Mama Cass, Glen Campbell, and Carmen McRae recorded her songs. Spanky and Our Gang scored a Top-40 hit with her ditty "Sunday Morning" in 1968. Today, acts including Saint Etienne, Garbage, Beck, and Cornelius praise her artistry. And her debut album is considered a minor masterpiece.
Who is this pop music goddess? If you guessed Carole King . . . you're wrong. Ellie Greenwich? Nope. Try Margo Guryan.
If you've never heard that name before, don't feel silly. When Guryan's record Take a Picture hit stores in 1968, it went unnoticed. "There wasn't one review anywhere; there were tiny paragraphs in the trades, and that's it," recalls Guryan from her Los Angeles home. A reluctant live performer, the songwriter shied away from promotional appearances. "[The album] descended into the 39-cent bins pretty quickly."
Today, those same neglected LPs fetch upward of $200 on eBay, and Guryan's skills are praised in the same breath as legendary songsmiths like Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro. And now, thanks to the CD reissue of Take a Picture, and the new retrospective 25 Demos (both on Franklin Castle/Oglio), music lovers with tighter budgets can discover what all the fuss is about.
Born in Far Rockaway, N.Y., Guryan began studying piano at age 6 and was soon making up songs. Her musical education continued right up to her acceptance at Boston University. "When I got to college, and was still studying classical music, I fell like a ton of bricks for jazz," she recounts. Smitten with how jazz players took old standards and recast them as new pieces—and terrified by the prospect of performing a senior recital—Guryan switched majors from piano to composition.
As far as Guryan was concerned, pop was pap; initially, her work was aimed strictly at the jazz set. Chris Connor recorded her first published song, "Moon Ride." McRae, Julie London, and Anita O'Day all got hip to her gifts, too. She even penned the lyric and bridge to "Lonely Woman" for Ornette Coleman, her former classmate from a 1959 Lenox School of Jazz summer session.
Then one day, a friend played her "God Only Knows" from the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. After spinning the tune a zillion times and assimilating its melody and arrangement, she plunked down and penned "Think of Rain." The song not only became one of the highlights of Take a Picture, Astrud Gilberto, Jackie DeShannon, Claudine Longet, Dion, and Harry Nilsson recorded it in the years that followed.
Guryan's compositions are distinguished foremost by inventive, mercurial rhythms; time signatures may change from bar to bar, yet never at the expense of the groove. "[The meter] really can't interfere with the feel, or you've blown it," she insists. Alas, for many of the artists who recorded her songs, those subtleties proved too challenging. "Everybody loves to straighten out my 3/4 measures in a 4/4 song," chuckles the songwriter, "and it drives me nuts!"
Lyrically, her style is spare and delicate, yet remarkably evocative. Although she began writing poems as a small girl, and never abandoned the practice, one of her biggest influences was the novel Raintree County by Ross Lockridge. "What fed my imagination was the way he would end one chapter with a sentence, which would continue into the next chapter without a period," she explains. "That 'technique' allowed me to use a word as a pivot in my own writing. For example, in 'The 8:17 Northbound . . . ' [from 25 Demos]: ' . . . he was one of a kind, the kind of a man a man would be lucky to know.'"
But recording her own album was awkward for Guryan. "I never felt I could sing very well," she admits, lapsing into a breathy baby-girl voice to emphasize the limitations of her upper register. But eventually, she got tired of hearing demo singers ("girls with terrific voices . . . and no [sense of] time") screw up her tunes, and begged her publisher—and future husband—David Rosner to let her take a crack at them.
To get around the break in her register, Rosner suggested doubling the vocal tracks. Viola! "I was amazed," admits Guryan. "If I sang not too hard in the lower range and not too soft in the upper, the doubling smoothed out the imperfections, so it all sounded consistent." The results stack up favorably against the best of the wispy-voiced chanteuses (London, Gilberto, Longet) who dipped into Guryan's catalog.
Today, Guryan is busy teaching piano and enjoying the renewed, albeit unexpected, interest in her work. Her recording of "Sunday Morning" even wound up on the souvenir CD for a big pop-art exhibit at a Paris museum recently. "Bob Stanley [of Saint Etienne] went to see the show, and e-mailed me. 'As you go up the escalator, they're playing the CD, and I heard "Sunday Morning." So you can now officially consider yourself a work of art.'"