He was a singer-songwriter, guitarist, composer,
producer and film director born Frank Vincent Zappa in Baltimore, Maryland,
as the first born in a family of four children.
His father, who he shared the same name with, was a
Sicilian and worked on various jobs in US defence
departments as a mathematician and chemist. This entailed the family regularly
relocating within the country and while working at the Edgewood Arsenal facility
they had to keep gas masks at their nearby home in case of an escape. This would later become a subject
that Frank often referred to in his music.
He was often sick when he was a child so the family
decided to move from Baltimore in 1952 to see if it would help his health
and before long had settled in California, where his father worked at a
naval school as a metallurgy teacher.
While attending his school in San Diego he became interested in music
after his parents had bought a phonograph. This was when he started to buy
records which allowed him to pursue his interest in sound and
percussion. He had a snare drum
by the time he was 12 and became a drummer with the group The Ramblers.
His interest in percussive sounds when he read about The Complete Works of Edgard Varese, Volume One and hunted it out after a
year of looking for it. This
was the beginning of his love of Varese’s
music which continued for the rest of his life. Over time he also became influenced
by other contemporary composers that included Anton Webern and Igor
Stravinsky. Not restricting his
influences and interest to modern classical music, he took active notice of
modern jazz, doo-wop, R&B and music heard on TV.
For his 15th birthday his mother, who was
supportive of his interest in music, allowed him to try and contact Edgard Varese by phone. It so happened that he was away but
he spoke to his wife. This led
to him being sent a letter by the composer who told him about the piece
that he was currently writing, entitled “Deserts” and sent him
an open invitation to meet him in New
York when he had the chance. Sadly the composer died in 1965
before the chance of a meeting could take place, but the letter was framed
and proudly displayed.
While still at high school, this time in Antelope Valley, California,
he met Don Vliet who would later become known as
Captain Beefheart. They shared a close friendship from
then on with their musical interests being mutually influential in each
Around 1956 he became a drummer with The Blackouts and
in 1957 he received his first guitar.
He became very accomplished on the instrument and after using the
influences of guitarists such as Howlin’
Wolf and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, he started to create his own recognisable style of playing.
By the time he graduated he
was already writing and arranging his own music, including composing works
for the school orchestra. He
mentioned two of his music teachers later on his Freak Out album.
After high school he enrolled at a community college but only
remained for the first semester before leaving education to pursue a
In 1959 he moved to Echo Park
and by the next year he was living in Ontario with his new wife Kathryn
Sherman. He dabbled in
advertising for a brief time but his things he learned while in that
industry assisted him with presenting his own works as a musician and as a
film director. Before long he
was continuing his interest in music by composing and performing at various
local clubs with a new line-up of The Blackouts and as a soloist.
In 1961 he was commissioned to write the film score for The World’s Greatest Sinner,
which was released in 1962. The
next year his work appeared again on the recording of the soundtrack of Run Home Slow which was released in
1965. He continued writing and
producing songs and music throughout the 1960s, often in collaboration with
the producer Paul Buff and the singer-songwriter Ray Collins. His co-written “Memories of El
Monte” was recorded and released in 1963 by The Penguins. Also in 1963 he managed to make
enough money to record and broadcast a concert of orchestral music, make an
appearance on Steve Allen’s show where he played a bicycle and record
with Captain Beefheart where they were credited
as The Soots. The Soots
were turned down for a contract by Dot Records as they apparently had
“no commercial potential”.
He and Kathryn went their own separate ways in 1964 and
he moved into Paul Buff’s Pal studio where he worked continuously with
in excess of 12 hours daily. He recorded and
experimented with tapes and dubbing and eventually made the studio his own
when Paul Buff moved to the Original Sound studios. He called it Studio Z
and several of his friends moved there to perform with him in the trio
known as The Muthers. He became the guitarist with The
Soul Giants in 1965 after being asked to join them by Ray Collins and after
taking over the lead role in the group where he also co-sang he changed
their name to The Mothers.
He managed to finance himself through his work for films
but after having suffering entrapment by a vice squad officer who set him
up to record a fake porn audio tape, he was forced to serve 6 months in
prison with the charge of “conspiracy to commit pornography”. Several of his recordings were lost
when the police seized his tapes and returned only a portion of them and
eventually he had to give up the studio before it was demolished in 1966
because he couldn’t afford the rent.
After the group became associated with Herb Cohen as
their manager they began to becoming noticed on the underground music scene
in Los Angeles. They were noticed performing
“Trouble Every Day” by Bob Dylan’s and Simon &
Garfunkel’s producer Tony Wilson and got them a contract with Verve
Records. They began recording
with them, on the insistence that they changed their name to The Mothers of
Invention, and released the debut double album Freak Out! in 1966 which got him noticed as one of America’s
radical rock music voices that touched on various controversial
subjects. He was also the
conductor, arranger and overdubber on most of the
recordings. They went on tour
to promote the album and during the tour he met Adelaide Gail Sloatman who he married in 1967 after moving her into
his home in Laurel
Canyon. During a concert in New York they
managed to land themselves a contract for Easter 1967 which went on to last
for 6 months with the assistance of Herb Cohen. This entailed the members
and their respective partners relocating to New York.
The second release for the Mothers of Invention was
Absolutely Free in 1967 with several of the songs illustrating his
satirical nature. He also
recorded and produced music of orchestral works which became his 1968 debut
solo album Lumpy Gravy.
After completing a tour of Europe
the Mothers of Invention released their acclaimed We’re Only in It for the Money in 1968 which Frank
produced. They group were
popular but found they were still not as well off financially as they had
hoped Releasing another album in 1968, Cruising
with Ruben & the Jets showed a different side of the group when it
performed a range of ‘50s doo-wop songs. Also during the summer of 1968 the
group went back to Los Angeles
where Frank would remain.
In 1969 Uncle Meat was released as a double album and
illustrated Frank Zappa’s abilities to intertwine composing with tape
editing as can be heard in “King Kong” which mixes live and
studio performances. His
compositional styles were always evolving and he wrote using styles he
termed as “conceptual continuity” and “xenochrony” (strange synchronisations).
He closed out the 1960s by founding Straight Records and
Bizarre Records with Herb Cohen.
This resulted in his producing the last live performance of Lenny
Bruce, Captain Beefheart’s double album Trout Mask Replica and also
recordings by The GTOs and Alice Cooper.
Moving into the 1970s made arrangements for a concert
for a rock band accompanied by Zubin Mehta
conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The concert met with success but
left him feeling disappointed with the performance quality of his material
by an orchestra. Still in 1970 he decided to reform the Mothers of
Invention to simply The Mothers with a changed line-up that included Aynsley Dunbar, George Duke, Ian Underwood and Flo
& Eddie. They first
appeared on Frank’s 1970 solo album Chunga’s Revenge and the 1971 soundtrack to 200 Motels. There was a concert scheduled at the
Royal Albert Hall after the release of the soundtrack which was cancelled
due to some of the lyrics being perceived as obscene. Frank lost a law suit against the
venue in 1975 when he attempted to sue them for breach of contract. Zappa and The Mothers did, however,
tour after the soundtrack was released and the concerts resulted in the two
live albums Just Another Band from
L.A and Filimore East – June 1971.
The group ended 1971 badly when someone in the audience
at a concert in Switzerland
set off a flare. The
group’s equipment was lost when their venue, Casino de Montreaux, was destroyed by the ensuing fire. This event is now remembered in
“Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. It didn’t get any better when
a week or so later somebody from the audience decided to push Frank Zappa
into the orchestra pit from the stage.
His injuries to his neck, back and leg were extremely serious and
resulted in him being in a wheel chair for several months and experiencing
a change in his voice where it dropped after his larynx had been crushed.
He did, however, manage to release the two albums Waka/Jawaka
and The Grand Wazoo
while not being able to give stage performances and in 1972 he returned to
the stage with his Grand Wazoo big band who were
later downsized to the Petit Wazoo, but could
still not bear his weight for long periods and wore a leg brace.
The following year in 1973 Frank dissolved his Straight
and Bizarre record labels and then co-founded DisReet
Recordswith his manager Herb Cohen. He released Over-Note Sensation in 1973 and then in 1974 he released his Apostrophe (‘) which gave him
his highest Billboard album chart entry when it reached No. 10 and produced
the single “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”. Also in 1974 he released Roxy & Elsewhere followed by One Size Fits All and Bongo Fury in 1975. In September 1975 he formed his The Abnuceals Emuukha Electric
Orchestra to present an orchestral series of compositions.
In 1976 he split from his manager and his previous
recordings became frozen where there were ongoing lawsuits between he and
Herb Cohen. He decided to take
his own personal master copies of music straight to Warner Bros who
released it in 1976 as Zoot Allures.
He also made a guest appearance on Saturday
Night Live in the December of 1976. He then went on to release the 4-LP Lather on Mercury-Phonogram in 1977
after Warner Bros had refused to release it. This led to another law-suit and
Frank received no further material for over a year.
His output until 1977 had been restricted but he came
back with the Christmas in New
York concert which featured Ruth Underwood and
the Brecker Brothers. This was featured on the 1978 Zappa in New York. Also in 1978 Studio Tan was issued, followed by the albums Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favorites, Joe’s Garage and the best selling
double album Sheik Yerbouti in 1979 which produced the Grammy Award
nomination “Dancin’ Fool” and
“Bobby Brown” which was a hit in several European countries
despite not getting airplay in the US.
The movie Baby Snakes,
which was based on New York concert
footage, was also a 1979 release and in 1981 was a winner of the Premier
Grand Prix at the First International Music Festival held in Paris.
Touring in 1980, he came back in 1981 and, recording on
his newly owned Barking Pumpkins Records label, he released Tinsel Town Rebellion. He also released his You Are what You Is at home in his
Utility Muffin Research Kitchen studio in 1981 and they same he issued a
further set of albums: Shut Up
‘N Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘N Playe Yer Guitar Some More
and The Return of the Son of Shut Up
‘N Play Yer Guitar.
1982 was no less busy with the appearance of Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a
Drowning Witch which produced the Grammy Award nomination “Valley
Girl”, which was a duet with his daughter Moon Unit. The following year saw the release
of The Man From Utopia and his
classical compositions appeared on London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 1
conducted by Kent Nagano. In
1984 he and Kent Nagano worked with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra to
present an orchestral concert of A
Zappa Affair and London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 2 appeared
in 1987. Continuing with his
orchestral works in 1984 he further released Boulez Conducts Zappa: The
Perfect Stranger with his Ensemble InterContemporain,
the 3LP Broadway inspired Thing
Fish, Francesco Zappa which was
an interpretation of the composer Francesco Zappa’s works done on the
Synclavier and the double album Them Or Us.
In 1985 he appeared at the United State Senate Commerce,
Technology and Transportation giving a testimony which accused the Parents
Music Resource Enter of “extortion” when they called for
“voluntary labelling of records” that
were deemed to have “explicit content”. Parts of this hearing were included
on his song “Porn Wars” which appeared on his 1985 Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of
Prevention and the entire thing appeared on his Congress Shall Make No Law….
The following year he decided to re-release his earlier
recordings from the 1960s to the 1980s onto CD. He also released his Jazz from Hell in 1986 which won him
his first Grammy Award. The
album had an “explicit lyrics” sticker even though it was an
In 1988 he undertook his last tour which was featured on
the albums Broadway the Hard Way, The
Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, Make a Jazz Noise Here and You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore,
Vols. 4 and 6.
When the 1990s came around he entered more into politics
when he received an invitation to be a consultant for Czechoslovakia on trade,
cultural matters and tourism from President Vaclav Havel. The US
attempted to get this invitation withdrawn by Czechoslovakia after Frank had
agreed on taking the position so it was decided by President Havel to make
him an “unofficial cultural attaché”. This was unfortunately cut short
when he was given a diagnosis of inoperable prostate cancer which was
He threw himself into writing more works for Synclavier and orchestra from 1991 and his Civilization, Phaze
III was eventually released in 1993.
He became a featured composer at the 1992 Frankfurt Festival
and his work was requested to be performed by the chamber group Ensemble
Modern who were based in Germany. They went to California
to rehearse some of his old and new material and the concerts were
performed in Frankfurt with Frank Zappa
just able to attend two of them where he conducted some of the music and
received a 20-minute ovation.
This would be his last official public appearance. The concert was featured on the last
album issued during his lifetime The
December 1993 Frank Zappa passed away at home with his family
around him. He was buried the
following day in an unmarked grave in Westwood, Los Angeles, California.
He left behind him the legacy of being one of America’s
most influential and prolific late 20th century composers of
many genres of music, a talented guitarist, an “astute social
critic” and 60 albums recorded during his lifetime. He was inducted into the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and given a posthumous Grammy Lifetime
Achievement Award in 1997. In 2005 he was listed no. 71 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100
Greatest Artists of All Time and his We’re
Only in It for the Money was included in the US National Recording
Registry. There is a street named after him in Berlin, Baltimore declared
August 9th as Fank Zappa Day and
several discoveries named after him that include an extinct mollusc from Nevada, a genus of fish from New Guinea, a
jellyfish from California, a spider from Cameroon, a bacterium discovered
in Maryland and a metazoan fossil and a new asteroid.
His son Dweezil Zappa is now
carrying on his legacy and received a Grammy Nomination for the song
“The Deathless Horsie” from his Return of the Son Of….