December 4, 1993 – Frank Vincent Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland with an Italian, Sicilian, Greek and Arab ancestry. With his dad employed as chemist/mathematician in the Defense industry, the family often moved to the extent that he attended at least 6 high schools. He began to play drums at the age of 12, and was playing in R&B groups by high school,
Zappa grew up influenced by avant-garde composers such as Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, as well as R&B and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz. His own heterogeneous ethnic background and the diverse social and cultural mix in and around greater Los Angeles in the sixties, were crucial in the forming of Zappa as a practitioner of underground music and of his later distrustful and openly critical attitude towards “mainstream” social, political, religious and musical movements. He frequently lampooned musical fads like psychedelia, rock opera and disco. Television also exerted a strong influence, as demonstrated by quotations from show themes and advertising jingles found in his later works.
In 1956 the family had moved to Antelope Valley in the Mojave Desert, where young Frank met Don Vliet (who later expanded his name to Don Van Vliet and adopted the stage name Captain Beefheart) at school. Zappa and Vliet became close friends, sharing an interest in R&B records and influencing each other musically throughout their careers.
Around the same time, Zappa started playing drums in a local band, the Blackouts. The band was racially diverse, and included Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood who later became a member of the Mothers of Invention. Zappa’s interest in the guitar grew, and in 1957 he was given his first guitar. Among his early influences were Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Howlin’ Wolf and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. (In the 1970s and ’80s, he invited Guitar Watson to perform on several albums.) Zappa considered soloing as the equivalent of forming “air sculptures”, and developed an eclectic, innovative and highly personal style, one that earned him rank no. 22 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s List of Greatest Guitar players of all time in 2011.
Zappa’s interest in composing and arranging flourished in his last high-school years. By his final year, he was writing, arranging and conducting avant-garde performance pieces for the school orchestra. He graduated from Antelope Valley High School in 1958, and later acknowledged two of his music teachers on the sleeve of the 1966 album Freak Out!
After barely graduating from high school, and then dropping out of junior college (where he met his first wife, Kay Sherman), Zappa worked at such jobs as window dresser, copywriter and door-to-door sales man.
Of all the qualities that typified Frank Zappa, perhaps the most striking is that he was a paradox. A workaholic perfectionist rock star who eschewed the hippie culture of the 1960s, deploring its conformism, spurious ideals and drug use, Zappa was not only a brilliant rock guitarist but an orchestral composer, innovative filmmaker, music producer, businessman, iconoclast and perceptive political and social commentator. His oeuvre continually amazes: over 60 albums of music from rock to orchestral, in addition to innumerable films, concerts and other accomplishments.
With the money he earned from scoring Run Home, Slow (1965) (written by his high school English teacher, Don Cerveris), Zappa purchased a recording studio and, after concocting an allegedly obscene recording for an undercover policeman, spent ten days in jail. Zappa’s diverse range of albums (both with the seminal and protean groups The Mothers of Invention and Zappa; as well as solo releases) are renowned not only for their bravura musicianship and satire, but for offending various groups (usually conservatives, both religious and political). The 200 Motels (1971) soundtrack was deemed too offensive by the Royal Albert Hall, which canceled scheduled concerts in 1975; and the song “Jewish Princess” (1979) led to Jewish calls for Zappa to apologize. These, and such events as Zappa testifying before Congress in 1985 against rock music censorship, being appointed by Czech president Václav Havel as his Cultural Liaison Officer or considering running for US president, have unfortunately been Zappa’s only real source of mainstream publicity.
In a career spanning more than 30 years, he wrote rock, jazz, electronic, orchestral, and musique concrète works. He also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers.
Zappa produced almost all of the more than 60 albums he released with the band Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. One of the most accomplished composers of the rock era, with terrific musical knowledge and an outrageous sense of humor, plus a keen eye for the world we live in: “politics is basically the entertainment arm of the military/industrial complex.”
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, Zappa nonetheless continued working at his Hollywood Hills home, until his death on 4 December 1993. His widow, Gail, and children Dweezil Zappa, Moon Unit Zappa, Ahmet Zappa and Diva Zappa, soon released a statement to the press that simply stated: “Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6pm Saturday.”
Frank Zappa died from prostate cancer on Dec 4, 1993 at age 52.