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Essra Mohawk's Bizarre, Reprise And Asylum Albums Reissued

01/13/2010
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Sandy Hurvitz's transformation into Essra Mohawk happened as a result of undeniable singing and songwriting talent plus a series of happy accidents. The young Philadelphian issued a Liberty single (at age 16) that was deemed a "Newcomer Pick" in Cashbox; she then contributed songs to artists as disparate as the Shangri-Las and Vanilla Fudge. But her career really accelerated in 1967 when she met Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in NYC. When Mother Don Preston was under the weather, Zappa asked to hear her play the piano and sing. He invited her to join the band on the spot. Next thing she knew, she was a de facto member of the Mothers, reluctantly accepting the endearing nickname "Uncle Meat." Her solo career was about to unfold.

Her three solo recordings from 1969 (Sandy's Album Is Here at Last!), 1970 (Primordial Lovers) and 1974 (Essra Mohawk) will be reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music on February 23, 2010. The reissues are digitally remastered and contain bonus tracks. Richie Unterberger wrote the liner notes with extensive interview material from Mohawk.

At just 17, Mohawk turned down an offer from a well-known Brill Building publishing house. A few years later she made her debut album, Sandy's Album Is Here at Last!, on Zappa's Bizarre/Verve Records label. Zappa started out as her producer, but then surrendered the chair to Mother of Invention Ian Underwood. Mohawk deemed Underwood an "anti-producer, anti-arranger," leaving the tracks unfinished. "It's like it wasn't my album," she says. "It was really raw." Nonetheless her talent and unique voice emerged from the production murk. The song titles alone auger a trippy ride: "Archgodliness of Purpleful Magic," "Tree of Trees" and "I Know the Sun." The Collectors' Choice reissue contains the bonus track "Life Is Scarlet," never before available on CD (except on a Japanese limited edition reissue, no longer available).

Mohawk was scheduled to play Woodstock but her driver missed the turn to the heliport and they arrived by car too late. Good was to come from this as it was her description of the event to Joni Mitchell that inspired Joni to write the song "Woodstock." 1969 was also key as Essra married producer Frazier Mohawk (born Barry Friedman), known for his work with Kaleidoscope, the Butterfield Blues Band, the Holy Modal Rounders and Nico. For her second album, 1970's Primordial Lovers, Mohawk moved to Reprise, brought in by label head Mo Ostin after he heard her sing at a club in NY. The album featured several notable musicians: Lee Underwood from Tim Buckley's sessions; Dallas Taylor from Crosby, Stills & Nash; Doug Hastings from Rhinoceros (a band Essra was originally asked to join); and guitarist Jerry Hahn. 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of this landmark album, which in 1977 was ranked among the Top 25 Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone.

Mohawk retains fond memories of the songs from this period, several of which she still performs. "Thunder in the Morning," written about Stephen Stills on Lowell George's baby grand piano, became a turntable hit in early album-rock radio. Sadly the album fizzled commercially, went unpromoted and there was no agent and no tour. "I gave it all," says Mohawk. "But I wasn't given in return what my music rightfully deserved." The Collectors' Choice reissue contains five bonus tracks: "Could You Life Your Heart," "Drifter", "Question," "Someone Has Captured Me" and a piano-and-vocal version of "I Have Been Here Before," which was the inspiration for David Crosby's "Déjà Vu."

Mohawk moved to Elektra/Asylum Records for her self-titled 1974 album Essra Mohawk, which Melodymaker called "the most unheralded event in American music." The song structure is slightly more conventional, but the imagery and imagination run free. For the first time, she included a cover song, George Gershwin's "Summertime." Tom Sellers produced the album, which contained only two tracks featuring her signature piano and vocal. She placed her favorite song, "Magic Pen," at the end of the album. "Most people try to out their best foot forward first [in the sequence]. So usually — not always — my favorite stuff is at the end of the album."

As with its predecessor, the album received little promotion, perhaps because it was originally slated for release on Paramount Records, then was switched to Asylum at the last minute, leaving the Asylum staff feeling creatively uninvolved. The Collectors' Choice reissue of Essra Mohawk contains two bonus tracks: a fully produced version of "I Cannot Forget" and "I Stand Here Naked" featuring Philadelphia backup band Edison Electric and Jeremy Steig on flute.

In the decades since her '74 album, Mohawk has continued to perform, write, record and release music. A successful songwriter, she wrote Cyndi Lauper's hit "Change of Heart." Her songs have been covered by Tina Turner, Lorrie Morgan, Peabo Bryson, Rita Coolidge, Annie Haslam, and Keb' Mo', among others. Her next incarnation gained even newer fans as she was the vocalist on the wildly popular School House Rock songs "Interjections," "Sufferin' Till Suffrage" and "Mother Necessity."

Mohawk states, "My aim is to help people understand themselves and all life. I get a lot of responses from people that it's helped their lives, so I keep doing it. If I didn't continue to get that good response and thought I was banging my head against the wall and no one was listening, I would have stopped long ago. Not that you can really stop. The music just kind of comes out of me. I really couldn't stop it if I wanted to."

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