Frank Vincent Zappa, 1940 - 1993

portrait of Frank Zappa
In concert at Oslo, Sweden on 16 January 1977, photo by Helge Øverås

Born: 21 December 1940, Baltimore, Maryland
Died: 4 December 1993, Los Angeles, California

Zappa's father worked as a chemist and mathematician in the defense industry and the family moved frequently. On returning to Baltimore where his father worked at a chemical warfare facility, Zappa developed a sensitivity to mustard gas and the family moved to Monterey, Claremont, El Cajon, and finally San Diego. His first band was The Ramblers at Mission Bay High School at San Diego, he played the drums. He became interested in avant garde composers such as Edgard Varèse, while living at Lancaster, in the Mojave Desert, his mother gave him a long-distance phone call to Verèse as a 15th birthday present. In the early '60s he did a lot of studio work, writing some songs, producing some, and met Paul Buff and his home-made five-track tape recorder. When his first marriage broke up, Zappa moved into the studio and started working twelve hour days mastering the process. Zappa eventually took over the studio, renaming it Studio Z, but paid the bills by composing for movies as they rarely took in any paying work. He was described by the local press as "the Movie King of Cucamonga", they thought that meant pornography. A vice cop hired him to create a suggestive audio tape for a stag party, Zappa and a female friend recorded it. He was immediately arrested and the studio stripped of all recorded material. Although the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor and he only served ten days in jail, the experience of his entrapment formed his lifelong anti-authoritarian position.

Ray Collins asked him to join The Soul Giants, Zappa soon was sharing the leadership and singing for the first time. On Mother's Day 1965 they changed the name of the group to The Mothers. They were spotted by producer Tom Wilson who signed them with Verve Records but insisted that they change the name to The Mothers of Invention as the original name was seen as shorthand for a rather more offensive term. Their 1966 album Freak Out featured mostly Zappa songs and Zappa took full control of production. After their second album the band was hired to create a musical revue featuring improvised acts interspersed with Zappa tunes at the Garrick Theater at New York in the spring of 1967, the gig lasted over six months. During a 1971 European tour the band was performing at Montreaux, Switzerland when an audience member lit a flare that burned the casino to the ground, an incident remembered in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water". A week later the band was playing with rented equipment at London when an audience member pushed Zappa off stage onto a cement floor, leaving him unconscious and requiring numerous surgeries. He was in a wheelchair for six months, when his crushed larynx healed his voice was a third lower, and his legs were no longer the same length leaving him with back pain and a permanent inability to stand for lengths of time. While he recovered the band went on to other things, and after his recovery he did a range of independent projects. In 1985 he testified before a US Senate committee attacking the proposal to label albums featuring lyrics with "sexual or satanic content". In 1990 Czech president Václav Havel asked Zappa to serve as a consultant for trade, cultural affairs, and tourism. The first Bush administration pressured Havel to end this, Havel named Zappa as an unofficial cultural attaché instead. The same year he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, bringing an end to most of his work until his death.

Biography from Wikipedia and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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