Frank Zappa Biography
Frank Vincent Zappa, 21 December 1940, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 4 December 1993, Los Angeles, California, USA. Zappas parents were second-generation Sicilian Greeks; his father played strolling crooner guitar. At the age of 12 Frank, who had relocated to California with his family, became interested in drums, learning orchestral percussion at summer school in Monterey. He played drums in a local R&B band called the Ramblers, and after moving to Lancaster formed the racially-integrated Black-Outs. Early exposure to a record of Ionisation by avant garde classical composer Edgard Varèse instilled an interest in advanced rhythmic experimentation that never left him. The electric guitar also became a fascination, and he began collecting R&B records that featured guitar solos: Howlin Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters, Johnny Guitar Watson and Clarence Gatemouth Brown were special favourites. A school friend, Don Vliet (later to become Captain Beefheart), shared his interest.
In 1964 Zappa, who had been working in a local studio, recording spoof doo-wop singles and composing scores for b-movies, joined a local R&B outfit called the Soul Giants, whose line-up included vocalist Ray Collins (b. 19 November 1937, USA), bass player Roy Estrada (b. 17 April 1943, USA), and drummer Jimmy Carl Black (b. 1 February 1938, El Paso, Texas, USA). Zappa changed their name to the Mothers, but Of Invention was later added at the insistence of their label, Verve Records. A string of guitarists came and went, including Alice Stuart and Henry Vestine, before Elliott Ingber was added to the line-up. Produced by Tom Wilson in 1966, the late black producer whose credits included Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan, the Mothers Of Inventions Freak Out! was a stunning debut, a two-record set complete with a whole side of wild percussion, a vitriolic protest song, Trouble Every Day, and the kind of minute detail (sleeve-notes, in-jokes, parodies) that generate instant cult appeal. They made great play of their hair and ugliness, becoming the perfect counter-cultural icons. Unlike the east coast band the Fugs, the Mothers were also musically skilled, a refined instrument for Zappas eclectic and imaginative ideas. Ingber left to form the Fraternity Of Man before the recording of the bands second album, Absolutely Free. He was replaced for a short period by Jim Fielder, before Zappa chose to expand the Mothers Of Invention with the addition of second drummer Billy Mundi, keyboard player Don Preston (b. Donald Ward Preston, 21 September 1932, Flint, Michigan, USA), and horn players Bunk Gardner and Jim Motorhead Sherwood.
Tours and releases followed, including Absolutely Free, the solo Lumpy Gravy and Were Only In It For The Money, (with its brilliant parody of the Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band record cover) a scathing satire on hippiedom and the reactions to it in the USA, and a notable appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London (documented on the compulsive Uncle Meat). In stark contrast, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets paid excellent homage to the doo-wop era. British fans were particularly impressed with Hot Rats, a solo Zappa record that ditched the sociological commentary for barnstorming jazz rock, blistering guitar solos, the extravagant Peaches En Regalia and a cameo appearance by Captain Beefheart on Willie The Pimp.
Collins had quit in April 1968, and the Mothers Of Invention would eventually disintegrate the following August. Both Uncle Meat and Hot Rats appeared on Zappas own Bizarre Records label which, together with his other outlet Straight Records, released a number of highly regarded albums that were nevertheless commercial flops. Artists to benefit from Zappas patronage included the GTOs, Larry Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley. Captain Beefhearts indispensable Zappa-produced classic, Trout Mask Replica, was also released on Straight. Eager to gain a heavier image than the band that had brought them fame, the Turtles singers Mark Volman (b. 19 April 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA) and Howard Kaylan (b. Howard Kaplan, 22 June 1947, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA), aka Flo And Eddie, joined up with Zappa for the movie 200 Motels and three further albums. The newly re-christened Mothers now included George Duke (b. 12 January 1946, San Rafael, California, USA; keyboards/trombone), Ian Underwood (keyboards/saxophone), Aynsley Dunbar (b. 10 January 1946, Liverpool, England; drums), and Jeff Simmons (bass/vocals), although the latter was quickly replaced by Jim Pons (b. 14 March 1943, Santa Monica, California, USA). Live At The Fillmore East, June 1971 included some intentionally outrageous subject matter prompting inevitable criticism from conservative observers.
1971 was not a happy year for Zappa: on 4 December fire destroyed the bands equipment while they were playing at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland (an event commemorated in Deep Purples Smoke On The Water) and six days later Zappa was pushed off-stage at Londons Rainbow theatre, crushing his larynx (lowering his voice a third), damaging his spine and keeping him wheelchair-bound for the best part of a year. He spent 1972 developing an extraordinary new species of big band fusion (Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo), working with top west coast session musicians. However, he found these excellent players dull touring companions, and decided to dump the jazztette for an electric band. Over-Nite Sensation announced fusion-chops, salacious lyrics and driving rhythms. The live band featured an extraordinary combination of jazz-based swing and a rich, sonorous rock that probably only Zappa (with his interest in modern classical music) could achieve. Percussion virtuoso Ruth Underwood, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, featured in the King Kong project, and keyboard player Duke shone in this context. Apostrophe () showcased Zappas talents as a story-teller in the Lord Buckley tradition, and also (in the title-track) featured a jam with bass player Jack Bruce: it reached number 10 in the Billboard chart in June 1974. Roxy & Elsewhere caught the band live, negotiating diabolically hard musical notation - Echidnas Arf (Of You) and Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmens Church) - with infectious good humour. One Size Fits All, an under-acknowledged masterpiece, built up extraordinary multi-tracked textures. Andy was a song about b-movie cowboys, while Florentine Pogen and Inca Roads were complex extended pieces.
In 1975, Captain Beefheart joined Zappa for a tour and despite an earlier rift, sang on Bongo Fury, both reuniting in disgust over the USAs bicentennial complacency. Zoot Allures in 1976 was principally a collaboration between Zappa and drummer Terry Bozzio, with Zappa overdubbing most of the instruments himself. He was experimenting with what he termed xenochronicity (combining unrelated tracks to create a piece of non-synchronous music) and produced intriguing results on Friendly Little Finger. The title track took the concept of sleaze guitar onto a new level (as did the orgasmic moaning of The Torture Never Stops), while Black Napkins was an incomparable vehicle for Zappas guitar work. If Zoot Allures now reads like a response to punk, Zappa was not to forsake large-scale rock showbiz. A series of concerts in New York in late 1976 had a wildly excited crowd applauding tales of singles bars, devil encounters and stunning Brecker Brothers virtuosity (recorded as Live In New York). This album was part of the fall-out from Zappas break-up with Warner Brothers Records, who put out three excellent instrumental albums with non-authorized covers (adopted, strangely enough, by Zappa for his CD re-releases): Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favourites. The punk-obsessed rock press did not know what to make of music that parodied Miklos Rozsa, crossed jazz with cartoon scores, guyed rock n roll hysteria and stretched fusion into the twenty-first century. Undaunted by still being perceived as a hippie, which he clearly was not (Were Only In It For The Money had said the last word on the Summer Of Love while it was happening!), Zappa continued to tour.
His guitar-playing seemed to expand into a new dimension: Yo Mama on 1979s Sheik Yerbouti was a taste of the extravaganzas to come. In Ike Willis, Zappa found a vocalist who understood his required combination of emotional detachment and intimacy, and featured him extensively on the three volumes of Joes Garage. After the mid-70s interest in philosophical concepts and band in-jokes, the music became more political. Tinseltown Rebellion and You Are What You Is commented on the growth of the fundamentalist Right. Zappa had a hit in 1982 with Valley Girl, which featured his daughter Moon Unit satirizing the accents of young moneyed Hollywood people. That same year saw him produce and introduce a New York concert of music by Varèse. The title track of Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch indicated that Zappas interest in extended composition was not waning; this was confirmed by the release of a serious orchestral album recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1983. Zappa was quite outrageously prolific in 1984: renowned French composer Pierre Boulez conducted Zappas work on The Perfect Stranger; he released a rock album Them Or Us, which widened still further the impact of his scurrilously inventive guitar; Thing-Fish was a Broadway musical about AIDS, homophobia and racism; and he unearthed an eighteenth-century composer named Francesco Zappa and recorded his work on a synclavier. The following years Does Humor Belong In Music? and Meets The Mothers Of Prevention were effective responses to the rise of powerful censor groups in America. Jazz From Hell presented wordless compositions for synclavier that drew inspiration from the expatriate American experimentalist composer Conlon Nancarrow.
Zappas next big project materialized in 1988: a 12-piece band playing covers, instrumentals and a brace of new political songs (collected respectively as Broadway The Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, and Make A Jazz Noise Here). After rehearsing for three months the power and precision of the band were breathtaking, but they broke up during their first tour. As well as the retrospective series You Cant Do That On Stage Anymore, Zappa released his most popular bootlegs in two instalments as part of his Beat The Boots campaign. In Czechoslovakia, where he had long been a hero of the cultural underground, he was appointed as the countrys Cultural Liaison Officer with the West. In 1991 he announced he would be standing as an independent candidate in the 1992 US presidential election (almost immediately he received several death threats!), but in November his daughter confirmed reports that he was suffering from cancer of the prostate. In May 1993 Zappa, clearly weak from intensive chemotherapy, announced that he was fast losing the battle as it had spread into his bones. He succumbed to the disease seven months later.
In 1995, a remarkable reissue programme was undertaken by Rykodisc Records in conjunction with Gail Zappa. The entire catalogue of over 50 albums was remastered and re-packaged with loving care. Rykodisc deserve the highest praise for this bold move. In 2003 Dweezil Zappa promised more unreleased material from the vaults of his father as he took over as the family archivist. Viewed in perspective, Zappas career reveals a perfectionist using only the highest standards of musicianship and the finest recording methods. The reissued CDs highlight the extraordinary quality of the original master tapes and Zappas idealism. Additionally, he is now rightly seen as one of the great guitar players of our time. Although much of his oeuvre can easily be dismissed as flippant, history will certainly recognize Zappa as a sophisticated, serious composer and a highly accomplished master of music. This musical genius never ceased to astonish, both as a musician and composer: on the way, he produced a towering body of work that is probably rock musics closest equivalent to the legacy of Duke Ellington. The additional fact that he did it all with an amazing sense of humour should be regarded as a positive bonus.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.