Frank Zappa Bio: Life and Career

Script written by Craig Butler. Born December 21st, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, Frank Zappa was inspired to write music by listening to avant-garde classical composers. He made his musical debut with The Mothers of Invention in 1966 and released over 60 albums both with the band and as a solo artist over close to 30 years. Though he found some commercial success, Zappa was mostly recognized by critics for his guitar-playing, experimental live shows and mixing of genres. Some of the most varied and popular artists cite him as an influence. In this WatchMojo.com video, we take a look at the life and career of Frank Zappa.
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Script written by Craig Butler.

Prolific. Proactive. And definitely provocative. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re taking a look at the life and career of Frank Zappa.

Early Musical Interest


Frank Vincent Zappa was born December 21st, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, but moved frequently due to his father’s defense industry work. Heavily influenced by avant-garde classical composers, R&B and doo-wop, the young Zappa was soon writing, arranging and conducting complex experimental pieces.

Soul Giants


After scoring a couple of ultra-low budget independent films and working with artists like Ray Collins and Captain Beefheart, Zappa became the guitarist for the San Diego band the Soul Giants in 1965. He also began demonstrating what became a lifelong disregard for authority, after six months in jail on bogus porn production charges.

Mothers of Invention


The assertive and confident musician soon took control of the Soul Giants, and saw them renamed The Mothers of Invention. The Zappa legend swung into gear.

Debut


The Mothers’ 1966 debut Freak Out! was the first of some five dozen Zappa albums released over the next 27 years. That double album demonstrated Zappa’s command of different musical styles and featured “Trouble Every Day,” which focused on the racially charged Watts riots. Zappa later penned more complexly satirical lyrics, as skewering anything that promoted authority figures or mindless mainstream attitudes became his passion.

Live Shows and Home Taping


During live shows, he proved both his improvisational skills and his experimental side. He often taped his performances and added them to studio recordings to make new material.

Chart Success


Zappa was hailed as a startlingly original new voice, but many were confused by his constant mixing of genres. The Mothers of Invention did make it into the top 30 of the album charts with 1968’s We’re Only in It for the Money, and scored a gold record for 1973’s Over-Nite Sensation, but most of their recordings were embraced by critics rather than mainstream audiences.

Accidents


In 1971, Zappa’s career was almost cut short. As recounted in Deep Purple’s hit “Smoke on the Water,” he was performing with a new version of The Mothers at Casino de Montreux in Switzerland when the band’s gear was destroyed by fire. Scarcely a week later, during a London gig, Zappa endured a life-threatening accident when he was pushed off-stage by a fan. Broken bones, head injuries and serious damage to his larynx left the singer wheelchair-bound for months.

Commercial Success


Zappa rebounded, and had his only top 10 success with 1974’s Apostrophe, which he released as a solo artist. The gold record contained his first single ever to hit the Hot 100 charts: “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” peaked at number 86, but became one of his most recognizable tracks.

American and European Recognition


In 1979, Zappa found mainstream U.S. success when the disco-satirizing “Dancin’ Fool,” off the live record Sheik Yerbouti reached number 45. He also found European success with that album’s “Bobby Brown.”

“Joe’s Garage”


Zappa’s masterwork, Joe’s Garage, was released later that same year. The rock opera merged Zappa’s concerns with individual will, government, religion and sexuality, and his wildly eclectic music taste, in one stunning package.

Moon Unit and Censorship


Further U.S. success came with the 1982 single, “Valley Girl,” which he created with his daughter Moon Unit. Three years later, Zappa made headlines by appearing at a Senate hearing to denounce the Parents Music Resource Center, whose aggressive promotion of a ratings system for “explicit lyrics” he found repellent.

Grammy Award


He won his first Grammy for the 1986 instrumental record Jazz from Hell, which he recorded by using a Synclavier synthesizer.

Cancer


Unfortunately, Zappa was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in 1990. He focused his last few years on orchestral works and conducted his pieces at the Frankfurt Festival in 1992. On December 4th, 1993, he passed away.

Posthumous Releases


Death did not diminish Zappa’s fame: more than two dozen Zappa recordings were released posthumously, and his family is intent on keeping the Zappa legacy alive. Rolling Stone also named him one of the 100 Greatest Artists and Guitarists of All Time, while artists as disparate as Alice Cooper, George Clinton and Jimi Hendrix have acknowledged his influence.

Musical Legacy


Frank Zappa was one of the first rock artists to build bridges between genres like rock, jazz, classical and musique concrete. He will long be remembered as one of rock’s most fervent foes of censorship and narrow-mindedness.
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