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    Zappa, Frank (21 December 1940 – 4 December 1993)

    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 in Maryland 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 other’s career.   

     

    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 career.

    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 instrumental recording.

     

    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 terminal.

     

    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 Yellow Shark.

     

    On 4th 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….

     

    Sources:

    1. http://www.zappa.com/whatsnew/
    2. http://rockhall.com/inductees/frank-zappa/bio/
    3. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/biography
    4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Zappa
    5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_performers_on_Frank_Zappa_records
    6. http://members.cox.net/bill_lantz/pages/emuukha.html
    7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memories_of_El_Monte
    8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valley_Girl_(song)
    9. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/credits
    10. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/credits/date-asc/100
    11. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/credits/date-asc/200
    12. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/credits/date-asc/300
    13. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/credits/date-asc/400
    14. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/credits/date-asc/500
    15. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/frank-zappa-p74796/credits/date-asc/600

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     



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