Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (Dec. 21, 1940 — Dec. 4, 1993) was an American musician, composer, producer, and bandleader from Baltimore, Md., who was active as a recording artist for more than 25 years, starting with his backing band the Mothers of Invention during the mid-1960s. Between 1966 and 1975, he released five albums on Verve, followed by 15 albums on self-imprints Bizarre and DiscReet, mostly with the Mothers. During the subsequent 15-year period, he recorded more than 20 solo albums for self-imprints Zappa, Barking Pumpkin, and other labels.

Mothers of Invention members: Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals), Ray Collins (vocals, harmonica, percussion, 1965-68), Roy Estrada (bass, vocals, 1965-1969, 1975), Jimmy Carl Black (drums, percussion), Henry Vestine (guitar, 1965-66), Don Preston (keyboards, piano, Moog, synthesizer, 1966-69, 1971-72, 1974), Elliot Ingber (guitar, 1966), Jim Fielder (bass, guitar, 1966-67), Bunk Gardner (saxophone, woodwinds, 1966-69), Billy Mundi (drums, percussion, 1966-67), Euclid James ‘Motorhead’ Sherwood (saxophone, woodwinds, tambourine, 1967-69), Ian Underwood (piano, keyboards, saxophone, woodwinds, vocals, 1967-69, 1971, 1973), Arthur Tripp (drums, percussion, 1967-69), Lowell George (guitar, vocals, 1968-69), Buzz Gardner (trumpet, 1968-69), George Duke (keyboards, synthesizer, vocals, 1970, 1972-75), Jeff Simmons (guitar, vocals, 1970, 1974), Mark Volman (vocals, 1970-71), Howard Kaylan (vocals, 1971), Bob Harris (keyboard, vocals, 1971), Jim Pons (bass, vocals, 1971), Aynsley Dunbar (drums, 1971-72), Tony Duran (slide guitar, vocals, 1972), Erroneous (bass, 1972), Sal Marquez (trumpet, vocals, 1972-73), Mike Altschul (trumpet, woodwinds, saxophone, 1972), Kenny Shroyer (brass, woodwinds 1972), Ruth Underwood (marimba, vibraphone, percussion, 1973-75), Ralph Humphrey (drums, 1973-74), Jean-Luc Ponty (violin, 1973), Napoleon Murphy Brock (saxophone, flute, vocals, 1974-75), Bruce Fowler (trombone, 1973-74), Tom Fowler (bass, 1973-75), Walt Fowler (trumpet, 1974), Chester Thompson (drums, 1974-75),Bird Youmans (bass, 1975), Denny Walley (guitar, vocals, 1975), Robert Camarena (vocals, 1975), Novi Novog (viola, keyboards, vocals, 1975), Norma Jean Bell (alto saxophone, vocals, 1975)

Zappa was born in Baltimore, Md., on December 21, 1940. He was the eldest of four children in a multi-generational household with Italian-speaking grandparents. During his childhood, the family moved several times due to his father’s work as a chemist for the defense industry.

At the turn of the 1950s, the family lived near a Maryland arsenal that stored mustard gas, necessitating emergency gas masks at home. His childhood was plagued by sinuses, for which he was given nasal radium treatment, a practice since linked to his later development of cancer. Consequently, references to germs and nasal conditions would factor into much of his work.

When Frank was a teenager, the Zappa family moved to San Diego, where he took up drums and joined his first band at Mission Bay High School. His musical interests ranged from doo wop and R&B to Italian opera and avant-garde classical composers (Stravinsky, Webern). He developed a special fondness for French experimental composer Edgard Varèse, who inspired Zappa to learn orchestral percussion and explore sounds for their own sake.

The family to moved Lancaster, where Zappa attended Antelope Valley High School. Here, he befriended classmate and future collaborator Don Glen Vliet, who later changed his middle name to Van and adopted the stage name Captain Beefheart. During this time, Zappa drummed with local act The Blackouts, which included future Mothers reedist Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood. Inspired by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Zappa took up guitar with a special interest in soloing. Before graduating, he wrote and arranged several avant-garde classical pieces for school orchestra.

Zappa left home at age 18 and moved to Los Angeles, where he gigged with a new version of The Blackouts and eked out a living as a composer. His earliest recorded scores were for the b-movies The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962) and Run Home Slow (1965). In 1962, he formed a partnership with singer Ray Collins. One of their songs, “Memories of El Monte,” was a local hit for doo wop group The Penguins. It was produced by Paul Buff at Pal Recording Studio in Cucamonga.

In 1963, Zappa made his first television appearance on Steve Allen’s late-night show, where he took a violin bow and drum sticks to a sound-emitting bicycle. He also cut demos with Beefheart under the working name The Soots. One of these, “Metal Man Has Hornet’s Wings,” was issued years later on the Wizardo Records bootleg Confidential.

Earning money as a film composer, Zappa assumed Pal Recording Studio and converted it to Studio Z, where he worked 12 hours a day on recordings and overdubs. At night, he gigged locally with his power trio, The Muthas. In early 1965, he lost the studio when it was raided after a bogus pornography tip-off to local authorities. He was imprisoned for 10 days.

In late 1965, Collins asked Zappa to join The Soul Giants, a local R&B band that had recently lost its guitarist. Zappa quickly became the band’s leader and changed their name to The Mothers. They quickly rose on LA’s underground music scene, where they sparked the interest of producer Tom Wilson, who signed them to MGM’s jazz-oriented Verve division. At the label’s insistence, they renamed themselves The Mothers of Invention.


  • Freak Out! (1966 • The Mothers of Invention)
  • Absolutely Free (1967 • The Mothers of Invention)
  • We’re Only in It for the Money (1968 • The Mothers of Invention)
  • Lumpy Gravy (1968 • Francis Vincent Zappa & The Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus)
  • Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (1968 • The Mothers of Invention)
  • Uncle Meat (1969 • The Mothers of Invention)
  • Hot Rats (1969)
  • Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970 • The Mothers of Invention)
  • Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970 • The Mothers of Invention)
  • Chunga’s Revenge (1970)
  • 200 Motels (OST, 1971)
  • Fillmore East – June 1971 (1971 • The Mothers)
  • Just Another Band From L.A. (1972 • The Mothers)
  • Waka/Jawaka (1972)
  • The Grand Wazoo (1972 • The Mothers)
  • Over-Nite Sensation (1973 • The Mothers)
  • Apostrophe (‘) (1974)
  • Roxy & Elsewhere (1974 • Zappa / Mothers)
  • Bongo Fury (1975 • Zappa / Beefheart / Mothers)
  • One Size Fits All (1975 • Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention)
  • Zoot Allures (1976 • Zappa)
  • Studio Tan (1978)
  • Sleep Dirt (1979)
  • Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
  • Joe’s Garage Act I (1979)
  • Joe’s Garage Acts II & III (1979)
  • Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981)
  • Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981)
  • Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More (1981)
  • You Are What You Is (1981)
  • Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982 • Zappa)
  • The Man From Utopia (1983 • Zappa)
  • London Symphony Orchestra Vol. 1 (1983)
  • The Perfect Stranger (1984 • Boulez Conducts Zappa)
  • Them or Us (1984)
  • Thing-Fish (1984)
  • Francesco Zappa (1984)
  • Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985)
  • Jazz From Hell (1986)
  • Blood on the Canvas (1987 • Eric Bogosian & Frank Zappa)
  • London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II (1987 • Zappa)
  • Civilization Phaze III (1994)
  • The Lost Episodes [archival]


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