RAY COLLINS looks more like a grandfather, but he's actually a Mother.

The white-haired Collins, 71, was the singer who invited a young Frank Zappa to join the Soul Giants, the band that became the Mothers of Invention in the mid-1960s.

Four decades later, Collins is a familiar sight in the Claremont Village, where he spends his days strolling the streets, sitting on benches and saying hello.

"Sometimes people think I'm like the greeter, the Village greeter," Collins says with a chuckle. "I'm not."

He's lived in Claremont since 1991. After whimsically comparing his bucolic surroundings to the menacing Village in the classic TV series "The Prisoner," Collins allows, "If you've gotta be somewhere, this is as good a place as any."

He'll never be hired as official greeter with that attitude.

I've been after Collins for an interview for years. He once agreed, then backed out. We see each other around the Village and often chat informally.

Then, out of the blue, he phoned. The impetus was an item here about a YouTube clip in which an amused Zappa tells Mike Douglas about the Soul Giants' start at the Broadside club in Pomona.

Zappa relates how he joined the band after Collins punched out the previous guitarist.

Apparently that is part of the band's lore, but Collins wanted to tell me he never hit the guy. He said he'd be happy to tell me the whole story.

I made an appointment for the next morning before he could change his mind.

We met downtown at Shelton Park. With his peasant straw hat, sandals, long beard and loose-fitting clothes, Collins resembles a Chinese farmer transplanted to Harvard Avenue.

He grew up in Pomona, the son of Joseph Collins, a Pomona cop, and joined the choir at Emerson Junior High.

"That's when I really started singing, in choir there," Collins said. He quietly sang a few bars of Nat King Cole's "Too Young": "They try to tell us we're too young, too young to really be in love..."

At Pomona High, he sang Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart songs in school assemblies. He didn't graduate with his class in 1956, the year a fire gutted the school, because he'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant. He dropped out to marry her and get a job.

But he kept singing, performing with various doo-wop and pachuco groups in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Around 1961, Collins saw Zappa perform at the Sportsman Tavern in Pomona, across from the Broadside on Holt east of Reservoir, and introduced himself.

"We just liked each other instantly," Collins said. They shared a love of a wide range of music, including doo-wop, and an admiration for TV comic Steve Allen. The two hung out and performed together sporadically as a mock folk duo, recording a single as Ned & Nelda.

Circa 1964, Collins joined the Soul Giants, an R&B cover band, by accident. When the band auditioned at the Broadside, the club owner insisted that Collins, his friend, would have to replace the singer if the band wanted the gig.

"I felt kind of awkward about it, someone firing someone else and giving me the job," Collins says.

The band consisted of drummer Jimmy Carl Black, bassist Roy Estrada, saxophonist Davy Coronado and guitarist Ray Hunt. Hunt, however, was incompetent or purposely messed up to be spiteful, Collins relates.

"I was new to the band but it was up to me to get rid of him," Collins says. After the deed was done - no punches were thrown, he insists - he made a fateful suggestion.

"I told them, `I know a guitarist in Cucamonga. His name's Frank Zappa,"' Collins says.

Zappa auditioned and fit in perfectly, but he was a prolific songwriter and a new direction was called for.

"If you will play my music, I will make you rich and famous," Zappa is said to have told them.

Cover songs fell by the wayside, as did Coronado and the band's name. Zappa and Estrada both took credit later for the name the Mothers, later lengthened to the Mothers of Invention at their record label's insistence.

Their 1966 recording debut was "Freak Out!", a double-LP of dark, satiric, underground rock. 

"Nobody ever heard anything like that," Collins says.

He stuck around for their second LP, "Absolutely Free," but quit in 1968 prior to the landmark "We're Only in It for the Money."

Zappa had effectively assumed control of the band, leading to tension. Collins had been ambivalent about the Mothers ever since Zappa relocated the band from Pomona to Hollywood to pursue a record deal.

Under Zappa, the Mothers weren't the same band Collins had signed up for. Quitting became a running joke.

"I think I did it four times, maybe," Collins says. "I didn't like doing that stuff onstage. Too much comedy, too much making fun of stuff."

While clowning around was part of his personality, "I wanted to make beautiful music. I was raised on Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole."

He does regret quitting precisely when he did: The band was headed to Seattle, and he still has never been there.

Collins did perform with Zappa a few more times and contributed to several subsequent albums, notably "Cruising With Ruben & the Jets." But his music career pretty much ended in 1968.

Nor has he made much money, having left the Mothers before they became profitable.

He moved to Claremont after a modest legal settlement with Zappa over his and other founding members' contributions to the band, he says. Zappa died in 1993 of prostate cancer.

Collins turned down several offers to join the Grandmothers, a band made up of graying ex-Mothers.

Instead, he's lived a hand-to-mouth existence, mostly by choice. His only income is Social Security and twice-annual royalty checks from co-writing the doo-wop song "Memories of El Monte."

It's enough to survive. "But not enough to pick up women," Collins cracks.

"Money has just not been my friend. I wonder if it's a psychological thing," he muses. "I wonder if I associate it with `not good."'

He claims to have "tons" of unrecorded songs, has intermittently filmed a documentary about his life and mentions ideas for screenplays - one of them a comedy about a town's search for a Village greeter.

Nothing seems to reach fruition. To say Collins is unambitious would be an understatement.

"People will ask why it's been 40 years since I've been onstage. I don't know," Collins admits as we talk at a picnic table in the park, birds chirping.

"If you just enjoy life," Collins continues, "it's conducive to not being successful. You know what I mean? I just enjoy life."

Well, there's nothing wrong with being a happily retired Mother.

David Allen greets you Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail david.allen@inlandnewspapers.com, call (909) 483-9339 or write 2041 E. Fourth St., Ontario 91764. Read his blog at dailybulletin.com/davidallenblog