Captain Beefheart never sold many records, but many of his genre-bending, chamber-musiclike albums, especially Trout Mask Replica (1969), have long been hailed as classics by critics and ambitious rock musicians.
Captain Beefheart was born Don Van Vliet on Jan. 15, 1941, in Glendale, Calif. He was a talented sculptor as a child, and Portuguese sculptor Augustinio Rodriguez featured Van Vliet's work on his weekly television show for eight years.
He received a scholarship to study art in Europe, but his parents turned it down. The Van Vliet family then moved to Lancaster, Calif., in the Mojave Desert, where young Don became friends with Frank Zappa.
After teaching himself to play harmonica and saxophone, Van Vliet began gigging with local R&B bands. He dropped out of college to move with Zappa to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to form the band the Soots and to make the movie "Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People." Both projects were short-lived. Zappa moved to Los Angeles to form the Mothers, while Van Vliet returned to Lancaster to form Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band.
After the band's single "Diddy Wah Diddy" sold well locally, A&M Records asked for an LP but eventually rejected Beefheart's submission. (The music was released in 1984 as The Legendary A&M Sessions.) The Magic Band disbanded; Beefheart re-recorded the songs with a new Magic Band lineup for Safe as Milk (1967) on Buddah Records.
The Magic Band (with membership constantly changing) toured Europe while, to Beefheart's distaste, producer Bob Krasnow remixed their next effort, Strictly Personal. Frustrated with the album in its released form, Beefheart hooked up with Zappa, who promised the Magic Band artistic control if it recorded for Zappa's Straight Records.
Beefheart reportedly then wrote 28 songs in less than nine hours, from which he compiled Trout Mask Replica, considered by critics to be his masterpiece. The LP featured tracks such as "Sugar 'n Spikes."
Beefheart's profile increased with acclaim for Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970). He also appeared on Zappa's Hot Rats (1969). After a stint on Reprise Records, Beefheart issued blues-influenced pop LPs, including Clear Spot (1972) on Mercury Records.
In 1975 Beefheart sang with Zappa's Mothers of Invention on their Bongo Fury. Beefheart released the critically lauded Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in 1978 and began touring with another Magic Band. Though his 1980 tour was one of his most successful, Beefheart quit music after Ice Cream for Crow (1982).
He retired to the Mojave to paint. In 1985, with the assistance of postmodern artist and Beefheart devotee Julian Schnabel, Beefheart began exhibiting his work in the United States and Europe and profiting from sales.
Rumors flew in the '90s that Beefheart had a chronic illness. He appeared to be in poor health in BBC-TV footage in 1997.
Last year Revenant Records issued the box set Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band Grow Fins, Rarities 1965–82, including a live version of "Electricity" (RealAudio excerpt). Also, Rhino Records released the two-CD career retrospective The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology).
"If anything, this ... shows him to be even more of a ... genius," Revenant co-owner Dean Blackwood said about his label's Beefheart compilation. "The nature of his special gift may be deeper than people think."
"I try to raise art culture," Beefheart said in 1977. "Art culture must raise. Raise the drawbridge. Boy, they better raise the drawbridge or else it'll be a drawstring around everybody's neck."
Other birthdays Saturday: Edward Bivins (Manhattans), 58; Peter Waterman (Stock Aitkin and Waterman), 53; Martha Davis (Motels), 49; Boris Blank (Yello), 47; William Tutton (Geraldine Fibbers), 37; Adam Jones (Tool), 35; Lisa Lisa (Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam), 33; and Ronnie Van Zant (Lynyrd Skynyrd), (1949–1977).