Bandleader, composer, guitarist, satirist, filmmaker and outspoken advocate of creative freedom. Born Frank Vincent Zappa in Baltimore on Dec. 21, 1940, Zappa moved to California at age 10. His father was a meteorologist. Zappa has two brothers, Bobby and Carl, and one sister, Candy.
Zappa is best known for his avant-garde and iconoclastic style of music, most notably as the leader of his underground 1960s rock band, The Mothers of Invention.
Zappa started playing music as a drummer in his high school marching band and in various neighborhood garage bands. He took up the guitar at age 18, along with composing and writing classical music. After dropping out of junior college, Zappa worked as a window dresser, copywriter, and door-to-door salesperson. With the money he earned from scoring the film Run Home Slow (1965) (written by his high school English teacher), Zappa purchased a recording studio. In 1962 Zappa spent 10 days in jail and three years on probation for conspiracy to commit pornography after he recorded an audiotape of a sexual encounter at the request of a client, who turned out to be an undercover policeman. In 1964 he wrote the pop opera “I Was a Teenage Maltshop” (narrated by high school buddy Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart), which he failed to sell to various TV networks.
On Mother’s Day in 1964, Zappa named the band he had created “The Mothers,” which was later sanitized to “The Mothers of Invention” by MGM. The band explored a wide range of experimental musical styles throughout the 1960s and early 1970s and managed to offend numerous political and social groups with biting, satirical and sometimes lascivious lyrics that left little sacred.
After his music was attacked, Zappa became concerned that artists might be prevented from freely expressing themselves. When the Parents Music Resource Center recommended voluntary album content labeling, Zappa went to Capitol Hill and accused a Senate committee of promoting censorship. Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-president of Czechoslovakia, was so impressed by Zappa’s music that he made him his Cultural Liason Officer; the appointment was derailed by the U.S. State Department’s James Baker, whose wife, Susan, was a co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center.
Although Zappa recorded more than 60 albums and produced several films (most notably 200 Motels in 1971), he was not particularly successful from a commercial standpoint. He had a few Top 40 hits: “Dancin’ Fool” (from 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti) satirized disco, and 1982’s “Valley Girl” (which featured the voice of his 13-year-old daughter, Moon) mocked California’s shopping mall culture. In the 1980s he recorded several albums with Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra, and was honored, along with avant-garde musicians Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, at the 1992 New Music Festival in Frankfurt. Still, Zappa was twice rejected for induction by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He was finally inducted posthumously in 1995.
Zappa and his wife Gail had four children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Rodan and Diva. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, Zappa continued working at his Laurel Canyon California home until his death from the disease on December 4, 1993, at age 52. As an homage, in July 1994 the International Astronomical Union named a Czech-discovered asteroid “Zappafrank.”