TCM Archive Materials VIEW ALL ARCHIVES (1)
|Also Known As:||Frank Vincent Zappa||Died:||December 4, 1993|
|Born:||December 21, 1940||Cause of Death:||prostate cancer|
|Birth Place:||Baltimore, Maryland, USA||Profession:||composer, guitarist, singer, film producer, screenwriter, actor, film director, documentarian, writer, activist|
Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY
As a singer, songwriter, rock guitarist, classical composter, recording producer and even occasional film director, Frank Zappa was as difficult to describe as his eclectic music was throughout his 30-year career. Zappa was without peer, a singular entity who branched out in countless directions, and in the process, became one of the most important and influential musical artists of the latter-20th century. With his most famous band, The Mothers of Invention, he blended rock, jazz, classical, doo-wop, R&B and avant-garde stylings with strange, sexually-tinged lyrics and absurd stage theatrics to create a wholly unique live experience, while in the studio producing outside-the-mainstream albums like Freak Out! (1966), We're Only in it for the Money (1968) and Uncle Meat (1969). Though he fared better in Europe, particularly Germany and Soviet Bloc states, Zappa's influence was felt everywhere, as he branched off into big band jazz fusion on The Grand Wazoo (1972), while producing more conceptual albums with Zoot Allures (1976) and Joe's Garage (1979). Always prone to satirizing hypocrisy in religion, politics and elsewhere, Zappa was cemented as a staunch defender of first amendment rights when he...
As a singer, songwriter, rock guitarist, classical composter, recording producer and even occasional film director, Frank Zappa was as difficult to describe as his eclectic music was throughout his 30-year career. Zappa was without peer, a singular entity who branched out in countless directions, and in the process, became one of the most important and influential musical artists of the latter-20th century. With his most famous band, The Mothers of Invention, he blended rock, jazz, classical, doo-wop, R&B and avant-garde stylings with strange, sexually-tinged lyrics and absurd stage theatrics to create a wholly unique live experience, while in the studio producing outside-the-mainstream albums like Freak Out! (1966), We're Only in it for the Money (1968) and Uncle Meat (1969). Though he fared better in Europe, particularly Germany and Soviet Bloc states, Zappa's influence was felt everywhere, as he branched off into big band jazz fusion on The Grand Wazoo (1972), while producing more conceptual albums with Zoot Allures (1976) and Joe's Garage (1979). Always prone to satirizing hypocrisy in religion, politics and elsewhere, Zappa was cemented as a staunch defender of first amendment rights when he delivered Senate testimony in 1985 against the Parents Music Research Center's idea of labeling records for obscene material. In later years, he shifted away from rock-oriented music toward his classical roots, while waging a battle with pancreatic cancer that he ultimately lost. With his death in 1993, Zappa left behind a legacy that influenced countless musicians and fans.
Born on Dec. 21, 1940 in Baltimore, MD, Zappa was raised by his father, Francesco, a Sicilian immigrant and chemist who performed research on poison gases for the military, and his mother, Rose. Because of his proximity to the dangerous chemicals his father researched, Zappa grew up in a home where gas masks adorned the walls and carried the specter of potential death from escaped mustard gas. Often sick as a child, his family moved around the country due to his father's work and eventually moved Monterey, CA, where Francesco taught metallurgy at the Naval Postgraduate School, before settling in San Diego. He became thoroughly engrossed in music about this time and became absorbed in a number of eclectic styles while his friends and classmates swooned over Elvis Presley. By the time he was 12 years old, Zappa was learning drums and percussion, and soon began a life-long obsession with avant-garde composer, Edgard Varése, who remained a profound influence on his career. Meanwhile, he joined his first band while attending Mission Bay High School, but was forced to abandon the effort when the family moved once again.
Now settled in the small aerospace town of Lancaster, CA near Edwards Air Force Base, Zappa attended Antelope Valley High School, where he met Don Vliet - who went on to become experimental musician Captain Beefheart - and played the drums in a racially diverse band called The Blackouts. At the time, Zappa became enamored with R&B, steeping himself in the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. He soon ditched the drums in favor of guitar, though he maintained a heavy interest in classical composition, writing and conducting avant-garde pieces with the school orchestra. After graduating in 1958, he attended community college for a semester, but continued his true education by immersing himself in doo-wop, R&B and Igor Stravinsky. He finally left home in 1959 and moved to Los Angeles, where he met and married Kay Sherman while briefly attending Pomona College. He had a short gig strumming guitar for Joe Perrino and the Mellotones, but quickly grew bored and put away his instrument for eight months in favor of designing greeting card designs for a living and writing chamber music for fun. It was then that he met musician Ray Collins and returned to playing music after joining the Soul Giants. The group of musicians in the Soul Giants would later form the Mothers of Invention.
In the early 1960s, Zappa played various nightclub gigs while earning some bread as a composer. He even scored two low-budget films, "The World's Greatest Sinner" (1962) and "Run Home Slow" (1965), with the latter being composed in 1963. Also that year, he appeared on "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC/ABC/CBS/syndicated, 1956-1964), where he used a bow and drumstick to play a pair of bicycles with Allen's orchestra. While his marriage with Sherman began breaking apart in 1964, Zappa recorded some songs with Captain Beefheart with a band they called The Soots, but the group was rejected by record labels as being non-commercial. He took over a recording studio he renamed Studio Z in 1964 and began composing material for 12 or more hours a day, while forming an early version of his famed band with James "Motorhead" Sherwood called The Muthers and performing in local bars and clubs. In March 1965, Zappa was approached by an undercover vice squad cop, who commissioned him to record sexual audio for an alleged stag party. Zappa performed faked sexual acts with a female friend and produced a tape, which in turn led to an arrest and seizure of all his recordings at Studio Z. He was sentenced to six months in jail for conspiracy to commit pornography, with all but 10 days being suspended. His 10-day stint left a lasting impression and contributed to the anti-authoritarian stance he later developed.
Only able to recover less than half of his seized recordings, Zappa was forced to close down the studio due inability to pay the rent. Meanwhile, he became leader of the Soul Giants after taking over for Ray Collins, and soon renamed them the Mothers of Invention, a rather eclectic experimental rock band that infused jazz, classical, doo-wop, R&B, psychedelic rock and even improvisational comedy into its sound. The Mothers went on to record their first album, Freak Out! (1966), which was neither a commercial nor a critical success, selling only about 30,000 copies upon release while many thought it was inspired by drugs, particularly LSD - a great irony, since Zappa was vehemently anti-drug throughout his life, even to the point of requiring his band members to never use them. Because their first album was a failure, The Mothers' label, MGM Records, drastically cut their recording budget. They subsequently released Absolutely Free (1967), We're Only in it for the Money (1968), which was heavily censored for explicit content, and Uncle Meat (1969). Those albums sold better and featured a number of classic songs like "Plastic People" and "King Kong," but in 1969 Zappa disbanded the Mothers of Invention due in part to financial pressures from MGM. Meanwhile, his band members expressed frustrations over his autocratic leadership and ceaseless drive for perfection.
Now on his own, Zappa recorded his acclaimed solo record, Hot Rats (1969), which featured a new focus on extended guitar solos, as well as two of his most enduring songs, "Willie the Pimp" and "Peaches en Regalia," the latter being covered by many artists throughout the years. Meanwhile, he composed material that was conducted by Zubin Mehta with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a successful endeavor that was partly featured on the soundtrack for the British surrealist film, "200 Motels" (1971), but nonetheless was a dissatisfying experience for Zappa who felt that the orchestra was not up to the task of properly interpreting his music. In late 1970, Zappa reformed the Mothers of Invention, which actually debuted on his solo album Chunga's Revenge (1970), and went on tour, which resulted in two live records, Fillmore East - June 1971 (1971) and Just Another Band from L.A (1972). In December 1971, the band suffered a major setback while performing at the Casino de Montreaux in Montreaux, Switzerland, when a fan fired a flare gun and started a fire that burned the place down, including all of the Mothers' equipment. The event was witnessed by members of Deep Purple, who were in Montreaux recording an album, and immortalized in their most famous song, "Smoke on the Water," the title of which referenced smoke spreading across Lake Geneva.
Just a week after the disastrous fire, the Mothers were playing a show in London with rented gear, when a fan pushed Zappa off the stage during the encore. Zappa landed hard on the concrete floor and suffered a number of serious fractures, head trauma, back, leg and neck injuries, and a crushed larynx that actually dropped his voice a couple of notes. He was laid up for much of 1972, but did manage to record the jazz-oriented albums, Waka/Jawaka (1972) and The Grand Wazoo (1972), which were a blend of big band jazz with Bitches Brew-like fusion. Back on the road a year after his assault, Zappa - who performed some shows while still wearing a leg brace - played with a 20-piece big band jazz outfit, before setting out with a number of smaller groups the following year. He was prolific in the studio during this time and recorded a number of albums in the mid-1970s on his self-formed label, DiscReet Records, including Over-Nite Sensation (1973), which contained such concert staples "Dinah-Moe Humm," "Dirty Love" and "Montana."
Zappa had the biggest commercial success of his career with 1974's Apostrophe ('), which reached No. 10 on the Billboard Top 200, and featured the successful single, "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," as well as concert favorites "Cosmik Debris," "Uncle Remus" and "Stink-Foot." By this time, Zappa played with an ever-revolving group of musicians who nonetheless performed under the Mothers moniker. After the live album Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), Zappa recorded One Size Fits All (1975), the last studio album made under the Mothers banner. He briefly reunited with Captain Beefheart for a tour, and released another live record, Bongo Fury (1975), which ended with concert staple, "Muffin Man," a high-energy pseudo-heavy metal song that contained a long, searing guitar solo that represented some of Zappa's finest playing. In 1976, Zappa permanently dropped the Mothers of Invention, and began recording and performing under his own name. Meanwhile, he filed a lawsuit against former manager, Herb Cohen, whom he accused of skimming money from DiscReet Records. Cohen countersued, which froze money the pair made previously and forced Zappa into a contract with Warner Bros. He released Zoot Allures (1976) with Warner, but ran into further legal trouble when filed suit against the label after they refused to release his expansive four-LP effort, Läther.
Because of the lawsuits he dealt with in the late-1970s, Zappa took more to the road in order to earn a living. Joined by musicians like bassist Patrick O'Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, drummer Terry Bozzio, and keyboardist Tommy Mars, Zappa embarked on some of the finest concerts he had ever performed, and resulted in a classic Halloween concert at New York's Palladium Theater in 1977. Footage from the event was part of Zappa's own directing effort, "Baby Snakes" (1979), which also displayed his odd brand of humor in the form of stop-motion animation sequences designed by Bruce Bickford. He was eventually able to resume recording under his new label, Zappa Records, which debuted with one of his best-selling albums, Sheik Yerbouti (1979), a four-LP set that featured the European hit "Bobby Brown Goes Down", the Grammy-nominated "Dancing Fool" and "Jewish Princess," which raised the ire of the Anti-Defamation League for alleged anti-Semetic lyrics, an accusation Zappa vehemently denied. In fact, he fired back at the ADL for trying to use his song to gain publicity - a precursor to the censorship fight he would engage in during the 1980s.
Zappa went on to record another classic album, Joe's Garage (1979), a three-act, three-LP rock opera that satirized topics like McCarthyism, censorship, the suppression of free speech and sexual repression perpetrated by the Catholic Church. After spending most of 1980 on the road, he returned to the studio to record the punk satire Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981) and the double album, You Are What You Is (1981), which he recorded in his new home studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. Both albums contained complex instrumentals, sardonic lyrics skewering media, political and religious hypocrisy, and the obsession with wealth during the Reagan era. Also that year, he released via mail order a three-disc series, 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, which consisted of instrumental guitar pieces recorded live from 1977-1980. The success of the series prompted him to later release the more plainly titled Guitar (1988). He followed up with another studio album, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982), which featured his most popular single, "Valley Girl," co-written with daughter Moon Unit, who also improvised Valley girl expressions like "Gag me with a spoon" and "Fer sure" over the music. The song earned Zappa a Grammy Award nomination, but also the stigma from the non-initiated that he was merely the creator of novelty songs, rather than a complex and wide-ranging experimentalist.
For his next album, The Man from Utopia (1983), Zappa steered away from his previous conceptual work in favor of a more song-based record. Returning to his classical routes, he recorded London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 1 (1983), which featured four of his pieces conducted by Kent Nagano with the London Symphony Orchestra. A second recording, London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 2, was released in 1987. Meanwhile, Zappa found himself in the political spotlight when he emerged as a staunch defender of free speech in pop music during the ire raised over obscene song lyrics and music videos by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), co-founded by Tipper Gore. Though he was never a direct target of the PMRC, he did testify before the Senate Commerce committee in 1985 alongside John Denver and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider as an opposing witness to the suggestion of albums having labels on the cover warning purchasers about content. Zappa strongly denounced the idea on first amendment grounds, comparing such an act to be censorship and like "treating dandruff by decapitation." He later appeared in a 1986 episode of "Crossfire" (CNN, 1982-2005) and debated the issue with Washington Times columnist John Lofton and hosts Robert Novak and Tom Braden. Zappa immediately took a disliking to the socially conservative Lofton and traded verbal barbs with him throughout the 20-minute segment, which later went viral on YouTube decades later.
Back to recording music, Zappa turned out his exemplary Jazz From Hell (1986), which received a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, and ironically an RIAA Parental Advisory sticker, which some speculated was due to the word "Hell" in the album title, the song "G-Spot Tornado," or his public battles with the PMRC. In 1988, Zappa performed his last rock tour in a 12-piece band that broke apart before the tour was completed. Still, he released three albums that documented the tour, Broadway the Hard Way (1988), The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (1991), and Make a Jazz Noise Here (1991). Meanwhile, he made a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990 at the behest of President Václav Havel, where he learned that his music was instrumental in fueling the desire for freedom among 1960s and 1970s youth trapped in a Communist regime. Zappa made one of his last performances at the "Adieu Soviet Army" concert in Prague in 1991, as he was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer in 1990 and his health rapidly deteriorated. Though he continued recording, and even conducted his modern classical music with the Berlin-based Ensemble Modern, Zappa was often too ill to work.
Zappa managed to complete one more album, Civilization Phase III (1994), before dying on Dec. 4, 1993, surrounded by his wife, Gail, and their children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva. He was 52 years old and left behind a legacy that grew with each new generation. Not only was he hailed as one of the best rock guitarists, but he was also praised by historians as one of the most important and influential modern composers. Zappa's music influenced countless bands and artists, from heavy metal acts like Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath to jam-based bands like Phish and George Clinton to jazz musicians like John Zorn and Bill Frisell. Even The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was, according to Paul McCartney, partly influenced by The Mothers of Invention's debut album, Freak Out!. Meanwhile, his son Dweezil Zappa - an excellent guitar player in his own right - carried the Zappa mantel with the "Zappa Plays Zappa" tribute band that began touring in 2006 and playing his father's rock-oriented work.
By Shawn Dwyer
Filmographyclose complete filmography
CAST: (feature film)
Milestones close milestones
"I wrote a song about dental floss but did anyone's teeth get cleaner?"--Zappa response to the PMRC's accusation that music lyrics can cause anti-social behavior
In 1982 Zappa helped popularize Southern California slang with the hit single "Valley Girl", sung by his oldest daughter Moon Unit.
Companions close complete companion listing
Bibliography close complete biography
Please support TCMDB by adding to this information.Click here to contribute