Denny Walley is a guitarist who is best known for recording and touring with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band. Originally from the Long Island New York area, Denny and his family move to the west coast to the same housing development where Frank Zappa lived. He became good friends with Frank's brother Bobby. During his youth, Denny took a liking for the blues and started playing the guitar. Another one of his neighborhood friends was playing with Zappa and heard that Frank was looking for a guitarist who could play slide. This led to an audition for Denny and he passed it. Denny alternated playing with Zappa and Captain Beefheart's Magic band. Today, Walley is performing with the Zappa tribute band "Project Object". They are touring the US in the fall of 2015. The musicians on this current tour include: Denny (guitar), Ike Willis (guitar), Andre Cholmondeley (guitar), Ryan Berg (drums), Max Johnson (bass), Kendall Scott (keyboards), Eric Svalgard (keyboards), and special guest Rich Rakowski (sax). I recently chatted with Denny about his career.
R.V.B. - Hello Denny, this is Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island how are you?
D.W. - Ok, How are you doing? Where are you on Long Island? Suffolk or Nassau?
R.V.B. - I'm out in Suffolk... near Port Jefferson.
D.W. - Oh cool, I used to live on the Island.
R.V.B. - Oh yeah? Where about?
D.W. - I lived in Levittown, Amityville, North Massapequa, and out in Long Beach.
R.V.B. - How long did you live here?
D.W. - I was raised in Brooklyn. I went to school there until I got into the lower grades. Then we moved out to Suffolk County. I was probably there for a total of 30 years.
R.V.B. - It's a whole lot more crowded than it used to be, but it's still nice.
D.W. - I still got a lot of friends out there.
R.V.B. - I understand your performing in Brooklyn with Project Object in the near future.
D.W. - Yeah, I'm so psyched about working that gig at "The Hall" in Williamsburg.
R.V.B. - I heard it's a nice place.
D.W. - It has a restaurant in it that's great.
R.V.B. - Where do you live now?
D.W. - I live in Atlanta, Georgia. I was in LA for a while around twenty four years ago. Then I move to Park Slope, Brooklyn. I was there for maybe four years and went from there to Atlanta, Georgia.
R.V.B. - How do you like it down there?
D.W. - I love it. It's really great here. We have a nice place outside of town, with some property with a lot of trees in the back... and wildlife. So it's really cool.
R.V.B. - Very nice. How did you get involved in music in the first place? Did you come from a musical family?
D.W. - No, not at all. My father loved music and he played a lot of 78's at home. He liked country and western and being polish... he played Frank Yankovic. So consequently at the age of seven, I wound up playing the accordion.
R.V.B. - I gather you did quite a few polkas...
D.W. - When I was around nine, my dad used to go to these firemans' picnics, where he used to work at this aircraft factory.
R.V.B. - Which aircraft company did he work for?
D.W. - He worked for Republic.
R.V.B. - Ok, my dad worked for Grumman.
D.W. - My uncle worked for Grumman also.
R.V.B. - Back in the day, everyone worked in that industry.
D.W. - Yeah, exactly. My cousin lived in Bethpage.
R.V.B. - Grumman was a huge employer for the Island.
D.W. - So I played the accordion for a while. I would go to these picnics and play the accordion, and people would stuff dollars in the bellows. At the time my dad was only making about 70 to 80 bucks a week.
R.V.B. - Where were the picnics? Do you remember?
D.W. - Somewhere out east on the Island.
R.V.B. - Was it Calverton?
D.W. - That sounds right. I made $200. That's what my dad made in a month. People would get drunk and start putting dollar bills and five's in the bellows.
R.V.B. - When did you switch over to the guitar?
D.W. - When I was living in Lancaster California, I lived in the same housing development as Frank Zappa. His brother Bobby was my best friend. We had a little click, and our interest's were blues records... old 45's and stuff. Once I heard Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Son House, the accordion went under the bed and the guitar became my passion. When I heard Muddy Waters play the slide, I thought it was "other worldly".
R.V.B. - What kind of guitar did you get first?
D.W. - The first guitar I got was a Silvertone Stratotone. You could buy them at Sears & Roebuck. I loved that thing. It was sunburst with a double white binding on it. It kind of looked like the one Jimmy Reed played. The neck on it looked like a baseball bat. It was good basic training to build some chops.
R.V.B. - The action on the guitar was not very good I guess?
D.W. - Oh yeah, if you learned to play a Barre chord on it, it was like nirvana. You had to have strength to hold that damn thing down. After that, I got a 62 Telecaster... which I still have. It's still my main guitar.
R.V.B. - Was it a sunburst?
D.W. - It was, until me and my partner decided to sand it down to blonde. It's got a really great patina on it now. I got some really great people to sign it. It's been with me since then.
R.V.B. - Did you tackle blues songs right from the beginning?
D.W. - Yes. The blues was all I was interested in.
D.W. - Yeah, I had a band at the time and you had to play covers. We used to hate when their songs came on because they were so damn hard to learn. To us they were pretty advanced... and their great harmonies.
R.V.B. - So being out in California, the surf music scene was pretty hot and heavy in the early 60's. Did you tackle that also?
D.W. - No. I had no interest in it. It just seemed tame. It had no balls or soul to it.
R.V.B. - Where did your band play when you started out?
D.W. - We played some clubs. I think the first gig, we played for beer.
R.V.B. - Some people still do at an older age (hahaha)
D.W. - I know. There's so many bands that are dying to play anywhere... they'll play for next to nothing. That was going on in LA too. In 68, 69, and 70, bands were coming from all over the world to Hollywood. They were signing people like crazy. But surf wasn't really my thing. I loved the blues, I loved soul, and R&B stuff like Bobby Blue Bland.
R.V.B. - Were you friends with Frank through this time period?
D.W. - When I left Frank in 1957, I hadn't seen him until the 60's... when my band was playing in Greenwich Village. Frank was with the Mothers at the Garrick Theater. I had a gig that night about a block away. It was at the Eighth Wonder on 8th street. I walked by the Garrick and standing out by the kiosk was Bobby Zappa. I hadn't seen him since I left California. So we talked for a minute. I said "I wanted to see Frank" and he said that he was at the Tin Angel, which is a coffee shop in the village. So I walked up there to see him and he was sitting with Ginsburg and all of these people. I'm dressed in a suit because we had to dress to the bone for the gig. So all of these great minds are sitting there. (hahaha) I got to talk to Frank, and I told him "It was great to see him." I didn't see him again until I auditioned for him in 75.
R.V.B. - Was that in California?
D.W. - Yes, that was out in California.
R.V.B. - What songs did you have to play for the audition?
D.W. - I just had to play one song. "Motorhead" Jim Sherwood... I also went to school with him. I went to school with him, Frank, and Don Van Vliet (Beefheart) We all knew each other from then. So Motorhead was at one of Franks rehearsals, and he knew Frank was looking for a guitar player who could play slide and sing. So "Motor" told him about me, and Frank said "Tell him to come down." Frank had no idea that I even played guitar. Frank had me come down the next day to the rehearsal. I went, and there was George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler, and Frank... it was a pretty impressive setup. As I recall, the first part of the rehearsal, Chester Thompson was there and then Terry Bozzio came. I brought my slide guitar, which was a Dan Electro and I had it tuned to open tuning. I walked in and I took it out, and he called "Advanced Romance"... which I had never heard before. Fortunately my open tuning was in the same key because I didn't have a capo with me.
R.V.B. - Was that in the key of G?
D.W. - Yeah. So halfway through the song Frank says stop. So I stopped and I was thinking to myself "Here we go. I'm outta here. Thank you for your time and don't let the door hit you on the way out" (hahaha) But instead he said "Anyone with balls enough to play those low notes has got the job. Sign him up."
R.V.B. - Nice.
D.W. - Then all the blood rushed out of my head and everything went black. (hahaha)
R.V.B. - When you did get accepted, did you rehearse for a tour or for an album?
D.W. - We rehearsed for the tour.
R.V.B. - Where did that first tour bring you?
D.W. - We played all over the States and then we went to the UK. The Bongo Fury tour was my first tour.
R.V.B. - That had to be pretty exciting for you.
D.W. - It was fantastic. I'm living a dream.
R.V.B. - Any particular shows that you thoroughly enjoyed?
D.W. - I really liked playing The Armadillo in Austin Texas. That's where the majority of the live album came from.
R.V.B. - Why was that one so special?
D.W. - I think aside from the audience, it was the relaxed atmosphere of the whole town in general... an open kind of a feeling. Everything is cool with everybody. There's no hassles. It was just a really great feeling "place". You know how those situations are... you just feel so comfortable in a place.
D.W. - Yes, and the band had been out for a while so we were really tight. It had a very relaxed soulful feel to it. It didn't feel mechanical.
R.V.B. - So in that time period, did you alternate with Captain Beefheart also?
D.W. - Yeah I did. After that tour, Frank suggested that I play with Beefheart. Frank was going out with a group that was more orchestral orientated and that's not what I do. As you know, Frank has had probably over 200 people pass through his ranks. A lot of it is because he's writing new music and wants new input. So yes, we started rehearsing. It was me, Elliot Ingber, Bruce Fowler and John French "Drumbo" from the original Magic band. We rehearsed for a while and went out on the road. When I wasn't playing with Don, I'd be playing with Frank. I was back and forth. I played with Beefheart for about four years.
R.V.B. - Where did the name "Feelers Rebo" come from?
D.W. - Don gave me that. He likes to name people. Elliot Ingber was "Winged Eel Fingerling". One night he decided he was going to give me a name. The first name he came up with was totally unacceptable. (hahaha) I said "Nooo Way." I said 'You gotta come up with another name. I don't want that one. If that's the one you're gonna give me, I don't want a fucking name."
R.V.B. - (hahaha) Can you share it with me?
D.W. - "Denny Walley, from Walla Walla Washington with all those D's and W's."
R.V.B. - That's not that bad (hahaha)
D.W. - Well you can have it. I bequeath you.
R.V.B. - (hahaha) So he came up with Feelers. Did you have a problem with your hands?
D.W. - No.
R.V.B. - Why the name?
D.W. - Don't ask me man. Why - anything that Don says? I could think of it as... I get the emotion of something. "Feelings" I prefer to think of it... if I had to, That's the way I look at it. (hahaha)
D.W. - Wow... that was a great group. That was my favorite band to play in... ever. It was just wild. My best friend Tom Leavey had come out to California, a little before I did. We were best friends, all through high school. He was in my first band. When he moved out there, I was going out there as well. He was a bass player. He had hooked up with Jimmy Carl Black. He was putting Geronimo back and he wanted a bass player. So Tom got in and when I moved there, they already had a guitar player. My friend Tom was really pushing to get me to replace this guy. As it turned out, the other guy had an offer to do something, so I filled the slot. It worked out great, right from the first song. It was just one of those things.
R.V.B. - Did that band take you regionally or nationally?
D.W. - No, but it was all planned. Russ Reagen was the one who signed us to the label. Shortly after he signed us, he left to head up another company. So they didn't know what the hell to do with us. We had big promotions starting and we had press kits. We started playing around in town. We did a short tour. We played in the San Fernando Valley, San Diego and a couple of gigs up in San Francisco.
R.V.B. - Did you play in any other bands after Geronimo Black?
D.W. - I've done a lot of guest appearances. I've played over in Sweden. I'm friends with Matz/Morgan. Morgan plays with Banned from Utopia. They're huge in Sweden. I was fortunate enough to have them as my band on a tour. I'm good friends with The Muffin Men and I play a lot of places in the UK. I may be doing something with them this coming April.
R.V.B. - Were you in contact with Frank through the years?
R.V.B. - As far as Project Object... who you're going to be touring with this fall. Have you toured with them before?.
D.W. - I've toured with them about four times. The last one was approximately two years ago. We played around the States in places like "The Stone Pony". Then we went to Warsaw and played a festival in this small town. That was it... we came home. It was cool.
R.V.B. - After a two year layoff... what kind of preparation goes into getting ready for another tour?
D.W. - Well, I play all this stuff every day. In the course of a week, I play all of the Beefheart stuff. I have to practice to refresh it, I don't have to practice to learn it. There's a lot of muscle memory. I don't like to overwork it. If you play it to the point where you think you can do it in your sleep, then you sound like you're asleep.
R.V.B. - It gets a little sterile sounding?
D.W. - Yeah... you might as well be working a drill press. (hahaha) Anybody can do that.
R.V.B. - Well, good luck on the tour. It sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun. Who's in the band this time?
D.W. - The only one I haven't played with on a tour is the bass player Max Johnson. I did play with him once when I was touring with The Magic Band. We were in New York doing a festival and Project Object was playing at The Iridium... a small club. I happened to have off that night and sat in. The keyboard player Kendall Scott was on the tour that I did a couple of years ago. Eric Svalgard is the other keyboard player. I've played with him several times... also at the Zappanale festival in Germany... twice. That was with the Paul Green School of Rock. I was a guest. There's Ryan Berg on drums, Andre Cholmonde on guitar and of course Ike Willis.
R.V.B. - Are you very happy with the way things are going in your career? Is there anything that you would've done differently?
D.W. - No, nothing. The best thing that ever happened to me was playing with Frank. He really shined a light on me. I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing on the level that I have done, had it not been for him. A lot of people would say the same thing... Steve Vai for one, Adrian Belew...
R.V.B. - That's a lot of talent that you are mentioning.
D.W. - A lot of people that passed through with Frank have gone to really great heights. He put them on the big stage.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career, and thank you very much for taking this time with me.
D.W. - Thank you. It was great talking with you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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