Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Zappa was raised in Lancaster, California where he grew up influenced in equal measures by avant garde composers such as Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky and the local rhythm and blues and doo-wop groups. In his high school years he met Captain Beefheart and they influenced each other musically at that time.
After a short career as a professional songwriter (his elegiac "Memories of El Monte" was recorded by The Penguins) Zappa joined a local R&B band as a guitarist. A short time later he re-christened the band "The Mothers" (and, later still, "Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention" at the insistence of the record company.)
The Mothers were signed by well known producer Tom Wilson, and soon produced the double album Freak Out (1966) a mixture of often topical R&B and experimental sound collage. The similarly eclectic Absolutely Free and Lumpy Gravy followed the next year. Zappa also recorded We're Only In It For The Money, a withering satire on both flower power and the prevailing mood of mainstream America; the cover parodied that of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, replacing flowers with vegetables.
After several more albums with the Mothers including the Doo-Wop flavoured Cruising With Ruben And The Jets, Zappa released the solo instrumental album Hot Rats, featuring his free jazz inflected guitar playing, as well as a live set recorded at the Fillmore East and featuring John Lennon. He continued this high rate of production through the early 1970s, including the excellent and accessible albums One Size Fits All and Apostrophe, with a new versions of the Mothers. See Tom and Jerry for an anecdote from this era.
In 1980, Zappa helped former band members Warren Cuccurullo and Terry Bozzio launch their new band, Missing Persons, by letting them record their 4-song demo EP in his brand new UMRK studios.
After a break Zappa returned, and much of his later work was influenced by his use of the synclavier as a compositional and performance tool and his mastery of studio techniques for producing specific instrumental effects. His work was also more explicitly political satirising the rise of television evangelists and the Republican party.
On September 19, 1985, Zappa testified before the US Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC, a music censorship organization founded by Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore and including many other political wives, including the wives of five members of the committee. He said,
"The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design. "It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation." In the early 1990s Zappa devoted almost all of his energy to modern orchestral and synclavier works. In 1992 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a disease which caused his death on December 4, 1993. His last tour in a "rock band format" took place in 1988 with a 12-piece group which was reported to have a repetoire of over 800 (mostly Zappa) compositions, but which split acrimoniously before the tour was completed. The tour was documented on the albums The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (Zappa "standards" and obscure cover tunes), Make a Jazz Noise here (mostly instrumental and experimental music) and Broadway The Hard Way (new original material), with bits also to be found on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 6.
On his death in 1993, Frank Zappa was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California.
Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That same year the only known cast of Zappa was installed in the center of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Konstantinas Bogdanas, the most renowned Lithuanian sculptor who had previously been casting portraits of Vladimir Lenin immortalized Zappa.
Zappa was married twice, once to Kay Sherman (1959-1964) and then to Gail Sloatman, who he remained with until his death. Sloatman and Zappa had four children, two sons and two daughters, all of whom had rather unusual names. They are: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Rodin, and Diva.
There is an asteroid named in his honor called 3834 Zappafrank.