AKA Frank Vincent Zappa, Jr.
Birthplace: Baltimore, MD
Location of death: Los Angeles, CA
Cause of death: Cancer - Prostate
Remains: Buried, Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, CA
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Composer, Guitarist, Activist
Party Affiliation: Libertarian
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Joe's Garage
Just as the year 1940 was coming to an end amidst the anxious tumult surrounding a rapidly-escalating world war, an unsuspecting Sicilian immigrant and his French-Sicilian wife welcomed the arrival of an organism that would grow to be one of the most gifted, innovative and irreverent musicians of the century. Frank Vincent Zappa, born in Baltimore to a Catholic family, spent his early years more inclined towards being a mad scientist than a musician (and this explains quite a bit, if you keep it in mind while listening to his records), occupying his time with the creation of various incendiary concoctions from toy caps, ping pong balls and other household materials. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was another mad scientist (or at least a guy with mad scientist's hair) who eventually ignited his enthusiasm for music -- this being the French avant garde composer Edgard Varèse. By this time Frank and his family had moved to California, where he developed a parallel interest in the burgeoning doo-wop/R&B movement and took up playing the drums (or, more accurately, 'a drum'). Both of these musical influences would continue to impact his creative output throughout his entire career.
After moving to the desert town of Lancaster, Zappa formed his first band: an integrated R&B outfit called The Black-Outs. The still fundamentally racist social structure of the 50s excluded the band from performing at school functions, so they were forced to organize their own events -- much to the displeasure of local law enforcement. During this period his listening broadened to include international folk musics, sea shanties, modern jazz and a wide range of 20th century classical composers; before the end of high school Frank had given up the drums and switched to playing the guitar, while his stylistic concerns drifted somewhat from R&B towards classical composition. After graduation, Frank briefly attended Antelope Valley Junior College, and it was here that his first recordings were made with the help of his brother Bobby and friend Don Van Vliet (later to be known as Captain Beefheart). He then spent a few months studying music theory at Chaffey Junior College before taking a job as a greeting card designer, supplementing his income with various music projects: these included a commission from former high school English teacher Don Cerveris to score the film Run Home Slow, occasional performances as a folk duo with future co-founder of The Association Terry Kirkman, gigs with his R&B quartet The Boogie Men, a new version of The Black-Outs, and the lounge act Joe Perrino and the Mellow Tones. A second film score, commissioned by actor Timothy Carey for his completely deranged film The World's Greatest Sinner, was undertaken in 1961.
In the early 60s Zappa took a job working for Paul Buff, an innovative recording engineer who had built his own five-track recording studio in Cucamonga. For a year the pair attempted to churn out hit records for various labels, before Zappa assumed ownership of the studio with some of the money earned from Run Home Slow; he subsequently changed it's name to "Studio Z" and immersed himself in multi-tracking as a full-time lifestyle. A low-budget film project (Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People, featuring Van Vliet) was also being organized at the time, but both film and studio were lost after a San Bernardino County vice squad detective commissioned Zappa to create a "pornographic" audio tape, and then arrested him for making it. After completing the required ten days of his six-month sentence in county lock-up, the disillusioned musician emerged to find his life in a shambles. It was only a few days later, however, that he was contacted by vocalist Ray Collins (who had been a regular participant in the Zappa/Buff sessions) and invited to assume guitar duties for The Soul Giants -- a bar band founded by drummer Jimmy Carl Black and bassist Roy Estrada after a chance meeting in a pawn shop. Although a covers act at the time, Zappa soon convinced most of the other musicians that, in order to get anywhere in the music business, they should start performing his original material; after a brief period spent as Captain Glasspack and his Magic Mufflers, the band changed their name to The Mothers on Mother's Day, 1965.
The first year of The Mothers was not an easy one, and all of its members had become well-acquainted with poverty and hunger by the end of it. It wasn't until sometime club-owner and music promoter Herb Cohen assumed management duties that the fortunes of the band finally began to turn around. By October of '65 Cohen had provided them with a four-week stint at the hip LA club The Action, and soon after organized a residency at the even hipper Whiskey A-Go-Go; Cohen also arranged for MGM producer Tom Wilson to witness a Mothers performance, and by March 1966 Zappa had his first big-time record deal. Several months later, this arrangement resulted in a slice (or rather, two slices) of music history: Freak Out!, the world's first rock and roll double LP -- and definitely one of the most unusual. The record combined all of Zappa's musical interests, from doo-wop and R&B to modern classical and avant garde, while the lyric content ranged between social commentary, (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) tales of heartbreak, and Dadaistic absurdity. MGM, however, refused to allow the album to be credited under a name as outrageous as "The Mothers" (think of the scandal!), so the group was forced to lengthen it to The Mothers of Invention in order for a release to be possible. Zappa and his bandmates set off on their first tour immediately afterwards, where they were introduced to the joys of lip-synching on teen dance shows. It was at the conclusion this tour that Frank began what would be his most (and only) enduring partnership, after meeting a secretary at the Whisky named Gail Sloatman; the two married the following year, and Gail's role in supporting Frank's music (and, eventually, managing his business concerns) remained an essential one throughout his career.
In November of '66 the Mothers recorded their second album, Absolutely Free, further expanding on the methods and themes established with Freak Out!. By the time of its release the following year, Zappa had relocated to New York, where Cohen had arranged a residency for the band at the Garrick Theater -- the music scene in LA having fallen into a terminal slump, due to a growing political reaction against venues that catered to the long-haired "freak" crowd. The shows at the Garrick entered the realm of legend, featuring as they did extensive audience participation, an ever-changing array of props, vegetables, and the public administration of enormous quantities of whipped cream via a stuffed giraffe's rectum. Zappa correspondingly took his recorded work a step further at this time, integrating tape manipulation and extensive editing techniques into the already frothy musical stew. Two albums showcasing this painstaking approach materialized in '68: the first being the scathing social critique We're Only In It For The Money, and the second being the elaborate sonic collage Lumpy Gravy. 1968 also saw the Mothers' audience expand overseas as a result of their first shows in Europe and the UK, including a notorious performance at London's Royal Albert Hall that featured an 8 piece band line-up accompanied by ten members of the London Philharmonic. Never one to rest, upon his return to New York Zappa initiated two more projects before moving back to California in May: a tribute/parody of his doo-wop roots called Cruising With Ruben And The Jets and the homemade film and accompanying album Uncle Meat (the album was released in 1969, but the film remained unfinished until 1987).
After their contract with MGM expired in 1967, Zappa and Cohen set up their own label, aptly titled Bizarre Records. In addition to albums by the Mothers, the label also provided an outlet for offbeat performers such as Lenny Bruce, Wild Man Fischer, the GTOs and Alice Cooper (the latter two released through the Straight sub-label). On occasion, Frank also served as a producer for these other artist's records -- the most notable example being Trout Mask Replica, the third effort by Don Van Vliet's music cult Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band and arguably the most outlandish blues album in history. Despite their growing popularity (or, apparently, because of it), Zappa was becoming increasingly disenchanted with his own band -- having developed an adversarial, employer/employee relationship with the other musicians, many of whom took a dim view of his refusal to injest "recreational substances" -- and following a tour in the summer of 1969 he made the decision the disband the Mothers. Albums featuring live performances by the group (Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, both 1970) continued to be released after its dissolution, however, and material from this line-up would continue to surface more than two decades later (such as Ahead of Their Time, a recording of a 1968 performance at The Royal Festival Hall in London that was made available in 1993).
For his next project, Zappa assembled a group of accomplished players (including some Mothers veterans like Ian Underwood and Roy Estrada) to create the primarily instrumental, jazz-leaning collection Hot Rats (1969). Almost immediately afterwards, a similarly-oriented album titled King Kong was recorded for violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, featuring both Zappa's compositions and production. A brief "reunion" tour with the Mothers was then organized, but the fickle bandleader organized a new band under the same name not long afterwards, retaining only Underwood from the original line-up. It was this band -- fronted by the dual vocals of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (formerly of The Turtles) and also including British drummer Aynsley Dunbar -- that both performed the music and provided the principal actors for Zappa's second film/album project, 200 Motels (1971): a highly-stylized, comically nightmarish portrayal of life on the road, constructed around actual dialogue and behavior that Zappa had witnessed from his bandmates. The film also enlisted the acting skills of Ringo Starr (portraying a dwarf), Keith Moon (portraying a licentious nun) and Theodore Bikel (portraying the devil), with on-screen musical performances by the Royal Philharmonic integrated into the story. Frank continued to perform with this new line-up until the end of 1971, the shows featuring constantly-evolving, sexually-themed skits (primarily enacted by Kaylan and Volman) woven into his complex musical arrangements. This second incarnation of the Mothers was abruptly terminated at a show at the Rainbow Theatre in London on 10 December, mere days after the band had lost all its gear in a fire that had erupted during a performance in Montreaux: just as Frank was returning to the stage for an encore, a demented fan attacked him, pushing him into the orchestra pit ten feet below. He would spend the next several weeks in a London hospital, recovering from the numerous injuries brought about by the fall; surgery to repair his throat caused his voice to drop a third of an octave.
Despite being in a leg cast and confined to a wheelchair, Zappa resumed his musical activities as soon as was possible, once again exploring the largely-instrumental fusion direction of Hot Rats with the aid of Dunbar, dynamic keyboardist George Duke and an extensive brass/wind section. The first result was the album Waka/Jawaka (1972), followed later in the year by The Grand Wazoo; various permutations of the band -- usually billed under the name The Grand Wazoo, although sometimes still referred to as The Mothers -- subsequently toured the material in the States and Europe, but Zappa found that he enjoyed the company of these more serious players less than the rowdy shenanigans of his previous bandmates. Frank then switched his focus back towards a more commercial, song-oriented approach with the albums Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and Apostrophe ('), which included some of the few songs in the Zappa catalogue that were ever given any airplay: "Montana", "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" and "Cosmik Debris". Even with these more radio-friendly pieces, however, the musical complexity remained considerable, and all of the above songs include the compositional twists (often rendered by superhuman percussionist Ruth Underwood) that had become Zappa's trademark.
In 1975, the final two albums bearing the Mothers' name were released: One Size Fits All (whose content was a hybrid of the "Wazoo" and "Apostrophe" approaches) and Bongo Fury (a collaboration between Zappa and estranged friend Captain Beefheart). For the remainder of the decade, Frank divided his time between orchestral projects and a more rock-oriented band -- both of which allowed him to maintain his typical routine of perpetual rehearsal and touring. The next album, Zoot Allures (1976), displayed a shift in his recorded output, with his social satire pieces being given a heavier rock sound and his instrumental pieces alternating between complex ensemble arrangements and settings for his guitar solos. 1976 also saw the resolution of Frank's first lawsuit against a record label, his action against MGM resulting in an out-of-court settlement that gave him control of his master tapes; this activity was resumed once again only a year later, when he sued his new label Warner Brothers for breach of contract after they failed to pay him for the four albums he delivered (all at once) to fulfill his obligations. The albums did eventually surface as Zappa in New York (1978), Studio Tan (1978), Sleep Dirt (1979) and Orchestral Favorites (1979), but it would be nearly two decades before they were presented as in the multi-disc format (Läther, 1996) that he had intended for them.
By the end of 1979 Zappa had established his own record label, and had himself become established as one of the most accomplished and demanding bandleaders in the music industry. The players he enlisted during the following decade were generally not previously-established names, but even a short tenure as a member of Zappa's band would earn a musician a considerable amount of professional credibility, and several graduates from the 80s line-ups emerged to launch significant careers in their own right -- drummer Terry Bozzio, and guitarists Adrian Belew and Steve Vai amongst them. Zappa's recorded output during this period became more prolific than ever, with most of the material now being culled from a vast tape archive containing nearly every one of his live performances. Between 1981 and 1983, nine new albums (several of them double-disc sets) were issued: Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981), three volumes of collected guitar solos titled Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (all 1981), You Are What You Is (1981), Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982), The Man From Utopia (1982), Baby Snakes (also a concert film, 1983), and the first of his classical collections with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Volume 1, 1983). In the midst of this outpour arrived "Valley Girl", the most commercially successful song of his career (included on the Drowning Witch album). Featuring the voice of his daughter Moon Unit Zappa imitating the cant of a San Fernando Valley teenager, the song gave Zappa a rare appearance in the top 40, while the revenue earned by this unexpected hit subsequently made it possible for the composer to finance several of his less lucrative orchestral projects.
In 1984 Zappa released Thing-Fish, a demented and profane 3-album story that he had initially intended to turn into a full-scale stage musical. Although Zappa continued to put out numerous live documents and archival collections, the majority of his studio-recorded releases from 1984 onwards were oriented towards "serious" compositions rather than songs, either assembled by means of the Synclavier -- Francesco Zappa (1984), Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985), Jazz From Hell (1986) -- or performed by an orchestra -- the part-synclavier/part-Pierre Boulez-conducted collection The Perfect Stranger (1984) and LSO Volume 2 (1987). In the period from mid-1988 to mid-1992, his output remained focused on the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore archival series, six volumes of primarily live recordings that ranged across the entire span of his career; these were only interrupted by a pair of more contemporary live collections in 1991, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and Make A Jazz Noise Here, both culled from recordings of his final tour in 1988.
By the mid-1980s Zappa's reputation as an outspoken social critic had drawn him into various non- or extra-musical contexts, the most visible of these being precipitated by the public hearings held in September 1985 to address the record ratings system demanded by the Parents' Music Resource Center. Amongst the list of music industry figures called to speak -- ranging from Twisted Sister's Dee Snider to country boy John Denver -- Zappa delivered the most thoroughly researched and well-considered testimony; this increased public profile immediately resulted in several invitations to speak as a guest lecturer, most often on the topic of censorship. In 1989 he composed a score to the Cousteau Society documentary Outrage at Valdez in order to draw more attention to the ecological disaster it portrayed, and for which he donated his fee back to the Society. As the 1980s came to a close, Frank also became more active in different business ventures, establishing Why Not?, a consulting company geared towards facilitating U.S. investment in the Soviet Union just prior to the fall of communism; these dealings eventually led to a request in 1990 from Czech president Vaclav Havel for Zappa to officially represent Czechia's trade interests in the United States (an arrangement that was forcibly terminated by the first Bush administration soon afterwards). For a brief period in 1991, he even researched the possibility of running for president himself, and a few grassroots groups continued to pursue this idea independently until Zappa's death two years later.
In 1992, Frank began work on two projects that proved to be the successful culmination of various career-long musical threads. The first of these was brought about by the Ensemble Modern, a musician-run classical outfit that specialized in performing modern works; with their dedicated perseverence, he created The Yellow Shark, a series of European concerts and ultimately a CD release that at last provided the composer with satisfactory performances of his classical pieces. The Ensemble also contributed somewhat to the other project: a double disc set titled Civilization Phaze III (1993), which revisited the compositional collage approach established on Lumpy Gravy twenty-four years earlier. This album saw both the realization of the kind of work he had been striving to achieve on the synclavier, and the only-recently-possible manipulation of a series of absurdist discussions that he had recorded in a piano during the sessions for Gravy. Towards the end of 1993 his worsening prostate cancer (first detected in 1990) prevented him from pursuing any further projects. The disease would ultimately claim his life on 4 December 1993.
Father: Francis Zappa (teacher/meteorologist/mathematician)
Mother: Rose Marie Colimore
Brother: Bobby Zappa (musician, b. 1943)
Brother: Carl Zappa (b. 1947)
Sister: Patrice Zappa ("Candy", b. 1951)
Wife: Kay Sherman (m. 28-Dec-1960, div. 1964)
Wife: Adelaide Gail Sloatman (m. 1967, two sons, two daughters)
Daughter: Moon Unit Zappa (author/artist, b. 1967)
Son: Dweezil Zappa (musician, b. 1969)
Son: Ahmet Zappa (musician, b. 1974)
Daughter: Diva Muffin Zappa
Slept with: Lorraine Belcher
Slept with: Janice Dickinson
Slept with: Nigey Lennon (1971, according to her)
Slept with: Janis Joplin
High School: Grossmont High School, El Cajon, CA (1954-55)
High School: Mission Bay High School, San Diego, CA (1955-56)
High School: Antelope Valley High School, Lancaster, CA (1956-58)
University: Antelope Valley Junior College, Lancaster, CA (1958)
University: Chaffey Junior College, Alta Loma, CA (1960)
The Mothers of Invention Guitarist, Vocalist (1964-75)
Grammy Best Rock Instrumental Performance (Orchestra, Group Or Soloist), for Jazz From Hell (1987)
Grammy Best Recording Package - Boxed, for Civilization Phaze III (1995)
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1997)
Conspiracy to commit pornography (26-Mar-1965)
Asteroid Namesake 3834 Zappafrank
Asteroid Namesake 16745 Zappa
Sicilian Ancestry Paternal/Maternal
French Ancestry Maternal
Risk Factors: Smoking, Marijuana, Gonorrhea
FILMOGRAPHY AS DIRECTOR
Uncle Meat (1987)
Baby Snakes (21-Dec-1979)
200 Motels (10-Nov-1971)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Uncle Meat (1987) · Himself
Baby Snakes (21-Dec-1979) · Himself
Head (6-Nov-1968) · The Critic
Author of books:
Them or Us (1984, nonfiction)
The Real Frank Zappa Book (1989, nonfiction, with Peter Occhiogrosso)
We're Only In It For The Money (Mar-1968)
Over-Nite Sensation (7-Sep-1973)
Joe's Garage (3-Sep-1979)
Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (11-May-1981)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, vol. 1-6 (1988-92)
The Yellow Shark (Nov-1993)
Civilization Phaze III (2-Dec-1994)
The Lost Episodes (27-Feb-1996)
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