Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was primarily known as an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader but was also a satirist, film director, graphic designer, a campaigner against censorship, and an autodidact. When combined with his interest in multiple other topics it can be a challenge to document it all.
For over thirty years Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the numerous albums that he released with his band, variously known as the Mothers of Invention or The Mothers or some other variation, and as a solo artist.
Zappa's father, Frank Vincent, aka Francis Zappa Senior, whose musical ability extended to playing "strolling crooner" guitar, was a scientist with a degree from the University of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and worked at various times as an analyst, engineer and metallurgist for the Lockheed and Convair aircraft corporations. Zappa Snr's occupation required the family to move to Florida in 1944 and back to Maryland in 1946, to Edgewood beside the Aberdeen Proving Ground. His father was then employed at the Naval Research Center & School in Monterey in 1951 and the family, Frank senior, his wife Rose, Frank junior and brothers Bobby & Carl and sister 'Candy', relocated to Pacific Grove, Monterey.
Young Zappa attended orchestral percussion lessons at tutor Keith McKillop's summer school in Monterey, where he played a solo self-composed piece on the snare drum, entitled 'Mice' for a year-end concert. This was in the summer of 1953, before the family moved again - south to San Diego - where Zappa was enrolled in Grossmont High School. Pursuing his interest in percussion he joined The Ramblers, a high school R&B band that managed to secure a gig at the Uptown Hall in nearby Hillcrest. After ninth grade he entered Mission Bay High School, where he was enlightened about 'twelve-tone music' by Mr. Kavelman. In 1956 Zappa's father became employed on Atlas programs at the Air Force Base in Lancaster, to where the family again moved and 16 year-old FZ enrolled at Antelope Valley High School. The desolation and surroundings of this location, together with the nearby air-base activities and emergency gas-masks about the house, were to have a strong influence on the fertile mind of the juvenile Frank Zappa and his musical relationships.
In Lancaster Zappa's future attitude in mixing humor with socio-political music can be glimpsed in his forming of the racially-integrated The Blackouts in 1957, who rehearsed in nearby Sun Village, whilst earlier exposure to Ionisation - a recording by avant garde classical composer Edgard Varèse - instilled an interest in advanced rhythmic experimentation that never left him. This interest was compounded when he managed to speak to the composer's wife by 'phone late in '56, leading to a latter 'phone conversation with Varèse himself in early '57- who then responded further to FZ with a letter in the summer of that year.
The electric guitar, which Zappa had taught himself to play, 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 high school friend, Don Vliet (later to add 'van' to his nomenclature and become Captain Beefheart), shared his interest in other Mississippi Delta blues musicians and the avant-garde jazz of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. Zappa said of his first guitar, "It didn't have a make on it – it had been kinda sandblasted! My brother got it for $1.50 at an auction and it was an archtop, f-hole, ugly motherf***er with the strings about a half-inch off the fingerboard. I liked it because it was so tinny-sounding. It was just an acoustic guitar, but it was moving closer to that wiry tone I liked with Johnny Guitar Watson, especially if you picked it right next to the bridge." On moving to an electric guitar he said, "My father had a guitar which he kept in a closet, a round-hole guitar of anonymous make, and I stuck one of those DeArmond soundhole pickups in that, so it wasn't a real electric guitar. I guess it was around four or five years later that I actually got an electric guitar. There was a music store not far from my house, and I rented this Telecaster for $15 a month. Eventually I had to give it back, because I couldn't make the payments on it."
Back in Grossmont high school Zappa had begun to write chamber music when he was 14, but "No one would play it", he said. His first forays into composition were actually brought about because he liked to draw. "I saw some music and I liked the way it looked and set out to draw it. ... My formal education is a little skimpy. What I know is mostly from reading books I got out of the library. But I think that's good, if you want to be a composer. If you do go to school, you end up picking up the habits of your teachers", he said. Because Zappa was an incorrigible senior student at high school he was directed to take some harmony classes "to occupy his mind". He did two months of harmonics study and found the course very boring, learning rote fashion from Walter Piston's harmony book. In fact, in the learning process, he generally rebelled against what his eyes or ears disliked. "Every time one of the exercises was presented, you would hear how the chords were supposed to resolve. All I could hear was the infliction of normality on my imagination. And I kept wondering why should I pollute my mind with this shit, because if I ever got good at it, I'd be out of business", he said in an interview with Don Menn. When Menn suggested to Zappa that, when Charles Ives was studying harmony at Harvard and found the course 'crazy', Ives wrote to his father saying, "This guy wants me to resolve my chords better", to which Ives' father responded "Tell your professor some chords just don't want to resolve." Zappa responded to Menn's suggestion with, "The guy who was teaching me was a guy named Mr. Russell, who was a jazz trumpet player, and I don't think that he enjoyed harmony very much either, but that's what he was teaching. I could have said to him, "Hey, some chords shouldn't resolve." And he would probably say, "Yeah, but you'll get a D if you don't resolve them."
In 1958 William Ballard, Zappa's high school music teacher at Lancaster, provided the opportunity for Zappa to conduct two pieces with the school orchestra. Written for a string quartet, they were, 'A Pound For A Brown (On The Bus)' and 'Sleeping In A Jar'. In the same year The Blackouts made some recordings that later surfaced on The Lost Episodes, Zappa won a statewide California art competition with a painting entitled 'Family Room', and graduated from the high school in the summer of June. In October he entered Lancaster's Antelope Valley Junior College. By December he had written a 12-tone serial exercise, called Waltz For Guitar. That same December two numbers were recorded in an empty Antelope Valley College classroom, with Zappa on lead guitar, his brother Bobby on rhythm guitar, Vliet on vocals, and a teacher named Jerry Ullberg providing "jivey negroid shoeshine boy" vocal, as Zappa describes it. The two songs were Lost In A Whirlpool and The Search For Tom Dooley. According to Zappa these mark the blues-singing debut of the yet to be christened Beefheart. Vliet, who then joined The Omens, said of the event, "Frank and I had a good time. We were just fooling around."
By 1959 Zappa had gained the friendship of English teacher Don Cerveris, who had written an off-the-wall low-budget cowboy movie involving a bad ranch lady, a nympho cowgirl, a hunchback handyman and sexual union beside a rotting donkey. It was called Run Home Slow, for which Zappa was commissioned to score a soundtrack. He completed it, but there were setbacks and nothing came of this work until 1963, when Zappa produced and directed a recording of Run Home Slow with a small pick-up orchestra, engineered by Paul Buff, at Art Laboe's Original Sound in Hollywood. The film was finally produced by Tim Sullivan, starred Mercedes McCambridge, and was released in 1965. Zappa said of Run Home Slow, "The money from this job was used to buy an electric guitar and the Pal Recording Studio in Cucamonga. Pal was re-named Studio Z."
After writing the movie score Zappa moved south to Ontario, near Pomona, with his girlfriend Kay Sherman, whom he married in December, 1960. In 1961 Mr & Mrs Zappa, Carl and Candy moved to Sarasota, Florida, leaving Bobby in California. The newly-married Zappa audited a course on composition set by Karl Kohn at Pomona College, Claremont, and this is the point at which he rented a white Fender Telecaster but couldn't maintain the payments. However, this didn't prevent him playing lead guitar with The Boogie Men, a band which had Doug Rost on rhythm, Kenny Burgan on sax and Al Surratt on drums. In the summer he scored The World's Greatest Sinner, a dark 'operatic' piece, narrated by the characters of Satan, Clarence and his wife Edna.
In fact, between 1961 and 1962 Zappa's involvement with bands was quite gregarious. In Pomona he teamed up again with drummer Al Surratt in a group consisting of Rex Jakabowski and Ronnie Williams on guitars, Joe Perrino on piano and Dwight Bement on tenor sax. Up in Lancaster, Zappa, Surratt, Bement and Williams teamed up with Johnny Franklin on guitar, bass and baritone sax, Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood on baritone sax, and The Omens' guitarist Alex Snouffer. Over at Pal Studio in Cucamonga, Zappa began a working relationship with Paul Buff, recording Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (and possibly It's From Kansas?). From November 1961 to August 1962 Zappa and Bement performed with Perrino in his band, Joe Perrino & The Mellotones, in a residency at Tommy Sandi's Club Sahara in San Bernardino. At Chaffey Junior College in 1961, where he had studied harmony, Zappa introduced an 8-piece rock n' roll band in November, followed by a 20-piece chamber ensemble in December and the 55-member Pomona Valley Orchestra in mid-December, conducted by Fred E. Graff. 'The World's Greatest Sinner' was the piece played on each occasion. There was a little light relief amid all this with Ronnie & Kenny Williams' Booger Stories.
In 1962 Zappa, Paul Buff and Ronnie Williams, as The Masters, produced a single at Pal Studios on Buff's 'Emmy' label; '16 Tons/Breaktime'. An earlier meeting with Don Preston led to a jamming session in Preston's garage in late spring, with Preston on keyboards and 'object-trove' percussion, brothers Bunk & Buzz Gardner on woodwinds and trumpet, Vic Mio on bass, and Jack Lake & Zappa on percussion. They also auditioned for a Channel 7 TV show in September. In August, Zappa had assisted in the production of Heavies at Pal Studios where, in December, he engineered a Dave Aerni production of The Tornadoes. During 1962 Zappa had also met Ray Collins, and some 'field recordings' were made of Collins, Zappa and Surratt, which can be heard on Joe's XMASage, along with Zappa and his wife Kay conversing on Mormon Xmas Dance Report. Kay also plays clarinet on the pre-recorded orchestral tape Zappa employed on The Steve Allen Show. They divorced in 1963.
Zappa's work through 1963 in Pal Studios at Cucamonga was prolific, reflecting the nature of dedication he would apply to his work throughout his career. A number of recordings are now available of these Cucamonga Years. The song Any Way The Wind Blows was produced in this period, and a third recording of it would subsequently appear on Zappa's first contractual-album release. Names to check out in this period are; Ron Roman, Baby Ray & The Ferns, Bob Guy, The Heartbreakers, Brian Lord & The Midnighters, Ned & Nelda, The Hollywood Persuaders, Mr. Clean, The Rotations, Sin City Boys, and Loeb & Leopold.
The studio also became the place for a reunion with Don van Vliet, where he and Zappa briefly formed The Soots, with Zappa & Snouffer on guitars, Vliet on vocals, and Vic Mortenson on drums. Zappa also recorded Speed Freak Boogie with Doug Moon at Pal, and these musicians would later appear in Magic Band line-ups.
The first broadcast of a pure orchestral Zappa work occurred at Mount St. Mary's College (now primarily a college for catholic girls), in LA, on May 19, 1963. Zappa said of the event, "I spent $300 and got together a college orchestra, and I put on this little concert. Maybe less than a hundred people showed up for it, but the thing was actually taped and broadcast by KPFK. By the time I graduated from high school in '58, I still hadn't written any rock and roll songs, although I had a little rock and roll band in my senior year. I didn't write any rock and roll stuff until I was in my 20's. All the music writing that I was doing was either chamber music or orchestral, and none of it ever got played until this concert at Mount St. Mary's." Whilst conducting this piece Zappa also performed on a zither.
The first Mothers Of Invention formation (1964-1970)
In 1964 Zappa teamed up with a local R&B outfit, 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. Pepper's 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 (The 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 orgy. 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.
1990s: the final years
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.
In the last years of his life Zappa finally had the chance to work with an 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 to be released during his lifetime, The Yellow Shark, on the posthumous releases Civilization Phaze III and Everything Is Healing Nicely. 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.
After Zappa's death
Around one year after his death Civilization Phaze III was released, 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.