mon 22/07/2024

Music Reissues Weekly: Margo Guryan - Words and Music | reviews, news & interviews

Music Reissues Weekly: Margo Guryan - Words and Music

Music Reissues Weekly: Margo Guryan - Words and Music

Lavish box set dedicated to the jazz composer who changed tack to embrace Sixties pop

Margo Guryan: she saw herself as a songwriter, a figure with no public profileNumero Group

Late summer 1966. Jazz was Margo Guryan’s thing. She was not interested in pop music. This changed when she was played The Beach Boys’s “God Only Knows.” Amazed by what she heard, she tuned in to pop radio for the first time. Her head was further turned by The Beatles and The Mamas & the Papas. A copy of “God Only Knows’s” parent album Pet Sounds was bought.

Newly thrilled by a pop she saw as more innovative than a jazz scene she thought too full of Ornette Coleman imitators, she wrote a song titled “Think of Rain.” In tune with the burgeoning harmony pop style, its baroque leanings and wistful atmosphere bore no traces of free jazz.

Margo Guryan Words and MusicGuryan (1937-2021) already had music business connections, which resulted in interest in her new, pop-inspired songs from April-Blackwood, a music publishing subsidiary of Columbia Records. Demo recordings were made and circulated. “Sunday Mornin” was picked by lush harmony poppers Spanky & Our Gang, and became a US hit in Spring 1968. Before this, her recent songs “I Don't Intend to Spend Christmas Without You” and “Think of Rain” were recorded by Claudine Longet. (pictured right, the Words and Music box set)

Although she saw herself as a songwriter, a figure with no public profile, a Margo Guryan album duly appeared. October 1968’s Take a Picture opened with her own version of “Sunday Mornin’.” “Think of Rain” was on there too. The 11-track LP was fabulous, a jazz-underpinned – viz: the drums and Guryan’s own Fender electric piano lines – baroque-soft rock crossover of rare class. There was spaciness, otherness and dashes of weirdness: album closer “Love” isn’t far from roughly contemporary experimentalists The United States Of America, positing itself as a precursor of Broadcast.

Issued by the Bell label, Guryan’s sole album was not promoted as she wouldn’t play live. An instant poor seller, it was rediscovered in the 1990s. The first reissue of Take a Picture arrived in 1996. Two years on, Saint Etienne recorded a version of “I Don't Intend to Spend Christmas Without You.” Then, in 2001, a collection of previously unheard Margo Guryan demos was issued (various configurations of this set, originally titled 25 Demos, have appeared). Now, original pressings of Paint a Picture are regularly priced at £1000 or more.

When Take a Picture was rediscovered, the wider picture and background weren’t known. For a while, the album appeared to be a non sequitur. But as the reissues and archive releases trickled out, it became clear that Margo Guryan’s path was distinctive. Unparalleled.

Margo Guryan_Take a PictureOver ten years before Take a Picture’s release, Guryan had begun making her way in music. Born in Queens, New York, she entered Boston university in 1955. Initially, she studied classical piano. She then moved to composition. Her next shift was into jazz. After visiting the Storyville jazz club and playing the interval at a Miles Davis show, she almost ended up on the venue’s own label. There was also a brush with Atlantic Records, who didn’t pick her up as it was thought her voice wasn’t strong enough. Nonetheless “Moon Ride,” one of the songs she played for the label, was recorded by Chris Connor and became an Atlantic single in 1958. After this, in 1959, she got a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz where received piano lessons from the soon-to-be Charles Mingus associate Jaki Byard. She became friends with Max Roach.

After leaving university, jazz mover Creed Taylor took her on as his secretary. She continued composing, and got a contract with the Modern Jazz Quartet-associated publisher MJQ Music. Leon Bibb, Harry Belafonte, Chris Connor (again), Dizzy Gillespie, Nancy Harrow and Gary McFarland were amongst those who recorded her material. Marrying trombonist Bob Brookmeyer in 1964 put the brakes on the forward motion. The marriage lasted two years. After which – The Beach Boys revelation.

In the wake of the Take a Picture’s release she would not tour as she had seen what this did to the jazz musicians she knew: the loss of control, the time lost which could otherwise be dedicated to composing. The album was accompanied by three singles – one titled “Spanky & Our Gang” – and a swift retreat from her particular take on the music business front lines. With her second husband, music publisher David Rosner, she moved to Los Angeles where she did odd bits of production, but mostly set her own music aside: there were recordings with Neil Diamond’s band (Rosner worked with Diamond).

Margo Guryan_flower cardWords and Music is a new box set with a slipcase, inside of which are three albums and an LP-sized floppy-cover book. Some original copies of Take a Picture had Words and Music as the title on their label, hence the title here. This is the most full Margo Guryan collection so far, and the most lavishly presented. It looks wonderful. The first side of the album one is a session recorded on 1 April 1957. She sings, plays piano and leads a quartet. At this remove, her voice doesn’t sound weak or wobbly, and the songs are assured. With some music biz faith behind her, she could have slotted in to the jazz scene as it was on record. The next three sides are studio recordings from 1966 to 1968, followed by two final sides of material from 1968 to 1975 – with one outlier, a 2001 recording of “Goodbye July,” a song written in 1966.

Much of what is heard is amazing. A track-by-track breakdown or examination of individual cuts is unnecessary. However, this package is difficult to get to grips with. The booklet crisply goes though the story, but a section with information on the tracks is lacking. Oddly, neither the sticker on the cover or the text mention that the whole of Take a Picture is here. One of the few details given notes that the album tracks (collected on album two, not sequenced in the order of the original album) are taken from a safety copy of the master tape. The booklet identifies the 1 April 1957 tracks heard on side one. Otherwise, all that is given are the years of recording. Presumably, the latter is all that is known? If this is the case, making it explicit would be helpful. The booklet has enough white space to accommodate less threadbare annotation. Equally, a written section on the audio sources would have been interesting: acetates and tapes are illustrated – let’s learn about them.

Words and Music collects 46 tracks. The sticker on the front says that 16 are unreleased, eight of which are the 1 April 1957 session heard on side one. That leaves eight more. As well as Paint a Picture, there are cuts first heard on the various iterations of 25 Demos. But nothing identifies what is previously unissued. This is not user friendly. Potential buyers should be told what they are being asked to fork out for, especially as they may already have some or much of what’s on offer. The oversights perplex. However, despite its mystifying aspects, Words and Music is absolutely essential. Not only does it restate Margo Guryan’s fabulousness, it is stuffed with the most magical music.


Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters