By Richie Unterberger

For a singer-songwriter who never made the charts with her solo recordings, Dory Previn certainly had a wide cult. Not many cult artists, after all, get to record seven LPs in six years for big labels and be profiled in Time magazine. Not many artists of any sort get to record a double live album at Carnegie Hall, as Previn did in 1973. Previn has also recalled that John Lennon asked to meet her (and did). Still, there was only so much commercial headway a singer-songwriter who didn't seriously pursue a solo career until she was in her forties could make, particularly one given to singing unusual songs about relationships both abusive and comedic, veterans parades, mythical kings and iguanas, the final flight of the Hindenburg, and the like. Not even recording for Warner Brothers, the label that probably sold more albums by singer-songwriters than anyone else, could break her through to the masses. So it was that her second and final LP for the company, We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx, failed to make any more of a commercial impression than the rest of her work.

    Almost uniquely among the singer-songwriters of the era, Previn's background was not primarily in rock or folk. She'd made her first mark in the business as a songwriter, often in collaboration with husband Andre Previn, and often writing for soundtracks. While Dionne Warwick's #2 1968 hit "(Theme from) Valley of the Dolls" is their most well known composition, a couple of their other songs got nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Song division, and five of their tunes were used in the Valley of the Dolls movie itself. By the late 1960s, however, both her marriage and professional partnership with Andre Previn had ended. "They weren't my feelings," Dory explained of her pre-1970 lyrics to Time in 1971. "I was writing from other people's viewpoints. And while I was married to Andre, I was never presumptuous enough to write my own music."

    In the wake of the mental breakdown following the breakup of her marriage, she wrote more personal, cathartic songs, and almost by happenstance, she redirected her focus to her own recordings. "When I wrote those songs I thought they would be performed by other artists," she explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1975. "I certainly didn't write them for myself because I wasn't a singer and had no intentions of making an album or performing or anything like that. When I was writing those songs I didn't expect them to be as self-revealing as they turned out to be. I thought they were non-specific. All I wanted to do was sell them. I made a demonstration record, and tried to sell the songs but everybody thought they were too personal. Then someone suggested that I sing them myself. It was a daring thing for me to do, but I did it. I guess the whole thing has turned out OK."

    Previn's fear of flying, and reluctance to travel from her Los Angeles base in general, limited the promotional opportunities for her subsequent five albums for Mediarts and United Artists in the early 1970s. Nik Venet, co-founder of Mediarts and esteemed for his studio work with both stars (the Beach Boys, the Lettermen, Glen Campbell, Lou Rawls) and singer-songwriters with a niche audience (Fred Neil, John Stewart, Wendy Waldman), produced several Previn LPs, including her first for Warner Brothers, 1974's Dory Previn (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music). For We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx, however, the production reins were taken by Joel Dorn, known for his work with both jazz artists (including Les McCann, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Herbie Mann) and pop singers (including Bette Midler and Roberta Flack). Several dozen musicians and vocalists appeared on the tracks that comprised the final record, the bigger names including singer-songwriter Don McLean (on banjo), jazz bassist Ron Carter, and bassist/banjo player Eric Weissberg (of "Dueling Banjos" fame). Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney, both sang and did the background vocal arrangement for "Children of Coincidence," which also included vocals by soul singer Judy Clay; another soulstress who'd have a notable career of her own, Patti Austin, can be heard contributing backup vocals to several other tracks.

    While the New York Times had praised Previn's songs for "their almost complete avoidance of specific stylistic identity," the material on We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx had a bent toward the almost cabaretish and circus-like, perhaps reflecting her more theatrical roots in musicals. The change in style and production was not to the liking of Britain's Melody Maker, however. "Her last album, Dory Previn, released in December 1974, indicated that she was slowly losing much of her former (slender) talent for irony and subtle detail—qualities which enhanced much of her previous work," proclaimed the publication's extensive review. "We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx continues her decline. The musical themes, though typically idiosyncratic, have none of her usual ingenuity, and she has been ill-served both by her two arrangers, William S. Fischer and William Eaton, and her producer, Joel Dorn, who lacks the perception and authority of former producer Nik Venet."

    Added Melody Maker in the same review, "Here, as ever, she is obsessed with themes of casual love ('Children of Coincidence,' with its mutated tango arrangement) and paranoia and insecurity ('Wild Roses' and 'How'm I Gonna Keep Myself Together,' which has in its favor a suggestion of humor). There are no major innovations, though, and it has to be said that her concern at her various predicaments, both as an artist (the allegorical 'The Comedian') and as a person ('I Wake Up Slow,' which is definitely inferior to the similar 'Lady with the Braid' [from her 1971 Mythical Kings and Iguanas album]), has become rather tiresome. There is no individual song here with the kind of chilling menace she was able to inject into, say, 'Obscene Telephone Call' from Dory Previn."

    The lighter quasi-musical feel of the arrangements was broken up by the mildly funk-tinged "Fours" and the more impressive "Woman Soul," which was a throwback to the artily orchestrated songs that had figured more heavily in her previous work. Observed Previn to Melody Maker in 1977, "Maybe what I want to do now, and I think I started it with 'Woman Soul' and 'I Wake Up Slow,' which can also be a metaphor for 'I fall in love slowly, so don't rush me, I'm slow to commit,' I think what I would like to do now is write songs of love, but that deal with the reality of love. The negativity, the positiveness, 'I love you/I hate you,' the ambivalence, but saying, 'OK, it's all right.' And that's why I've been doing 'Woman Soul.' That's my favorite song. But that makes no bones, it doesn't beat around the bush. It says, 'Hey, there's a lot wrong with this, but it's not bad. Let's investigate it.'"

    We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx turned out not only to be her final album for Warner Brothers, but her final solo album to date. Even at the time of the 1977 Melody Maker article, she was admitting to "not writing songs now," and considering concentrating on writing books. "The last album I wrote was more upbeat [than my previous work], with the exception of one song," she explained. "And that's I think why I've turned to writing books. I think certain endeavors have lives and I'm not so sure that songwriting isn't over, at least for now. I was talking today about recording again, but I don't have anything to say right now in songs. And until I do have something to say, I don't want to write. I won't write just to write songs. I find it much more expansive—I broadened my horizon, I felt, with this book (her autobiography Midnight Baby) and the next book is a novel, so I think I'm just trying to grow. Perhaps after I write this novel, perhaps after this tour."

    Though Previn continued (and continues) to write books, however, she did not release another album, in part because problems with her fingers eventually made it impossible for her to continue playing guitar. She did issue a recording mixing recent and previously unissued material via the internet in 2002, Planet Blue. But it seems like We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx may well remain her final long-playing recording to enjoy wide distribution. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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