"i close my eyes and i can see
the more i feel
the more i'm free
the sun is an electric show
the more i dream
the more i know"
Margo Guryan is a very good American singer/songwriter and producer whose cult following has been rapidly growing in recent years. She has many fans among the current generation of musicians, including Linus of Hollywood, Beck, the Wondermints and Tim DeLaughter of the Polyphonic Spree. Her songs have been recorded by among many others Harry Nilsson, Dizzy Gillespie, Spanky & Our Gang, Julie London and Harry Belafonte, and Take A Picture, her only album, became a collectors' item around the end of the 90's, with original releases said to be fetching around 200 dollars per copy.
Margo Guryan was born in New York's Far Rockaway. Her mother, though a piano major, rarely played and wasn't very good at it, but her father, though he studied liberal arts, played the piano "by ear" well - he could play all the popular songs of his day. He was in effect her first teacher ( the first song he taught her was "Tea For Two"). She would sit alongside him playing the melody an octave apart with both hands while he played a grand accompaniment, much to the delight of family and guests.
Formal piano lessons began when she was six. She never liked her piano teacher, but despite protests and pleas to her parents the lessons with this teacher lasted until she graduated from high school. Back then however she often tried to make up excuses for not practising. Occasionally, her piano teacher would 'report' her to her parents, resulting in her father sitting down to practise with her, which she hated. Despite this, she genuinely loved music. She would spend her practice time making up songs, and rarely doing what her teacher assigned. For example, if she had to learn a sonata, she would practise the development sections as they had more interesting chord progressions. Fortunately for her, as long as her parents heard the piano, they usually did not investigate. The young Guryan was also encouraged to write poetry, so when she was old enough to play the piano comfortably, it was an easy transition to fit her words to music. Her first songs were pop songs, she absorbing the AABA form of contemporary popular music and creating her own versions. She kept some of the songs she wrote, the words only as she did not know musical notation, in the back of the notebook her piano teacher kept to record lesson assignments.
She studied classical music at Boston University, and liked Bach, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokoffiev, and more modern composers. While she was there she also fell in love with jazz, especially artists such as Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Gerry Milligan and Chet Baker. Largely oblivious to the pop and rock world outside jazz, she never thought she would veer from the jazz path.
She hated performing - she called it "stage dread" - so much that she actually switched over from her piano curriculum to composition in her sophomore year to avoid having to do a senior recital. It was then that Margo Guryan began to realise her talents in composing.
She played some songs for Herb Eiseman, a music publisher at Frank Music (Frank Loesser's company), and although he did not feel they were "commercial", he liked them. He felt Atlantic Records was a company that might be interested in her direction, so he made an appointment for her and sent her there - Guryan still credits Eiseman as the man who was instrumental in getting her career started.
At her appointment at Atlantic Guryan met with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, who proceeded to ask her for her demos. "What are demos?" was her reply - she really did not know what they were. Ertegun and Wexler looked at each other, rolled their eyes a bit and asked what she had expected to do. Confused, she told them she had expected to play songs for them.
They escorted her to another room where there was a piano. And she did what she expected to do. She played one, then another and another. When she finished, one of them reached in a desk drawer and pulled out a bunch of song contracts.
They asked her to go "around the corner" to a specific address, and to do exactly what she had done, but this time with a tape rolling. She did - this is how she found out what demos were. A week or two later Jerry Wexler called to say they want to sign her to make an album of her songs.
And so she was signed to Atlantic Records to record an album of jazz-flavoured songs she had written at that time. The recording, though supervised by Nesuhi Ertegun, did not work out well, but it led to her first record as a songwriter, a song called "Moon Ride" that was subsequently recorded by the jazz singer Chris Connor.
All this happened while she was still at Boston University. After graduating there, she spent three weeks at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts, run by Gunther Schuller and John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet), where Ornette Coleman and Gary McFarland were fellow students and the teaching staff included Bill Evans, Milt Jackson, Jim Hall and Max Roach. Lewis and Schuller signed her to MJQ Music, the publishing company they ran, and gave Guryan a beautiful Ornette Coleman instrumental, "Lonely Woman", to fashion into a song. This too was recorded by Chris Connor, as well as many other singers. Lewis and Schuller also gave Leon Bibb, a popular folk singer at the time, a calypso song Guryan had written, "On My Way To Saturday", which he recorded - and that in turn led to a recording by Harry Belafonte. Interestingly she wrote that song when she was about sixteen years old, sitting at her piano in her living room, with fantasies of Harry Belafonte singing it.
Brian Wilson, an album and a songwriting career
As mentioned earlier she was largely oblivious to pop/rock, especially since she was married to Bob Brookmeyer, a well-known jazz trombone player, at the time and "listening to pop/rock was verboten" - not that she was very interested anyway. She knew about the excitement caused by Elvis, but was not a fan, and the Beatles' early work did not impress her greatly. But Guryan's life changed when pianist, composer, lyricist and fellow jazz fan Dave Frishberg played her the Beach Boys song "God Only Knows" and turned her on to Pet Sounds.
Greatly impressed by "God Only Knows", Guryan began a listening frenzy to hear all the pop/rock she could find, and their influences began to shape her own songwriting. An interesting story finds her going to a record shop to buy Sgt. Pepper, where she found a long line outside. Oblivious to the mania surrounding the Beatles, she walked past them into the record store, and told them what she wanted. "Get on the line," she was directed.
She also got a job as secretary to Creed Taylor, at the time a young record producer, and she learned a lot about how records were made and what to listen for. While working for Taylor, she took three weeks off in the summer and again went to The Lenox School of Jazz. With the new pop/rock influences she compiled a number of original songs, with which Creed Taylor sent her to Columbia Records' publishing company April-Blackwood, where impressed manager (and future husband) David Rosner signed her to record an album. Take A Picture was released on Bell Records to positive reviews in 1968.
She might have had the opportunity to record more for Bell, but since she was not willing to perform live - she wanted to be a songwriter, not a performer - the label didn't bother to promote the record, there was no tour to support the album, and her career as a performer was consequently short-lived. The album quickly found its way to bargain bins and relative obscurity.
While few heard her album, she was forging a name behind the scenes as a productive songwriter for others. By the time her own album was released, Guryan's "Sunday Morning" had already been a hit for Spanky & Our Gang (she wrote a song later called "Spanky & Our Gang" about the band as a kind of thank-you for giving her her first hit). A year later it became a hit also for Oliver, and was later recorded by Julie London, Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, among others. Almost as popular with recording artists was Guryan's "Think of Rain", her direct response to Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows", which made it onto records by Claudine Longet, Jackie DeShannon, Bobby Sherman and Astrud Gilberto, while Dion and Harry Nilsson also recorded unreleased versions. Guryan also placed songs with Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McCrae, Anita O'Day, The Lennon Sisters and Mama Cass Elliot, among others. In a thriving scene of sophisticated whisper pop, Margo Guryan was a songwriting success.
An extremely talented songwriter, Guryan loves to play with rhythms in her songs - time signatures often change from bar to bar, but never counter to the general feel of a song. Many of the artists who recorded her songs however ignored the subtle time changes entirely, and it drove Guryan mad to see her measures screwed up into 4/4. This was one reason that prompted her to make her own record, despite her feeling she couldn't sing very well.
The majority of her lyrics' subject matter is love, unashamedly unguarded and sentimental lyrics sung in a warm, breathy whisper. The vibe of many of her songs, especially those on her only album, is very much romantic, dreamy and idealistic.
After the sixties
Guryan continued composing into the 70's, moving to Los Angeles with husband David Rosner in 1974. She was still writing, but the great music of the late 60's was beginning to disappear and her songs were not being recorded as frequently as they had been. She tried to remain topical, penning some political songs about Watergate, one about a fear of earthquakes, even an attempt at disco, though as time passed her interest in writing faded as she turned to producing with her husband talented young singer/composers he had signed. In 1976 her step-son, Jonathan, came to live with them, and she sought out a piano teacher for him. She was so impressed with the way the young pianist (Howard Richman) was teaching Jon that she began to study with him as well. Impressed by the tuition her step-son was receiving, she turned to teaching herself. She began to teach children and found that she loved it, and she continues to teach to this day. In 1994/95 she wrote a set of fourteen variations on "Chopsticks" that Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gunther Schuller called "clever, witty, at times tender and elegant, at other times punning and ribald". They have been published by Hal Leonard, a highly respected print publishing firm and can be found in many music shops.
After three decades of obscurity, her husband received a call out of the blue in early 1997 from a record label in Asia informing them that her music is very popular in Japan, where many records by people who were overlooked or not taken seriously in the 60's (such as the Free Design, the Association and the Millennium) had been reissued. They were told by the label that her album was now on the wish list of every collector, particularly Japanese, who passed their way.
From there word of Guryan's music spread, with labels all over the world (including Spanish label Siesta, Japanese pop star Cornelius's Trattoria Records, and Linus of Hollywood's Franklin Castle) licensing and re-releasing Take A Picture. Linus of Hollywood is a huge fan and according to him, when he toured Japan in 2000 there was not a record store without Guryan's CD prominently displayed or being played. Take A Picture, her one-album legacy of soft-pop gems had become a true collectors' item by the end of the 90's, and online auctions were fetching around 200 dollars per copy. Guryan's reputation as a songwriter extended overseas to Japan, England and other parts of Europe, as a whole new generation began to discover her songs. The label re-releases attracted much acclaim and more cult following, leading to other releases of Guryan's music, including 25 Demos, a compilation of her demos recorded in the late 60's to early 70's.
Guryan and her songs now have a wide following among a new generation - St. Etienne has recorded her "I Don't Want to Spend Christmas Without You", Beck listens to her music while on the road, while Garbage's Shirley Manson wants to cover her track "Love Songs", and Tim De Laughter of The Polyphonic Spree is also a fan. And in 1999 Guryan met Linus of Hollywood, who recorded two of her songs on his "Linus of Hollywood" album. She considers him the perfect artist for her songs and hopes to work more with him, and he plans to release more of Guryan's music, including the Chopsticks Variations, through his label.
This unexpected interest in her work hasn't changed Guryan much - today she continues to teach piano. Her single album resonated throughout the pop underground of the 90's and beyond, and still serves today as a primary inspiration for great bands and artists such as those mentioned above. And Margo Guryan's popularity continues to grow. Guryan has said that she does not see the point of ruminating on what-might-have-been - she is simply astonished at and grateful for her success that arrived 30 years late, and the new friends she has made following the re-release of her album. (For more on this see the Take A Picture node)
- Take A Picture liner notes
- MOJO 1000: The Ultimate CD Buyer's Guide
- The All-Music Guide
- PopMatters review of Margo Guryan's CD 25 Demos (www.popmatters.com)
- Franklin Castle Recordings artist info on Margo Guryan (www.franklincastle.net)
- Fufkin.com interview with Margo Guryan by Robert Pally (http://www.fufkin.com/news/news_notes_10_00.htm)
- tangents.co.uk interview with Margo Guryan (http://www.tangents.co.uk/tangents/main/2003/august/guryan.html)
- Linus of Hollywood's response message re: Margo Guryan interview at Luxuriamusic.com (http://firstname.lastname@example.org/2001-month-02/msg00564.html)