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Gail Zappa dies at 70; widow of iconoclastic musician was advocate for artists' rights

Gail Zappa, widow of the iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa and a zealous advocate for artists' ownership rights over their work, has died. She was 70.

Zappa's death Wednesday at her Laurel Canyon home was announced by family members, who described her in a statement as "a doe-eyed, barefooted trailblazer."

"Her searing intelligence, unforgettable smile, wild thicket of hair and trailing black velvets leave a blur in her wake," the statement said.

The cause of her death was not revealed.

Zappa was known both as a free spirit and as a hard-headed businesswoman.

"Let me say it in the simplest way," she told The Times in 2008. "My job is to make sure that Frank Zappa has the last word in terms of anybody's idea of who he is. And his actual last word is his music."

After her husband's death from prostate cancer in 1993, she battled tribute groups, record labels and music festivals she believed were taking illegal advantage of his music and his identity.

"I don't want anybody standing in between the audience and what Frank's intention as a composer was, and still is," she said in the 2008 interview. "What I've discovered in the process … comes down to one simple thing — because everybody wants to remake his image. And they can … well, they can all pound salt!"

A composer who co-founded the Mothers of Invention and whose work was satirical, complex, brilliant, and sometimes impenetrable, Frank Zappa released more than 60 albums during his lifetime, including "Freak Out!" (1966), "We're Only in It for the Money" (1968), "Uncle Meat" (1969) and "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" (1970).

He also was famous for the 1982 hit "Valley Girl," featuring his then-14-year-old daughter Moon Unit Zappa.

Since his death, Gail Zappa and the Zappa Family Trust have issued an additional 38 albums of music that had been recorded by Frank but not previously released.

In the meantime, Gail Zappa had her lawyers send cease-and-desist letters to groups performing Zappa's music without the trust's permission. She also took on the German festival Zappanale, which she contended was using her husband's name and image without a license. A German court ruled against her.

"It's exactly what Frank feared the most," she told music journalist Larry LeBlanc in 2014. "I remember when we were in Vienna, and they had these Mozart candies. He said, 'God, what a life that would be if you wound up having your name on chocolate in a tourist mecca.' That essentially is what Germany has done."

Born in Philadelphia on Jan. 1, 1945, Adelaide Gail Sloatman Zappa spent her teenage years in London. Her father, John Sloatman, was a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and went on to direct research projects for the U.S. military.

She encountered Zappa when she was a 20-year-old secretary at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. Sparks failed to fly at their first meeting, which, as she recalled in 2013 to the Times of London, was "like a vaccination that didn't take."

Two years later, they married in what Zappa described in his autobiography as "a severely ridiculous civil ceremony" in New York. In lieu of a ring, Gail received a ballpoint pen that Zappa bought from a vending machine at the marriage bureau. It said, "Congratulations from Mayor Lindsay."

They shared a zest for the absurd. They called their home studio the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, where a framed quote from Frank said it all: "You can't write a chord ugly enough to say what you want sometimes. So you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream."

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FOR THE RECORD:

Gail Zappa: In the Oct. 13 California section, the obituary of Gail Zappa, widow of musician Frank Zappa, misstated the name of the Zappas' home studio. It was the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not the Utility Muffin Research Kitten.
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The couple were outspoken in their defense of artists against censorship. When Tipper Gore mounted a campaign for warning labels on music with sexually explicit lyrics, Frank Zappa was among the big names who testified against her. Gail Zappa and the vice president's wife later became friends, with Tipper performing on daughter Diva Zappa's 1999 album.

Gail Zappa is survived by daughters Moon Unit and Diva; sons Dweezil and Ahmet; and four grandchildren.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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