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 a "bicycle concerto", plucking the spokes and blowing through the handlebars. In 1963, Zappa wrote a score for a Western called Run Home Slow and with the money built a studio in Cucamonga, California. He befriended future Mothers Ray Collins and Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood and formed a band with Beefheart called the Soots.
Zappa's distrust of authority was cemented in 1962, long before he rose to fame with the Mothers of Invention. Then a budding movie maker and recording studio owner, he was set up by the San Bernardino vice squad, one of whose undercover agents commissioned an audio-only sex tape, which Zappa and his girlfriend made as a joke (they edited out the laughs). However, they were convicted of ''conspiracy to commit pornography'' and Zappa spent 10 days in jail and three years on probation (the conviction did spare him the draft).
In 1964, Zappa joined the Soul Giants, with Collins (vocals), Dave Coronada (sax), Roy Estrada (bass), and Jimmy Carl Black (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 them to MGM/Verve and recorded "Freak Out!" MGM, wary of the band’s outrageous reputation, forced Zappa to add "of Invention" to the Mothers. 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' line-up 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". His montage production techniques -- mingling tape edits, noise, recitative, free-form outbursts, and Varese-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, along with "Cruising with Ruben & the Jets", an homage to Fifties doo-wop. "We’re Only in It for the Money", a parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, found Zappa savaging hippie pretensions.
Billy Mundi left after "Lumpy Gravy", and 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 are daughters Moon Unit and Diva and sons Dweezil and Ahmet Rodan. (Frank insisted his kids would always have more trouble because of their last name) In L.A. Zappa moved into movie cowboy Tom Mix’s Log Cabin Ranch, where he assembled the increasingly complex LPs, "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 the GTO’s, Alice Cooper, and Captain Beefheart. By the time "Weasels" was released in 1970, Zappa had temporarily disbanded the Mothers because of overwhelming expenses and public apathy. Lowell George and Roy Estrada then founded "Little Feat", Art Tripp III joined Beefheart (Estrada later joined Beefheart as well); Gardner and Black formed "Geronimo Black".
Zappa began composing the soundtrack for the movie "200 Motels". He also recorded his first solo album, "Hot Rats", which was released to great critical acclaim in 1969, as was "Ponty’s King Kong" (1970), 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) along with bassist Jim Pons, jazz keyboardist George Duke, and British rock drummer Aynsley Dunbar. With this line-up and other session players, Zappa recorded "Waka Jawaka" and "Chunga Is Revenge" as solo albums and "The Mothers’ Live at the Fillmore East" and "Just Another Band from L.A."
At this point, critics began accusing the Mothers of becoming a cynical, scatological joke, but Zappa displayed no discomfort in portraying two apparently contradictory personae: the raunchy inciter and the serious composer. In 1971, the 200 Motels film, featuring Theodore Bikel and Ringo Starr as surrogate Zappas, as well as the Mothers, was released to mixed response. In May 1971, Zappa appeared at one of the last Fillmore East concerts with John Lennon and Yoko Ono; the performance appears on Lennon/Ono’s "Some Time in New York City".
As the Mothers personnel began to change more frequently, they embarked on a 1971 tour in which their equipment was destroyed in a fire at Switzerland’s Montreux Casino (immortalized in opening act Deep Purple’s "Smoke on the Water") Zappa was injured when a fan pushed him from the stage of London’s Rainbow, crushing his larynx (lowering his voice a third), damaging his spine and keeping him wheelchair-bound for the best part of a year. A year later the Mothers were banned from the Royal Albert Hall for "obscenity."
"The Grand Wazoo", with numerous auxiliary players, was a big-band fusion album. In 1973, Zappa and the Mothers also recorded "Over-nite Sensation", on which Zappa simplified his music and kept his lyrics in a scatological-humorous vein (as in "Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow" [#86, 1974]). Album sales picked up. Apostrophe (‘) featured an extended jam with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, as well as by-now-typical dirty jokes and satires. The 1975 "Bongo Fury" album reunited Zappa with Beef-heart. The latter had fallen out with Zappa after "Trout Mask", accusing Zappa of marketing him like "a freak."
After producing Grand Funk Railroad’s "Good Singin’, Good Playin’" in 1976, Zappa filed a lawsuit against Herb Cohen in 1977, and severed ties with Warner Bros., moving to Mercury two years later. There he set up Zappa Records and retired the Mothers name, calling all later groups "Zappa". On the new label he released "Sheik Yerbouti" (a pun on KC and the Sunshine Band’s "Shake Your Booty"), including the song "Jewish Princess," for which the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League filed a complaint with the FCC against Zappa. That album also yielded a surprise hit single, "Dancin’ Fool" (#45, 1979), which lampooned the disco crowd. (Sheik peaked at #21 on the albums chart.) "Joe’s Garage, Act I", the first instalment of a three-act rock opera, included "Catholic Girls" and Zappa’s penchant for barbed attacks continued to infuriate his opponents, while strengthening his own following. In 1979 Zappa released the film "Baby Snakes", a collection of concert footage, dressing-room slapstick, and clay-figure animation. The late-Seventies Zappa bands included guitarist Adrian Belew (who later played with Talking Heads, King Crimson, and David Bowie) and drummer Terry Bozzio (who later with his wife Dale founded Missing Persons).
In 1980 Zappa recorded a single, "I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted," which Mercury refused to release, prompting him to leave the label and eventually establish his own Barking Pumpkin label.
In 1981 Zappa released his first Barking Pumpkin album, and that year, some ex-Mothers, including Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, and Bunk Gardner, united to form "the Grandmothers". They toured and recorded, playing all-Zappa material from the Mothers’ vintage late-Sixties period. That April, Zappa produced and hosted a New York City concert of music by Edgard Varese. He also released a limited-edition, mail-order-only three-album series, "Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar".
Zappa parlayed stereotype satire into success once more with "Valley Girl" (#32, 1982) from the "Drowning Witch" album. The song parodied the spoiled daughters of entertainment-industry folk, specifically those in the San Bernardino Valley city of Encino, and featured inspired mimicry by then-14-year-old Moon Unit Zappa. In 1983 Zappa conducted works by Varese and Anton Webern at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
The rest of the eighties saw Zappa consolidating his business affairs; with Gail Zappa in charge, his companies included not only Barking Pumpkin (a mail-order label, distributed by Capitol), but Honker Home Video, Barfko-Swill (for Zappa merchandise), and World’s Finest Optional Entertainment Co. (to produce live shows). He also arranged with Rykodisc to re-release his catalogue on CD. A lifelong free-speech advocate, he testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1985 and assailed the Parents’ Music Resource Center (excerpts from the hearings appeared on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention); throughout the decade, he also championed voter registration drives.
Artistically, the Eighties were also fertile years for Zappa. Early in the decade, the Berkeley Symphony performed his work; in 1984 conductor/composer Pierre Boulez released "Boulez Conducts Zappa/ The Perfect Stranger" (#7 on the classical chart in 1984). In 1988 Zappa undertook a world tour (documented on "Broadway the Hard Way") and won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "Jazz from Hell", an album composed on Synclavier, a highly sophisticated synthesizer that, in Zappa, found one of its chief devotees. Among his other late-Eighties projects were remastering his Sixties work for CD and assembling six double-CD sets of live work entitled "You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore". In 1989, Poseidon Press published his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book.
In 1990, at the invitation of Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel, a long-time fan, Zappa served for several months as that country’s trade, tourism, and cultural liaison to the West, but the appointment was derailed by pressure from the State Department, then run by James Baker -- whose wife, Susan, was a co-founder of the PMRC.
In 1991, in New York City, on the eve of a tribute concert entitled "Zappa’s Universe", Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa announced that their father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A lifelong teetotaller and abstainer from drugs (Zappa, however, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee incessantly), the composer continued a rigorous work schedule. In 1993 he completed a two-CD sequel to "Lumpy Gravy", called "Civilization Phaze III" (released in 1995), and he recorded both "The Yellow Shark", an album of his compositions recorded by the classical group Ensemble Modern and, also with the Ensemble, an album of Varese works tentatively entitled "The Rage and the Fury: The Music of Edgard Varese".
Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer on the evening of December 4th, 1993, at his Los Angeles home, surrounded by his wife Gail and his children, Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen. He was 52 years old. At a private ceremony the following day, Zappa was interred in an unmarked grave at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles.
If Frank Zappa was a seminal figure in rock history, he was also a peripheral one, who's biggest claim to fame was extrapolating everything to its most absurd extreme. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Perhaps the voters remembered Zappa's curt dismissal of rock journalism as "people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read."
In 2005, Rolling Stone ranked him at #71 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2011, he was #22 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Between 1994 and 2011, the Zappa Family Trust has released 29 posthumous albums, giving the artist a grand total of 91 albums. On September 22nd, 2011, they issued "Feeding the Monkies At Ma Maison" and on October 31st of that year, "Carnegie Hall", a quadruple live album, hit store shelves.
On October 7th, 2015, Frank's wife Gail passed away after a long battle with cancer at the age of 70. Over the years she was responsible for issuing dozens of posthumous albums and judiciously licensing his image where she deemed appropriate.