The late Frank Zappa was not a steady hitmaker, but his satirical lyrics
and irreverent pastiche of rock, pop, jazz and classical music have
influenced innumerable musicians.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born Dec. 21, 1940, in Baltimore. He was the oldest
of four children of a governmental scientist who played guitar in his
The Zappas moved to California when Frank was 10. He began playing a
variety of instruments in school orchestras but was especially taken with
the guitar. Zappa also loved '50s rock 'n' roll and R&B, as well as modern
classical musicians such as Edgard Varèse.
In high school, Zappa formed his first band, the Black-Outs. He also met
future underground music great Don Van Vliet, whom, according to legend,
he named Captain Beefheart. Following six months studying musical theory,
Zappa became a cocktail-lounge musician and wrote a score for a B-movie
entitled "The World's Greatest Sinner."
Zappa made one of his first TV appearances on Steve Allen's show, during
which he "played" a bicycle by plucking its spokes and blowing through
its handlebars. With money earned from a musical score for a Western film,
Zappa built a recording studio in Cucamonga and formed a band called the
His first brush with the law came after Zappa gave an undercover police
officer a tape he made of faked sexual grunting. Zappa served 10 days of
a six-month jail sentence and bailed the "grunter" out of jail with royalties
from "Memories of El Monte," which he and Ray Collins wrote for the doo-wop
group the Penguins.
In 1964, Zappa joined the Soul Giants, consisting of Collins (vocals),
Dave Coronada (sax), Roy Estrada (bass) and Jimmy Carl Black (drums). He
renamed the band the Muthers, which eventually became the Mothers. In 1966
producer Tom Wilson signed them to MGM/Verve Records and issued their
debut, Freak Out!, which impressed some critics but made no money.
The label forced Zappa to add "of Invention" to the Mothers moniker.
The Mothers continued to innovate on Absolutely Free (1967), which
featured social-satire tunes made with tape edits, free-form outbursts
and a mix of classical and rock elements. Zappa also recorded Lumpy
Gravy, with a 50-piece orchestra, and parodied the Beatles' Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on We're Only in It for the Money.
After relocating to New York City, the rapidly changing Mothers lineup
pioneered rock theater with a series of audience-participation skits at
the Garrick Theatre. In the late '60s, back in California, Zappa signed
with Warner/Reprise Records and formed the Straight and Bizarre labels,
on which he recorded such acts as the "groupie" band the GTO's, Alice
Cooper and Captain Beefheart.
The Mothers were drifting apart, so Zappa concentrated on solo projects
such as the "200 Motels" soundtrack and his first solo LP, the jazz-rock
Hot Rats (1969). He re-formed the Mothers with several new players
for albums such as Just Another Band From L.A. (1972) and
Over-nite Sensation (featuring "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow"). This
version of the band, featuring former Turtles lead singers Mark Volman
and Howard Kaylan as frontmen, often offered X-rated comedy in performance.
During a show in London, a fan pushed Zappa off the stage, causing injury
serious enough to result in a performing hiatus and the end of the Mothers
as an entity.
In the latter half of the '70s, Zappa recorded on Zappa Records, using
the bandname Zappa, as well. Sheik Yerbouti (1979) yielded "Jewish
Princess" and the hit "Dancin' Fool." That year, Zappa also issued Joe's
Garage, a three-part rock opera. His bands of this period included
future session giants such as Adrian Belew and Missing Persons' Terry
In the '80s, Zappa established Barking Pumpkin Records and toured and
recorded with some former Mothers as the Grandmothers. In 1982, Ship
Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch yielded the top-40 hit
"Valley Girl," featuring Zappa's daughter Moon Unit. The song parodied
spoiled children of entertainment-industry parents.
Zappa testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1985 against the Parents'
Music Resource Center, a group featuring Tipper Gore that organized against
obscenity in pop music.
Also in the '80s, orchestras performed Zappa's music, and he staged his
own world tour. In 1988 Zappa won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental
Performance for Jazz From Hell.
In 1990 Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel selected Zappa to be that
country's trade, tourism and cultural liaison to the West. The next year,
Zappa briefly considered a run for the U.S. presidency.
Zappa developed prostate cancer in the '90s. In 1993 he released The
Yellow Shark, an album of his songs recorded by the classical group
Ensemble Modern. Zappa died Dec. 4 of that year at his home in Los Angeles.
His sequel to Lumpy Gravy, Civilization Phaze III, was
released two years later.
He left a body of work that, despite frequent flirtations with bad taste,
was one of the most varied and accomplished of late-20th-century pop
In 1996 Rykodisc issued Lather, a three-CD set comprising four LPs
that Zappa's record company had forced him to release as single albums
in the '70s. It included tracks such as "Titties and Beer" and "The Legend
of the Illinois Enema Bandit" (RealAudio
Last year, a series of Zappa tracks originally released in the '80s on
mail-order-only vinyl box sets was issued as Mystery Disc. Songs
included "Original Duke of Prunes" and "Boss Nova Pervertamento."
Earlier this year came the Zappa compilation Son of Cheep Thrills,
featuring tracks such as "Disco Boy" and "The Legend of the Golden Arches."
Other birthdays on Tuesday: Ray Hildebrand (Paul and Paula), 59; Carla
Thomas, 57; Albert Lee, 56; Betty Wright, 46; Allan Johnson (Real Life),
42; Tony Lewis (Outfield), 42; Gabrielle Glaser (Luscious Jackson), 34;
Delious Kennedy (All 4 One), 29; and Carl Wilson (Beach Boys), 19461998.