Frank Vincent Zappa was born on 21 December 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. His parents were second-generation Sicilian Greeks; the family had Arabian and French origins too. His father played "strolling crooner" guitar. At the age of 12 Frank, who had relocated to California with his family, became interested in drums, learning orchestral percussion at summer school in Monterey. In high school he had some more harmony training because he was an unruly senior, and was given permission to take some harmony classes "to occupy his mind with". In fact, he found the training very boring. The first time he had any of his music performed was at Mount St. Mary's College in 1962 - an "all oddball, textured weirdo stuff", that "didn't sound at all like music is supposed to sound"; still, "the thing was actually taped and broadcast by KPFK".
Zappa played drums in a local R&B band called The Ramblers, and after moving to Lancaster formed the racially-integrated Blackouts. Early exposure to a record of Ionisation by avant garde classical composer Edgard Varèse instilled an interest in advanced rhythmic experimentation that never left him. The electric guitar also became a fascination, and he began collecting R&B records that featured guitar solos: Howlin' Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown were special favourites. A school friend, Don Vliet (later to become Captain Beefheart), shared his interest.
In 1964 Zappa, who had been working in a local studio, recording spoof doo-wop singles and composing scores for B-movies, joined a local R&B outfit called The Soul Giants, whose line-up included vocalist Ray Collins (b. 19 November 1937, USA), bass player Roy Estrada (b. 17 April 1943, USA), and drummer Jimmy Carl Black (b. 1 February 1938, El Paso, Texas, USA). Zappa changed their name to The Mothers, but "Of Invention" was later added at the insistence of their label, Verve Records. A string of guitarists came and went, including Alice Stuart and Henry Vestine, before Elliot Ingber was added to the line-up. Produced by Tom Wilson in 1966, the late black producer whose credits included Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan, the Mothers Of Invention's Freak Out! was a stunning debut, a two-record set complete with a whole side of wild percussion, a vitriolic protest song, "Trouble Every Day", and the kind of minute detail (sleeve-notes, in-jokes, parodies) that generate instant cult appeal. They made great play of their hair and ugliness, becoming the perfect counter-cultural icons. Unlike the east coast band the Fugs, the Mothers were also musically skilled, a refined instrument for Zappa's eclectic and imaginative ideas. Ingber left to form the Fraternity Of Man before the recording of the band's second album, Absolutely Free. He was replaced for a short period by Jim Fielder, before Zappa chose to expand the Mothers Of Invention with the addition of second drummer Billy Mundi, keyboardist Don Preston (b. 21 September 1932, USA), and horn players Bunk Gardner and Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood.
Tours and releases followed, including Absolutely Free, the solo Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It For The Money, (with its brilliant parody of The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band record cover) a scathing satire on hippiedom and the reactions to it in the USA, and a notable appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London - this was documented on the compulsive Uncle Meat album. On this double LP one can hear really sophisticated music, mixing highly individual melodies and complex arrangements, rarely heard in rock music before (like "Dog Breath", "Pound For A Brown", "King Kong"), plus sheer madness, containing the dialogues from the movie of the same title. In stark contrast, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets paid excellent hommage to the doo-wop era. British fans were particularly impressed with Hot Rats, a solo Zappa record that ditched the sociological commentary for barnstorming jazz-rock, blistering guitar solos, the extravagant "Peaches En Regalia" and a cameo appearance by Captain Beefheart on "Willie The Pimp". Another characteristic contribution to the sound of this period was the blues-rooted, raw violin playing of Don "Sugarcane" Harris that we can enjoy hearing on several albums from these years.
Collins had quit in April 1968, and the Mothers Of Invention would eventually disintegrate the following August, though the brilliant Burnt Weeny Sandwich album was published wearing the same name. The LP contained a respectful Stravinsky-parody ("Igor's Boogie"), a funny cover ("WPLJ"), classical piece discorded in a happy, humoristic manner, plus some great solo-based numbers that predicted the approaching jazz-rock period. Both Uncle Meat and Hot Rats appeared on Zappa's own Bizarre Records label which, together with his other outlet Straight Records, released a number of highly regarded albums that were nevertheless commercial flops. Artists to benefit from Zappa's patronage included the GTO's, Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley. Captain Beefheart's indispensable Zappa-produced classic, Trout Mask Replica, was also released on Straight. Eager to gain a "heavier" image than the band that had brought them fame, The Turtles' singers Mark Volman (b. 19 April 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA) and Howard Kaylan (b. Howard Kaplan, 22 June 1947, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA), aka Flo And Eddie, joined up with Zappa for the movie 200 Motels and three further albums. The newly re-christened Mothers now included George Duke (b. 12 January 1946, San Rafael, California, USA; keyboards, trombone), Ian Underwood (keyboards, saxophone), Aynsley Dunbar (b. 10 January 1946, Liverpool, England; drums), and Jeff Simmons (bass, vocals), although the latter was quickly replaced by Jim Pons (b. 14 March 1943, Santa Monica, California, USA). Fillmore East, June 1971 included some intentionally outrageous subject matter prompting inevitable criticism from conservative observers.
1971 was not a happy year for Zappa: on 4 December fire destroyed the band's equipment while they were playing at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland (an event commemorated in Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water") and six days later Zappa was pushed off-stage at London's Rainbow theatre, crushing his larynx (lowering his voice a third of an octave), damaging his spine and keeping him wheelchair-bound for the best part of a year. He spent 1972 developing an extraordinary new species of big band fusion (Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo), working with top west coast session musicians. However, he found these excellent players dull touring companions, and decided to dump the "jazztette" for an electric band. Over-Nite Sensation announced fusion-chops, salacious lyrics and driving rhythms. The live band featured an extraordinary combination of jazz-based swing and a rich, sonorous rock that probably only Zappa (with his interest in modern classical music) could achieve. The multi-purpose talent of singer, flute player, saxophonist, guitarist and ready-for-any-joke entertainer Napoleon Murphy Brock, percussion virtuoso Ruth Underwood, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, featured in the King Kong project, and keyboard player Duke (whose beautiful, shiny voice was first discovered and showcased by Zappa) shone in this context. Apostrophe (') showcased Zappa's talents as a story-teller in the Lord Buckley tradition, and also (in the title-track) featured a jam with bass player Jack Bruce: it reached number 10 in the Billboard chart in June 1974. Roxy & Elsewhere caught the band live, negotiating diabolically hard musical notation - "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" and "Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen's Church)" - with infectious good humour. One Size Fits All, an under-acknowledged masterpiece, built up extraordinary multi-tracked textures. "Andy" was a song about b-movie cowboys, while "Florentine Pogen" and "Inca Roads" were complex extended (and very Zappa-like) pieces.
In 1975, Captain Beefheart joined Zappa for a tour and despite an earlier rift, sang on Bongo Fury, both reuniting in disgust over the USA's bicentennial complacency. Zoot Allures in 1976 was principally a collaboration between Zappa and drummer Terry Bozzio, with Zappa overdubbing most of the instruments himself. He was experimenting with what he termed "Xenochrony" (combining previous unrelated tracks with different meters to create a piece of synchronous music) and produced intriguing results on "Friendly Little Finger". The title track took the concept of sleaze guitar onto a new level (as did the orgasmic moaning of "The Torture Never Stops"), while "Black Napkins" was an incomparable vehicle for Zappa's guitar work. If Zoot Allures now reads like a response to punk, Zappa was not to forsake large-scale rock showbiz. A series of concerts in New York in late 1976 had a wildly excited crowd applauding tales of singles bars, devil encounters and stunning Brecker Brothers virtuosity (recorded as Zappa In New York). This album was part of the fall-out from Zappa's break-up with Warner Brothers Records, who put out three excellent, mostly instrumental albums with "non-authorized covers" (adopted, strangely enough, by Zappa for his CD re-releases): Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites. The punk-obsessed rock press did not know what to make of music that parodied Miklos Rozsa, crossed jazz with cartoon scores, guyed rock 'n' roll hysteria and stretched fusion into the twenty-first century. Undaunted by still being perceived as a hippie, which he clearly was not (We're Only In It For The Money had said the last word on the Summer Of Love while it was happening!), Zappa continued to tour.
His guitar-playing seemed to expand into a new dimension: "Yo' Mama" on 1979's Sheik Yerbouti was a taste of the extravaganzas to come. In Ike Willis (most of the time reinforced by the inseparable Ray White), Zappa found a vocalist who understood his required combination of emotional detachment and intimacy, and featured him extensively on the three volumes of Joe's Garage. After the mid-70s interest in philosophical concepts and band in-jokes, the music became more political. Tinseltown Rebellion and You Are What You Is commented on the growth of the fundamentalist Right. This period showcased the unique talents of percussionist Ed Mann (who gloriously took over the most important role of excellent Ruth Underwood), "Zappa's favourite" drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, "capable-of-all" guitar virtuoso Steve Vai (who performed the unbelievably hard and valuable work of scoring Zappa's most "impossible" guitar solos), keyboard players Tommy Mars and Robert Martin, worthy partners of Zappa's most eccentric on-stage musical and practical jokes.
Zappa had a hit in 1982 with "Valley Girl", which featured his daughter Moon Unit satirizing the accents of young moneyed Hollywood people. That same year saw him produce and introduce a New York concert of music by Varese. The title track of Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch indicated that Zappa's interest in extended composition was not waning; this was confirmed by the release of a serious orchestral album recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1983. Zappa was quite outrageously prolific in 1984: renowned French composer Pierre Boulez conducted Zappa's work on The Perfect Stranger; he released a rock album Them Or Us, which widened still further the impact of his scurrilously inventive guitar; Thing-Fish (its scenario was first published in Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine...) was a "Broadway musical" about AIDS, homophobia and racism; and he unearthed an eighteenth-century composer named Francesco Zappa and recorded his work on a synclavier. The following year's Does Humor Belong In Music? and Meets The Mothers Of Prevention were effective responses to the rise of powerful censor groups in America. Jazz From Hell presented wordless compositions for synclavier that drew inspiration from the expatriate American experimentalist composer Conlon Nancarrow's pieces written for piano player. Zappa could satisfy here his liking for using samples and highly complicated, "impossible for humans" rhythmic orgie. From the flood of his works during the 80's it is absolutely worth mentioning the highly courageous, triple-LP box set, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, a collection of his madly individual guitar solos (also a masterpiece of overdubbing and musical editing), which was the first of a series represented also by the later Guitar and Trance-Fusion albums.
Zappa's next big project materialized in 1988: a 12-piece band playing covers, instrumentals and a brace of new political songs (collected respectively as Broadway The Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, and Make A Jazz Noise Here). After rehearsing for three months the power and precision of the band were breathtaking, but they broke up during their first tour. As well as the retrospective series You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore (six volumes of double CD-s!), Zappa released his most popular bootlegs in two installments as part of his "Beat The Boots" campaign. In Czechoslovakia, where he had long been a hero of the cultural underground, he was appointed as the country's Cultural Liaison Officer with the West, while he gave his last live performance in Budapest, celebrating the soviet troops' withdrawal from Hungary, in 1991. The same year he announced he would be standing as an independent candidate in the 1992 US presidential election (almost immediately he received several death threats!), but in November his daughter confirmed reports that he was suffering from cancer of the prostate.
During the last years of his life Zappa finally found the orchestra that could achieve the level of performance he had always looked for in "serious" music. Germany-based, multi-national Ensemble Modern can be heard on the last album, entitled The Yellow Shark, which was published in Zappa's life. He was to be the conductor in the series of concerts given by EM in Germany and Austria, but due to increasing pain he had to abandon the last shows and go home.
In May 1993 Zappa, clearly weak from intensive chemotherapy, announced that he was fast losing the battle as it had spread into his bones. In the long interview published in Playboy just before his death he nonetheless declared that he wouldn't start to write sad music just because he was going to disappear. He succumbed to the disease seven months later, and died in his home on 4 December 1993, Los Angeles, California.
Zappa wouldn't have been what he was if his death had put an end to the flow of his works. We must mention first of all the double CD called Civilization Phaze III, his first posthumous release, which had been being made for 30 years by then. The earliest recordings on this album were originally made during the sixties, they are completed by synclavier pieces being mixed until his very last days: it can be regarded as a kind of testament of his thoughts and music, even though we must consider the fact that making a synthesis was always as far from Zappa's intentions as it possibly can be. No doubt about that if he was still alive he would continue to surprise us by shocking new musical (and other kind of) ideas every day.
In 1995, a remarkable reissue programme was undertaken by Rykodisc Records in conjunction with his widow Gail Zappa. The entire catalogue of over 50 albums was remastered and re-packaged with loving care. Rykodisc deserve the highest praise for this bold move. In 2003 Dweezil Zappa promised more unreleased material from the vaults of his father as he took over as the family archivist - Halloween and QuAUDIOPHILIAc is his work.
Viewed in perspective, Zappa's career reveals a perfectionist using only the highest standards of musicianship and the finest recording methods. The reissued CDs highlight the extraordinary quality of the original master tapes and Zappa's idealism.
Additionally, he is now rightly seen as one of the great guitar players of our time. Although much of his oeuvre can easily be dismissed as flippant, history will certainly recognize Zappa as a sophisticated, serious composer and a highly accomplished master of music. This musical genius never ceased to astonish, both as a musician and composer: on the way, he produced a towering body of work that is probably rock music's closest equivalent to the legacy of Duke Ellington.