Obituary: Gail Zappa, partner of rock musician and businesswoman

Gail Zappa: Widow of rock legend Frank whose business acumen secured his musical legacy. Picture: AP
Gail Zappa: Widow of rock legend Frank whose business acumen secured his musical legacy. Picture: AP
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Born: 1 January, 1945. Died: Los Angeles, California, 7 October 2015, aged 70

Gail Zappa was the wife of the celebrated American rock musician and composer Frank Zappa, whom she was married to from 1967 until his death in 1993. As a widow, Gail took full responsibility for the management of Zappa’s estate and recordings, releasing his music and protecting his legacy. While at the heart of the Los Angeles music scene of the 1960s, she also briefly pursued her own creative path, most notably recording the double A-side ­single America’s Sweetheart/Dropout a Go Go alongside the producer and singer Kim ­Fowley as Bunny & Bear, a ­pastiche of Sonny and Cher.

The daughter of a US Navy nuclear weapons researcher, John Sloatman, Gail – she was born Adelaide Gail Sloatman – spent a period of her youth at the “severely Catholic” day and boarding institution Marymount International School in Kingston-Upon-Thames, London. Leaving school to work as a secretary in the offices of the US Navy, she threw herself into Swinging London life of the early 1960s, doing some modelling for the photographer Terrence Donovan and coming into contact with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

After six years in London, Gail moved back to the States in 1965, following her father’s reposting. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York for a time, and then hitchhiked across the country to Los Angeles with a friend. Again throwing herself into the late ‘60s counterculture of the city, another of the hotspots of rock’s development throughout the decade – The Doors’ Jim Morrison was an acquaintance at the time – she became a secretary at the notorious rock hangout, the Whiskey a Go Go club.

One of her co-workers was Pamela Zarubica (more well-known to Zappa aficionados by her alias, Suzy Creamcheese), also Zappa’s housemate, and when Zarubica went to pick him up from the airport one day, Gail accompanied her.

The attraction was instant, she said. “I thought he was probably one of the grubbiest creatures I’d ever seen,” she is quoted as saying, “but he was compelling. He had major magnetic charm.” Zappa later said that it took him only a couple of minutes to fall for her.

This was 1966; Gail more or less immediately moved into Zappa’s house in the city’s Laurel Canyon, and Zarubica moved out not long after. In 1967 the couple were married in a civil service at New York City Hall while Gail was just a few weeks from giving birth to their eldest child, Moon (born Moon Unit), the first of four children they had together. At the time the couple were in the midst of a two year stay in the city, although in 1968 they moved back to Laurel Canyon, and then into another house nearby. This would be the family home for the rest of both Frank and Gail’s lives.

Following Frank’s split from his band, the Mothers of Invention, in 1969 and a prolific career over the next two decades and more which saw him release dozens of albums, Gail stayed at home to raise the children. But she was also deeply involved in the business side of his career, and picked up the knowledge which allowed her to manage his affairs long after he had gone.

Fiercely anti-drugs, Zappa wasn’t a hedonist, but there will still highs and lows during their life together. He fell off a stage and was seriously injured in 1971, went through an extended legal battle with his former manager in the late 1970s, earned his first Grammy in 1988 and in 1990 was offered the position of cultural ambassador of Czechoslovakia. His music was hugely popular during the Communist era, and president Vaclav Havel credited him with a spiritual part in the Velvet Revolution.

In the same year, Frank was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. His advice to his wife was to sell off all his master tapes (a vault to store them had been built under the house in the 1980s) and to get out of the recording industry; yet the year before he died the Zappa Family Trust was set up, and Gail administered it for the rest of her life. In collaboration with sometime drummer and “vaultmeister” Joe Travers, she compiled more than 30 new albums of Frank’s music after he died, and was fiercely protective of how and where it was played.

Among her targets were tribute bands, a German festival using Zappa’s name, and Apple founder Steve Jobs, who she sent an angry letter to about diminishing returns of digital music, both in financial and audio quality terms. “Whoever devised the slipknot contract clause ‘into perpetuity’ hadn’t conceived a Gail Zappa,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

Gail Zappa’s death came after a period of illness, reportedly from lung cancer. She is survived by her children Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet (both of whom played a musical tribute tour to their father named Zappa On Zappa) and Diva, as well as a number of grandchildren. In a statement the family said: “Gail, self-described as a pagan absurdist, 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.”