Frank Zappa was one of the most accomplished composers of the rock era. His music shows an affinity for such classical figures as Stockhausen and Varèse, an affection for late 1950s doo wop, and a facility with the guitar-heavy sounds that dominated popular music in the 1970s. But Zappa was also a satirist whose scorn seemed bottomless and whose sense of absurd humor delighted his fans, even when he crossed over the broadest bounds of good taste. Finally, Zappa was perhaps the most prolific record-maker of his time, turning out massive amounts of music on his own Barking Pumpkin label and through distribution deals with Rykodisc and Rhino after long, unhappy associations with industry giants like Warner Brothers and the now-defunct MGM.
Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940; his father, a meteorologist, later moved the family to California. In his teens, young Frank played guitar and studied music, largely on his own; but at the age of 14 he read an article about the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, sparking a lifelong interest in both Varèse and the composition of contemporary classical music.
By age 18, Zappa had formed and performed in many musical groups. In 1960, he composed the soundtrack to the forgettable film, The World's Greatest Sinner. Two years later, he acquired his own recording studio in San Bernardino. His innate mistrust of authority received a boost when he spent ten days in jail, having produced a pornographic audio tape for an undercover vice cop.
Zappa composed another film score for Run Home Slow in 1965. That same year he joined the band Soul Giants, which was soon reconstituted as the Mothers (then further renamed the Mothers of Invention at the time of their first record deal). They released their debut, Freak Out!, in 1966; following efforts included Absolutely Free (1967), We're Only in It for the Money (1968), and Cruising with Reuben and the Jets (1968). The first and last of these are in Zappa's doo wop style.
After these initial recordings, Zappa initiated the first of many personnel shake-ups within the Mothers of Invention. In 1970, he released four albums, including Hot Rats, which divulged a mixture of jazz and rock styles. While he had some success, Zappa's first big hit did not come until the 1974 "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." Others would come slowly, like "Dancin' Fool" (1979) and "Valley Girl" (1982). This last effort featured his 14-year-old daughter, Moon Unit.
Best known of Zappa's classical works are his Bob in Dacron and Sad Jane and Mo' 'n Herb's Vacation, for full orchestra, and Penis Dimension, a rather explicit scatological work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. They show a remarkable degree of fluency with musical materials absorbed from his self-studies of scores, especially those of Varèse.
The names of Zappa's four children (besides Moon Unit, they are Dweezil — also a musician — Ahmet Rodan, and Diva) once caused the composer to remark wryly that their surname would give them more trouble. In the 1980s, such groups as Parents Music Resource Center, led by wives of U.S. Senators, including Tipper Gore, lobbied for, among other things, the labeling of recordings. Zappa, his career experiencing a lull, became active in opposing these attempts at censorship, writing President Reagan and testifying in 1985 before a Senate Committee.
By the early 1990s Zappa's career was in full swing once again, but he was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer. It is an irony that a decade before, one of his typically nose-thumbing songs was entitled "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee." Zappa died on December 4, 1993, in Los Angeles.