Burly singer-guitarist Ike Willis traces his career back to Frank Zappa. Willis met the bizarro rocker in 1978, when he was a college student who managed to get backstage at a St. Louis concert. The two hit it off, and Zappa invited Willis to audition for his group, which he constantly rotated. Willis — who began singing when he was two years old and playing guitar when he was eight — soon became the band's vocalist and rhythm guitarist. But according to Willis, the thing that Zappa liked most about him wasn't his musical proficiency; it was his silly sense of humor.
Willis was a chief inspiration behind Zappa's 1979 album, Joe's Garage, and he played a key role on early-'80s records like Tinseltown Rebellion and You Are What You Is. Willis played with Zappa for a decade until Zappa quit touring in 1988. (Willis spent more time as a Zappa sideman than anyone else.) Since then, Willis has released a pair of jazz-inflected solo albums, performed with the Zappa tribute band Project/Object, and continued to tour with a group that plays a mix of classic Zappa tunes and Zappa-inspired originals. (Zappa died in 1993.) Years of working alongside the music legend taught Willis a few things: He accurately captures Zappa's distinct experimental style in such songs as "Lucille Has Messed Up My Mind," "Son of Orange County," and "Filthy Habits." We can't think of a better way to celebrate Zappa's birthday on Friday than with one of his most esteemed bandmates.