SHE’S REALLY SORT OF CUTE
In the course of writing my book on the Broadway tour, I had occasion to throw a couple of questions Lisa Popeil’s way. She kindly told me some more about her brief stint with Frank.
My time in the band began surprisingly since I had come to the audition merely to give moral support to my boyfriend at the time, Chris Armstrong, an avid Zappa fan and talented drummer. I do remember what I was wearing and it was definitely not dressed-to-impress: red gym shorts and a silly white t-shirt with tiny red hearts on it. I came to the studio with no acquaintance with Frank’s music and was acting mostly as a ‘roadie’ for Chris. When I saw sheet music lying around, I took a glance and hummed through it. It seemed purposefully difficult but I got a kick out of trying to get the rhythms. Tommy Mars caught me glancing at the music and suggested that I audition for Frank. After several terrified auditioners were summarily dismissed from the studio after failing to meet Frank’s expectations, and definitely after Chris’ audition was also not up to ‘snuff’, I had every intention of helping him pack up and head home. But Tommy approached me again and was quite insistent that I audition for Frank. Not one to say no, I sat at the piano while Frank placed music in front of me, testing my musicianship, playing and singing. I remember auditioning for quite a long time, perhaps 45 minutes, turning around occasionally to observe an ever-growing group of guys behind me looking stunned, as though they were thinking “Who IS this girl?”
When the audition was over, Frank pulled me aside and gave me a stack of music to memorise and said to come back in several days and play for him again. Well, that was my first real challenge as I had developed my ability to read music but not my ability to memorise it! I did my best to learn it and came back for my second audition. The singing went well and it was obvious that Frank enjoyed my over-the-top operatic renditions, basically opera with boozy jazz styling. Then I was informed that I would be put on a trial period which eventually lasted three weeks. There’s much to tell about those three weeks, which overall I found quite harrowing. My background was classical and pop piano but I was expected to play primitive synthesizers and learn four hours of almost unplayable music and then be able to play it in any style and in any key. That was quite beyond my experience. All the while, though, Frank was very supportive - even warm - towards me and I gave the process everything I had, even to the point of swollen hands from practicing.
At the end of three weeks, Frank called to let me know that my trial period was over and I agreed that it wasn’t working out. I had not come to the situation as an experienced player; I had just gotten my Master’s Degree in Classical Voice and had fallen into the situation. He was kind when breaking the news to me and though I was of course disappointed, I was also very relieved. Going on a 60-city tour with 40 guys and one girl, me, was a daunting thought to say the least! I did hear later through the grapevine that if Frank had not been able to find a replacement, he was planning to call me back. But he found Bobby Martin, an extremely skilled and experienced performing musician. The one thing I think I brought to the picture, besides being female, was that I was funny - I really knew how to crack up Frank. And I was later thrilled to receive his phone call and invitation to perform live with the band in December of 1981. The lyric idea in Lisa’s Life Story was to make it seem as though Frank was the ‘perfect hunk’, but then at the end, throwing in the zinger ‘and BLOND’ to deflate the build-up.
Photos courtesy of Lisa.