Frank Zappa was an independent American musician and filmmaker. He was known for his experimental non-conformist use of orchestral arrangements, jazz and rock.

Frank Zappa Bio: Early Life

Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to an Italian-American household on December 21, 1940. His father, Francis Vincent Zappa was a mathematician and chemist. His career in the defense industry caused the family to relocate frequently and also influenced the themes of Zappa’s music.

Frank Zappa Bio: Youth, Influences

Frank Zappa began his music career as a drummer. While at  Mission Bay High School in San Diego, he joined his first band. He was especially interested in the sound of orchestral percussion. One of Zappa’s earliest influences was the Edgard Varèse‘s record The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One, especially the percussion composition “Lonisation.

His mother was supported of his interested and for Zappa’s 15th birthday was able to arrange a long distance call to Varèse. Varèse was in Europe during the time, but his wife relayed the young artists interest. Later, Varèse sent Zappa a letter thanking him for his call and also shared some information about his upcoming composition, “Déserts.” He invited Zappa to meet him if he ever found himself in New York City.

While at Antelope Valley High School (his 6th high school), Zappa joined the band Blackouts. He also became friends with Don Van Vliet (who would later perform under Captain Beefheart.) He would begin playing guitar during this time. He also started composing his own orchestra pieces, which his school orchestra performed. He was influenced by the music program at Antelope Valley and included two of his music teachers’ names into the design of his album Freak Out!

Frank Zappa Bio: Composing, Studio Z

To support himself financially, Zappa started composing original soundtracks for low-budget films such as The World’s Greatest Sinner. He also wrote music and songs for other artists around the Cucamonga, California, area. One of these artists was Paul Buff who owned the Pal Recording Studio, one of the few independent recording studios that had a five-track tape recorder.

In 1964, after his marriage to Kay Sherman (whom he married in 1960) began to fall apart. he moved into the studio where he worked on his music for 12 hours a day. Shortly after he took over the studio and rename it Studio Z. The studio became his home and other friends such as artist James “Motorhead” Sherwood moved in. He also temporarily performed with the band the Mothers in order to financially support himself.

In 1965 he was falsely suspected of making pornographic films in Studio Z. He was approached by an undercover cop and offered $100 to produce a suggestive audiotape, which Zappa then faked along with a female friend. He was arrested and Studio Z was stripped. He was charged for conspiracy to create pornography and had the majority of his six-month sentence suspended. Many of his recordings was lost. The studio was demolished in 1966.

Frank Zappa Bio: The Mothers of Invention, Success

In 1965 Frank Zappa was asked to become the guitarist for the band Soul Giants. He soon assumed leadership and became the band’s co-singer. He convinced them to play his compositions and the band’s name was changed to the Mothers. They began to gain attention in the Los Angles night scene and were eventually spotted by manager Herb Cohen and later by producer Tom Wilson who signed the band under the Verge division of MGM. Under the label’s recommendation they changed the band name a third time to the Mothers of Invention.

The band found success with their debut album Freak Out! Zappa had been given a remarkable amount of musical freedom when composing and arranging pieces. While promoting the album he met his second wife Adelaide Gail Sloatman, who he married in 1967 and had two daughters and two sons with.

Their second album Absolutely Free was met with similar success. He released the orchestral album Lumpy Gravy by Capitol Records in 1967 but was immediately pulled due to contracrual problems. Zappa reworked the album then released it under Verve in 1968.

The band performed at the Garrick Theater in New York City in 1967. What was meant to be an Easter performance turned into a half year run. As a result, the band relocated to the City.

The band released their third album, We’re Only in It for the Money, which is considered by many to be their most successful album. The next album was Cruising with Ruben & the Jets.

Along with his manager, Herb Cohen Zappa created Bizarre Records and Straight Records under Warner Bros. Records. He produced albums and releases for artists like Alice Cooper.      

Although still popular, the Mothers Of Invention were not faring well financially. Audiences were confused by the jazz styling of many of their live performances. Zappa officially broke up the band in 1969.

Frank Zappa Bio, Solo Career, The New Mothers

Zappa’s first solo album was Hot Rats with which Zappa found success.

Zappa met conductor Zubin Mehta. Together they hey arranged concert in which Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was accompanied by a rock band. The performance was successful, but Zappa was not satisfied with the performance considering the time and money that had been invested into the project.

In 1970, he gathered new drummers, guitarists, a keyboardist and a bass player and created a new band that was also named the Mothers. They appeared in his solo album Chunga’s Revenge.

Zappa co-directed the featured film 200 Motels and the band appeared in the soundtrack. They also completed the albums Fillmore East – June 1971 and Just Another Band from L.A.

While touring with the Mothers in Europe an audience member set off a flare which set fire to a Swiss venue the band was in and destroyed $50,000 worth of equipment. Later, while in London a fan pushed Zappa off stage, and he fell into the concrete-floored orchestra pit.  Zappa suffered from multiple fractures, head trauma and back, leg and neck injuries. An injury to his larynx prevented him from singing, and when healed, it caused his voice to permanently drop.

Zappa was confined to wheelchairs and leg braces for a few years and the band was unable to tour. That band eventually set off on their own. During this time Zappa recorded Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. 

In 1973, he created DiscReet Records with his manager. His solo album Apostrophe (‘) charted in the Billboard top 10 in the pop album charts. In 1973, he and manager Herb Cohen found themselves in court disputing the creative rights of previous albums. They formally ended their business relationship. While assets were frozen in court, Zappa toured to financially sustain himself. Two of his most successful albums were released into ’70s, Sheik YerboutiJoe’s Garage. 

Frank Zappa Bio: Late Career, “Valley Girl”

Frank Zappa’s second featured film was Baby Snakes which was comprised of footage from his tour and stop-motion animation.

The later part of his career was defined by more independent work. He created Barking Pumpkin Records and set up his own studio in his home. His song “Valley Girl” from his album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch was Grammy nominated. His daughter Moon Unit Zappa provided an improvised monologue that was used in the song. His first Grammy win was with his album Jazz from Hell. 

Frank Zappa Bio: Health, Prostate Cancer, Death

Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 1990. In his late career he had begun to use the Synclavier in his orchestral work. He dedicated his remaining time to producing Civilization Phaze III. In 1992, he was chosen to be a featured composer in the Frankfurt Festival. He was only able to conduct two performances there due to the pain from his condition. Frank Zappa died on December 4, 1993.

Frank Zappa Bio: Personal Life, Censorship, Wife Adelaide Zappa, Sons

Frank Zappa was married to Kathryn J. “Kay” Sherman from 1960 to 1964. The couple briefly lived in Ontario. He married Adelaide Gail Sloatman in 1967. The couple had four children, Moon Unit Zappa, Dweezil Zappa, Ahmet Zappa and Diva Zappa. Zappa and Adelaide remained married until his death.

Zappa has been given many awards and honors posthumous. In 1995, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the 1997 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

While alive he was known for his distaste for drugs, preferring not to use them himself, but he also supported the their criminal deregulation. He was anti-big government and against organized religion. Zappa was also anti-censorship. While discussing Zappa’s life with his son Ahmet Zappa, he told uInterview about his father’s opinion’s on profanity. “There’s no word in the English language that can make you go to Hell,” Ahmet told uInterview. “When he’s [Frank Zappa] talking to you like that, you question when you’re a kid like, ‘What does that mean?’ Then, there’s something kind of exciting about these words that you’re not supposed to say and in our household it was like, ‘Yeah say whatever you want.’ If it helps you get the point across of what you’re trying to express why is that wrong? I actually agreed with him. I think certainly there’s a time and place depending on other people’s preferences. I’m not gonna start swearing at you right now for no good reason, you would be potentially offended but I think that’s kinda what they instilled in us — which was an understanding of where and when to use the words, the bad words.”

Frank Zappa Bio: Film

Zappa’s wife Gail and director Thorston Schutte undertook the project of making a documenary based on Zappa’s life. Ahmet Zappa, Zappa’s youngest son whom Gail named head of the trust which controls Zappa’s image and music distribution took over for his mother after his death. The documentary will be released under the title of Eat That Question. Alhough he carried the film across the post-production finish-line, he gives his mother all the credit for the project. “About eight years ago, he [Thorston Schutte] contacted my Mom,” Zappa told uInterview, “and they began this journey, and I think his point of view of focusing on Frank’s relationship to media versus a straightforward doc — a music doc or a bio doc. I think at that time sitting with my Mom that was really intriguing, and this is eight years in the making. It’s a journey that started with Thorsten, the director, and my Mom, and I got involved really towards the end of the eight year journey when my mother was really sick, and she was really proud of this movie. I’m really proud of the movie, and helped get it passed the finish line, but really Thorsten and my mother, they developed this great friendship over this long period of time. So, the movie that people are seeing right now I couldn’t be more proud and I love that people are enjoying it.”

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