Self-taught composer, conductor, musician, guitarist, record producer, recording engineer, artist, social satirist, and film director, Frank Vincent Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940. His mother, Rose Marie Colimore, was of Italian and French ancestry; his father, Francis Vincent Zappa, a chemist and mathematician, was an immigrant from Partinico, in the province of Palermo, Sicily. Frank was the eldest of four children raised in an Italian-American household where Italian was spoken often by his parents and grandparents.
Frank’s father worked at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility of the Aberdeen Proving Ground; due to their home's proximity to the arsenal, which stored mustard gas, gas masks were kept in the home. Young Frank was often sick, suffering from asthma, earaches and sinus problems. Many of Zappa's childhood diseases may have been due to exposure to mustard gas since his health worsened when he lived in Baltimore. This had a profound effect on him, and references to germs, germ warfare, and the defense industry occur throughout his work.
In 1952, when he was 11, his family relocated to Monterey, California, where his father taught metallurgy at the Naval Postgraduate School, then to Claremont, to El Cajon, before finally settling in San Diego, where he began writing classical music and playing drums at Mission Bay High School. His music influences were avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse, Halim El-Dabh, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern; R&B and doo-wop groups; and modern jazz.
By 1956, the Zappa family had moved to Lancaster, a small aerospace and farming desert town in the Antelope Valley, in northern Los Angeles County. At Antelope Valley High School, Frank met one of his closest friends and colleagues, Don Van Vliet who later adopted the stagename Captain Beefheart. He also started playing drums in a local band, The Blackouts, and his interest in the guitar grew. Among his early influences were Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Howlin' Wolf and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
By his final high-school year, 1958, he was writing, arranging and conducting avant-garde performance pieces for the school orchestra.
Due to his parents constant relocating, Frank attended six different high schools, left community college after one semester, and maintained a disdain for formal education. “When I was sixteen my father moved us to a little town out in the country. That was terrible, I hated it. I was used to Sacramento, you see. I was the strangest thing that ever hit that high school. They were so anxious to get rid of me they even gave me a couple of awards when I graduated. After that, my father wanted me to go to college. I said no, I was interested in music, I didn't want to go to college. So I hung out at home for a while, but there was nobody to talk to, everybody else being at college, so I finally decided I should go too. That was very ugly. I stayed for a year.”
He left home in 1959, and moved into a small apartment in Echo Park, Los Angeles. He met Kathryn J. "Kay" Sherman at Pomona College; they moved in together in Ontario and were married on December 28, 1960. Frank attempted to earn a living as a musician and composer, and played different nightclub gigs, some with a new version of The Blackouts. It didn’t make any money: financially more rewarding were his earliest professional recordings, two soundtracks for the low-budget films The World's Greatest Sinner (1962) and Run Home Slow (1965).
During the early 1960s, Frank wrote and produced songs for other local artists, often working with singer-songwriter Ray Collins and producer Paul Buff. Their "Memories of El Monte" was recorded by The Penguins, although only Cleve Duncan of the original group was featured. He earned enough money to stage a concert of his orchestral music in 1963, to broadcast it, record it, and he appeared on the famous Steve Allen's syndicated late night show, in which he played a bicycle as a musical instrument. With Captain Beefheart, Frank recorded some songs under the name of The Soots. They were rejected by Dot Records for having "no commercial potential", a verdict Frank subsequently quoted on the sleeve of Freak Out!
In 1964 he knew his marriage was over and he moved into the Pal studio, working 12 hours or more per day recording and experimenting with overdubbing and audio tape manipulation. Frank took over the studio from Paul Buff, and renamed it Studio Z.
Frank started performing as guitarist with a power trio, The Muthers, in local bars in order to support himself. "We were playing at local beer joints for like six dollars a night. I finally decided this would not do, so I began calling up all the clubs in the area. This was in 1965, and to get work you had to sound like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. You also had to have long hair and due to an unfortunate circumstance all my hair had been cut off. I used to tell club managers that we sounded exactly like the Rolling Stones. Anyway, we finally got a booking in a club in Pomona, and were something of a hit. It was more because of our act than because of our music. People used to go away and tell their friends that here was this group that insulted the audience. Then M-G-M sent someone around to sign us to a contract. Their guy came into the club during a set of 'Brain Police' and he said, 'Aha, a protest rhythm and blues group,' so they paid us accordingly. The fee we got for signing was incredibly small, particularly considering the number of guys in the group."
In March 1965, at 24, he was approached by a vice squad undercover officer, and accepted an offer of $100 to produce a suggestive audio tape for an alleged stag party. Frank and a female friend recorded a faked erotic episode. When Frank was about to hand over the tape he was arrested, and the police stripped the studio of all recorded material. Frank was charged with "conspiracy to commit pornography". This felony charge was reduced and he was sentenced to six months in jail on a misdemeanor, with all but ten days suspended. His brief imprisonment left a permanent mark, and was key in the formation of his anti-authoritarian stance. Frank lost several recordings made at Studio Z in the process, as the police only returned 30 out of 80 hours of tape seized. He was eventually evicted, and the studio was torn down in 1966.
In 1965, Frank was approached by Ray Collins who asked him to take over as the guitarist in local R&B band the Soul Giants. Frank accepted, and soon he assumed leadership and the role as co-lead singer. The band was renamed ‘The Mothers’, coincidentally on Mother's Day. With manager Herb Cohen they gradually gained attention on the burgeoning Los Angeles underground music scene.
In early 1966, The Mothers were spotted by leading record producer Tom Wilson, who worked with Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, when playing "Trouble Every Day", a song about the Watts Riots. Tom Wilson was one of the few African-Americans working as a major label pop music producer at this time. Wilson signed The Mothers to the Verve division of MGM. Verve insisted that the band officially rename themselves The Mothers of Invention as Mother was short for mother@%#&!$.
The Mothers of Invention, with a studio orchestra, recorded the groundbreaking Freak Out! in 1966, the second rock double album ever released. The sound was raw, but the arrangements were sophisticated; the lyrics praised non-conformity, disparaged authorities, and had dadaist elements. “Compared to the Mothers of Invention, such earlier big-beat groups as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones emerge as Boy Scouts with electric guitars. The father (or Dada) of The Mothers of Invention is 26-year-old Frank Zappa, spindly-framed, sharp-nosed gamester whose appearance suggests some of the more sinister aspects of Edgar Allen Poe, John Carradine and Rasputin. In truth, Mr. Zappa is no more sinister than a cultural revolutionary bent on overthrowing every rule in the music book”, wrote journalist Robert Sheldon from The New York Times on December 25, 1966. Most compositions were Frank's, he had full control over the arrangements and musical decisions, and he did most of the overdubs.
After a short promotional tour following the release of Freak Out!, Frank met Adelaide Gail Sloatman and fell in love with her within "a couple of minutes". They married in 1967, had four children and remained together until Frank's death.
The Mothers of Invention played in New York in late 1966 and were offered a contract at the Garrick Theater during Easter 1967. Herb Cohen extended the booking, which eventually lasted half a year, and, as a result, Frank and his wife, along with The Mothers of Invention, moved to New York. Their shows became a combination of improvised acts showcasing individual talents of the band as well as tight performances of Frank's music. Everything was directed by Frank's famous hand signals.
Tom Wilson nominally produced The Mothers' second album Absolutely Free (1967), which was recorded in November 1966, and later mixed in New York. It featured extended playing by The Mothers of Invention and focused on songs that defined Frank's compositional style of introducing abrupt, rhythmical changes into songs that were built from diverse elements. At the same time, Frank had recorded material for an album of orchestral works, Lumpy Gravy, to be released under his own name by Capitol Records. Due to contractual problems, the album was pulled; Frank took the opportunity to radically restructure the contents, adding newly recorded, improvised dialogue. After the contractual problems were resolved, the album was reissued by Verve in 1968.
In New York, The Mothers of Invention recorded the album widely regarded as the peak of the group's late 60s work, We're Only in It for the Money (1968), produced by Frank, with Wilson credited as executive producer. It featured some of the most creative audio editing and production yet heard in pop music, and the songs ruthlessly satirized the hippie and flower power phenomena. The next album, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968) was a collection of doo-wop songs; listeners and critics were not sure whether the album was a satire or a tribute. During the late 1960s, Frank continued to develop the business sides of his career; with Herb Cohen he formed the Bizarre Records and Straight Records labels distributed by Warner Bros. Records. Frank produced the 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.
Sally Kempton wrote on the Village Voice in 1968: “Irony permeates his music, which is riddled with parodies of Charles Ives and Guy Lombardo, of Bartok and the Penguins and Bo Diddly and Ravel and Archie Shepp and Stravinsky and a whole army of obscure fifties rhythm and blues singers. It permeates his lyrics, which are filled with outlandish sexual metaphors and evocations of the culture of the American high school and the American hippie. Irony is the basis of his public image. In pursuit of absurdity he has had himself photographed sitting naked on the toilet. His latest album is titled We're Only in It for the Money. And he has appeared on television speaking in well-rounded periods about music and society and The Scene, all the while emanating a kind of inspired freakishness. Zappa's is the sort or irony which arises from an immense self-consciousness, a distrust of one's own seriousness. It is the most modernist of defense mechanisms, and Zappa is an almost prototypically modernist figure; there are moments when he seems to be living out a parody of the contemporary sensibility.”
Zappa and The Mothers of Invention returned to Los Angeles in the summer of 1968, and the Zappas moved into a house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, only to move again to one on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the autumn, Frank's home for the rest of his life. As usual, he worked hard at his music every day : “We rehearse an average of twelve hours on each song. We learn them in sections. There's the front part, then interlude A, interlude B, and so forth, and the band has to remember certain cues for each section. Each set that we do is conceived of as one continuous piece of music, like an opera. Even the dialogue between numbers is part of it. Some of our sets run an hour and a half, when we get carried away. That's about opera length.”
In 1969 there were nine band members and Frank was supporting the group himself from his publishing royalties whether they played or not. Fed up with MGM's interference, he left MGM Records for Warner Bros. Records' Reprise Records subsidiary where Zappa/Mothers recordings would bear the Bizarre Records imprint. In late 1969, Frank broke up the band and released the solo album Hot Rats. It features, for the first time on record, Frank playing extended guitar solos and contains one of his most enduring compositions, "Peaches en Regalia". 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").
In 1970 Frank met conductor Zubin Mehta. They arranged a May 1970 concert where Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic augmented by a rock band. According to Zappa, the music was mostly written in motel rooms while on tour with The Mothers of Invention. Some of it was later featured in the movie 200 Motels.
Later in 1970, Frank 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 "The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie", or "Flo & Eddie".
This version of The Mothers debuted on Frank's next solo album Chunga's Revenge (1970), which was followed by the double-album soundtrack to the movie 200 Motels (1971), featuring The Mothers, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and Keith Moon. The film deals loosely with life on the road as a rock musician, first feature film photographed on videotape and transferred to 35 mm film.
After 200 Motels, the band went on tour, which resulted in two live albums, Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A.; the latter included the 20-minute track "Billy the Mountain", Frank's satire on rock opera set in Southern California.
In December 1971, there were two serious setbacks: while performing at Casino de Montreux, in Switzerland, The Mothers' equipment was destroyed when a flare set off by an audience member started a fire that burned down the casino. Immortalized in Deep Purple's song "Smoke on the Water", the event and immediate aftermath can be heard on the bootleg album Swiss Cheese/Fire, released legally as part of Zappa's Beat the Boots II compilation. After a week's break, The Mothers played at the Rainbow Theatre, London, with rented gear. During the encore, an audience member pushed Frank off the stage and into the concrete-floored orchestra pit. The band thought Frank had been killed—he had suffered serious fractures, head trauma and injuries to his back, leg, and neck, as well as a crushed larynx, which ultimately caused his voice to drop a third after healing. The accident forced him off the road for over half a year.
Upon his return to the stage in September 1972, he was still wearing a leg brace, had a noticeable limp and could not stand for very long while on stage; one leg healed "shorter than the other", resulting in chronic back pain. Meanwhile, The Mothers were left in limbo and eventually formed the core of Flo and Eddie's band as they set out on their own. Meanwhile, Frank released two strongly jazz-oriented solo LPs, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, and a series of concerts in September 1972 with a 20-piece big band referred to as the Grand Wazoo. This was followed by a scaled-down version known as the Petit Wazoo that toured the U.S. for five weeks from October to December 1972.
Frank 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).
By 1973, the Bizarre and Straight labels were discontinued, and Frank created DiscReet Records, also distributed by Warner Bros. He produced Over-Nite Sensation (1973); Apostrophe (') (1974); Roxy & Elsewhere (1974); One Size Fits All (1975); and Bongo Fury (1975).
Frank's relationship with long-time manager Herb Cohen ended in 1976. Frank sued Cohen for skimming more than he was allocated from DiscReet Records, as well as for signing acts of which Frank did not approve. In the mid-1970s Frank prepared material for Läther (pronounced "leather"), a four-LP project. Läther encapsulated all the aspects of Frank's musical styles—rock tunes, orchestral works, complex instrumentals, and Frank's own trademark distortion-drenched guitar solos. Wary of a quadruple-LP, Warner Bros. Records refused to release it but Frank managed to get an agreement with Phonogram, and test pressings were made targeted at a Halloween 1977 release, but Warner Bros. prevented the release by claiming rights over the material. Frank responded by appearing on the Pasadena, California radio station KROQ, allowing them to broadcast Läther and encouraging listeners to make their own tape recordings. A lawsuit between Frank and Warner Bros. followed, during which no Zappa material was released for more than a year.
In December 1976, Frank appeared as a featured musical guest on the NBC television show Saturday Night Live. The performances included an impromptu musical collaboration with cast member John Belushi. Frank's band at the time performed during Christmas in New York, recordings of which appear on one of the albums Warner Bros. culled from the Läther project, Zappa in New York (1978). The remaining albums released by Warner Bros. Records without Frank's consent were Studio Tan in 1978, Sleep Dirt in 1979, and Orchestral Favorites in 1979.
Resolving the lawsuits successfully, Frank ended the 1970s "stronger than ever" by releasing two of his most successful albums in 1979: the best selling album of his career, Sheik Yerbouti, and Joe's Garage. On December 21, 1979, Frank's movie Baby Snakes premiered in New York, a “movie about people who do stuff that is not normal”. In the next 14 years Frank released: Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981); Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar (1981); Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More (1981); Return of the Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar (1981); You Are What You Is (1981); Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982); The Man from Utopia (1983); Baby Snakes (1983); London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I (1983); Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984); Them or Us (1984); Thing-Fish (1984); Francesco Zappa (1984); The Old Masters, Box I (1984); Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985); Does Humor Belong in Music? (1986); The Old Masters, Box II (1986); Jazz from Hell (1986); Jun London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II (1987); The Old Masters, Box III (1987); You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 (1988); You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 2 (1989); Broadway the Hard Way (1989); You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 3 (1989); The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (1991); Make a Jazz Noise Here (1991); You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 4 (1991); You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 5, Vol. 6 (1992); Playground Psychotics (1992); Ahead of Their Time (1993); and The Yellow Shark (1993).
In 1990, Frank Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The disease had been developing unnoticed for ten years and was considered inoperable. After his diagnosis, Frank devoted most of his energy to modern orchestral and Synclavier works. Shortly before his death, he completed Civilization, Phaze III, a major Synclavier work which he had begun in the 1980s. He died on Saturday, December 4, 1993 in his home with his wife and children, Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva, by his side. At a private ceremony the following day, Frank was interred in an unmarked grave at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
INCREDIBLE HISTORY OF THE MOTHERS - By Frank Zappa - from Hit Parader, No. 48 — June 1968
MOTHERS’ LAMENT: “THEY CALLED US ENTERTAINMENT” - By Sue C. Clark from Rolling Stone — April 27, 1968
IN PERSON: THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION - By Doon Arbus from The Age of Rock, Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, edited by Jonathan Eisen, A Vintage Book.
ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS: UGLY CAN BE BEAUTIFUL - By Sally Kempton, © 1968 by Village Voice Inc.
from The Age of Rock, Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, edited by Jonathan Eisen, A Vintage Book.
FRANK ZAPPA INTERVIEW BY FRANK KOFSKY - By Frank Kofsky - from The Age of Rock, Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, edited by Jonathan Eisen, A Vintage Book.
Son of Suzy Creamcheese - By Robert Shelton - Originally published in The New York Times — Sunday, December 25, 1966
Frank Zappa, Ekeberghallen, Oslo, Norway
|Date||16 January 1977|