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Frank Zappa Biography

Home > Music > Z > Zappa, Frank > Biography

Birth Name: Frank Vincent Zappa
Born: 1940/12/21
Birth Place: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Died: 1993/12/04
Years Active: 1950s–1993
Genres: Rock, Jazz, Fusion, Classical, Avant-garde, Experimental, Progressive Rock

Frank Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American musician, bandleader, songwriter, composer, recording engineer, record producer, and film director. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, jazz, orchestral and musique concrète works. He also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers.

Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Zappa was often sick as a child, suffering from asthma, earaches and sinus problems. His health worsened when he lived in Baltimore. In 1952, his family relocated for reasons of health. They next moved to Monterey, California, where his father taught metallurgy at the Naval Postgraduate School. They soon moved to Claremont, California, then to El Cajon, before finally settling in San Diego.

Zappa grew up influenced by avant-garde composers such as Varèse, Halim El-Dabh,[18] Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, R&B and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz. His own heterogeneous ethnic background, and the diverse social and cultural mix in and around greater Los Angeles, California, were crucial in the formation of Zappa as a practitioner of underground music and of his later distrustful and openly critical attitude towards "mainstream" social, political and musical movements. He frequently lampooned musical fads like psychedelia, rock opera and disco. Television also exerted a strong influence, as demonstrated by quotations from show themes and advertising jingles found in his later works.

While in his teens, he acquired a taste for 20th-century classical composers such as Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern along with 1950s rhythm and blues music. He began writing classical music in high school, while at the same time playing drums in rhythm and blues bands; he later switched to electric guitar.

By 1956, the Zappa family had moved to Lancaster, a small aerospace and farming town in the Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert close toEdwards Air Force Base, in northern Los Angeles County.

At Antelope Valley High School, Zappa met Don Vliet (who later expanded his name to Don Van Vliet and adopted the stage name Captain Beefheart). Zappa and Vliet became close friends, sharing an interest in R&B records and influencing each other musically throughout their careers.

Zappa was a self-taught composer and performer, and his diverse musical influences led him to create music that was often difficult to categorize. His 1966 debut album with his band The Mothers of Invention, “Freak Out!,” combined songs in conventional rock and roll format with collective improvisations and studio-generated sound collages.

Situated in New York, and only interrupted by the band's first European tour, The Mothers of Invention recorded the album widely regarded as the peak of the group's late 1960s work, 1968’s “We're Only in It for the Money.” It was produced by Zappa, with Tom Wilson credited as executive producer. From then on, Zappa produced all albums released by The Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. The cover art was provided by Cal Schenkel whom Zappa met in New York. This initiated a lifelong collaboration in which Schenkel designed covers for numerous Zappa and Mothers albums.

During the late 1960s, Zappa continued to develop the business sides of his career. He and Herb Cohen formed the Bizarre Records and Straight Records labels, distributed by Warner Bros. Records, as ventures to aid the funding of projects and to increase creative control. Zappa produced the 1969 double album “Trout Mask Replica” for Captain Beefheart, and releases by Alice Cooper, Wild Man Fischer and The GTOs, as well as Lenny Bruce's last live performance.

In 1969 there were nine band members and Zappa was supporting the group himself from his publishing royalties whether they played or not. 1969 was also the year Zappa, fed up with MGM's interference, left MGM Records for Warner Bros. Records' Reprise Records subsidiary where Zappa/Mothers recordings would bear the Bizarre Records imprint. In late 1969, Zappa broke up the band.

After he disbanded The Mothers of Invention, in 1969 Zappa released the acclaimed solo album “Hot Rats.” It featuref, for the first time on record, Zappa playing extended guitar solos and contains one of his most enduring compositions, “Peaches en Regalia,” which reappeared several times on future recordings. It was backed by jazz, blues and R&B session players including violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, drummers John Guerin and Paul Humphrey, multi-instrumentalist and previous member of Mothers of Invention Ian Underwood, and multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis on bass, along with a guest appearance by Captain Beefheart (providing vocals to the only non-instrumental track, “Willie the Pimp”). It became a popular album in England, and had a major influence on the development of the jazz-rock fusion genre.

In 1970, Zappa formed a new version of The Mothers (from then on, he mostly dropped the “of Invention”). It included British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons (bass, rhythm guitar), and three members of The Turtles: bass player Jim Pons, and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who, due to persistent legal and contractual problems, adopted the stage name Flo & Eddie.

This version of The Mothers debuted on Zappa's next solo album “Chunga's Revenge.” The band went on tour, which resulted in two live albums, “Fillmore East - June 1971” and “Just Another Band From L.A.”

During 1971–72 Zappa released two strongly jazz-oriented solo LPs, “Waka/Jawaka” and “The Grand Wazoo,” which were recorded during the forced layoff from concert touring due to equipment damage and Zappa’s accident falling off stage, using floating line-ups of session players and Mothers alumni.

Zappa then formed and toured with smaller groups that variously included Ian Underwood (reeds, keyboards), Ruth Underwood (vibes, marimba), Sal Marquez (trumpet, vocals),Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute and vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), Ralph Humphrey (drums), George Duke (keyboards, vocals) and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin).

Zappa continued a high rate of production through the first half of the 1970s, including the 1974 solo album “Apostrophe ('),” which reached a career-high #10 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart helped by the chart single “Don't Eat The Yellow Snow.” Other albums from the period are 1973’s “Over-Nite Sensation,” which contained several future concert favorites, such as :”Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Montana,” and the albums “Roxy & Elsewhere” in 1974 and “One Size Fits All” in 1975 which featured ever-changing versions of a band still called The Mothers, and are notable for the tight renditions of highly difficult jazz fusion songs in such pieces as “Inca Roads,” “Echidna's Arf (Of You)” and “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen's Church).”

In 1975 Zappa released “Bongo Fury” which featured live recordings from a tour the same year that reunited him with Captain Beefheart for a brief period. They later became estranged for a period of years, but were in contact at the end of Zappa's life.

Zappa's relationship with long-time manager Herb Cohen ended in 1976. Zappa sued Cohen for skimming more than he was allocated from DiscReet Records, as well as for signing acts of which Zappa did not approve. Cohen filed a lawsuit against Zappa in return, which froze the money Zappa and Cohen had gained from an out-of-court settlement with MGM over the rights of the early Mothers of Invention recordings.

In the mid-1970s Zappa prepared material for “Läther” (pronounced "leather"), a four-LP project, but Warner Bros. Records refused to release it. Eventually, Warner Bros. issued different versions of much of the “Läther “material in 1978 and 1979 as four individual albums (five full length LPs) with limited promotion. When the music was first released on CD in 1991, Zappa chose to rerelease the four existing albums. “Läther” was released posthumously in 1996.

The remaining albums released by Warner Bros. Records without Zappa's consent were “Studio Tan” in 1978 and “Sleep Dirt” in 1979, which contained complex suites of instrumentally-based tunes recorded between 1973 and 1976, and whose release was overlooked in the midst of the legal problems. Also released by the label without the artist's consent was “Orchestral Favorites” in 1979, which featured recordings of a concert with orchestral music from 1975.

Resolving the lawsuits successfully, Zappa ended the 1970s by releasing two of his most successful albums in 1979: the best-selling album of his career, “Sheik Yerbouti,” and the triple LP, “Joe's Garage.” The double album “Sheik Yerbouti” was the first release on Zappa Records, and contained the Grammy-nominated single “Dancin' Fool,” which reached # 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart.

After spending most of 1980 on the road, Zappa released “Tinsel Town Rebellion” in 1981. It was the first release on his own Barking Pumpkin Records, and it contains songs taken from a 1979 tour, one studio track and material from the 1980 tours. The album was also notable for the presence of guitarist Steve Vai, who joined Zappa's touring band in the fall of 1980.

In 1981, Zappa also released three instrumental albums, “Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar,” “Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More” and “The Return of the Son of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar,” which were initially sold via mail order, but later released through the CBS label due to popular demand. Another guitar-only album, “Guitar,” was released in 1988, and a third, “Trance-Fusion,” which Zappa completed shortly before his death, was released in 2006.

In 1982, Zappa released “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch,” which featured his biggest selling single ever, the Grammy Award-nominated song “Valley Girl” (topping out at # 32 on the Hot 100). In her improvised lyrics to the song, Zappa's daughter Moon Unit satirized the vapid speech of teenage girls from the San Fernando Valley, which popularized many “Valspeak” expressions such as “gag me with a spoon,” “fer sure, fer sure,” “grody” and “barf out.”

In 1983, two different projects were released, beginning with “The Man from Utopia,” a rock-oriented work. The second album, “London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 1,” contained orchestral Zappa compositions conducted by Kent Nagano and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. A second record of these sessions, “London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 2,” was released in 1987.

For the remainder of his career, much of Zappa's work was influenced by his use of the Synclavier as a compositional and performance tool. The Synclavier could be programmed to play almost anything conceivable, to perfection. Even though it essentially did away with the need for musicians, Zappa viewed the Synclavier and real-life musicians as separate.

In 1984, he released four albums. “Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger,” contained orchestral works commissioned and conducted by world-renowned conductor Pierre Boulez and performed by his Ensemble InterContemporain, juxtaposed with premiere Synclavier pieces. The album “Thing-Fish” was an ambitious three-record set in the style of a Broadway play dealing with a dystopian scenario involving feminism, homosexuality, manufacturing and distribution of the AIDS virus, and a eugenics program conducted by the United States government. Finally, in 1984, Zappa released “Francesco Zappa,” a Synclavier rendition of works by 18th-century composer Francesco Zappa (no known relation), and “Them or Us,” a two-record set of heavily edited live and session pieces.

On September 19, 1985, Zappa testified before the United States Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC, a music organization co-founded by Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore. The PMRC consisted of many wives of politicians, including the wives of five members of the committee, and was founded to address the issue of song lyrics with sexual or satanic content. Zappa saw their activities as on a path towards censorship, and called their proposal for voluntary labeling with explicit content “extortion” of the music industry.

The album “Jazz from Hell,” released in 1986, earned Zappa his first Grammy Award in 1987 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Except for one live guitar solo (“St. Etienne”), the album exclusively featured compositions brought to life by the Synclavier.

In 1990, Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The disease had been developing unnoticed for ten years and was considered inoperable. After his diagnosis, Zappa devoted most of his energy to modern orchestral and Synclavier works. Shortly before his death in 1993 he completed “Civilization, Phaze III,” a major Synclavier work which he had begun in the 1980s.

Zappa died Saturday, December 4, 1993 in his home with his wife and children by his side. At a private ceremony the following day, Zappa was interred in an unmarked grave at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Zappa was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. In 2005, the U.S. National Recording Preservation Board included “We're Only in It for the Money” in the National Recording Registry.