Famous Like Me > Composer > Z > Frank Zappa
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Profile of Frank Zappa
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|Also Know As:
|Date of Birth:
||21st December 1940
|Place of Birth:
||Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American guitarist, composer, singer and satirist.
His work covered a wide range of styles (notably the avant-garde, rock, jazz fusion and contemporary classical), and was often noted for its blending of high art, rock opera, absurdity, scatological humor, and for its hilariously repellent and satirical edge.
Zappa had a large worldwide following throughout his varied career, in particular, the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. His critically acclaimed work won him brief mainstream success in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with hit singles "Dancing Fool" and "Valley Girl". Zappa, as can be seen in many of his disparaging comments about the mainstream music business, never put much emphasis in mainstream acclamation.
Early life and influences
Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 21st, 1940 to Francis Zappa (who was of Greek and Arab descent) and Rose Marie Colimore (who was of half Italian, 1/4 Sicilian and 1/4 French descent). He was the oldest of four children, with two brothers and a sister. In January of 1951, his family relocated to the west coast because of Frank's asthma. They settled in Monterey, California, on the coast about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Pomona, then El Cajon before moving a short distance once again to San Diego in the early 1950s.
By 1955 the Zappa family had relocated to Lancaster, which at the time was a small aircraft and farming town in Antelope Valley in the Mojave Desert, close to Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains. By age 15, Zappa had attended six different high schools, which may have contributed to his sense of alienation in adult life.
His father, a chemist and mathematician born in Sicily, worked nearby at Edwards Air Force Base which at the time housed a federal government chemical warfare research facility. Due to their close proximity to Edwards AFB, he kept gas masks at home in case of an accident. This evidently had a profound effect on the young Zappa; references to germs, germ warfare and other aspects of the "secret" defense industry occur throughout his work.
Lancaster's location gave the young Zappa access to the exciting sounds coming from radio stations in Los Angeles and beyond, and his parents were affluent enough to afford a record player, records, a TV, and musical instruments. TV also exerted a strong influence and references to TV and TV shows, including quotations from themes and advertising jingles, can be found in almost every piece he wrote.
Another formative event was a chronic sinus problem during his early teens. To Frank's lasting horror, his doctor treated the stubborn ailment by inserting a pellet of radium on a probe into both of his nostrils. Nasal imagery and references to the nose also recur, both in his writing and in the classic collage album covers created by his longtime visual collaborator, Cal Schenkel.
As a student, Zappa was bored and given to distracting the rest of the class with his antics, and was once suspended from school for a dangerous prank involving explosive chemicals and a Parents' Open House night. He left community college after one semester in order to make low-budget films. He maintained his disdain for formal education throughout his life, taking his children out of school at age 15 and refusing to pay for their college. Nevertheless, he was in essence a polymath. He was highly intelligent, ambitious and articulate, and possessed a voracious intelligence, drive, singular concentration, enormous creativity and a huge capacity for work and organization. Zappa was passionately interested in music, developing wide-ranging and highly idiosyncratic musical interests and demonstrating superior ability at an early age. His parents were not musicians but had broad musical tastes also, and he grew up influenced in equal measures by avant-garde composers such as Edgar Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, local rhythm and blues and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz, including bebop and free jazz, influences which show up in his work.
Zappa was from the first interested in sounds for their own sake, which led to his interest in modern composers. His introduction to Stravinsky seems to have been a pivotal musical discovery but he was soon ranging even further afield, musically. After reading a magazine review panning Varèse's dissonant drum piece in "Ionisation" (actually The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One) as 'a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds', the teenage Zappa became convinced that he should seek out Varèse's music. When he spotted a copy of The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One in a local record store, where it was being used as a hi-fi demonstration record, he convinced the salesman to sell him the copy despite the fact that he didn't have the full price, beginning a lifelong passion for Varèse and his music. Zappa's mother gave him considerable encouragement. Although she greatly disliked Varèse's music, she was indulgent enough to give Zappa the gift of a long distance call to the composer at his home in New York as a fifteenth birthday present. Unfortunately, Varèse was away in Europe at the time, but the young fan spoke to the composer's wife.
Zappa began his playing career on drums, taking his first lessons at school in the summer of 1953, at age 13. He drummed with local teenage combos, but later switched to guitar, which he quickly mastered. Although he performed as a singer-guitarist for most of his career, Zappa always retained a strong interest in rhythm and percussion. His bands have been notable for the excellence of their drummers and works such as The Black Page are notorious for the virtuoso complexity of their rhythmic structure and arrangement, featuring radical changes of tempo and metre and short, densely arranged passages which are contrasted with free-form breaks and extended improvisations. Classically trained percussionist and drummer Terry Bozzio, who played for Zappa in the late 1970s as well as playing and recording many well-known classical and avant-garde works, is on record as saying that Zappa's writing for percussion is as difficult and complex as anything else he has played.
In 1956 Zappa met Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) while taking classes at Antelope Valley High School, when Zappa was playing guitar in a local band, The Blackouts, a racially-mixed outfit that also included Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood, who later lived with Zappa at 'Studio Z' and was a member of the Mothers of Invention, playing on many of their most famous recordings. They became close friends, influencing each other musically, and becoming collaborators in the late Sixties and mid- Seventies (on the album Bongo Fury, released 1975), although they later became estranged for a period of years. Van Vliet's own feelings about Frank Zappa were perhaps best summarized in a quote published in a March 1994 issue of Musician magazine: "I knew him for thirty-seven years, and in the end, the relationship was private."
In 1957 Zappa was given his first guitar and quickly developed into a highly accomplished and inventive player. He considered his solos "air sculptures", and developed an eclectic, fluent and extremely individual style, eventually becoming one of the most highly regarded electric guitarists of his time. It is possible that he might have become a professional jazz musician, but he was soon drawn into rock music, although he retained a lifelong attachment to jazz forms, voicings and structures and often drew his band members from the jazz world, if only because of the high degree of musical competence his music demanded.
Zappa's interest in composing and arranging burgeoned in his later high school years and he dreamed of being taken seriously as a composer. By his final year he was writing prolifically and had not only composed, arranged and conducted an avant-garde performance piece for the school orchestra, but had also contrived to have the event both broadcast on local radio and recorded. A portion of this historic recording is included on the CD The Lost Episodes. Zappa did see his childhood dream realized, as the London Symphony Orchestra played a program of his music, and the Ensemble Modern in 1992 received a 20-minute ovation after performing a program of his work at the Frankfurt Opera House.
After graduating in June 1958 Zappa worked for a time in advertising. His sojourn in the commercial world was another important influence on his work, and within a few years Zappa was co-opting the techniques he learned as a commercial artist, and was using them to deconstruct music, the music business, the media and society at large by combining them with the ideas he had gleaned from his studies of dada, situationism, and surrealism. Zappa frequently referenced his experiences in advertising in his lyrics.
Zappa always took a keen interest in the visual presentation of his work, rapidly developing from album cover designer (e.g. Absolutely Free) to director of his own films and videos. Zappa's album covers are highly distinctive, and frequently bizarre and surreal. His two most important visual collaborators were Cal Schenkel in the Sixties and early Seventies, and Donald Roller Wilson in the Eighties and Nineties. -
Zappa moved to Los Angeles in 1959 and spent most of the rest of his life there. Among his earliest professional recordings are two adventurous and remarkably accomplished scores for the low-budget films Run Home Slow and The World's Greatest Sinner.
He married his first wife Kay the same year but the relationship soon deteriorated and they divorced two years later. In 1963 he began playing professionally around Los Angeles and bought the small Pal Recording Studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California (formerly called Cucamonga), which he renamed "Studio Z".
Zappa had recorded at Pal since the early 1960s and after receiving a payment for one of his film scores he was able to buy the studio. Soon after, his marriage ended and he moved out of his apartment and into the studio, where he began routinely working 12 hours or more per day, setting a pattern that would endure for almost all of his life. At this time, only a handful of the most expensive commercial studios had multitrack facilities and for smaller studios, the industry standard was still mono or two-track. By the time he recorded his first LP with The Mothers in 1966 he was already an accomplished recording and mastering engineer and from his third LP on and for the rest of his career, he produced all his own work.
After being approached by a customer who offered him $100 to produce a suggestive tape for a stag party, Zappa and a female friend jokingly faked the "erotic" recording, which purported to contain the sounds of people having sex. Unfortunately the customer was an undercover member of the Vice Squad and Zappa was jailed for ten days on charges of supplying pornography. His entrapment and brief imprisonment left a permanent mark on him, and was a key event in the formation of his anti-authoritarian stance.
The Mothers of Invention
After a short career as a professional songwriter — his elegiac "Memories of El Monte" was recorded by The Penguins — in 1964 Zappa joined a local R&B band, The Soul Giants, as a guitarist. He soon assumed leadership, renaming the band "The Mothers."
The Mothers gradually began to gain attention on the burgeoning Los Angeles underground 'freak scene' and in 1965 they were spotted by leading record producer Tom Wilson, who had earned acclaim as the producer of the seminal Bob Dylan albums Bringin' It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, as well as the breakthrough 'electric' version of Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence. Wilson was also notable for being one of the only African-Americans working as a major label pop producer at this time. Wilson signed The Mothers to the Verve label, which had built up a strong reputation for its fine modern jazz recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but was then attempting to diversify into pop and rock, but with an "artistic" or "experimental" bent. Around this time, Zappa also met and signed with longtime manager Herb Cohen.
The Mothers signed with Verve records, which insisted that they officially retitle themselves "The Mothers of Invention" out of a concern (likely justified) that the band's original moniker had obscene undertones. With Wilson credited as producer, The Mothers recorded their groundbreaking double album debut Freak Out! (1966), a mixture of often topical R&B and experimental sound collage that attempted to capture the 'freak' subculture of Los Angeles at that time. One of the first record albums united by an underlying theme, it was also only the second double LP of rock music ever released, and firmly established Zappa as a major new voice in rock music. Wilson is also credited with producing the even more accomplished follow-up Absolutely Free; but for the third LP, Wilson was listed as 'Executive producer', and Zappa took over as producer for all the Mothers and solo Zappa recordings issued from that time on. It's clear that even on the two first albums, Zappa was already responsible for virtually all of the musical decisions, with Wilson providing the industry clout, credibility, and connections to get the unknown group the financial resources they needed to produce a double album with use of an orchestra; by the third album, Zappa had already enough of a proven track record to allow for a more accurate description in the album's credits of their respective roles. During this period, Wilson also had Zappa collaborate with The Animals on the song "All Night Long" on their album Animalism.
Zappa's second and third studio albums were landmarks of record production and were highlighted by liberal use of his famous 'cut-up' editing techniques. The brilliant Absolutely Free (1967) continued Zappa's lyrical preoccupations with the hypocrisy and conformism of American society and the sinister suppression of underground and alternative culture. It was followed by the album widely regarded as the peak of the group's late Sixties work, We're Only In It For The Money (1968) which featured some of the most radical audio editing and production yet heard in pop music, and ruthlessly satirised the hippie and flower power phenomena. The cover photo (which included Jimi Hendrix) famously parodied that of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This was bookended by two closely linked companion pieces. The dazzling audio collage Lumpy Gravy (1967) took Zappa's production techniques to a new peak and, according to Zappa himself, took nine months to edit. After We're Only In It For The Money, next was his Doo-Wop tribute Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. Other important Mothers recordings from this period (including the pivotal song Oh No) were collected in the 1970 compilation album Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
During the late Sixties Zappa continued his rapid artistic development, emerging as a superb lead guitarist, a skilled producer and engineer, and a composer and arranger of extraordinary range and facility. He increasingly used tape editing as a compositional tool; his editing skills are apparent on the stunning work he produced in the late Sixties with The Mothers. Allegedly, a theremin was used at some live performance making use of the unique sound characteristic.
Zappa evolved a unique compositional approach — which he dubbed 'conceptual continuity' — that ranged across virtually every genre of music. His work combines satirical lyrics and pop melodies with virtuoso instrumental prowess, where long, jazz-inflected improvisational passages are counterbalanced with densely edited and seemingly chaotic collage sequences that mix music, sound effects and snatches of conversation.
He also became famous for regularly quoting musical phrases that influenced or amused him — one of his most famous and regular quotes was the riff from the perennial Sixties rock hit 'Louie Louie', which appears in various forms in more than twenty separate recordings over the whole span of his career. He also frequently quoted from or referred to TV show themes and advertising jingles, from famous rock songs such as My Sharona and Stairway To Heaven, and from classical works such as Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring".
Zappa earned a fearsome reputation as a ruthless taskmaster who possessed a seemingly limitless capacity for work (he regularly worked as much as twenty hours a day in the studio until very late in his career) who also possessed immense technical knowledge and a photographic memory of the contents of his vast archive. He also became known for dismissing the contributions of his musicians, going so far as to withhold royalties rather than share the glory.
The Mothers' anarchic stage shows were legendary — during one famous 1967 performance at the Garrick Theatre in New York, Zappa managed to entice some soldiers from the audience onto the stage, where they proceeded to dismember a collection of baby dolls.
Around 1968 Zappa also began regularly recording his concerts, beginning with a simple two-track portable recorder and eventually progressing to a portable 48-track digital system. In the process he built up a vast archive of live recordings. In the late 1990s some of the best of these recordings were collected for the 12-CD set You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. Because of his insistence on precise tuning and timing in concert, from the 1970s on Zappa was able to augment his studio productions with excerpts from live shows, and he is known to have inserted 'live' guitar solos into the final studio recordings of some compositions.
Although they were lauded by critics and their peers and had a rabid cult following, mainstream audiences often found much of the Mothers' music, appearance and attitude impossible to comprehend, and the band was often greeted with derision. More importantly, the financial strain and interpersonal tensions involved in keeping a large jazz-rock ensemble on the road eventually led to the group's demise in 1969, although numerous members would remain with or return to Zappa in years to come.
During this period Zappa also produced the extraordinary double album Trout Mask Replica for his old friend Captain Beefheart as well as releases by Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, Wild Man Fischer and The GTOs.
After he disbanded the original Mothers, Zappa released the acclaimed solo instrumental album Hot Rats, featuring his jazz-inflected guitar playing backed by jazz, blues and R&B session players including violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris, drummer John Guerin, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, and bassist Shuggie Otis. It remains one of his most popular and accessible recordings and inarguably had a major influence on the development of the jazz-rock fusion genre.
Around 1970, Zappa put together a new version of The Mothers that included British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, previous Mothers member Ian Underwood, and no fewer than three members of The Turtles: bass player Jim Pons, who before joining The Turtles had been the lead singer of The Leaves (of "Hey Joe" fame); and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who due to persisting legal/contractual problems adopted the stage-monikers "The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie," or "Flo & Eddie" for short.
The new lineup debuted on Zappa's next solo LP Chunga's Revenge, which was followed by the sprawling soundtrack to the movie project 200 Motels, featuring both The Mothers and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time George Duke was in the band and appears both in the film and on the sound track as a musician. He left the band to play with Cannonball Adderly and was replaced by Don Preston from the original Mothers, who acted in the film, but is not playing on the soundtrack. This double disc album was followed by two superb live sets, Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A., which included the 20-minute track Billy The Mountain, Zappa's satire on rock opera, set in Southern California. The former features hilariously low-concept cover art (similar to the bootleg albums that had recently become popular) just at the apex of the era of great rock "album cover artwork".
In 1971 there were two serious setbacks. While performing in Montreux, Switzerland, the Mothers' equipment was destroyed when a flare set off by an audience member started a disastrous fire that burned down the casino where they were playing —an event immortalised in Deep Purple's classic song Smoke On The Water. The actual event and immediate aftermath can be heard on the bootleg album Swiss Cheese / Fire, released legally as part of Zappa's Beat the Boots compilation.
Then in December 1971, Zappa was attacked on stage at the Rainbow Theatre, London. A jealous boyfriend of a female fan pushed Frank off the stage and into the orchestra pit. Zappa suffered serious fractures, head trauma and injuries to his back, leg, and neck, as well as a crushed larynx (which caused his voice to drop a third after it healed). This left him wheelchair bound for a time, forcing him off the road for over a year. (He was wearing a leg brace for a period thereafter, had a noticeable limp and couldn't stand for very long while onstage.) He said one leg healed "shorter than the other" (a reference found years later in the lyrics of Dancin' Fool). He employed tour bodyguard John Smothers, who was an accomplished martial artist, former military chauffeur and bodyguard for several big-name celebrities. Meanwhile, the Mothers were left in limbo, and eventually formed the core of Flo and Eddie's band as they set out on their own.
In 1971-72 Zappa released two strongly jazz-oriented solo LPs, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, which were recorded during the layoff from live concert touring, using floating lineups of session players and Mothers alumni. He began touring again in late 1972, first with a Grand Wazoo 'big band' and with groups that variously included Ian Underwood on brass and reeds, Ruth Underwood on vibes, Sal Marquez (trumpet), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax and vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), George Duke (keyboards, vocals) and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin).
He continued a high rate of production through the early 1970s, including the excellent and accessible albums One Size Fits All and Apostrophe, Over-Nite Sensation and Roxy & Elsewhere featuring ever-changing versions of a band no longer called the Mothers.
In the mid 70's Zappa began recording material for Läther (pronounced "leather"), an ambitious called four-LP studio project extravaganza. Läther featured all aspects of Zappa's musical styles —rock tunes, theatrical works, complex instrumental compositions, and Zappa's own trademark tube distortion-drenched guitar solos were all recorded for the release. What happened next is subject to debate.
According to popular theory (and the liner notes of the re-release of Läther itself), he had completed the recording for the album when Warner Brothers executives, wary of a triple-LP, decided not to support the project. Zappa soon appeared on the influential Los Angeles radio station KROQ, allowing them to broadcast the whole album, and instructing listeners to make their own tape recordings. Soon after, some of the material from Läther was officialy released on "Zappa in New York.". After a legal battle with Warner, in order to satisfy his contract, Zappa allowed the label to release much of the music on three LPs instead of four, but he had little input beyond that. The records Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites were dumped on the market with no promotion and only cheaply produced cover art. These albums nevertheless include some classic Zappa tunes like "RDNZL", "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary", and "Sleep Dirt".
An alternate theory of the Läther debacle was that upon completing the four aforementioned albums ("Zappa in New York", Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites), Zappa turned the albums in at once, to complete his contract. Warner Brothers balked at releasing five new LPs ("Zappa in New York" being a double album) of a single artist at once, fearing that the LPs would cut into each other's sales. Perturbed at what he felt was record label ineptitude, Zappa shipped the albums to other, competing record labels. Somewhere along the line it was decided that one triple album would be more appealing than four standalone albums, and with some editing and tape splices, Läther was born. This theory is supported by the fact that each of the "Läther babies" is a fully realized concept of its own (the live album "Zappa in New York", Sleep Dirt, which was later overdubbed with lyrics and turned into an operetta, the "mini-sampler" feel of Studio Tan, and the orchestral works on the aptly named Orchestral Favorites), and, with the exception of Studio Tan, each features songs unreleased on Läther. If the former theory is true, one would have to wonder how Warner Brothers (a label Zappa publically disliked) managed to secure unreleased material from Zappa. The alternate theory, although contradictory to Gail Zappa's account, seems much more in line with reality.
Läther was finally re-constructed and released in its original form in 1996.
It was during the Läther period that Zappa recruited Ike Willis as a lead singer and backup guitarist. Zappa's 1970's period ended with the releases of the highly regarded Joe's Garage, which heavily featured Willis as voice of "Joe", and Sheik Yerbouti (1979), which featured Zappa classics such as Dancin' Fool, Bobby Brown (Goes Down), Flakes, Broken Hearts are for Assholes, as well as Jewish Princess, which received some controversial attention. Joe's Garage is considered to be definitive Zappa of the period, and Sheik Yerbouti is likewise considered a definitive original work, though many tracks were composed or largely live-recorded during the Läther period of 1977. In fact, every single song on Sheik Yerbouti uses live backing tracks recorded during the 1977-1978 tour, with varying amounts of studio overdubs added.
In 1980, Zappa helped former band members Warren Cuccurullo, Terry Bozzio and Patrick O'Hearn launch their new band, Missing Persons, by letting them record their 4-song demo EP in his brand new UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) studios. In 1981, the double album You Are What You Is was released, featuring 19 songs, which included such complex instrumentals as "Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear", but mainly focused on rock songs with Zappa's sardonic social commentary. "Dumb All Over", is an example of this, being a devastating tirade on religion, as is "Heavenly Bank Account", wherein Zappa objurgates people such as Jerry Falwell for relying upon the US administration to finance the religious organisation, the 'Moral Majority', whilst simultaneously embezzling the funds. The album is notable for the presence of guitar virtuoso Steve Vai.
In the same year, Tinsel Town Rebellion was released, a mixture of songs taken from a 1979 tour, one studio track and the rest were taken from the last tour of 1980. The album is a mixture of complicated instrumentals, of which "The Blue Light" is a salient example, demonstrating Vinnie Colaiuta's dexterity round a drum kit, and Zappa's use of sprechstimme (speaking voice), a compositional technique utilized by such composers as Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg.
In May of 1982, Zappa released Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, which featured his biggest selling single, Valley Girl (topping out at #32 on the Billboard charts). In her improvised "lyrics" to the song, Zappa's daughter Moon Unit satirized the vapid speech of teenage girls from the San Fernando Valley. Naturally, this led to the meme-like propagation of "Valspeak" such as gag me with a spoon and barf out. In 1983, The Man From Utopia was released, which was striking for its album cover, portraying Zappa as a muscle-bound, demonic guitarist. The album itself is eclectic, featuring the vocal-led 'Dangerous Kitchen' & 'The Jazz Discharge Party Hats', continuations of the sprechstimme excursions shown on "You Are What You Is". "Tink Walks Amok" is a piece to exhibit Arthur Barrow's capabilities on the bass guitar, and doo-wop songs such as the title track and "Mary Lou".
After a break Zappa returned, and much of his later work was influenced by his use of the synclavier as a compositional and performance tool and his mastery of studio techniques for producing specific instrumental effects. His work was also more explicitly political satirising the rise of television evangelists and the Republican party.
On September 19, 1985, Zappa testified before the US Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC, a music censorship (though others would say watchdog) organization founded by then-Senator Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore and including many other political wives, including the wives of five members of the committee. He said,
- "The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design.
- "It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation."
Zappa put some of the PMRC hearings to music in his song Porn Wars. Zappa is heard interacting with Senators Fritz Hollings, Slade Gorton, Al Gore (who admitted to being a Zappa fan), and, most notably, a funny exchange with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins over what toys the Zappa children played with. Zappa would also go on to argue with PMRC representatives on the CNN's Crossfire in 1986 and 1987.
His last tour in a "rock band format" took place in 1988 with a 12-piece group which was reported to have a repertoire of over 800 (mostly Zappa) compositions, but which split acrimoniously before the tour was completed. The tour was documented on the albums The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (Zappa "standards" and obscure cover tunes), Make a Jazz Noise here (mostly instrumental and experimental music), and Broadway The Hard Way (new original material), with bits also to be found on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 6.
In the early 1990s Zappa devoted almost all of his energy to modern orchestral and synclavier works. In 1990 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a disease which caused his death in 1993 at the age of 52. Although ill, in 1992 he appeared as a guest conductor with the Ensemble Modern in a series of concerts in Germany devoted to his compositions, recordings from which appeared on The Yellow Shark.
During these years, he edited numerous CD collections of concert recordings made throughout his career. In 1993, he completed Civilization, Phaze III, a major synclavier work he had begun in the '80s. He stated in interviews that he was working on hundreds of synclavier pieces, most of which remained unfinished.
Frank Zappa died on December 4, 1993 at 52, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. His grave is unmarked, although its location is known among fans.
Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That same year the only known cast of Zappa was installed in the center of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Zappa was immortalized by Konstantinas Bogdanas, the famous Lithuanian sculptor who had previously cast portraits of Vladimir Lenin. In 2002 a bronze bust was installed in a square in Bad Doberan, a small town in the north of Germany, where, since 1990, there has been an international Festival celebrating the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
Zappa was married twice, once to Kay Sherman (1959–1964; no children), and then to Gail (Sloatman) Zappa, with whom he remained until his death. They have four children: Moon Unit, Dweezil (born Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa, (the names of his band members) because the hospital refused to put Dweezil on the birth certificate; Dweezil later legally changed his name to "Dweezil") ("Dweezil" is also the name Frank had given to one of Gail's toes), Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Muffin. As a guest on The Tonight Show, chatting with guest-host Jay Leno, Zappa was asked why he had given his children such unusual names. Zappa answered, in a casual tone of voice, "Because I wanted to!" And that was that. Zappa once said in an interview that if their names ever gave them problems, it would be because of the last name.
After his death an internet email campaign to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center led to an asteroid being named in his honor: 3834 Zappafrank, the asteroid having been discovered by Czech astronomers. Since then other things have been named in his honor including: another asteroid (16745 Zappa), a gene (ZapA gene of Proteus mirabilis, a microbe that causes urinary tract infections ), a goby fish (Zappa confluentus ), a jellyfish (Phialella zappa which was actually named by Nando!), an extinct mollusc (Amauratoma zappa), and a spider with an abdominal mark supposedly resembling Zappa's mustache (Pachygnatha zappa ).
In 1995 a series of Intel PC motherboards were named after him.
The television cartoon show Duckman featured the voice of Zappa's son Dweezil and Zappa's music.
In September 2005, the city of Berlin debated renaming a Street 13 in the Marzahn district the "Frank-Zappa-Strasse."
Zappa made a cameo appearance in the 1968 film starring the Monkees, Head with a talking cow. He also made a cameo appearance on an episode of the Monkees TV series. He was the voice of the pope in a 1992 episode of The Ren & Stimpy Show. He appeared on What's My Line? and Saturday Night Live, in a sketch as Connie Conehead's date; he played a drug dealer once in Miami Vice, appeared on Dick Cavett's interview show in the early 1970's with the Flo and Eddie version of the band, and other interview shows. He also appeared on MTV and a one hour Zappa TV special.
Zappa was the guest host and musical guest of the October 21, 1978 show of Saturday Night Live. His sense of humor alienated him from the cast and his mugging-to-the-camera performance has led to Lorne Michaels never allowing the show to be shown in repeats or on video.
He is referenced in the song "Smoke on the Water" by the legendary British Hard Rock band, Deep Purple.
Note on his name
As his autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book notes, his real name was "Frank", never "Francis". Until rediscovering his birth certificate as an adult, Zappa himself believed he had been christened Francis, and he is credited as Francis on some of his early albums. Some encyclopedias still incorrectly claim that his real name was "Francis".
Zappa means "hoe" in Italian.
- Download sample of "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" from Freak Out!
- Download sample of "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" from We're Only in It for the Money.
For a detailed discography, see: Frank Zappa discography
- The Real Frank Zappa Book, by Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso, is the definitive Zappa autobiography. Includes his Senate testimony.
- No Commercial Potential--The Saga of Frank Zappa, by David Walley
- Kenardaki Milyonerler--Zappa by Metin Solmaz, Istanbul 1992, Turkish book, contains a large biography and some lyrics
- Frank Zappa; The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, by Ben Watson, St. Martin's Press (March 1996) contains extensive notes on history, tours and releases.
- In Cold Sweat-Interviews With Really Scary Musicians, by Thomas Wictor, contains an extensive interview with Scott Thunes, one of Zappa's most creative bassists.
- Lunar Notes-Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience, by Bill Harkleroad, contains several references about Zappa's collaboration with Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart.
- Mother! the Frank Zappa Story, by Michael Gray
- Electric Don Quixote: The Definitive Story of Frank Zappa, by Neil Slaven
- Necessity Is... The Early Years of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, by Billy James
- Cosmik Debris: The Collective History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa, by Greg Russo, Crossfire Pubns; 2nd Rev edition (January 9, 2003), ISBN 0964815702
- My Brother was a Mother, by Patrice "Candy" Zappa
- Them or Us, by Frank Zappa
- Under the Same Moon, by Suzannah Thana Harris
- Being Frank: My Time with Frank Zappa, by Nigey Lennon
- Zappa: A Biography, by Barry Miles, Publisher: Grove Press (November 9, 2004), ISBN 080211783X
- Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, by Kevin Courrier, ECW Press (June, 2002) ISBN 1550224476
- Andreas Rausch, "Zappaesk". ehapa, Köln 2005: ISBN 3-7704-2888-9
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