group." After Ruben and the Jets disbanded I joined him with Mothers of Invention.

Right on. What's the story behind this band name?

The name Forty-Seven 51 is from when I started playing music. That was the address that I had when I lived in East Los Angeles. I'm from the barrio, straight from the guts.

And how did you get stuck with the nickname "Frog?"

That goes way back. When I was a kid I used to love to play music. I couldn't play in the house because it was late at night, so I would grab my guitar, hop out the back window and I would go to the corner, sit under a tree on a crate and I would play there. My friends would come by and say, "Uh oh, there's another frog on the corner."

What about your sound? Obviously, the Zappa influence is there, but then there's some Carlos Santana . . .

That was another thing I grew up around. I did a lot of stuff around him like a lot of the other guys from the barrio. But working with Zappa was really avant-garde you know? All these riffs and lines -- I used to sit up in the middle of the night humming them -- so I decided, why can't I take that and put that into my, chicanismo, my Latino background. I'm a child from the barrio, that's exactly what I am.

So most of the songs that I've written are all about true experiences from my life. So I've taken them and just added those little lines and riffs that are so Zappa-like.

How do you think these types of songs and your sound hold up today?

It's a different kind of world. But I'm getting responses from all generations. Some because it's danceable -- that's where the younger people come in. Then the older generation comes in and says, "Oh yeah, I remember that kind of stuff."

Now that you have a more solid core of players, what's next for you guys?

I have some record labels looking at us right now. There's a lot of things in the fire though. I have some promoters in L.A. that are trying to get us to move down there, but I don't really want to leave from here. I'd rather base the group out of Arizona.

Why is that important to you? To keep the band Arizona-based?

I've gone back and forth between Arizona and California quite a few times. My mother was born here and I wanted to pay homage to her and that's why I moved out here: to get back to her roots. Not too many Chicano influences come from Arizona. You got people like Linda Rondstadt, but there hasn't been anyone recently that has dominated in the music industry that you say, "Hey, they come from Phoenix." I would like to put Phoenix on the map, like another Seattle or another Hollywood -- the places to be for music.

I have one last quest in life right now, and that's to have a hit record. I've never had it. I've had records, I've been on hit albums, but I've never had a hit record of my own. Some of the stuff I write, I feel has that potential. That's the legacy I want to leave behind for my children.

Forty-Seven 51 is scheduled to perform Friday, September 28, at Goat Head Saloon in Mesa.

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Anthony Sandoval
Contact: Anthony Sandoval