|Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Born: December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, MD
Died: December 04, 1993 in Los Angeles, CA
Composer, guitarist, singer, and bandleader Frank Zappa was a singular musical figure during a performing and recording career that lasted from the 1960s to the '90s.
His disparate influences included doo wop music and avant-garde classical music; although he led groups that could be called rock and roll bands for much of his career, he used them to create a hybrid style that bordered on jazz and complicated, modern serious music, sometimes inducing orchestras to play along.
As if his music were not challenging enough, he overlay it with highly satirical and sometimes abstractly humorous lyrics and song titles that marked him as coming out of a provocative literary tradition that included Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and edgy comedians like Lenny Bruce.
Nominally, he was a popular musician, but his recordings rarely earned significant airplay or sales, yet he was able to gain control of his recorded work and issue it successfully through his own labels while also touring internationally, in part because of the respect he earned from a dedicated cult of fans and many serious musicians, and also because he was an articulate spokesman who promoted himself into a media star through extensive interviews he considered to be a part of his creative effort just like his music.
The Mothers of Invention, the '60s group he led, often seemed to offer a parody of popular music and the counterculture (although he affected long hair and jeans, Zappa was openly scornful of hippies and drug use). By the '80s, he was testifying before Congress in opposition to censorship (and editing his testimony into one of his albums).
But these comic and serious sides were complementary, not contradictory. In statement and in practice, Zappa was an iconoclastic defender of the freest possible expression of ideas. And most of all, he was a composer far more ambitious than any other rock musician of his time and most classical musicians, as well.
Zappa was born Frank Vincent Zappa in Baltimore, MD, on December 21, 1940. For most of his life, he was under the mistaken impression that he had been named exactly after his father, a Sicilian immigrant who was a high school teacher at the time of his son's birth, that he was "Francis Vincent Zappa, Jr." That was what he told interviewers, and it was extensively reported.
It was only many years later that Zappa examined his birth certificate and discovered that, in fact, his first name was Frank, not Francis. The real Francis Zappa took a job with the Navy during World War II, and he spent the rest of his career working in one capacity or another for the government or in the defense industry, resulting in many family moves.
Zappa's mother, Rose Marie (Colimore) Zappa, was a former librarian and typist. During his early childhood, the family lived in Baltimore, Opa-Locka, FL, and Edgewood, MD. In December 1951, they moved to California when Zappa's father took a job teaching metallurgy at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey. The same year, Zappa had first shown an interest in becoming a musician, joining the school band and playing the snare drum.
Although the Zappa family continued to live in California for the rest of Zappa's childhood, they still moved frequently; by the time Zappa graduated from Antelope Valley Joint Union High School in Lancaster in June 1958, it was the seventh high school he had attended. Meanwhile, his interest in music had grown.
He had become particularly attracted to R&B, joining a band as a drummer in 1955. Simultaneously, he had become a fan of avant-garde classical music, particularly the work of Edgard Varèse. After his high school graduation, Zappa studied music at several local colleges off and on. He also switched to playing the guitar.
Zappa married Kathryn J. Sherman on December 28, 1960; the marriage ended in divorce in 1964. Meanwhile, he played in bands and worked on the scores of low-budget films. It was in seeking to record his score for one of these films, The World's Greatest Sinner, that he began working at the tiny Pal recording studio in Cucamonga, CA, run by Paul Buff, in November 1961.
He and Buff began writing and recording pop music with studio groups and licensing the results to such labels as Del-Fi Records and Original Sound Records. On August 1, 1964, Zappa bought the studio from Buff and renamed it Studio Z.
On March 26, 1965, he was arrested by a local undercover police officer who had entrapped him by asking him to record a pornographic audiotape. Convicted of a misdemeanor, he spent ten days in jail, an experience that embittered him.
After completing his sentence, he closed the studio, moved into Los Angeles, and joined a band called the Soul Giants that featured his friend, singer Ray Collins, along with bass player Roy Estrada and drummer Jimmy Carl Black. In short order, he induced the group to play his original compositions instead of covers, and to change their name to the Mothers (reportedly on Mother's Day, May 10, 1965).
In Los Angeles, the Mothers were able to obtain a manager, Herb Cohen, and audition successfully to appear in popular nightclubs such as the Whiskey Go-Go by the fall of 1965. There they were seen by record executive Tom Wilson, who signed them to the Verve Records subsidiary of MGM Records on March 1, 1966 (Verve required that the suggestive name "The Mothers" be modified to "The Mothers of Invention").
The contract called for the group to submit five albums in two years, and they immediately went into the studio to record the first of those albums, Freak Out! By this time, Elliot Ingber had joined the group on guitar, making it a quintet.
An excess of material and Zappa's agreement to accept a reduced publishing royalty led to the highly unusual decision to release it as a double-LP, an unprecedented indulgence for a debut act that was practically unheard, much less for an established one (Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde appeared during the same period, but it was his seventh album).
Freak Out! was released on June 27, 1966. It was not an immediate success commercially, but it entered the Billboard chart for the week ending February 11, 1967, and eventually spent 23 weeks in the charts.
In July 1966, Zappa met Adelaide Gail Sloatman; they married in September 1967, prior to the birth, on September 28, 1967, of their first child, a daughter named Moon Unit Zappa who would record with her father. She was followed by a son, Dweezil, on September 5, 1969. He, too, would become a recording artist, as would Ahmet Zappa, born May 15, 1974. A fourth child, Diva, was born in August 1979.
During the summer of 1966, Zappa hired drummer Denny Bruce and keyboardist Don Preston, making the Mothers of Invention a septet, but by November 1966, when the Mothers of Invention went back into the studio to record their second album, Absolutely Free, Bruce had been replaced by Billy Mundi; Ingber had been replaced by Jim Fielder; and Zappa had hired two horn players, Bunk Gardner on wind instruments and Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood on saxophone, bringing the band up to a nine-piece unit. The album was recorded in four days and released in June 1967. It entered the charts in July and reached the Top 50.
The Mothers of Invention moved to New York City in November 1966 for a booking at a Greenwich Village club called the Balloon Farm that began on Thanksgiving Day and ran through New Year's Day, 1967.
After a two-week stint in Montreal, they returned to California, where Fielder left the group in February. In March, Zappa began recording his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, having signed to Capitol Records under the impression that he was not signed as an individual to Verve, a position Verve would dispute.
Later that month, the Mothers of Invention returned to New York City for another extended engagement at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village that ran during Easter week and was sufficiently successful that Herb Cohen booked the theater for the summer.
That run began on May 24, 1967, and ran off and on through September 5. During this period, Ian Underwood joined the band, playing saxophone and piano. In August, the group began recording its third album, We're Only in It for the Money.
In September 1967, the Mothers of Invention toured Europe for the first time, playing in the U.K., Sweden, and Denmark. On October 1, Verve failed to exercise its option to extend the band's contract, although they still owed the label three more LPs.
They finished recording We're Only in It for the Money in October, but its release was held up because of legal concerns about its proposed cover photograph, an elaborate parody of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was finally resolved by putting the picture on the inside of the fold-out LP sleeve. We're Only in It for the Money was released on March 4, 1968, and it reached the Top 30.
Another legal dispute was resolved when Verve purchased the tapes of Lumpy Gravy from Capitol. Zappa then finished recording this orchestral work, and Verve released it under his name (and that of "the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus") on May 13, 1968; it spent five weeks in the charts.
Although the Mothers of Invention still owed one more LP to Verve, Zappa already was thinking ahead. In the fall of 1967, he began recording Uncle Meat, the soundtrack for a proposed film, with work continuing through February 1968.
During this period, Billy Mundi left the band and was replaced on drums by Arthur Dyer Tripp III. In March, Zappa and Herb Cohen announced that they were setting up their own record label, Bizarre Records, to be distributed by the Reprise Records subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records. The label was intended to record not only the Mothers of Invention, but also acts Zappa discovered.
Early in the summer, Ray Collins quit the Mothers of Invention, who continued to tour. Their performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London on October 25, 1968, was released in 1991 as the album Ahead of Their Time. That month, Bizarre was formally launched with the release of the single "The Circle," by Los Angeles street singer Wild Man Fischer.
In November, guitarist Lowell George joined the Mothers of Invention. In December, Verve released the band's final album on its contract, Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets, on which Zappa for once played it straight, leading the group through a set of apparently sincere doo wop and R&B material.
The LP spent 12 weeks in the charts (Zappa was then free of Verve, although his disputes with the company were not over. Verve put out a compilation, Mothermania: The Best of the Mothers, in March 1969, and it spent nine weeks in the charts).
The ambitious double-LP Uncle Meat, the fifth Mothers of Invention album, was released by Bizarre on April 21, 1969. It reached the Top 50 (the movie it was supposed to accompany did not appear until a home video release in 1989).
In May, Bizarre released Pretties for You, the debut album by Alice Cooper, the only act discovered by the label that would go on to substantial success (after switching to Warner Bros. Records proper, that is). The same month, Lowell George left the band; later, he and Roy Estrada would form Little Feat.
Zappa began working on a second solo album, Hot Rats, in July 1969. On August 19, the Mothers of Invention gave their final performance in their original form, playing on Canadian TV at the end of a tour. One week later, Zappa announced that he was breaking up the band, although, as it turned out, this did not mean that he would not use the name "the Mothers of Invention" for groups he led in the future.
Hot Rats, the second album to be credited to Frank Zappa, was released on October 10, 1969. It spent only six weeks in the charts at the time, but it would become one of Zappa's best-loved collections, with the instrumental "Peaches en Regalia" a particular favorite.
Although the Mothers of Invention no longer existed as a performing unit, Zappa possessed extensive tapes of them, live and in the studio, and using that material, he assembled a new album, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, released in February 1970; it made the Top 100.
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