With more than 80 albums to his credit, composer/arranger/guitarist/bandleader Frank Zappa demonstrated a mastery of pop idioms ranging from jazz to rock of every conceivable variety, penned electronic and orchestral works, parlayed controversial satire, and testified in Congress against censorship. Zappa was impatient with any division between popular and high art; he combined scatological humor with political wit, required of his players (among them over the years, Little Feat founder Lowell George, guitarists Adrian Belew and Steve Vai, and drummer Terry Bozzio) an intimidating skill, and displayed consistent innovation in instrumental and studio technology. In the 2000s, his son Dweezil revived Zappa's music and demanding musicianship with Zappa Plays Zappa, a performance ensemble that transcends being a mere cover band, actually recreating the music and extending the improvisations on stage for new generations.
The eldest of four children of a guitar-playing government scientist, Francis Vincent Zappa Jr., was born December 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland. He moved with his family at age 10 to California, eventually settling in Lancaster. Playing in 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. 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. He 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 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. The incident sparked Zappa's lifelong free-speech activism.
In 1964 Zappa joined the Soul Giants, with Collins on vocals, Dave Coronada on sax, Roy Estrada on bass, and Jimmy Carl Black on drums. Renaming them the Muthers, then the Mothers, he moved the band onto L.A.'s proto-hippie "freak" circuit (Coronada quit, replaced by guitarist Elliot Ingber). The band played clubs for two years, mixing covers with social-protest tunes like "Who Are the Brain Police?" In early 1966 producer Tom Wilson signed the Mothers to MGM/Verve and recorded Freak Out! MGM, wary of the band's outrageous reputation, forced Zappa to add "of Invention" to the name. Though Zappa advertised the album in underground papers and comics and earned critical respect for the album's obvious musical and lyrical distinction, it ended up losing money.
In 1966, with Ingber departing – eventually to join Captain Beefheart's Magic Band – the Mothers lineup expanded to include saxophonists Bunk Gardner and Motorhead Sherwood, keyboardist Don Preston, and drummer Billy Mundi. Released in 1967, Absolutely Free further satirized "straight" America with pointed tunes like "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and "Plastic People." We're Only in It for the Money, a parody of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, found Zappa savaging hippie pretensions. His montage production techniques – mingling tape edits, noise, recitative, free-form outbursts, and Varèse-like modern classical music with rock – were coming into their own. In 1967 Zappa and the Mothers also recorded Lumpy Gravy, with a 50-piece orchestra, including many Mothers, and Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, an homage to Fifties doo-wop.
Mundi left after Lumpy Gravy; by now it was apparent that the Mothers were less a band than a shifting vehicle for Zappa's art. While recording Money, Zappa and the group had moved to New York City's Greenwich Village, where they began a six-month residency at the Garrick Theatre. There they pioneered rock theater with a series of often-spontaneous audience-participation skits. While recording Ruben & the Jets, the Mothers also began recording Uncle Meat, a double album for a never-completed movie. It is the first example of Zappa's trademark complex-meter jazz-rock fusion.
After making Uncle Meat, Zappa moved the band back to L.A. and married his second wife, Gail; their four children include daughters Moon Unit and Diva and sons Dweezil and Ahmet Rodan. (Dweezil would become a solo artist in the Eighties, then form Shampoohorn with his brother in the Nineties before beginning his Zappa Plays Zappa project of the 2000s; both also became television personalities, as did their sister Moon Unit). In L.A. Zappa moved into movie cowboy Tom Mix's Log Cabin Ranch, where he assembled the increasingly complex Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. By this time, the band had come to include second guitarist Lowell George and drummer Art Tripp III.In late 1968 Zappa and manager Herb Cohen had moved to Warner/Reprise, where they formed their own Straight and Bizarre labels. Zappa recorded such acts as groupie collective the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously), onetime street-singer Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, and Captain Beefheart (whose Trout Mask Replica was one of Zappa's most memorable productions). By the time Weasels came out in 1970, Zappa had temporarily disbanded the Mothers because of overwhelming expenses and public apathy. George and Estrada then founded Little Feat; Trip joined Beefheart (Estrada later joined Beefheart as well); Gardner and Black formed Geronimo Black.
Zappa began composing the soundtrack for 200 Motels. He also recorded his first solo album, Hot Rats, a jazz-rock guitar showcase featuring Beefheart and jazz violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Don "Sugarcane" Harris. Hot Rats came out to great critical acclaim in 1970, as did Ponty's King Kong, an album of Zappa compositions (for legal reasons, Zappa's name couldn't be listed as producer and guitarist). In 1970 Zappa also performed the 200 Motels score with Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic at a sold-out L.A. concert. That summer, Zappa re-formed the Mothers, retaining keyboardist/reedman Ian Underwood and adding ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (singers then known as the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie), and bassist Jim Pons, along with jazz keyboardist George Duke and British rock drummer Aynsley Dunbar. With this lineup and other session players, Zappa recorded Waka/Jawaka and Chunga's Revenge as solo albums and the Mothers' Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A.
At this point, critics began accusing the Mothers of becoming a cynical, scatological joke, but Zappa displayed no discomfort in portraying two apparently contradictory personae: the raunchy inciter and the serious composer (whose stature in fact would increase over the years, and whose cult has always remained intense). In 1971 the 200 Motels film, featuring Theodore Bikel and Ringo Starr as surrogate Zappas, as well as the Mothers, was released to mixed response. In May 1971 Zappa appeared at one of the last Fillmore East concerts with John Lennon and Yoko Ono; the performance appears on Lennon/Ono's Some Time in New York City. As the Mothers personnel began to change more frequently, they embarked on a 1971 tour in which their equipment was destroyed in a fire at Switzerland's Montreux Casino (immortalized in opening act Deep Purple's hit "Smoke on the Water"), and Zappa was injured when a fan pushed him from the stage of London's Rainbow Theatre. A year later the Mothers were banned from Royal Albert Hall for "obscenity."
The Grand Wazoo, with numerous auxiliary players, was a big-band fusion album. And in 1973 Zappa and the Mothers also recorded Over-Nite Sensation, on which Zappa simplified his music and kept his lyrics in a scatological-humorous vein, as in "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" (Number 86, 1974). Album sales picked up. Apostrophe (') – Zappa's highest charting album, at Number 10 – featured an extended jam with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, as well as by-now-typical dirty jokes and satires. The 1975 Bongo Fury reunited Zappa with Beefheart. The latter had fallen out with Zappa after Trout Mask, accusing Zappa of marketing him as "a freak."
After producing Grand Funk Railroad's Good Singin', Good Playin' in 1976, Zappa filed a lawsuit against Herb Cohen in 1977 and severed ties with Warner Bros., moving to Mercury two years later. There he set up Zappa Records and retired the Mothers name, calling all later groups Zappa. On the new label he released Sheik Yerbouti (a pun on KC and the Sunshine Band's disco hit "Shake Your Booty"), including the song "Jewish Princess," over which the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League filed a complaint with the FCC against Zappa. That album also yielded a surprise hit single, "Dancin' Fool" (Number 45, 1979), which lampooned the disco crowd. (Sheik peaked at Number 21 on the albums chart.) Joe's Garage, Act I, the first installment of a three-act rock opera, included "Catholic Girls," and Zappa's penchant for barbed attacks continued to infuriate his critics while strengthening his own following.
In 1979 Zappa also released the film Baby Snakes, a mèlange of concert footage, dressing room slapstick, and clay-figure animation. The late-Seventies Zappa bands included guitarist Adrian Belew (who later played with Talking Heads, King Crimson, and David Bowie) and drummer Terry Bozzio (who with his wife Dale would found Missing Persons). In 1980 Zappa recorded a single, "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted," which Mercury refused to release, prompting him to leave the label and establish his own Barking Pumpkin label the following year.
In 1981 some former members of the Mothers of Invention, including Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, and Bunk Gardner, united to form the Grandmothers. They toured and recorded, playing all-Zappa material from the Mothers' vintage late-Sixties period. That April, Zappa produced and hosted a New York City concert of music by Edgard Varèse. He also released a limited edition, mail-order-only, three-album series, Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar.
Zappa parlayed stereotype satire into success once more with "Valley Girl" (Number 32, 1982) from the Drowning Witch album. The song parodied the spoiled daughters of entertainment-industry folk, specifically those in the San Bernardino Valley city of Encino, and featured inspired mimicry by then-14-year-old Moon Unit Zappa. In 1983 Zappa conducted works by Varèse and Anton Webern at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.
The Eighties saw Zappa consolidating his business affairs and becoming more politically active. With wife Gail in charge, his companies included not only Barking Pumpkin (a mail-order label, distributed by Capitol) but Honker Home Video, Barfko-Swill (for Zappa merchandise), and World's Finest Optional Entertainment Co. (to produce live shows); he also arranged with Rykodisc to rerelease his catalog on CD. A lifelong free-speech advocate, he testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1985 and assailed the Parents' Music Resource Center (excerpts from the hearings appeared on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention); he also criticized Christian hypocrisy in "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk," aimed at fallen televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, from his 1988 tour document, Broadway the Hard Way. Throughout the decade, he also championed voter registration drives.
Artistically, the Eighties were good to Zappa. Early in the decade, the Berkeley Symphony performed his work; in 1984 conductor/composer Pierre Boulez released Boulez Conducts Zappa/The Perfect Stranger (Number 7, 1984, on the classical chart). In 1988 Zappa won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental for Jazz From Hell, an album composed on Synclavier, a highly sophisticated synthesizer that in Zappa found one of its chief devotees. Among his other late-Eighties projects were remastering his Sixties work for CD and assembling six double-CD sets of live work entitled You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore. In 1989 Poseidon Press published his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book.
In 1990, at the invitation of Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel, a longtime fan, Zappa served for several months as that country's trade, tourism, and cultural liaison to the West. The following year, he considered a run for the U.S. Presidency. But that year, in New York City, on the eve of a tribute concert entitled "Zappa's Universe," Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa announced that their father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A lifelong teetotaler and abstainer from drugs (Zappa, however, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee incessantly), the composer continued a rigorous work schedule. In 1992 he completed a two-CD sequel to Lumpy Gravy, Civilization Phaze III and in 1993 recorded both The Yellow Shark, an album of his compositions by the classical group Ensemble Modern, and, also with the Ensemble, an album of Varèse works tentatively entitled The Rage and the Fury: The Music of Edgard Varèse. Zappa died on the evening of December 4, 1993, at his L.A. home; he was 52 years old.
Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That year also saw the publication, from St. Martin's Press, of Ben Watson's Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, an exhaustive postmodernist deconstruction/appreciation of the man's music. Over the years Zappa had remixed or remastered all of his recorded output for CD releases; nearly everything has since been rereleased on Rykodisc
In 1999, Zappa was remembered, perhaps more fittingly, by an all-Zappa program performed by the Florida Orchestra. Dweezil Zappa began touring Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006 and released a performance DVD two years later. Several Frank Zappa alums, including drummer Bozzio and guitarist Vai, have appeared as guests, and Dweezil has even made his father part of some shows using audio and video technology. In 2009 Zappa Plays Zappa won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "Peaches en Regalia."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.