Even among the most idiosyncratic singer-songwriters of the 1970s, Dory Previn stood out as something of an anomaly. She was already in her forties by the time she started making a name for herself as a solo recording artist in the early 1970s. Though her records were indebted to rock-styled production, she'd heard little rock prior to the late '60s, and though she did have extensive experience in the music business, it was as a songwriter for musicals and soundtracks, not as a pop performer. She rarely toured and performed live (or even traveled much from her Los Angeles base), owing in part to a fear of flying. Above all, her lyrics were among the quirkiest to be heard by any singer-songwriter of the era. The 1974 LP Dory Previn, her first album for Warner Brothers after five longplayers for Mediarts and United Artists, had a characteristically offbeat assortment of songs about parental neglect, obscene phone calls, Marlon Brando, a gauchely attired bachelor pad, religious mythology, astrology, and the vicious cycle of war games that perpetuates through the generations.
the early '70s that Previn began to receive serious critical attention,
she'd been writing songs for quite some time before that, and entered
show business even earlier. Although she first tried to make her mark
(under considerable pressure from her father, a relationship referred
to in numerous of her songs) as a dancer and actress, it was as a
songwriter that she was signed by MGM. Her first album, in fact, was
recorded back in 1957, with composer Andre Previn and jazz guitarist
Kenny Burrell serving as accompanists. Then known as Dory Langdon, she
married Previn a couple of years later, and often composed with her
husband for the adult pop market over the next decade. Although they
placed material with stars like Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, and Doris
Day, their greatest successes were with songs used in movie
soundtracks. "The Faraway Part of Town," sung by Judy Garland in Pepe, and "A Second Chance" (used
in Two for the Seesaw) both
got nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Song division, and five of
their tunes were in 1967's Valley of
the Dolls (whose theme gave Dionne Warwick a #2 hit).
The Previns' marriage, however, ended with some drama in the late 1960s, Andre leaving Dory for Mia Farrow. After a nervous breakdown resulting in a stay in a mental hospital, Dory began a career of her own with 1970's On My Way to Where. It sold only 25,000 copies, and though her follow-up sold twice as well, Previn never would make the charts. Her cult was wide enough, however, to permit her to record three more albums for United Artists (to whom her first label, Mediarts, was sold in the early 1970s), get recorded for a live album at Carnegie Hall, and receive complimentary features in publications like Time and the Los Angeles Times. Her move to Warner Brothers for 1974's Dory Previn, the first of her two LPs for the label, seemed natural as that company was home to so many singer-songwriters of the era, from chart-toppers like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell to non-charters like Previn herself.
Producing the album was Nik Venet, who'd also produced several LPs for her earlier in the 1970s, and co-founded the Mediarts label that issued her first two albums of the decade. Though perhaps most famous for his pop hits with the Lettermen and the early Beach Boys, Venet was well-equipped for singer-songwriter sessions, having produced numerous such artists (including Fred Neil, John Stewart, and Wendy Waldman) in the late '60s and early '70s. In keeping with the spirit of the age, about a couple dozen musicians pitched in with contributions at some point in the proceedings, including famed session men Joe Osborne (bass) and Waddy Wachtel (guitar); jazzman Ray Brown (on acoustic bass); and Lincoln Mayorga (a key player on Phil Ochs's late-'60s recordings) on piano. Although Previn herself did play guitar on most of her albums, if she did so here, she's not credited.
Dory Previn did not result in that elusive breakthrough to the Billboard album charts. But it did contain its share of unusual songs, placed in varied arrangements combining, at different points, elements of theatrical music, country, and orchestrated art song. Foremost among the odder items was "The Obscene Phone Call," routed from the police through the FBI, CIA, and God. Explained Previn in Rolling Stone, "I wanted to write about Watergate, about the CIA, about what's happening now, but I can't say to the United States government, hey, you should not be doing it this way. I hate the word 'should,' I can't stand to have it used with me. I hate to be preached to. So I thought about these problems as anyone else who's concerned does, and it bugged me to the point of despair. Then one night I got an obscene phone call. Now that touched me: that was specific. I thought I wanted to write about that obscene phone call because I couldn't get any satisfaction from the police. The only satisfaction I will get is as a writer. So I started writing and without even thinking it became the FBI, CIA and all the invasions of privacy."
As for the weird attempted seduction scene detailed in "Coldwater Canyon," Previn revealed in an interview produced for Bernadette Cahill's Memories radio program in 2005 (which can be heard in full on-line at the website of the Public Radio Exchange, www.prx.org), "That really happened to me. He was a photographer for the record company that I was recording for at that time. So he asked me, 'Would I come to dinner at his house?' And I said, 'Yes.' And I still have a kind of naivete. I think when someone asks me come to dinner, they mean to dinner. And then the next thing I know, he was bringing trays up to his bedroom and we were eating there, and then there were all these gadgets around. And I thought, 'If this guy has any idea we should be making love or something, with all these machines here?...No no no—this will not do.'"
Certainly the most controversial track was "Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?," which representatives of the Catholic church pressured her not to perform during in Irish tour in 1980, though Previn insisted on doing it anyway. "Some women may think some of my songs have feminist content, like 'Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister,' for instance," she observed in the Los Angeles Times. "Feminists may see things in my songs, but that's their own interpretation because I have never intentionally written a feminist song. I think of myself as a humanist. I'm interested in the broad point of view, not the minority point of view."
Other areas little traveled by singer-songwriters were explored in "Lover Lover Be My Cover," which Previn disclosed to Bernadette Cahill "came at a time when I was extremely attracted to a woman...I remember the woman I'm talking about, and the feelings I had at the time, and my inability to continue something that would become serious." "Mama Mama Comfort Me" detailed aspects of her uncomfortable relationship with her father, who had wanted a son, and didn't speak to Dory for the last fifteen years of his life. The standout composition "The Empress of China" drew parallels between how abusive behavior is passed on not only between generations of a family, but between war-making regimes.
"I have no idea in the world where that came from," confessed Previn to Cahill. "We were recording it, and...into the recording studio with a guide came a contingent of Russian people. And they were permitted to stand behind the glass while I was out in the studio recording. They were fascinated by that song...the Russian people heard something in that song that is not even mentioned. But they got it—the continual chain of association of these different things. It had to do with countries doing something to countries. They and the Chinese were the communists of those days. For me, 'The Empress of China' is related to kings and queens and other empresses, and other people, all people throughout history. And those are the people that rule our lives, and that very often kill us. Just exactly what's going on now today in Baghdad, and in New York with the two towers coming down."
Despite the non-charting commercial performance of Dory Previn, the singer was able to record one more album for Warner Brothers before her career as a recording artist virtually ceased. That LP, 1976's We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx, has also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
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