Arguably one of music’s most unique personalities, Frank Zappa was an extremely talented soul who’s bizarre vision and insane work ethic still impacts people to this day.
Born December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, MD, Zappa was the eldest of four children. His father Francis was a chemist and mathematician who worked at a chemical plant relatively close to the home. This led not only to exposure to mustard gas and gas masks being stored in the home, but Zappa developing a fear and fascination of germs – a subject that would constantly appear in his lyrics (among other strange things). Zappa was also sick throughout most of his childhood.
Zappa was also very much pushed towards religion at an early age by his parents, another topic that Zappa would satirize in his musical career very often (for example, “Heavenly Bank Account”). Zappa was not a fan of any religion because he felt it promotes ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
It was during his High School years that Zappa would start to express interest in music. First playing drums before eventually learning guitar and a myriad of other instruments over the course of his life. By his senior year, Zappa would start composing and arranging avant-garde pieces for his school orchestra. He would attend college in 1959 but left after one semester and held a disdain for the public and higher education system to a degree where he would take his own children out of school at age 15 and refused to pay for college.
The 1960’s would be interesting years for Zappa as he would not only marry both of his wives (the brief Kathryn J. “Kay” Sherman and lifelong Adelaide Gail Sloatman), but also begin his music career writing and producing before fully launching it with The Mothers of Invention and their 1966 debut “Freak Out!” before disbanding The Mothers of Invention for the first time.
They would reunite the following year with Zappa dropping “of Invention” from their name.
The 70’s would bring Zappa more into his own as he dabbled in filmmaking with “200 Motels” and released several solo LP’s such as 1970’s “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” 1974’s “Apostrophe” (which included the single “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”) and all three parts of “Joe’s Garage” – Zappa’s 1979 rock opera about an adolescent man that forms a rock band, gives all his money to religion, has sexual relations with machines and is driven to insanity when he wakes up from a coma to discover a world where the government has banned all music.
It should be noted that Zappa was notorious for never drinking or taking drugs.
Zappa would continue to raise eyebrows with his strange and humorous lyrics coupled with complex song arrangements in the 80’s and would discover a young guitarist by the name of Steve Vai. During this decade Zappa would reach the peak of his popularity, releasing some of his most famous works such as the “Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar” trilogy, “You Are What You Is” and the first three of his series of live albums “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore.”
This is just scratching the surface of how much music the man released over his 30 year career.
Zappa would release music into the 90’s, creating classical arrangements of his works as well as composing new pieces with the German chamber ensemble, Ensemble Modern. They would perform his works at the 1992 Frankfurt Festival (Zappa was one of four composers whose works were chosen. The other three were John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Alexander Knaifel). Other performances were scheduled in Los Angeles, but Zappa was only able to appear at two due to health issues. On December 4, 1993, Zappa died of prostate cancer – a condition he was diagnosed with in 1990. He was 52 years old. In 1995, Zappa was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1997 he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.
Zappa is survived by his four children Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva, who are all employed within the music and entertainment industries. Dweezil is also an accomplished musician and honors his fathers legacy by playing his songs in concerts known as “Zappa Plays Zappa.”
Throughout his career, Zappa released over 60 albums. The amount of music Zappa recorded is unknown as albums continue to to be released to this day, the last being “Dance Me This” which was released on June 12. He is consistently ranked in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest” lists.