Beefheart was born as Don Van Vliet in Glendale California. Conducting a rotating ensemble called Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, known separately as "The Magic Band", he recorded 13 studio albums between 1964 and 1982. His music blended elements of blues, free jazz, rock, and avant-garde composition with idiosyncratic rhythms, absurdist wordplay, and his wide vocal range. Known for his enigmatic persona, Beefheart frequently constructed myths about his life and was known to exercise an almost dictatorial control over his supporting musicians. Although he achieved little commercial success, he sustained a cult following as a "highly significant" and "incalculable" influence on an array of new wave, punk, and experimental rock artists.
An artistic prodigy in his childhood, Van Vliet developed an eclectic musical taste during his teen years in Lancaster, California, and formed "a mutually useful but volatile" friendship with musician Frank Zappa, with whom he sporadically competed and collaborated. He began performing with his Captain Beefheart persona in 1964 and joined the original Magic Band line-up, initiated by Alexis Snouffer, the same year. The group released their debut album Safe as Milk in 1967 on Buddah Records. After being dropped by two consecutive record labels they signed to Zappa's Straight Records, where they released 1969's Trout Mask Replica; the album would later rank 58th in Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
In 1974, frustrated by lack of commercial success, he pursued a more conventional rock sound, but the ensuing albums were critically panned; this move, combined with not having been paid for a European tour, and years of enduring Beefheart's abusive behavior, led the entire band to quit.