You Say It's Your Birthday: Frank Zappa

Today would have been the 57th birthday of the late Frank Vincent Zappa.

Zappa recorded over 60 albums that spanned many genres, including rock,

jazz and funk, and continues to be a major influence on such acts as Primus

and Phish. The eldest son of a guitar-playing government scientist, Zappa

became, at a young age, obsessed with '50s rock 'n' roll and contemporary

composers such as Stravinsky and Edgard Varese, an obsession that would last a

lifetime. In high school, he formed his first band, the Black-Outs; around

the same time he met Don Van Vliet and reportedly dubbed him Captain

Beefheart. After stints as a student, a lounge musician and a film scorer, Zappa built a recording studio in Cucamonga, Calif., and

began working in 1964 with the Soul Giants (which included vocalist Ray

Collins, drummer Jimmy Carl Black, saxophonist Dave Coronada and bassist

Roy Estrada). The group was later re-named the Muthers, then the Mothers,

and then, finally, the Mothers of Invention by MGM/Verve records,

who were wary of the band's outlandish nature. Their first album, the

appropriately titled Freak Out!, was released in 1966 and remains one

of the most important and influential rock albums of all time.

A litany of satirical, culturally challenging albums followed: 1967's orchestral Lumpy

Gravy, the 1968 hippie send-up We're Only in It for the

Money and a tribute to '50s doo-wop entitled

Crusing with Ruben & the Jets, also in 1968. Following the release of 1969's

Uncle Meat, Zappa married his second wife, Gail, with whom he would

have his children: Moon Unit, Diva, Dweezil and Ahmet Rodan. During the

early 1970s, Zappa began scoring films again, having temporarily disbanded


Mothers. The group re-formed, but critics were beginning to look cynically

upon the band's

penchant for wild humor. Zappa continually ran into trouble on obscenity

charges, but he continued on making such songs as "Dynamo Hum" and "Don't

Eat the Yellow Snow." In 1977, he retired the Mothers name, instead using

his own last name for future works, and in 1979 released Sheik

Yerbouti. The album featured "Jewish Princess," a song that led the

B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League to file a complaint with the FCC. It

also included a surprise hit single with "Dancin' Fool." Problems regarding

Zappa's 1980 recording of "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted" -- his label at the

time, Mercury, refused to release it -- led to the founding of his Barking

Pumpkin label. Zappa continued producing solo works, specializing in satirizing

American culture and, more often than not, offending the political and religious

right. In the mid-1980s, he got very political, taking time out to battle

the Parent's Music Resource Center and to work on getting people

to register to vote. He began dabbling in classical work with Pierre

Boulez, culminating in 1984's Boulez Conducts Zappa/ The Perfect

Stranger. He won his first Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy

for 1986's Jazz From Hell and then won again in 1993 for "Sofa." Zappa

died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993. He was 52 years old.

Other birthdays: Carla Thomas, 55; Carl Wilson (Beach Boys), 51; and Allan Johnson (Real Life), 40.