Don Van Vliet (/væn ˈvliːt/, born Don Glen Vliet; January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010) was an American singer, songwriter, musician and artist best known by the stage name Captain Beefheart. His musical work was conducted with a rotating ensemble of musicians called the Magic Band (1965–1982), with whom he recorded 13 studio albums. Noted for his powerful singing voice and his wide vocal range, Van Vliet also played the harmonica, saxophone, and numerous other wind instruments. His music integrated blues, rock, psychedelia, and jazz with contemporary experimental composition and the avant-garde; many of his works have been classified as "art rock". Beefheart was also known for often constructing myths about his life and for exercising an almost dictatorial control over his supporting musicians.
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, in 1965. The group drew attention with their cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy", which became a regional hit. It was followed by their acclaimed debut album Safe as Milk, released in 1967 on Buddah Records. After being dropped by two consecutive record labels, they signed to Zappa's Straight Records. As producer, Zappa granted Beefheart unrestrained artistic freedom in making 1969's Trout Mask Replica, which was ranked 58th in Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Beefheart followed this up with the album Lick My Decals Off, Baby, released in 1970. In 1974, frustrated by lack of commercial success, he released two albums of more conventional rock music that 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. Beefheart eventually formed a new Magic Band with a group of younger musicians and regained contemporary approval through three final albums: Shiny Beast (1978), Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982).
Van Vliet has been described as "one of modern music's true innovators" with "a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring and fluid creativity." Although he achieved little commercial or mainstream critical success, he sustained a cult following as a "highly significant" and "incalculable" influence on an array of new wave, punk, post-punk, experimental and alternative rock musicians. Known for his enigmatic personality and relationship with the public, Van Vliet made few public appearances after his retirement from music in 1982. He pursued a career in art, an interest that originated in his childhood talent for sculpture, and a venture which proved to be his most financially secure. His expressionist paintings and drawings command high prices, and have been exhibited in art galleries and museums across the world.
Van Vliet died in 2010, having suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years.