Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Interview:--> Craig "Twister" Steward - "Days of Harp & Frank Zappa"

"Hey Hey Hey all you girls in these
industrial towns.
I know you're prob'ly gettin' tired
of all the local clowns."
~ Frank Zappa ~

Craig "Twister" Steward
, who has played with some of the greatest musicians of our time and has been described as the "Hendrix of the Harp",...was amazingly discovered by Frank Zappa while performing in Wichita, Kansas.

Frank was quoted as saying "He (Craig Steward) sounds like Coltrane on the harmonica. And I mean fast like you won't believe. This guy is like the Al Di Meola of the harmonica."

Zappa, (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, winner of two Grammys, ranked #71 on Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time), invited Craig to record on three albums...one of which..."Joe's Garage" (1979) has been recognized as a 5 star-must own by All Music Guide.

And although Craig still finds time to perform...he is presently our Wichita arborist.  As Craig says..."I am a tree trimmer who got to go inside of a bubble."

On November 28, 2007, while blowing some cool tasty harp at Remingtons, Craig "Twister" Steward agreed to sit down for a fascinating little one-on-one.

The following is an excerpt:

Casey Chambers:  Well, many may not know this, but you played alongside the legendary Frank Zappa.  And that's really something.

Craig Steward:  I'm glad you say that. I...forget me as a person...but yes, Frank Zappa was one of the top ten...I think... musicians of the 20th century.

Casey Chambers:  Tell me about how you first met Frank.

Craig Steward at Remingtons

Craig Steward:  The first time I met Frank there was a place...and I should know the name of it...it was on Central just west of West Street. And it's called Caesar's Palace.

So there was a group that I used to play with. David Carey, who was this monster guitar player/musician here in Wichita and he had a group called Bliss. B-L-I-S-S.

They were playing Mahavishnu Orchestra back in 1972 and George Benson stuff and all this. Anyway, so I sat in with them.  And Frank...he first went to some hip places, but then he said, 'Is there anywhere where they're playing something more avant-garde?  More aggressive?'  And they said, 'yeah' and brought him there.

And I was playing with Tony Garcia of Ruben and the Jets, and when I finished, Frank stood up and called out my name and said, 'I'm gonna go up and play some guitar. Will you come up and play with me?'  Later, the guys in his group told me, 'He never does that.'

So I think he had this...most guitar players want sometime to play with a blues harmonica player. It goes back to Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon.  All of those people.

So I went up and played and he said, 'I'll be getting in touch with you'.  Well, I really didn't believe him, but it did happen. And that was where I first met him.  He also had a drummer who played and I talked to him a little bit and I really liked this guy.  He was real handsome.  Big guy, blond hair. Well, he was Jim Gordon. The drummer on "Layla" for Eric Clapton, y'know. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Cool that!  Where was Frank playing in town that night?

Craig Steward:  Well, I'm really not too sure. I didn't go hear him.  (Editor's note: Zappa performed on Friday, Dec 1, 1972 in Wichita, KS, at the Century II Convention Center; Steely Dan was the opener).  But, see, Jimmy Carl Black, his original member who played drums...he was from Kansas.

Jimmy Carl Black

So there's been this Kansas connection with Frank from the beginning.  On his first album, there was a song..."It Can't Happen Here".   (singing) "...In a swimming pool.  In a swimming pool.  Somewhere in a swimming pool in Kansas. In a swimming pool."  That was on his first album.

Casey Chambers:  Yeah!  "Freak Out" (1966).

Craig Steward: Yeah, and we all got off on that "in Kansas" thing y'know?  Right?

Casey Chambers:  Oh yeah.  And so he really did get back in touch with you.

Craig Steward: Yes. And uh...actually it took several months because he lost this car.  And this girl came back from California and she said, 'Frank Zappa's looking for you.'  I didn't really believe it.  You almost don't want to believe it.

Casey Chambers:  Right.

Craig Steward:  And I will say this. You do have to be able to play.  On my first solo tryout, I did a song called "King Kong". ("Uncle Meat" - 1969)  And uh, Jean-Luc Ponty had his whole million dollar thing going on with Jimi Hendrix, and I'm thinking...'Golly this guy's killing!'  I didn't even have my own stuff, but I did okay.

But I couldn't play ensemble. I couldn't hear it. It was too technical. Plus, I'm not the sharpest tack in the box. And after three days Frank said, 'What do you think?'  I said, 'Well Frank, I think I should go back home.'  And he goes, 'Oh!' Because I guess he never heard anybody say that to him before.

I knew what the score was.  Frank said, 'Well, I agree, but don't think of it as a failure.'  I said, 'No, no, no. It's not every day that someone like me gets to jam with people like you.'  So I headed back and played here in Wichita for five more years. (This was in 1973).

I played with a supper club band called Donn Salyer and the Family.  Don was awesome.  He played an accordion.  It was an electric accordion and he made it sound like a B-3.  It was a trip.  He was kind of my mentor.  He got me more advanced musically.

Five years later, I called Frank and his secretary or his wife Gail, I can't remember, got me in touch with him.  I played him a few notes over the phone and Frank said, 'I'll get you right out.'  I said, 'Well, this time, I'll pay my own way and I'm gonna bring my wife.' And he tells me, 'Well, why don't you bring your wife and I'll pay both of your ways and I'll put you both up.'  So...pretty nice guy.

Casey Chambers: Yeah, that was pretty cool.

Craig Steward:  He had an edge to him, y'know?  My favorite moment and time with Frank was when he had Ahmet on one knee and he had Diva on the other.  It was Christmas Eve and I'm in his house...in his studio by myself with the family.

Casey Chambers:  In California?

Craig Steward:  Yes. And so I got to see Frank as a loving father. So, how's that?

Casey Chambers:  That's a nice memory.

Craig Steward:  And that's my favorite thing. I got to see the musicianship. I got to see all that. I used to go over there about every four months or so and he'd play me things that he was working on and ask, 'Whaddaya think?'
And it was like a whole symphony and well...c'mon...give me a few months to digest what I just heard. And so finally, after awhile, I ended up not going back to him anymore because I wanted to be myself.

Casey Chambers:  Maybe go your own direction.

Craig Steward:  And I don't mean that in an arrogant way or even in a selfish way, just...there's a certain place in time where you need to have your own signature.  Because it may mean something for everybody as opposed to always being a part of someone else.

Fantastic Jazz Guitarist, Robben Ford

I mean, I got to play with some great musicians. Robben Ford...and Vinnie (Colaiuta), Steve Vai and Greg Phillanges.  That's Eric Clapton's keyboard player on some of his albums.

Casey Chambers:  Oh, yeah!

Craig Steward:  A whole bunch of different people, y'know? So, I have wonderful credentials, but my tree industry profession has been what's buttered my bread.

Casey Chambers:  Well, let's jump to..."Joe's Garage" (1979).  It's been hailed by many as one of Frank's greatest albums ...and is certainly one of my favorites.  That was the first one you played on. Is that right?

Craig Steward:  Yes. And here's a little vanity, okay?  When we recorded "Joe's Garage", we would all come in.  That was the last...live ensemble performance...of any of Frank's groups.  And we played live.

Now Frank dubbed over his voice and some things later, but it was Ike (Willis), Vinnie, and I...and everyone were there playing live.

"Crew Slut" -  Frank Zappa / Joe's Garage (1979) 

And so we all came into the studio and Frank plays it back and with all these great musicians...turns to the tree trimmer...and goes, 'Oh, and not a bad harmonica song.'  Now that was...wow!  I mean, it was almost embarrassing, in a way. But, I really appreciated that, y'know?  He noticed.

Casey Chambers:  How did the "Joe's Garage" sessions differ from the sessions on "You Are What You Is" (1981) and "The Man From Utopia" (1983)?

Craig Steward:  We were more present (on "Joe's Garage"). I came in on "The Man From Utopia" and "You Are What You Is" with almost everyone else having already laid down their tracks.  And see, that's basically what happened after "Joe's Garage".  There wasn't really...the whole group wouldn't be present.  It'd be done by channels and you'd come in and put in your part.

"Cocaine Decisions"- Frank Zappa/The Man From Utopia (1983)

Casey Chambers:  That would definitely have a different feel to it.  What was your favorite Frank Zappa song that you played on?

Craig Steward:  Well, my favorite would be "Crew Slut" ("Joe's Garage") because he really lets me play on that.

Casey Chambers:  That's a good one.  And how about one of your favorite Zappa songs that you did not play on?

Craig Steward:  "Bamboozled By Love" is one I recorded on, but Frank didn't use my playing on "Bamboozled...".  But I did get to play it live at the Santa Monica Civic Center.  He really let me play out in Santa Monica.  I really got to play a lot.  We just traded back and forth, back and forth.  And that's when Steve Vai was on the stage. We had some great people.

Steve Vai & Frank Zappa

Casey Chambers:  Frank has always been known for only taking the top of the line musicians...

Craig Steward:  Well, I used to say to him, 'Frank, there are other great harmonica players.'  And there are.  But, what Frank would say was, 'Yes, but they don't put the notes together like you do.'

Casey Chambers:  That's pretty sweet!  Let's back up for a minute. Where was the best place to play here in Wichita back in the late '60s and early '70s?

Craig Steward:  Well...A Blackout Taverwas the first integrated place in Wichita.  And it was really like the Haight-Ashbury and Greenwich Village of Wichita in '66. It's where all the music, the progressive stuff, percolated.

Casey Chambers:  Where was that located?

Craig Steward:  It was at Erie and 21st Street. (Two blocks from Wichita State University).  It was awesome. We had rich people, professors, black, white, yellow, American Indians...it was a melting pot of people and ideas. It was fabulous.  It was hedonistic.  But, y'know...that's the whole thing about the time I came from. It was hedonistic.

Casey Chambers:  When did you first start playing the harmonica and what influenced you to pick up that particular instrument?

Craig Steward:  In 1968...and it had to do with the sign of the times.  I graduated in '67. The summer of love.  And there was this brand new music on the face of the earth that nobody had ever heard before which was the sustain of guitar in rock music and I was drawn to that. And some of the bands that I really liked had harmonica. The Cream, Jack Bruce, and, uh, Canned Heat. And that guy was 'Blind Owl' Alan Wilson.  He wrote "Goin' Up the Country" and "On the Road Again"... kind of the anthem of Woodstock.

Casey Chambers:  That's good stuff.

Craig Steward:  And there was another great integrated place in Wichita where jazz was played and I played so much with the jazz players there.
That was unusual for a diatonic harmonica player and they gave me ideas of how to play. And then there was Charlie McCoy, the country and western harmonica player.
So I'm not prejudiced in the sense of music. I love Mozart.  I love Ravi Shankar.  I love country and western, blues, jazz, rock. It doesn't matter if it's got passion.

Casey Chambers:  Oh, yeah.

Craig Steward:  So, am I saying I'm great? Yeah, I think I am. There's a certain level you can reach, and you would hope you would be great after playing 20 some years or 30 years, okay? If you had any talent. If you worked at it.

And if you can just get a little bit of all that and put it into something. I don't think of myself as being original. I'm an establisher. I take from different things and then try to hold up my end.
I'll be dead one day. Could be soon. So, if I've been blessed to have something to give...my goodness...gotta do it. Right?


"Joe's Garage" - Frank Zappa / Joe's Garage (1979)

If one has any doubts of catching just a little piece of lightening in a bottle...let Craig "Twister" Steward serve as a reminder to treat every performance like it's an audition. 'Cause you just never know who'll be out there watching.

Good Stuff!

Casey Chambers
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display said...

Hi Casey,
It was nice to hear from you. I've got ALL of Frank's stuff and never knew about this guy. Nice work in digging him up and putting this together.

Anonymous said...


I really enjoyed reading this nice work. I have Joe's Garage so I really liked it. I DL "Road to Hana" by Craig Steward and it sounds really good too.

Nice work!

Casey said...

"Road To Hana" is Craig Steward working it out.
I encourage you to catch him if he stumbles in to your town.
And look for some new stuff from Craig real soon.
A Class act.

Anonymous said...


I just stumbled upon this interview and it is great!
Very cool reading! You asked some great questions, too.