Captain Beefheart Van Vliet's father, who was of Dutch ancestry, was a bakery deliveryman. It has been reported that Don added the 'Van' prefix to his surname to emphasize his Dutch heritage, and specifically as an acknowledgement to the Dutch Masters in painting. Van Vliet is also distantly related to Wallis Simpson, famous as the wife of Edward VIII of the United Kingdom; his maternal grandmother was Simpson's second cousin. At a young age, Van Vliet demonstrated prodigious painting and sculpting talents, in spite of describing his working class family as lacking interest in art, and he was noticed by Augustinio Rodriguez, who invited Van Vliet to sculpt with him on a weekly television show. Van Vliet claims his parents discouraged his interest in sculpture, turning away several scholarship offers and through their moving from California. Van Vliet remained interested in art; his paintings, often reminiscent of Franz Kline's, were later featured on several of his own albums.
While studying at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster he met the teenage Frank Zappa. They began collaborating on pop song parodies and a movie script called Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People the first appearance of the Beefheart name. Van Vliet's stage name came from a term used by his Uncle Alan. Alan had a habit of exposing himself to Don's girlfriend, Laurie. Alan would urinate with the bathroom door open and, if she was walking by, mumble about his penis, saying "Ahh, what a beauty! It looks just like a big, fine beef heart." In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Van Vliet requests "don't ask me why or how" he and Zappa came up with the name. He would later claim in an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman that the name referred to "a beef in heart" about how humans were treating the environment.
Van Vliet enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College as an art major, but left the following year. After managing a chain of shoe stores, Van Vliet relocated to Cucamonga, California to reconnect with Zappa, who inspired Van Vliet's entry into music performing. Van Vliet was reportedly quite shy, but able to imitate the deep voice of blues singer Howlin' Wolf and in possession of an astonishing four-and-a-half octave vocal range". Eventually growing comfortable performing, he learned harmonica, and played around southern California, at dances and small clubs.