Frank Zappa - Biography

By Michael Keefe


            Guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and composer Frank Zappa is among the most iconoclastic figures in rock music. Throughout his career, he simultaneously subverted and exploited rock’s trappings and clichés while, at the same time, created a vast body of always intriguing and often exceptional albums.  From quirky pop to serious compositions, with excursions into jazz, rock, doo-wop, funk, and electronic music along the way; he consistently explored music’s possibilities.


            Frank Vincent Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland – the oldest of four children. His chemist and mathematician father, Francis, was born in Italy and was of Greek and Arab descent. His mother, Rose Marie, was of Italian and French heritage. During his childhood, his father worked for a chemical warfare facility where mustard gas was developed. During this time, Zappa incurred several illnesses that could be blamed on his proximity to the toxins in the area. Due to Frank's maladies, the family relocated to the western United States, eventually settling in Southern California. As a young teenager, Zappa became obsessed with modern composers (particularly Edgard Varèse) and doo-wop, as well as percussion instruments. In Zappa's first high school bands, The Ramblers and The Blackouts, the future guitar great played drums. The latter group included James "Motorhead" Sherwood, a future member of Zappa's Mothers of Invention. It was also during high school that Zappa met another future collaborator, Don Van Vliet, later known as Captain Beefheart.


            By 1957, Frank Zappa had acquired his first guitar and was composing pieces for his school orchestra. After graduating from high school in 1958, he moved to Echo Park in Los Angeles, where he met Kay Sherman, whom he married in December, 1960. Throughout the first half of the decade, Zappa worked hard to establish his music career. He composed the soundtracks to two low-budget films (The World's Greatest Sinner (1962) and Run Home Slow (1965)), gigged regularly with a reconfigured Blackouts and a trio called The Muthers. He also appeared on The Steve Allen Show, where he played a bicycle as an instrument. When his marriage to Sherman began to fail, Zappa moved into a recording studio and dedicated himself to constructing compositions via overdubs, splicing, and tape manipulations.


            In 1965, he joined an R&B band called The Soul Giants. Zappa quickly took over vocal and songwriting duties and changed the name to The Mothers. Upon signing with Verve, the band lengthened their name to The Mothers of Invention (by request of the label). The group – featuring bassist Roy Estrada, drummer Jimmy Carl Black, vocalist/percussionist Ray Collins and others – entered the recording studio accompanied by an orchestra conducted and arranged by Zappa. These sessions yielded the Mothers of Invention’s double-album debut, Freak Out (1966 Verve), a dizzying concoction of doo-wop, rock, modern composition, and musique concrète. Lyrically, the record lambasted the education system, conservative values, authority, media integrity, and love – essentially writing a manifesto for the emergent "freak" culture of the time. Despite its modest peak of #130 on the Billboard 200, Freak Out was regaled by critics and, according to Paul McCartney, influenced the making of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967 Capitol).


            The band’s follow-up, Absolutely Free (1967 Verve), met with much greater chart success, reaching Billboard's #41. The Mothers of Invention – without orchestra and expanded to include keyboardist Don Preston and woodwind player Buck Gardner – stretched the limits of conventional pop/rock even further as individual songs reeled from R&B to jazz to psychedelic excursions. Because the tracks all run together, Absolutely Free is like a sprint through an amusement park constructed from the spare parts of popular music. Also in 1967, Zappa married his second wife, Adelaide Gail Sloatman. In the spring of 1967 the Zappas (and The Mothers) moved to New York. Their first child, Moon Unit, was born that September.


            Key sideman Ian Underwood (sax, flute, piano) joined The Mothers of Invention for their third album, the following January's We're Only in It for the Money (Verve-1968), which peaked at #30 on Billboard and became an instant classic. Its iconic cover art – which was initially demoted to the gatefold LP's interior – is a send-up of the album The Mothers' debut had recently inspired, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. A spirit of satire pervades the proceedings as exemplified with "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" which mercilessly dissects the Summer of Love and wannabe hippies who flocked to San Francisco. That same year, Zappa issued his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy (1968 Verve). This was an album of orchestral music, tape manipulations and conversations captured within a piano. Highly uncommercial, the release was fortunate to make the Billboard charts at all, where it peaked at #159. Incredibly, The Mothers of Invention released a second album that same year, a skewed tribute to doo-wop called Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968 Verve). The Beatles loved the LP but most fans and critics were less enthusiastic and the album hit only #110 on the charts.


            Zappa kicked off 1969 with a Mothers of Invention compilation titled Mothermania (1969 Verve). It featured alternate mixes and edits of the band’s best songs to date. Never released to CD, this is quite the collector's item today. Next up was Uncle Meat (1969 Verve), The Mothers of Invention's second double-LP. It was intended to serve as a soundtrack to a then-unreleased Mothers of Invention film. In addition to the usual pastiche of weird pop, quirky compositions and sound samples; the music takes some trippy voyages into less constrained, jazzy territories. It all works brilliantly and leading to a #41 spot on Billboard.


            Later in 1969, due to financial insolvency and questions of motivation, Zappa disbanded The Mothers of Invention. Only Ian Underwood and his new wife (and recent Mothers recruit) Ruth Underwood (née Komanoff) remained as collaborators. That October, Zappa issued his second solo LP, Hot Rats (1969 Bizarre). Aside from a brief vocal contribution from Captain Beefheart, the album is made up of instrumental jazz-rock. Here, Zappa creates a fusion of these forms that parallels Miles Davis's work of the same time. While Davis added a steady rock pulse to his modal jazz, Zappa approached the idea from his more pop-centered world, imbuing his wordless rock workouts with improvisational jams that showcased his strengths as a lead guitarist. Despite its current status as a highly touted masterpiece, Hot Rats performed poorly on Billboard’s charts at the time, peaking at #173. It also features one of Zappa's best and most enduringly popular tracks, "Peaches in Regalia," a single that should have made the charts. On September 5, 1969, Zappa's first son, Dweezil, was born.


            The following year saw two albums of additional Mothers-era recordings disgorged from the vaults, Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970 Bizarre) and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970 Bizarre). Despite being collections of outtakes, both are well regarded and made the charts. Frank Zappa also assembled a new line-up of The Mothers (from this point on, almost always billed as such) which included the Underwoods, keyboardist George Duke, guitarist Jeff Simmons, and three former members of The Turtles: bassist Jim Pons, and vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (the latter two commonly known as Flo & Eddie). Together they created (although billed as a Zappa solo album) the tinny and scattershot Chunga's Revenge.  This was not the best way to introduce old fans to Zappa's new style, which largely discarded the political satire and avant-pop of his '60s work in favor of commentaries on sexual politics, lifestyle issues, and outright goofiness. The LP scraped onto Billboard at #119.


            Much more successful was the following year's 200 Motels (1971 Bizarre), the double-album soundtrack to Zappa's film of the same name. Utilizing the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and The Mothers, 200 Motels works a similar vein to Uncle Meat, though it's not quite as solid. Still, the LP hit #59 on the charts. Earlier that same year saw a mediocre concert album by The Mothers, Fillmore East: June 1971 (1971 Bizarre). The next year began with another so-so live effort from The Mothers, Just Another Band from L.A. (1972 Bizarre). Studio sessions yielded the better (but not great) Zappa record, Waka/Jawaka (1972 Bizarre), a jazz-rock LP that didn't quite live up to Hot Rats.  It would also be outdone by his follow-up, The Grand Wazoo (1972 Bizarre). This excellent LP combines smartly composed pop/rock themes with extended fusion jams, utilizing Zappa's writing talents as well as the full capabilities of his top-notch band.


            On his new label, Frank Zappa's Overnite Sensation (1973 DiscReet) finds the groove he was looking for on Chunga's Revenge.  The writing, playing and recording are all significantly improved, allowing Zappa's raunchier, less artsy brand of R&B-leaning rock to shine through. A very strong LP, it reached #32 and achieved Gold Record status, making it Zappa's best showing since We're Only in It for the Money. The following year's Apostrophe (') (1974 DiscReet) climbed higher still, reaching the #10 spot on the Billboard 200. This was thanks in no small part to the single "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," Zappa's first Hot 100 Singles hit (#89). The LP's generally shorter, brisker and more tightly arranged cuts are reminiscent of The Mothers of Invention circa 1967 – an era many older fans were happy to relive. That fall saw the release of Roxy & Elsewhere (1974 DiscReet), a live double-album credited to Zappa/Mothers, which – despite mixed reviews – reached #27. That May, the Zappas' second son, Ahmet, was born.


            Be they The Mothers or The Mothers of Invention, Zappa's backing band would go unnamed following Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s One Size Fits All (1975 DiscReet). Ostensibly a pop/rock album, the LP offers many extended solos and other instrumental passages, all of which are supported by muscular rhythmic workouts. One Size Fits All made it to #26 on Billboard. That same year, Zappa teamed with old friend Captain Beefheart for Bongo Fury (1975 DiscReet), a mostly live LP of mediocre quality that's more interesting as a document of the collaboration between two outsider artists than for the music itself. It's also the first Zappa record to feature legendary drummer Terry Bozzio.


            Due to legal entanglements with former manager Herb Cohen and, shortly thereafter, brand-new label Warner Brothers; the usually prolific Frank Zappa released only one album in 1976 and none in 1977. This was despite his having composed a quadruple-LP called Läther (1996 Rykodisc). Nonetheless, Zoot Allures (1976 Warner) is a typically strong Zappa outing from this era and a moderate commercial success, having reached Billboard's #61 position. Two years later, the live album Zappa in New York (1978 DiscReet) arrived amidst further contention with Warner. As  DiscReet’s distributor, they altered the tracklist upon the album’s release. This was corrected in a later CD reissue, revealing an excellent and freewheeling concert fusing top-rate playing with humorous stage banter. It reached #58.


            Unleashed in short order and without Zappa's usual artwork approval, his next two albums were culled from the Läther sessions. Released that September, Studio Tan (1978 DiscReet) is most notable for the epic side one composition, "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary," but is otherwise subpar. The following January's Sleep Dirt (1979 DiscReet) is a step better. Unfortunately, the CD reissue added newly recorded vocals by Thana Harris, which are quite grating. Later that year, Frank Zappa issued Sheik Yerbouti (1979 Zappa) on his new, self-owned, eponymous label. Featuring new bassist (and future new age star) Patrick O'Hearn and recently recruited guitarist (and future legend in his own right) Adrian Belew, the double-LP was a smash hit, reaching #21 on Billboard’s charts and launching the #45 single "Dancin' Fool," which parodied the red-hot disco movement. The album fuses soul, pop, and rock with fewer excursions into jazz and composition than prior releases. That year also saw another mediocre album culled from LätherOrchestral Favorites (1979 DiscReet) – which Zappa had recorded with a 37-piece orchestra. In the midst of an already busy year, Frank and Adelaide's youngest child, Diva, was born July 30. That fall, the more noteworthy and quite strong Joe's Garage (1979 Zappa) appeared in two installments. It's a concept album about a deviant rocker who ends up in prison, only to re-enter an Orwellian society in which music has been banished. The first installment, September's Act I hit #27 on the Billboard charts and displays a particularly lewd (and hilarious) brand of Zappa's '70s rock style. November's Acts II & III conforms more closely to the story arc, with more reliance on the robot-voiced narrative interludes delivered by the "the Central Scrutinizer." Three future Missing Persons members appear on the LPs – Terry Bozzio, Dale Bozzio and Warren Cuccurullo on guitar, who replaced Belew.


            After spending the next year touring, Frank Zappa waited until 1981 to issue his first recording of his third decade in the music business. Tinseltown Rebellion (1981 Barking Pumpkin) is an almost entirely live album, unremarkable aside from its introduction of future guitar god Steve Vai. Also that year, Zappa cemented his own reputation as a six-string wizard with Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar (1981-Barking Pumpkin). It marked the beginning of a series of live instrumental recordings highlighting Zappa's fret-based talents. Zappa's studio recording for the year was You Are What You Is (Barking Pumpkin), a solid collection of concise songs. Two of Zappa's children, Ahmet and Moon Unit, contributed vocals. The latter would become famous for her spoken vocal parts on the following year's #32 pop hit, "Valley Girl," from the successful album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982-Barking Pumpkin). Aside from the teen scene-parodying single, however, the album is largely forgettable. In 1983, Baby Snakes (Barking Pumpkin) was released as the soundtrack to Zappa’s 1977 film of the same name.


            The remainder of the 1980s charted a downward slide for Frank Zappa's creativity. Studio albums like Man from Utopia (1983 Barking Pumpkin), Thing-Fish (1984 Barking Pumpkin), and Them or Us (1984 Barking Pumpkin) are all of middling quality. So is Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985 Barking Pumpkin), although its lengthy "Porn Wars" is an interesting collage from a US Senate hearing on obscenity in music, at which Zappa testified. The LP, which reached #153, marked Zappa's final entry on the Billboard 200. The critically lauded Jazz from Hell is notable for being performed by Zappa on the Synclavier synthesizer, although the album sounds dated today. By the late '80s, Zappa's finest releases came primarily from the vaults. Between 1988 and 1992, he issued six volumes of You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, each of which collected top-flight live material.


            Toward the end of his life, Frank Zappa was most interested in composition, both for orchestra and computer. The final album released before his death from cancer on December 4, 1993 was The Yellow Shark (1993 Barking Pumpkin), which features orchestral recordings of works both old and new. As testimony to Zappa's talents as a composer, the album reached #2 on Billboard's Classical Crossover chart. Zappa's most crucial and highly rated posthumous release is the following year's Civilization Phaze III (1994 Barking Pumpkin), another collection of compositions for Synclavier, with spoken word recordings dating as far back as 1967, but mostly captured in the last couple of years of Zappa's life.


            The vaults have been mined many times over the ensuing years, yielding a trove of outtakes and live recordings that continue to expand Frank Zappa's already impressive legacy. In 2006, Dweezil Zappa (also an accomplished guitarist) began leading Zappa Plays Zappa, a touring tribute to his father that has sported frequent guest appearances by Terry Bozzio and Steve Vai. Frank Zappa's significant contributions to the music world have twice been honored by its largest institutions. In 1995, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was issued a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. This seems most fitting for an artist who contributed ingenious and challenging examples of so many different styles of music during his tenure on earth.

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