The Mothers of Invention were led by composer, guitarist, singer, and bandleader Frank Zappa, a singular musical figure during a performing and recording career that lasted from the 1960s to the '90s. His disparate influences included doo wop music and avant-garde classical music; although the Mothers were called a rock & roll band for much of their years together, Zappa used them to create a hybrid style that bordered on jazz and complicated, modern serious music. As if his music were not challenging enough, he overlay it with highly satirical and sometimes abstractly humorous lyrics and song titles that marked him as coming out of a provocative literary tradition that included Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and edgy comedians like Lenny Bruce. Nominally, he was a popular musician, but his recordings rarely earned significant airplay or sales, yet he was able to gain control of his recorded work and issue it successfully through his own labels while also touring internationally, in part because of the respect he earned from a dedicated cult of fans and many serious musicians, and also because he was an articulate spokesman who promoted himself into a media star through extensive interviews he considered to be a part of his creative effort just like his music.
The band came together in 1964 when Zappa moved from Cucamonga, California to Los Angeles, and joined a band called the Soul Giants that featured his friend, singer Ray Collins, along with bass player Roy Estrada and drummer Jimmy Carl Black. In short order, he induced the group to play his original compositions instead of covers, and to change their name to the Mothers (reportedly on Mother's Day, May 10, 1965).
In Los Angeles, the Mothers were able to obtain a manager, Herb Cohen, and audition successfully to appear in popular nightclubs such as the Whiskey Go-Go by the fall of 1965. There they were seen by record executive Tom Wilson, who signed them to the Verve Records subsidiary of MGM Records on March 1, 1966. (Verve required that the suggestive name "The Mothers" be modified to "The Mothers of Invention.") The contract called for the group to submit five albums in two years, and they immediately went into the studio to record the first of those albums, Freak Out! By this time, Elliot Ingber had joined the group on guitar, making it a quintet. An excess of material and Zappa's agreement to accept a reduced publishing royalty led to the highly unusual decision to release it as a double-LP, an unprecedented indulgence for a debut act that was practically unheard, much less for an established one. (Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde appeared during the same period, but it was his seventh album.)
Freak Out! was released on June 27, 1966. It was not an immediate success commercially, but eventually entered the Billboard more than six months later. During the summer of 1966, Zappa hired drummer Denny Bruce and keyboardist Don Preston, making the Mothers of Invention a septet, but by November 1966, when the Mothers of Invention went back into the studio to record their second album, Absolutely Free, Bruce had been replaced by Billy Mundi; Ingber had been replaced by Jim Fielder; and Zappa had hired two horn players, Bunk Gardner on wind instruments and Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood on saxophone, bringing the band up to a nine-piece unit. The album was recorded in four days and released in June 1967. It entered the charts in July and reached the Top 50.
The Mothers of Invention moved to New York City in November 1966 for a booking at a Greenwich Village club called the Balloon Farm that began on Thanksgiving Day and ran through New Year's Day, 1967. After a two-week stint in Montreal, they returned to California, where Fielder left the group in February. In March, Zappa began recording his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, having signed to Capitol Records under the impression that he was not signed as an individual to Verve, a position Verve would dispute. Later that month, the Mothers of Invention returned to New York City for another extended engagement at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village that ran during Easter week and was sufficiently successful that Herb Cohen booked the theater for the summer. That run began on May 24, 1967, and ran off and on through September 5. During this period, Ian Underwood joined the band, playing saxophone and piano. In August, the group began recording its third album, We're Only in It for the Money.
In September 1967, the Mothers of Invention toured Europe for the first time, playing in the U.K., Sweden, and Denmark. On October 1, Verve failed to exercise its option to extend the band's contract, although they still owed the label three more LPs. They finished recording We're Only in It for the Money in October, but its release was held up because of legal concerns about its proposed cover photograph, an elaborate parody of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was finally resolved by putting the picture on the inside of the fold-out LP sleeve. We're Only in It for the Money was released on March 4, 1968, and it reached the Top 30. Another legal dispute was resolved when Verve purchased the tapes of Lumpy Gravy from Capitol. Zappa then finished recording this orchestral work, and Verve released it under his name (and that of "the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus") on May 13, 1968; it spent five weeks in the charts.
Although the Mothers of Invention still owed one more LP to Verve, Zappa already was thinking ahead. In the fall of 1967, he began recording Uncle Meat, the soundtrack for a proposed film, with work continuing through February 1968. During this period, Billy Mundi left the band and was replaced on drums by Arthur Dyer Tripp III. In March, Zappa and Herb Cohen announced that they were setting up their own record label, Bizarre Records, to be distributed by the Reprise Records subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records. The label was intended to record not only the Mothers of Invention, but also acts Zappa discovered. Early in the summer, Ray Collins quit the Mothers of Invention, who continued to tour. Their performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London on October 25, 1968, was released in 1991 as the album Ahead of Their Time. That month, Bizarre was formally launched with the release of the single "The Circle," by Los Angeles street singer Wild Man Fischer. In November, guitarist Lowell George joined the Mothers of Invention. In December, Verve released the band's final album on its contract, Cruisin' with Ruben & the Jets, on which Zappa for once played it straight, leading the group through a set of apparently sincere doo wop and R&B material. The LP spent 12 weeks in the charts. (Zappa was then free of Verve, although his disputes with the company were not over. Verve put out a compilation, Mothermania: The Best of the Mothers, in March 1969, and it spent nine weeks in the charts.)
The ambitious double-LP Uncle Meat, the fifth Mothers of Invention album, was released by Bizarre on April 21, 1969. It reached the Top 50. (The movie it was supposed to accompany did not appear until a home video release in 1989.) In May, Bizarre released Pretties for You, the debut album by Alice Cooper, the only act discovered by the label that would go on to substantial success (after switching to Warner Bros. Records proper, that is).The same month, Lowell George left the band; later, he and Roy Estrada would form Little Feat. Zappa began working on a second solo album, Hot Rats, in July 1969. On August 19, the Mothers of Invention gave their final performance in their original form, playing on Canadian TV at the end of a tour. One week later, Zappa announced that he was breaking up the band, although, as it turned out, this did not mean that he would not use the name "the Mothers of Invention" for groups he led in the future. Hot Rats, the second album to be credited to Frank Zappa, was released on October 10, 1969. It spent only six weeks in the charts at the time, but it would become one of Zappa's best-loved collections, with the instrumental "Peaches en Regalia" a particular favorite. Although the Mothers of Invention no longer existed as a performing unit, Zappa possessed extensive tapes of them, live and in the studio, and using that material, he assembled a new album, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, released in February 1970; it made the Top 100.
At the invitation of Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Zappa assembled a new group of rock musicians dubbed the Mothers (no 'of Invention') for the performance, with the orchestra, of a work called 200 Motels at UCLA on May 15, 1970. Adding singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, formerly of the Turtles, Zappa launched a tour with this version of the Mothers in June 1970. (Also included were a returning Ian Underwood, keyboardist George Duke, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, and guitarist Jeff Simmons.) In August, Bizarre released another archival Mothers of Invention album, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which charted. Chunga's Revenge, released in October, was billed as a Zappa solo album, even though it featured the current lineup of the Mothers; it spent 14 weeks in the charts. After touring the U.S. that fall, the group went to Europe on December 1. From January 28 to February 5, 1971, they were in Pinewood Studios in the U.K. making a movie version of 200 Motels with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and co-stars Theodore Bikel, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon of the Who. Zappa had planned a concert with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall on February 8 as a money-saving tactic, since according to union rules, he could then pay them for the filming/recording session as if it were rehearsals for the concert. But this strategy backfired when the Royal Albert Hall canceled the concert, alleging that Zappa's lyrics were too vulgar. He added to his expenses by suing the Royal Albert Hall, eventually losing in court.
On June 5 and 6, 1971, the Mothers appeared during the closing week of the Fillmore East theater in New York City, recording their shows for a live album, Fillmore East, June 1971, quickly released on August 2. It became Zappa's first album to reach the Top 40 since We're Only in It for the Money three years earlier. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had appeared as guests during the June 6 show, and they used their performance on their 1972 album Some Time in New York City. The Mothers gave a concert at the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA on August 7, 1971, and the show was recorded for the album Just Another Band from L.A., released in May 1972, which made the Top 100. They continued to tour into the fall. 200 Motels premiered in movie theaters on October 29, 1971, with a double-LP soundtrack album released by United Artists that made the Top 100. Meanwhile, the Mothers' European tour was eventful, to say the least. On December 4, 1971, the group appeared at the Montreux Casino in Geneva, Switzerland, but their show stopped when a fan fired off a flare gun that set the venue on fire. (The incident was the inspiration for Deep Purple's song "Smoke on the Water.") Six days later, as the Mothers were performing at the Rainbow Theatre in London on December 10, a deranged fan jumped on-stage and pushed Zappa into the orchestra pit. He suffered a broken ankle, among other injuries, and was forced to recuperate for months. This was the end both of the tour and of this edition of the Mothers.
While convalescing at home in Los Angeles, Zappa organized a new big band to play jazz-fusion music; he dubbed it the Grand Wazoo Orchestra and recorded two albums with it. Waka/Jawaka, billed as a Zappa solo album, came out in July 1972 and spent seven weeks in the charts. The Grand Wazoo, credited to the Mothers, appeared in December and missed the charts. By September 10, Zappa felt well enough to play two weeks of dates with the group, now billed as the Mothers, starting at the Hollywood Bowl. He then cut the personnel down to ten pieces (the "Petit Wazoo" band) and toured from late October to mid-December.
The start of 1973 marked a new and surprisingly popular phase in Zappa's career. He assembled a new lineup of Mothers, made a batch of new recordings on which he himself sang lead vocals (his voice having dropped half an octave as a result of injuring his neck when he was thrown from the stage), and hit the road for the most extensive touring of his career. Inaugurating the new band in Fayetteville, NC, on February 23, he spent 183 days of 1973 on the road, including tours of the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Meanwhile, the Bizarre Records deal with Reprise/Warner had run out, and he launched a new label, also distributed by Warner, DiscReet Records, its first release being Over-Nite Sensation in September 1973. The album reached the Top 40, stayed in the charts nearly a year, and went gold. It was followed in April 1974 by a Zappa solo album, Apostrophe (‘). Much to Zappa's surprise, radio stations began playing a track called "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow." A single edit of the song actually spent several weeks in the lower reaches of the Hot 100, and Apostrophe (‘) peaked at number ten for the week ending June 29, 1974, the highest chart position ever achieved by a Zappa album. The LP also went gold.
Zappa continued to tour extensively in 1974. His next album, the double-LP live collection Roxy & Elsewhere, credited to "Zappa/Mothers," appeared in September 1974 and made the Top 30. Adding his old friend Captain Beefheart to the band, he played shows at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, TX, on May 20 and 21, 1975, that he recorded for the album Bongo Fury, credited to Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart/The Mothers, released in October; it made the Top 100. Prior to that had come One Size Fits All, credited to Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, released in June; it made the Top 30. On September 17 and 18, 1975, two concerts of Zappa's orchestral music were performed by a group dubbed the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra (in memory of Lumpy Gravy) and conducted by Michael Zearott at Royce Hall, UCLA. The shows were recorded, but the material was not released until May 1979 as Orchestral Favorites, which spent several weeks in the charts. Starting on September 27, 1975, Zappa launched another extended period of touring, staying in the U.S. through a New Years concert at the Forum in Los Angeles, then playing in Australia, Japan, and Europe, finishing on March 17, 1976. This ended another phase in his career. He split with his longtime manager Herb Cohen and disbanded his group, which, because of legal disputes with Cohen, would turn out to have been the last one called the Mothers or the Mothers of Invention. Hereafter, he would perform and record simply as Frank Zappa. (Zoot Allures, the last album to be credited to the Mothers, was released on Warner Bros. Records on October 29, 1976.)