Music » Music Review

Scared of Her Own Voice



Margo Guryan

25 Demos

(Franklin Castle)

In the old days, when you pulled a vinyl LP from its sleeve, every song on the label was followed by the writers' names in parentheses. I used to wonder who all those people were--Leiber-Stoller, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Mann-Weil, Goffin-King--but usually that was their only credit. Pop aficionados can identify these phenomenal teams easily enough: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Yakety Yak," "Stand by Me"), Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie and Brian Holland ("Where Did Our Love Go," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "This Old Heart of Mine"), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil ("On Broadway," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"), and Gerry Goffin and Carole King ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "Pleasant Valley Sunday"). But except for King, who went on to a recording career of her own, none of them is listed in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, and for each of them there are a hundred other songwriters whose contributions to pop music are still parenthetical.

Margo Guryan is one of those: in 1968, Spanky & Our Gang charted with her "Sunday Morning"; that number and more of her smart, upbeat, beautifully crafted tunes were recorded by Harry Belafonte, Jackie DeShannon, Dion, Cass Elliot, Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, Astrud Gilberto, the Lennon Sisters, Julie London, Claudine Longet, Carmen McRae, and Harry Nilsson. But by the time Guryan hit her stride, in the late 60s, the line dividing singer from songwriter was being erased by rock artists like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan. Aspiring singers felt the heat immediately, and by the end of the decade many career songwriters, seeing their market eroded, were venturing into the spotlight as well. Guryan was an attractive young woman with a voice like an angel, but for a variety of reasons she refused to perform; her only album, Take a Picture, was released by Bell Records in 1968 and sank without a trace. The indie soft-pop craze of the late 90s buoyed it back to the surface--by the end of the decade, vinyl copies were selling on eBay for close to $200. In 2000, the independent Franklin Castle Recordings released it on CD in the U.S., and last fall it followed up with the career-spanning 25 Demos. Together the reissues reveal one of the most overlooked talents of that explosively creative time, a reluctant vocalist whose songs, perversely, were indivisible from her voice.

Now in her early 60s and living in Los Angeles, Guryan takes a dim view of the singer-songwriter revolution. "That really ruined two branches of entertainment," she says. "You got a lot of people who were writing who were really not terrific writers, and you got a lot of people singing and performing who were not terrific singers and performers. And I think that music has suffered because of that." She emphatically consigns herself to the second category. Born in Far Rockaway, Queens, Guryan began learning classical piano when she was six, and at 17 she got a chance to play her pop songs for Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic. Ertegun gave one of her songs to jazz chanteuse Chris Connor and also signed Guryan as a singer, but her first demo session, recorded by the now legendary Tom Dowd, revealed a fatal flaw in her voice. "I have a range break, right around G above middle C," she says. "Above that I can sing, but it's almost falsetto. Below it I can sing in full voice. It was an inconsistent sound. And the more they told me to sing out, the worse it got."

Guryan's parents had always encouraged her to be modest--even as they called on her to play the piano for guests. As a student at Boston University she changed her music major from performance to composition to avoid giving a senior recital. After college she'd fallen in love with jazz and married trombonist Bob Brookmeyer; many of their friends were working musicians, but Guryan was plagued by stage fright and repelled by the showbiz predators and manipulators she began to see close-up. "People were told where to be, what to wear, they were given schedules, and the people--the legal people, the lawyers, the managers, the press people--very often benefited even more than the groups that toured and played clubs," she says. "These things began to fit into place for me, and I began to see it a little bit differently than the glamour that you see when you're a kid."

After graduating from college she'd attended a summer session at the Lenox School of Jazz, and afterward she was signed to the publishing company MJQ Music by composer Gunther Schuller and Modern Jazz Quartet director John Lewis, who assigned her to write lyrics for Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." In 1962 her song "I'm on My Way to Saturday" was released on The Many Moods of Belafonte. In 1966, fellow jazz composer Dave Frishberg turned Guryan on to the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," and she immersed herself in pop music as eagerly as she had jazz a decade earlier.

"It was a terrific time for writing songs," she recalls. "You had the Beatles and the Beach Boys and you had all this creative stuff. Nobody was trying to copy anybody else; everybody was trying to do something different....I had the feeling, 'My God, you can do anything you want.' That kind of encouraged me to use the time changes that I would use in my songs--if it worked, if the feel seemed to be there...I wouldn't worry about whether it was too hard for this person or that person. I was writing for the song, not for a particular person."

Her material was often surprisingly challenging. "I had no idea how complex her songs were until I tried to record them myself," says Linus of Hollywood (aka Kevin Dotson), the LA indie-pop artist who runs Franklin Castle. He covered two of Guryan's songs on his 1999 solo debut, Your Favorite Record. "When you listen to her compositions, her melodies and grooves sound so smooth and flowing," he says. "But hidden beneath the surface are some pretty complex chord and time changes."

In 1967, David Rosner, who would later become Guryan's second husband, signed her to April-Blackwood Music, a publishing division of Columbia. But when they began to demo the songs, Guryan discovered that her talent was a double-edged sword: something in her own phrasing and feather-light delivery, developed through her earlier study of jazz, eluded even the best session vocalists. "David went into the studio with really good demo singers, girls that could really sing," she recalls. "And the demos would bring me to tears, because they had no time. They couldn't get the time right, couldn't get certain rhythmic things, certain feel things. And I said, 'Please let me try again, because if somebody hears this, the song is gonna be recorded this way, and it'll be wrong forever.'"

Rosner asked Guryan to do an arrangement for "Think of Rain," one of her most spellbinding songs. The sixth track on 25 Demos, it was written as a direct response to "God Only Knows," borrowing that song's clip-clop tempo. Its simple but articulate arrangement--bass guitar, drums, and electric piano, with flourishes of flute and bowed bass--perfectly frames the childlike melancholy in Guryan's voice. Rosner decided to double-track her vocals, a common enough studio trick, and the flaw in her range effectively disappeared. "If I sang less loud on top and a little softer on the bottom, there was a consistency throughout the range that apparently made some sense." It's not quite perfect, but then the secret of her grace lies in the frailty of her voice.

The languorous descending melody, shot through with dramatic leaps, is shaped by a simple but penetrating lyric. In the first verse, she reminds her lover of their sweet times together, but in the second the sentiment is more complicated: "If I should break your heart one day / Think of rain and maybe you will have to smile / Think of rain, maybe then you will forgive me / I'd want you to forgive me, think of rain." The first "forgive me" introduces a superb coda of chord changes, bringing to a close one of the more moving love songs of the 60s.

The song became her hottest number, recorded by Astrud Gilberto, Jackie DeShannon, and Claudine Longet. Harry Nilsson loved the song too, but his 1968 recording of it was never released. "He called me one day, and he said, 'Margo, I did it like you, I did it harder, I did it softer, I did it louder,'" she says. "He said, 'I'm afraid you've written yourself a song. I can't do it.'" The DeShannon version, arranged by Hyle King and produced by Cal Carter for the 1967 LP For You, remains Guryan's favorite interpretation of her work. "I just thought, 'Now, here's some imagination. Here's somebody taking something I wrote but doing it their way.' And I guess as a songwriter, that's what I wanted. That's what the best arrangers do." King augments the sad bowed bass of the original with plucked strings, and timpani herald a chorus of muscular trombones. The first verse cuts off early in a harp glissando that leads into a waltz section with piano and oboe, then the second verse arrives. DeShannon shows what a superb singer can do with a melody like this, seldom departing from Guryan's phrasing but engaging the tune with enormous heart.

In February 1968, Guryan had her biggest hit when Spanky & Our Gang, one of the coed vocal groups following the Mamas & the Papas on the west coast, took an elaborately produced single of "Sunday Morning" to number 30 on the pop chart. The relentlessly minor-key melody is unusual for Guryan, but the song is no less arresting for it. Her slinky performance of it is a highlight of both her records, bringing out the New York in the song ("It's so quiet in the street / We can hear the sound of feet walking by / I'll put coffee on to brew / We can have a cup or two / And do what other people do on Sunday morning"). The Spanky single was weighed down by near-gothic production and Elaine McFarlane's somber vocal; Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell released a limp remake of the hit version on their 1968 album together, and Julie London recorded it for her 1969 stab at rock 'n' roll, Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.

By 1968, Guryan's track record as a songwriter had helped Rosner to land her an album deal with Bell. Produced and mostly arranged by John Hill, Take a Picture was released in the fall. "Sunday Morning" and "Think of Rain" anchored the first and second sides respectively but were hardly the only highlights. "Don't Go Away" is an aggressive minor-key number with jazzy shifts in meter and rhythm, and "Can You Tell" is a gently swinging ballad (Carmen McRae rose to the occasion when recording both of them for her 1968 album The Sound of Silence). Most of the record has a continental pop feel, though there's pain in the sharp edges of "Love Songs," "Take a Picture," and "Sun," which are as hypnotic as anything the Who were recording at the time. The arrangement of "Love," the psychedelic epic that closes the record, was entirely Hill's doing; it begins with free-jazz noodling on keyboard, guitar, and flute, then the drums kick in with a fast, pounding riff in 7/8. This disintegrates into drums, piano, and flute playing in 5/4, then a blues-rock beat emerges, with dueling guitar and electric piano. This subsides into a sea of feedback, from which emerges a marching beat and Guryan's icy syncopated vocal: "Love / What does it mean to live between the beginning and ending of love?"

Shortly after the album was released Guryan and Rosner met with Bell president Larry Uttal, who started laying out his plans for her promotion of the album: lip-synching on TV shows, making personal appearances, touring. "I just sat there and shook my head from side to side," Guryan says. "After a frustrating half an hour or so--I'm sure for him as well as me--we left, and the promotion on the record immediately took a nosedive."

She continued to write, and judging from 25 Demos she did some excellent work: "Something's Wrong With the Morning" and "Come to Me Slowly" (both from 1968), "It's Alright Now" and "Most of My Life" (both from '71). The bouncy "I Think a Lot About You" was recorded by Cass Elliot at Mister Kelly's in Chicago for her last album Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (1974). But by the mid-70s Guryan had moved to California with Rosner and was producing other artists; her only songs were offbeat but uninspired things about earthquakes and Watergate. After arranging piano lessons for her stepson she decided to return to classical piano, studying with Howard Richman and finding great satisfaction herself in teaching children. (Her witty Chopsticks Variations takes the kids' piano piece through a series of harmonic and rhythmic explorations--andante, adagio, allegro, ragtime, boogie-woogie, stride.) Writing pop songs no longer captivates her. "I got tired of knocking my head against a brick wall," she says. "After throwing in time changes or harmonic things that were unusual, it got back to being two- or three-chord music, it got back to...oh, it just seemed to be over so quickly!"

Press materials for Guryan's two CDs take great pains to establish her indie cred, noting that Saint Etienne has covered "I Don't Intend to Spend Christmas Without You" (originally commissioned by Longet), that Shirley Manson of Garbage wants to record "Think of Rain," and that Beck plays her records on the road. Given her career in jazz and then AM pop, she may seem hopelessly mainstream to some people. But gentle as her songs may be, Guryan is most important now as a voice of the rock era: like her more celebrated peers of the late 60s, she overcame her limitations as a singer to create her own identity on record, and her best songs flowered from that inimitable sound.

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