By Austin Weimer
Gail Zappa, wife of Frank Zappa, trustee of the Zappa Family Trust organization, and musical rights advocate passed away on October 7 after a long fight with lung cancer. Her legacy is one of truly unique and significant contribution to the music industry.
The summer of 1966 in Los Angeles, California, was the beginning of Frank’s career as an avant-garde jazz and rock musician. Frank formed The Mothers of Invention and released his first album, Freak Out, which immediately landed him in the mainstream rock scene. In the same year, he met Gail Sloatman, daughter of U.S. Navy nuclear weapons researcher John Klien Sloatman Jr., and aspiring actress who appeared in the documentary Mondo Hollywood. They married a year later on September 21 in New York while Gail was carrying Moon, the first of four children in the Zappa family.
One of Gail’s contributions to the Zappa legacy was taking on the job of copyright holder and overall curator to her husband’s massive musical library. While Frank was alive, she maintained a small yet efficient mail-in order service for albums and merchandise under Zappa Records and Barking Pumpkin Records. This allowed Frank to focus solely on his writing until he passed of prostate cancer at fifty-two in 1993.
Frank remains one of the most bootlegged artists of all time, given his tendency to always perform different songs from his extraordinary amount of written material. Many of his compositions still remain in the complex musical arrangement supercomputer called a synclavier, which was popular with other musicians of the time, such as Michael Jackson and Tony Banks of Genesis.
The process of extracting Frank’s compositions from his synclavier was not justifiable to Gail, since the cost of hiring experts to do the work outweighed any potential profits. Even if the arrangements were recovered, the music would have to be recorded and performed before being developed into an album loosely following Frank’s conceptual ideas. In the end, the battle would be entirely uphill, since much of Frank’s work is available unofficially. For example, almost all of his music released in Germany is claimed to be unlicensed material from Zappa Records. Gail had a particularly difficult time combating these releases due to the disinterest of the FBI to investigate the fraud. Usually, if a top selling artist had their music ripped off the government would be all over prosecuting the criminals involved. This was not the case for Frank.
Despite keeping Frank’s synclavier arrangements locked away, Gail and Zappa Records have released thirty-eight posthumous albums of pure Frank Zappa music since his death in 1993. Frank urged Gail to sell his completed master recordings and withdraw from the recording business. Unfortunately, Frank had not foreseen the manipulation of music publishing about to unfold shortly after his death. With Frank’s death came the flood of tribute bands, remixes, and attempts at alterations to his original ideas. Gail took on the massive task of combatting the already rising problem of distortions to Frank’s musical works. Her intent was to keep his music as pure and representative of his vision as possible, so that Frank could be the first and last to decide its fate.
Gail was most notably opposed to the distribution and publishing of Frank’s music under iTunes and at festivals such as the 2007 Zappanale in Germany. Her issue was with the record labels already in possession of Frank’s music making agreements with third party distributors. In short, this meant that Frank’s music could be distributed without any royalty payment. The Zappanale Festival also used copyrighted logos such as Frank’s mustache and goatee, rights only held by Gail and his son Dweezil. There was later a lawsuit in which the festival was cleared of any copyright violation, despite the intense and apparent degree of infringement. Today, revenue for the label comes in from the Zappa Plays Zappa band, led by Frank’s son, Dweezil.
In a Facebook statement by Zappa family members Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva, Gail is remembered “as a pagan absurdist, [she was] motivated by love in all aspects of her life, kept her authenticity intact, unbowed and, simply put, was one bad ass in the music business and political world.”