Born in the San Bernadino area of Southern California, French's family moved west to where he grew up, in the desert town of Lancaster - hometown of two young artists who would have a profound effect upon his subsequent career as a drummer. Frank Zappa and Don Vliet.
French played with Merrell & The Exiles & circuit band Blues In A Bottle before eventually teaming up with Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band in 1966 to record Safe As Milk. He went on to cut seven further albums with Vliet and the Magic Band, finally departing in 1980 with his familiar nickname 'Drumbo' - a tag from Vliet, made during his work on the iconic Trout Mask Replica (1969), on which he was not credited.
With friend Henry Kaiser he was in the bands Crazy Backwards Alphabet and French Frith Kaiser Thompson. French also helped in the realization of Captain Beefheart's Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982) and reformed The Magic Band in 2003, also taking on Vliet's role as vocalist, and playing harmonica. After an album, video & BBC documentary with the band, John French released Drumbo - City Of Refuge in 2008.