Frank Zappa PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 24 October 2008 05:09

Frank Zappa, Ekeberghallen, Oslo, January 16, 1977. Photo by Helge Øverås

Frank Vincent Zappa

Born: December 21, 1940 Baltimore, Maryland

Died: December 4, 1993 Los Angeles, California

Age: 52

Cause: Prostrate cancer.

Notable because: Set standards as a musician and as a human being that uplifted a generation. Once did jail time for recording voices onto a tape.


Frank  Zappa was an American composer, electric guitarist, record producer and film director. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa 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. his teens, he acquired a taste for percussion-based avant-garde composers like Edgard Varèse, and 1950s rhythm and blues music. He began writing classical music in high school, while at the same time playing drums in rhythm and blues bands—he later switched to electric guitar. He was an autodidact composer and performer, and his diverse musical influences led him to create music that was often impossible to categorize. His 1966 debut album with the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!, combined songs in conventional rock and roll format with collective improvisations and studio-generated sound collages. His later albums shared this eclectic and experimental approach, irrespective of whether the fundamental format was one of rock, jazz or classical. He wrote lyrics to all his songs, which—often humorously—reflected his skeptical view of established political processes, structures and movements. He was a strident critic of mainstream education and organized religion, and a forthright and passionate advocate for freedom of speech and the abolition of censorship.

Zappa was a highly productive and prolific artist and he gained wide-spread critical acclaim. Many of his albums are considered essential in rock history, and he is regarded as one of the most original guitarists and composers of his time; he remains a major influence on musicians and composers. He had some commercial success, particularly in Europe, and was for most of his career able to work as an independent artist. Zappa was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

Zappa was married to Kathryn J. "Kay" Sherman from 1960 to 1964 (no children), and in 1967, to Adelaide Gail Sloatman, with whom he remained until his death of prostate cancer in 1993. They had four children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen. Gail Zappa manages the businesses of her late husband under the name the Zappa Family Trust.

Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940 to Francis Zappa (born in Partinico, Sicily) who was of Greek-Arab descent, and Rose Marie Colimore who was of three quarters Italian and one quarter French descent. He was the eldest of four children, and had two brothers and a sister. During Zappa's childhood, the family often moved because his father, a chemist and mathematician, had various jobs in the US defense industry. After a brief period in Florida in the mid-1940s, the family returned to Maryland where Zappa’s father worked at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Due to the home's proximity to the arsenal, which stored mustard gas, gas masks were kept in the house in case of an accident. This had a profound effect on the young Zappa: references to germs, germ warfare and other aspects of the defense industry occur throughout his work.

As a child, Zappa was often sick, suffering from asthma, earaches and sinus problems. A doctor treated the latter by inserting a pellet of radium into each of Zappa's nostrils—little was known at the time about the potential dangers of being subjected to small amounts of therapeutic radiation. Nasal imagery and references appear both in his music and lyrics as well as in the collage album covers created by his long-time visual collaborator, Cal Schenkel.

Many of Zappa's childhood diseases can arise from exposure to mustard gas, and his health was worst when he lived in the Baltimore area. In 1952, his family relocated mainly because of Zappa's health. They settled first in Monterey, California, where Zappa’s father taught metallurgy at the Naval Postgraduate School. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Claremont, then to El Cajon before moving to San Diego.

At Mission Bay High School in San Diego, Zappa joined his first band, The Ramblers, in which he played the drums. At about the same time his parents bought a record player, which allowed him to develop his interest in music, and to begin building his record collection. R&B singles were early purchases, starting a large collection he kept for the rest of his life. He was interested in sounds for their own sake, in particular, the sounds of drums and other percussion instruments. By the age of 12 he had obtained a snare drum, and had started to learn the rudiments of orchestral percussion. Zappa's deep engagement with modern classical music began soon after, when he read a LOOK magazine story on the Sam Goody record store chain that lauded the store's ability to sell an LP as obscure as The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One. The story described Varèse's percussion composition Ionisation, produced by EMS Recordings, as "a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds". Zappa became convinced that he should seek out Varèse's music. After searching for over a year, Zappa found a copy (he noticed the LP because of the "mad scientist" looking photo of Varèse on the cover) and, not having enough money with him, persuaded the salesman to sell him the record at a discount. Thus began a lifelong passion for Varèse's music and that of other modern classical composers.

Since I didn't have any kind of formal training, it didn't make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin' Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels ... , or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music.
—Frank Zappa, 1989

Zappa grew up influenced by avant-garde composers such as Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, R&B and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz. His own heterogeneous ethnic background, and the diverse cultural and social mix that existed in and around greater Los Angeles, were crucial in the formation of Zappa as a practitioner of underground music and of his later distrustful and openly critical attitude towards "mainstream" social, political 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.

By 1956, the Zappa family had moved to Lancaster, a small aerospace and farming town in the Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert, close to Edwards Air Force Base, Los Angeles. Zappa's mother encouraged him in his musical interests. Although she disliked Varèse's music, she was indulgent enough to give her son a long distance call to the composer as a 15th birthday present. Unfortunately, Varèse was in Europe at the time, so Zappa spoke to the composer's wife. He later received a letter from Varèse thanking him for his interest, and telling him about a composition he was working on called "Déserts". Living in the desert town of Lancaster, Zappa found this very exciting. Varèse invited him to visit if he ever came to New York. The meeting never took place (Varèse died in 1965), but Zappa framed the letter and kept it on display for the rest of his life.

At Antelope Valley High School, Zappa met Don Vliet (who later expanded his name to Van Vliet and adopted the stage name Captain Beefheart). 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 mixed, and included Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood who later became a member of the Mothers of Invention. Zappa grew more and more interested in the guitar, 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 Watson to perform on several albums.) Zappa considered soloing as the equivalent of forming "air sculptures", and developed an eclectic, innovative and personal style.

Zappa's interest in composing and arranging proliferated 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! Due to his family’s frequent moves, Zappa attended at least six different high schools, and as a student he was often bored and given to distracting the rest of the class with juvenile antics. He left community college after one semester, and maintained thereafter a disdain for formal education, taking his children out of school at age 15 and refusing to pay for their college.

Zappa left home in 1959, and moved into a small apartment in Echo Park, Los Angeles. After meeting Kathryn J. "Kay" Sherman during his short stay at college, they moved in together in Ontario, and were married December 28, 1960. Zappa worked for a short period in advertising. His sojourn in the commercial world was brief, but gave him valuable insights into how it works. Throughout his career, he took a keen interest in the visual presentation of his work, designing some of his album covers and directing his own films and videos.



Last Updated on Saturday, 28 March 2009 13:00

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