Frank Zappa: A 'Lumpy' Legacy Zappa put out more than 60 records in his lifetime, and unreleased music is still coming out more than 15 years after his death. It's part of an effort by his widow to keep Zappa's legacy alive, but she's become controversial for her efforts to keep her husband's music away from those she deems unfit to carry its weight.
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Frank Zappa: A 'Lumpy' Legacy

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Frank Zappa: A 'Lumpy' Legacy

Frank Zappa: A 'Lumpy' Legacy

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Frank Zappa was called many things during his lifetime. We won't stop to ponder all of them right now, but lazy was not one of them. Zappa put out more than 60 records. Unreleased music is still coming out more than 15 years after his death. It's part of an effort by his widow, Gail Zappa, to keep his legacy alive, but that's not all she's doing.

Gail Zappa is using legal threats to discourage unauthorized performances of his music. Many fans, and even musicians who played with Zappa, say she may be doing more harm than good. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: While other bands were enthralled with the Summer of Love, Frank Zappa saw a very different 1967.

(Soundbite of song, "Who Needs the Peace Corps?")

Mr. FRANK ZAPPA (Musician): (Singing) What's there to live for? Who needs the Peace Corps? Think I'll just drop out. I'll go to Frisco, buy a wig and sleep on Owsley's floor.

ROSE: "We're Only in it for the Money" by the Mothers of Invention was one of two albums Zappa recorded that year.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Frank Zappa was a 26-year-old self-taught composer with long hair and a funny goatee, when he walked into a Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles and handed out charts for "Lumpy Gravy" to an orchestra.

(Soundbite of song, "Lumpy Gravy")

Ms. GAIL ZAPPA: At one point, he turned to me when we were listening just to playback, and he said, did I write that? It was so shocking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSE: Gail Zappa is reissuing the rarely heard original recording of "Lumpy Gravy," along with "We're Only in it for the Money" in a package called "Lumpy Money." David Fricke wrote the liner notes.

Mr. DAVID FRICKE (Senior Editor, Rolling Stone Magazine): I had never heard the original complete thing before, and it just blew my mind. It was almost as if he was writing avant-garde classical music in Top 40 segments.

(Soundbite of song, "Lumpy Gravy")

ROSE: Lumpy Gravy is a suite of three-minute movements, and the music is not easy to play.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, man. I don't know if I can go through this again.

ROSE: Some of L.A.'s best studio musicians balked at the parts Zappa had written until he picked up his guitar and tossed off the sections written for bassoon and bass clarinet. Gail Zappa says musicians are still struggling to play what her husband wrote.

Ms. ZAPPA: I want people to play Frank's music. Go ahead, try. Don't hurt yourself, but just try it.

ROSE: But Zappa insists that anyone who does try to perform it in public needs to pay royalties to his estate.

Ms. ZAPPA: I don't really care who's doing it as long as they get a license. The people I'm going after are not licensing the music.

ROSE: Zappa is going after cover bands she accuses of identity theft. Her lawyers have sent scores of cease and desist letters, but many of the people who continue to perform Frank Zappa's music say they don't need permission.

Mr. ANDRE CHOLMONDELEY (Guitarist): You or I cannot record that material and sell it for money. That's been made clear, but we can perform it.

ROSE: And that's what guitarist Andre Cholmondeley does in a long-running Zappa cover band called Project/Object.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Cholmondeley says as long as the venues he plays have paid for what's called a blanket license from the performance rights organization ASCAP, he is not doing anything illegal.

Mr. CHOLMONDELEY: I'm not a lawyer, but that is the opinion and the direction I've been given by probably a dozen lawyers at this point.

ROSE: Music lawyers consulted for this story agreed. And it seems Gail Zappa has never actually sued a cover band, but she has sued a 20-year-old festival in Germany called the Zappanale for trademark infringement. She lost, but plans to appeal. By all accounts, Frank Zappa was a perfectionist who liked to keep a tight grip on his business and his art. As he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1989, he struggled with symphony orchestras and his own bands to get his music right.

Mr. ZAPPA: Goal one for a composer is to just hear what it was that you wrote because you like to listen to music as well as write it. That's always been the main thrill for me, is to come up with a musical idea and have it performed some way. And I'm especially thrilled if it's performed correctly.

ROSE: That's why Gail Zappa has a problem with some cover bands.

Ms. ZAPPA: Somebody goes out there, play the music, it's not played very well. It's not played anything like the composer intended. And they are telling the audience that's never heard it before that this is Frank Zappa's music, and it's not. It's some wretched version of it.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROSE: There are cover bands that the Zappa family does endorse, including Zappa Plays Zappa, a band fronted by Frank's son, Dweezil.

(Soundbite of song "Call Any Vegetable")

Mr. DWEEZIL ZAPPA (Musician): (Singing) Call any vegetable, call it by name.

ROSE: Gail Zappa insists that she's not playing favorites, but some of the musicians who've been threatened by her lawyers have their doubts. They point to a message that was left on the hotline for Zappa's record label shortly after he died of prostate cancer in 1993.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. MOON UNIT ZAPPA: Just play his music if you're a musician and otherwise, play his music anyway. That will be enough for him.

ROSE: That's Zappa's daughter, Moon Unit. His widow, Gail, insists the message is not what some fans and musicians have made it out to be.

Ms. ZAPPA: We wrote something for Moon to say on the hotline, but it was not a statement made by Frank. He never said that. He never told anyone that.

ROSE: Ike Willis would beg to differ.

Mr. IKE WILLIS (Musician): The main reason I'm doing it is because I love Frank. I love his music, and he asked me to do it.

ROSE: Willis is a singer and guitarist who worked with Frank Zappa on and off for 17 years. He now tours with Project/Object and other unauthorized cover bands. Willis says he talked to the composer a week before Zappa died.

Mr. WILLIS: He said, I would really like it if you could be one of the people that could actually keep my music played, you know, at least in some way, shape or form. Those were his words. It's, like, he didn't want it to die.

ROSE: There are performers who have decided it's simply easier to work with Gail Zappa.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Students from the Paul Green School of Rock performed at Zappanale in 2005.

(Soundbite of song, "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy")

Unidentified Man #2 (Singer): (Singing) I could'a swore her hair was made of rayon.

ROSE: A few years later, Paul Green got a threatening letter from Gail Zappa's lawyers. He decided to negotiate.

Mr. PAUL GREEN (Musician): I don't disagree with her right to do that, just her opinion on the matter. He wrote this music to be played. If Gail opened it up a little bit more, I think kids would really latch onto this music if it was more readily and easily available.

Mr. FRICKE: The disputes don't help the legacy, which is unfortunate.

ROSE: Rolling Stone writer David Fricke says Zappa's music deserves to reach a wider audience.

Mr. FRICKE: The legacy is something that hasn't been taken seriously enough since his death. In a way, I don't think people really do understand. I'm still working on it.

ROSE: So are other fans, musicians and family who all insist they want Frank Zappa's music to thrive, but that's just about the only thing they can agree on.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: And you can hear more of Frank Zappa's music at

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