Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940, Frank Zappa was largely a self-taught musician, whose 30-year career embraced a wide variety of musical genres, encompassing rock, jazz, synth and symphonies. Avant-garde composers, as well as math and chemistry from his father's work, all fell into Zappa's mix of influences and comprised his unique approach to his art, coupled with a flouting of convention. Zappa also directed films, designed album covers and spoke about social issues. Although his unconventional aspect often overshadowed his brilliance, Zappa is highly respected as a musical pioneer. He died from prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at age 52.
Frank Vincent Zappa, born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940, the first of four children to Rose Marie (Colimore) and Francis Vincent Zappa, a Sicilian immigrant. The family moved frequently due to Francis Vincent Zappa's expertise as a chemist and mathematician, contracted with various aspects of the defense industry.
Young Zappa's exposure to chemicals, such as mustard gas, may have had a profound effect on his health, which was always challenging. He showed early interest in innovation via gadgets but this soon turned to music. Avant-guard composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse attracted him alongside interest in doo-wop/R&B and modern jazz. The family eventually settled outside of Los Angeles in Zappa's late teens, and he soon took up drum and guitar. His proficiency grew so quickly that by his last year in high school, he was writing, composing and conducting avant-garde arrangements for the school orchestra.
Frank Zappa launched his career as professional musician shortly after high school but income was sporadic; recordings brought in more money than local gigs—his racially diverse band, The Blackouts, bumped up against 1950s racism. There was some scoring of independent films, one commissioned by his high-school English teacher. A job at a recording studio led to acquiring it as a business but an entrapment arrest by local authorities over a "pornographic" audiotape, shut it down. Going back to the band route, Zappa joined The Soul Giants, soon converting them from a bar cover band to performing his original material—they morphed into The Mothers on Mother's Day, 1965.
But the band was starving, until impresario Herb Cohen (who's career credits include Pete Seeger, Alice Cooper, Lenny Bruce and Linda Ronstadt) took them on and began booking them at hotspots such as Whiskey A-Go-Go.
Their debut album, Freak Out!, launched them as The Mothers of Invention. It wasonly the second double rock album ever released—a groundbreaking mélange of musical genres both innovative and irreverent. That tone continued with their second album, Absolutely Free, and regular New York shows that were part concert, part free-for-all circus with stuffed animals and vegetables.
Their reputation established, they gained a European following as well with a memorable appearance with the London Philharmonic. But in 1971, serious setbacks occurred: during a concert in Switzerland, the venue went up in flames—the event was memorialized in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Just one week later, Zappa suffered an on-stage fall that resulted in serious injuries including a crushed larynx and multiple fractures—he was left with a limp, a lowered voice, and back pain for the rest of his life.
Never fully fitting into the rock genre anyway, partly due to his refusal to embrace its drug culture, he moved toward the formation of new bands with more of a jazz base. The decade of the '70s cultivated his reputation as one of the music industry’s most accomplished and demanding bandleaders. His prolific orchestral output was bisected by an unexpected Top 40 hit, "Valley Girl," performed with his daughter, Moon Unit, which funded more of his less commercially viable musical projects.
Outside of playing music, Zappa directed music videos, short films and features, and he became obsessed with the infinite possibilities synthetic music offered because it could accommodate almost most anything he dreamed up. Stints as a guest speaker on social activism emerged after his Senate testimony about censorship in music.
In 1990, Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel appointed Zappa as his cultural liaison officer, but Pesident George H.W. Bush soon quashed the appointment. Thereafter, Zappa briefly considered running for U.S. president.
While the general public's perception was often one of a kook, Zappa was deeply respected as a consummate musician and composer, an innovative filmmaker, and a prolific cross-genre artist.
Death and Legacy
Frank Zappa died from prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52, in Los Angeles. He was survived by his wife of 26 years, Gail Sloatman, who had managed much of Zappa's business concerns in his later career, and their four children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen. After Zappa's death, his family released the statement: "Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6 p.m. Saturday."
In 1995, Frank Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in 1997, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
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