On December 6th, his family publicly announced that “Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6:00 pm on Saturday”.
Zappa was survived by his wife of 26 years Gail Sloatman, who had managed much of Zappa’s business concerns in his later career, and their four children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen.
Zappa recorded many albums with The Mothers Of Invention as well a solo recordings including the 1969 album “Hot Rats” and 1974 album “Apostrophe”.” Zappa recorded one of the first concept albums, “Freak Out” (1966) that was also one of the earliest double albums in rock music (although Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” preceded it by a week).
Musician Frank Zappa made more than 60 albums during his career. Flouting convention and fusing musical genres, his30-year career embraced a wide variety of musical genres, encompassing rock, jazz, synth and symphonies. Avant-garde composers, as well as math and chemistry from his father’s work, all fell into Zappa’s mix of influences and comprised his unique approach to his art, which was most often politically charged and intentionally shocking. Zappa also produced others, founded his own independent labels, designed album covers, directed films, and openly spoke about social issues. Although his unconventional aspect often overshadowed his brilliance, Zappa is highly respected as a musical pioneer.
Outside of playing music, Zappa also directed music videos, short films and features, and he became obsessed with the infinite possibilities synthetic music offered because it could accommodate almost most anything he dreamed up. Stints as a guest speaker on social activism emerged after his Senate testimony about censorship in music. Zappa also battled record companies and censors for much of his career, ultimately gaining the rights to his own master recordings and forming his own labels to release his work without interference. He often worked from a home studio or office, which allowed him to both keep up his workaholic ways, and spend time with his family.
Frank Zappa was the first of four children born to Rose Marie (Colimore) and Francis Vincent Zappa, a Sicilian immigrant. The family moved frequently due to Francis Vincent Zappa’s expertise as a chemist and mathematician, contracted with various aspects of the defense industry. The family left for California when Frank was 10, eventually settling in Lancaster.
Young Zappa’s exposure to chemicals, such as mustard gas, may have had a profound effect on his health, which was always challenging. He showed early interest in innovation via gadgets but this soon turned to music. Avant-guard composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse attracted him alongside interest in doo-wop/R&B and modern jazz.
The family eventually settled outside of Los Angeles in Zappa’s late teens, and he soon took up drum and guitar. His proficiency grew so quickly that by his last year in high school, he was writing, composing and conducting avant-garde arrangements for the school orchestras and bands, he taught himself a variety of instruments, concentrating on guitar. A collector of Fifties rock & roll and R&B singles, he also listened to modern classical composers like Stravinsky and his avowed favorite, Edgard Varèse. In high school he formed the Black-Outs and added country blues to his record collection. He met future collaborator and underground legend Don Van Vliet and allegedly christened him Captain Beefheart. Frank Zappa launched his career as professional musician shortly after high school but income was sporadic; recordings brought in more money than local gigs—his racially diverse band, The Blackouts, bumped up against 1950s racism. In 1959 he studied music theory at Chaffey College in Alta Loma, California, dropping out after six months.
In 1960 Zappa played cocktail music in lounges and worked on his first recordings and the score for a B movie, “The World’s Greatest Sinner.” There were other scoring jobs for independent films, one commissioned by his high-school English teacher. A job at a recording studio led to acquiring it as a business but an entrapment arrest by local authorities over a “pornographic” audiotape, shut it down. Zappa was charged with conspiracy to commit pornography by the San Bernardino Vice Squad after an undercover policeman requested some sex “party” tapes: Zappa delivered tapes of faked grunting, and served 10 days of a six-month jail sentence. The woman involved was bailed out of jail with royalties from “Memories of El Monte,” which Zappa and Collins had written for the doo-wop group the Penguins.
Zappa also appeared on Steve Allen’s TV show, performing an avant-garde “bicycle concerto” (plucking the spokes, blowing through the handlebars). In 1963 Zappa wrote a score for a Western called “Run Home Slow,” and with the money he made built a studio in Cucamonga, California. He befriended future Mothers of Invention members Ray Collins and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, and formed a band with Beefheart called the Soots.
Zappa later joined The Soul Giants, soon converting them from a bar cover band to performing his original material, they morphed into The Mothers on Mother’s Day, 1965. But the band starved until impresario Herb Cohen (who’s career credits include Pete Seeger, Alice Cooper, Lenny Bruce and Linda Ronstadt) took them on and began booking them at hotspots such as Whiskey A-Go-Go.
Their debut album “Freak Out!” launched them as The Mothers of Invention. It was a groundbreaking double vinyl (four-sided) album that was a mélange of musical genres both innovative and irreverent. That tone continued with their second album, Absolutely Free, and regular New York shows that were part concert, part free-for-all circus with stuffed animals and vegetables.
Their reputation established, they gained a European following as well with a memorable appearance with the London Philharmonic. But in 1971, serious setbacks occurred: during a concert in Switzerland, the venue went up in flames—the event was memorialized in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Just one week later, Zappa suffered an on-stage fall that resulted in serious injuries including a crushed larynx and multiple fractures; he was left with a limp, a lowered voice, and back pain for the rest of his life.
Never fully fitting into the rock genre anyway, partly due to his refusal to embrace its drug culture, he moved toward the formation of new bands with more of a jazz base. The decade of the ’70s cultivated his reputation as one of the music industry’s most accomplished and demanding bandleaders. His prolific orchestral output was bisected by an unexpected Top 40 hit, “Valley Girl,” performed with his daughter, Moon Unit, which funded more of his less commercially viable musical projects.
Always up for pushing the boundaries of acceptable tastes, Zappa testified before Congress in 1985, when Tipper Gore’s PMRC decency in music movement proposed that “voluntary” ratings should be placed on sound recordings. Zappa, who was vehemently opposed to organized religion and a staunch advocate of the First Amendment, said in part, “The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like.” In 1990, Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel appointed Zappa as his cultural liaison officer, but Pesident George H.W. Bush soon quashed the appointment. Thereafter, Zappa briefly considered running for US president.
Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1990. He later said that he had experienced urinary problems for years, and submitted to repeated medical tests. But by the time he was diagnosed, doctors told him the condition had existed for many years and was inoperable, essentially giving Zappa a death sentence. He curtailed most of his musical activities, but spent the last few years of his life involved mainly in classical composition, debuting his work The Yellow Shark to rousing success in Europe despite being very ill.
While the general public’s perception was often one of a kook, Zappa was deeply respected as a consummate musician and composer, an innovative filmmaker, and a prolific cross-genre artist.
In 1995, Frank Zappa was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in 1997, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.READ MORE: