By Richie Unterberger

In some ways, Essra Mohawk's debut album was not representative of the talents that would launch her to a career as a singer-songwriter that's still going strong more than forty years later. For one thing, it wasn't originally issued under the name of Essra Mohawk. Instead it was credited to the previous name under which she billed herself, Sandy Hurvitz. (Actually her name at that point was Essra Hurvitz. "Essra" evolved from the nickname "Essie" that was given to her by then-roommate Monica Boscia, the receptionist at Apostolic Studio where this album and all of Frank Zappa's projects at the time were recorded.) In addition, differing views regarding the production meant that the end result was not what Essra had intended. Nonetheless, it did introduce the first material by a unique singer-songwriter to reach the marketplace in an LP format. Its unfinished state, as Essra says today, yields music "for people who want to hear things raw."

    Mohawk began her songwriting and recording career as a teenager in the mid-1960s, issuing a single on Liberty at the age of sixteen. She also wrote "I'll Never Learn," which appeared on a 1966 Shangri-Las single, and "The Spell That Comes After," recorded by the Vanilla Fudge for their Renaissance album. The album Sandy's Album Is Here At Last! came about through her association with the Mothers of Invention, particularly their leader, Frank Zappa.

    "Some girls from L.A. stopped in Philly to see Cal [Schenkel]," explains Essra today. "They were friends of Cal's, who I later introduced to Frank to become Frank's graphic artist. [Cal and I] met at Philadelphia College of Art. Anyway, they invited me to come along with them to New York City. As [the girls and I] were walking down Bleecker Street [in the Village], we spotted Frank coming our way. He was heading to the Garrick Theater to play. The girls yelled out the name of their hangouts in L.A., so he let us all in for free. I was, as he later called me, the strange little person from Philadelphia who just happened to be with them along for the ride.

    "The Mothers and I started hanging out, and it wasn't long before [Mothers keyboardist] Don Preston wasn't feeling well one day, and Frank had a new keyboard set up on the stage at the Garrick Theater. He didn't play keyboards, and knew I did, so he asked me if I would play it for him. I got up there and the only thing I knew how to play was my own songs, which I began to play, and naturally I sang along. He grabbed a microphone and stuck it in front of me, stepped back into the theater, listened some more. I finished singing my song, and he said, 'step into my office,' which was really just a couple rows back, sitting in the theater," she chuckles. "We sat down in the chairs, and he said, 'How would you like to be a Mother?' And I said, 'Sure.'"

     Essra performed with the Mothers at the Garrick "and in a short amount of time, Frank had me sign to his production company, Bizarre, and wanted to produce an album. I was the first artist he signed; the first person he wanted to record besides himself." "Archgodliness of Purpleful Magic" was recorded first, “because that's the song we performed every night at the Garrick. Frank only did two songs that he didn't write. One was mine, and the other was Don Preston's 'Epistle to Thomas.'"

    It soon became apparent, however, that Mohawk and Zappa had different visions of how the studio recordings should proceed. "The original plan was for me to do an album with the Mothers backing me up," she remembers. "Day one, after tracking that first song, I simply made a suggestion about the drums to Frank. I said that the way Billy Mundi played in the rideout was really great, really cookin'. Frank used to write out everything, so you didn't have a natural feel that the song needed throughout the song until the end. Then where the chart ended, Billy played his ass off. So I asked, very respectfully, 'Gee, why wait until the end of the song for it to cook? Can't Billy play more like that from the top?' And [Frank] replied, 'Well, who's producing the album, anyway?' He had a way of saying things that went right through you like an arrow. I just felt humiliated and left."

    Continues Essra, "So this album was, 'Oh, you want things natural?' They did this whole bare-bones thing, and it's not what I wanted at all." While the LP's production and arranging duties are credited to Mothers of Invention multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, in Mohawk's view, "he totally wasted the studio time. He didn't arrange anything or produce anything. He really was an anti-producer, anti-arranger. He would waste the whole day putting on horn parts and erasing them. There's not a single horn part on there of his, but that's what he spent most of the time doing. And he didn't know anything about production. Once after recording an incredible vocal performance, I left the control room for only a moment and when I came back, Ian had erased it for no good reason. It's like it wasn't my album. It was really raw. It's just something that Frank did to me, putting him in charge of the project."

    Emphasizes Essra, "I ran into [Underwood] years later, and I forgave him. He was just following orders to basically obstruct my art. So he was taken aback that I was nice and forgiving. But nevertheless, that doesn't change the facts of what did take place." One result of the situation was that just a few of the tracks had backing musicians, though as Mohawk points out, "they were all supposed to have other musicians. The ones that don't, it's because it was left unfinished. I came into the studio to work one day, and everyone was gone. [They'd] left for Europe, and I was told it was over. No one even told me that they were just gonna stop." The majority of the tracks feature just Essra and her own piano accompaniment, capturing how she performed the songs in concert at the age of nineteen.

    Although the circumstances in which Sandy's Album Is Here At Last! was made weren't optimal, Essra maintains affection for the songs and some of the musicians involved with the recording. "My favorite is 'You'll Dance Alone.' I’d like to pitch that song to Faith Hill. 'Tree of Trees' is an important song because it honors nature." It also reflects the influence of tenor saxophonist Jim Pepper who plays on "I Know the Sun." Pepper was a member of pioneering '60s jazz-rock band the Free Spirits (which featured guitarist Larry Coryell), and according to Essra, "Pepper was the one good thing Ian brought into this album."

    Several other musicians—flute player Jeremy Steig (of Jeremy & the Satyrs), Eddie Gomez (bassist for jazz piano great Bill Evans), and drummer Donald McDonald—join Essra on "Three Hawks," "Many Different Things," and "Love Is What I Found." For the last of those tracks, Mohawk "pan-potted an effect in and out for that bridge section. It's kind of like an otherworldly effect. I know what I wanted and I got it. I believe they lost the masters and had to recreate it at one point, and didn't get it quite as good as I had it. They acted all amazed that I was able to do that. I don't know why it was such a big deal. You're fading something in and out, and how hard can that be if you have ears?"

    Frank Zappa's favorite track, incidentally, was "Woman"; as to elaboration upon this and other aspects of her colorful career, "all will be revealed in my forthcoming book that I've been writing." This edition of the CD also includes a bonus track, "Life Is Scarlet," which, at the start, was intended to be contained on the album. Oddly, the original LP release printed the lyrics on the back, though the track itself somehow escaped inclusion on the record.

    Essra did have input into Cal Schenkel's cover art, as it was her idea to put a picture of someone in the television announcing the album's title, "and Frank put his photo there. I came up with the title, but then my name changed to Essra. I asked them to change it to Essra, and they said it was too late. They had already started the packaging. I don't think they thought it was going to last." More than 40 years later, her name's still Essra: "My name lasted longer than poor Frank! It's still going strong, and he's gone, sadly. I wish he wasn't. Ultimately Frank and I ended up on good terms. He called me on occasion and a few years before he died [when] I saw him last, we had a good hug, and all was good."

    Victim to poor promotion as many of the LPs distributed by Verve were at the time, Sandy's Album Is Here At Last! was not so much released as slipped out by the label around early 1969, according to Essra. It was as Essra Mohawk that the singer-songwriter would record her next LP, Primordial Lovers, a story continued in the liner notes to Collectors' Choice Music's CD reissue of that album. – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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