FRANK ZAPPA the early Years
The eldest of four children of a guitar-playing government scientist, Francis Vincent Zappa Jr., was born December 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland. He moved with his family at age 10 to California, eventually settling in Lancaster. Playing in school orchestras and bands, he taught himself a variety of instruments, concentrating on guitar. A collector of Fifties rock & roll and R&B singles, he also listened to modern classical composers like Stravinsky and his avowed favorite, Edgard Varèse. In high school he formed the Black-Outs and added country blues to his record collection. He met future collaborator and underground legend Don Van Vliet and allegedly christened him Captain Beefheart. In 1959 he studied music theory at Chaffey College in Alta Loma, California, dropping out after six months.
In 1960 Zappa played cocktail music in lounges and worked on his first recordings and the score for a B movie, The World’s Greatest Sinner. He also appeared on Steve Allen’s TV show, performing an avant-garde “bicycle concerto” (plucking the spokes, blowing through the handlebars). In 1963 Zappa wrote a score for a Western called Run Home Slow, and with the money he made built a studio in Cucamonga, California. He befriended future Mothers of Invention members Ray Collins and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, and formed a band with Beefheart called the Soots.
Zappa was charged with conspiracy to commit pornography by the San Bernardino Vice Squad after an undercover policeman requested some sex “party” tapes: Zappa delivered tapes of faked grunting, and served 10 days of a six-month jail sentence. The woman involved was bailed out of jail with royalties from “Memories of El Monte,” which Zappa and Collins had written for the doo-wop group the Penguins. The incident sparked Zappa’s lifelong free-speech activism.
In 1964 Zappa joined the Soul Giants, with Collins on vocals, Dave Coronada on sax, Roy Estrada on bass, and Jimmy Carl Black on drums. Renaming them the Muthers, then the Mothers, he moved the band onto L.A.’s proto-hippie “freak” circuit (Coronada quit, replaced by guitarist Elliot Ingber). The band played clubs for two years, mixing covers with social-protest tunes like “Who Are the Brain Police?” In early 1966 producer Tom Wilson signed the Mothers to MGM/Verve and recorded Freak Out! MGM, wary of the band’s outrageous reputation, forced Zappa to add “of Invention” to the name. Though Zappa advertised the album in underground papers and comics and earned critical respect for the album’s obvious musical and lyrical distinction, it ended up losing money.
In 1966, with Ingber departing – eventually to join Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band – the Mothers lineup expanded to include saxophonists Bunk Gardner and Motorhead Sherwood, keyboardist Don Preston, and drummer Billy Mundi. Released in 1967, Absolutely Free further satirized “straight” America with pointed tunes like “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and “Plastic People.” We’re Only in It for the Money, a parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s, found Zappa savaging hippie pretensions. His montage production techniques – mingling tape edits, noise, recitative, free-form outbursts, and Varèse-like modern classical music with rock – were coming into their own. In 1967 Zappa and the Mothers also recorded Lumpy Gravy, with a 50-piece orchestra, including many Mothers, and Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, an homage to Fifties doo-wop.
Mundi left after Lumpy Gravy; by now it was apparent that the Mothers were less a band than a shifting vehicle for Zappa’s art. While recording Money, Zappa and the group had moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where they began a six-month residency at the Garrick Theatre. There they pioneered rock theater with a series of often-spontaneous audience-participation skits. While recording Ruben & the Jets, the Mothers also began recording Uncle Meat, a double album for a never-completed movie. It is the first example of Zappa’s trademark complex-meter jazz-rock fusion.
After making Uncle Meat, Zappa moved the band back to L.A. and married his second wife, Gail; their four children include daughters Moon Unit and Diva and sons Dweezil and Ahmet Rodan. (Dweezil would become a solo artist in the Eighties, then form Shampoohorn with his brother in the Nineties before beginning his Zappa Plays Zappa project of the 2000s; both also became television personalities, as did their sister Moon Unit). In L.A. Zappa moved into movie cowboy Tom Mix’s Log Cabin Ranch, where he assembled the increasingly complex Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. By this time, the band had come to include second guitarist Lowell George and drummer Art Tripp III.
In late 1968 Zappa and manager Herb Cohen had moved to Warner/Reprise, where they formed their own Straight and Bizarre labels. Zappa recorded such acts as groupie collective the GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously), onetime street-singer Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, and Captain Beefheart (whose Trout Mask Replica was one of Zappa’s most memorable productions). By the time Weasels came out in 1970, Zappa had temporarily disbanded the Mothers because of overwhelming expenses and public apathy. George and Estrada then founded Little Feat; Trip joined Beefheart (Estrada later joined Beefheart as well); Gardner and Black formed Geronimo Black.
Zappa began composing the soundtrack for 200 Motels. He also recorded his first solo album, Hot Rats, a jazz-rock guitar showcase featuring Beefheart and jazz violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Don “Sugarcane” Harris. Hot Rats came out to great critical acclaim in 1970, as did Ponty’s King Kong, an album of Zappa compositions (for legal reasons, Zappa’s name couldn’t be listed as producer and guitarist). In 1970 Zappa also performed the 200 Motels score with Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic at a sold-out L.A. concert. That summer, Zappa re-formed the Mothers, retaining keyboardist/reedman Ian Underwood and adding ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (singers then known as the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie), and bassist Jim Pons, along with jazz keyboardist George Duke and British rock drummer Aynsley Dunbar. With this lineup and other session players, Zappa recorded Waka/Jawaka and Chunga’s Revenge as solo albums and the Mothers’ Fillmore East – June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A.
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