Actress Karen Black – the secret songwriter
There’s no shortage of try-to-sing actors in Robert Altman’s sprawling, messy 1975 film Nashville. That’s what you’d expect from a movie set in Music City, where music and politics intersect in a fictional presidential campaign.
None of the performance is bad – except for the ones that are supposed to be – but one stands out. On the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, the weekly concert that is to country what Bayreuth is to Wagner, Karen Black, playing Connie White, approaches the microphone in a red dress trimmed with sequins.
The actress’s voice is rich and velvety, her flow languid and relaxed; she radiates charisma, controlling the stage like someone who has spent years making her way through clubs to theaters. Most surprisingly, however, is the fact that the songs she sings – “Memphis” and “I Don’t Know If I Found It In You” (and, in a later scene, “Rolling Stone”) – don’t were not written by professionals. writers. Black wrote his own songs, and they sound like they could come from a really good album.
All of this makes it less surprising that next month sees the release of Dreaming of you (1971-76), a collection of recordings by Black, primarily with producers Bones Howe and Elliott Mazer. They were discovered after her death in 2013 by her fourth husband, Stephen Eckelberry, who had not known her in the 1970s, then compiled and prepared for release by Cass McCombs, a musician specializing in the Americana.
All but a few songs were written by Black, and all of them are very good: playful, largely acoustic, and idiosyncratic. You wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he was a bohemian “freak folk” artist in his twenties.
“She sang at home all the time,” Eckelberry says. “She loved to sing. But it was kind of a push-me, pull-you. She wanted to sing, but she was really worried about the technical part. She didn’t feel like she had control over what she had about acting. So overcoming this slight reluctance was part of his song. ”
And she also sang in public. She sings in several of her stellar films from the early 1970s: In a Car, in Jack Nicholson, in Five easy pieces; duet with Kris Kristofferson in Cisco pike; on the soundtrack, as she and George Segal sit on a windswept beach Born to win. She sang her own composition “Did You Ever Wonder?” on Dolly Parton’s TV show in 1976, she sang in her one-woman show on the New York scene in 1982. Stranger still, she sang “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” by Sonny Bono in a cable TV show in 1997, backed by punk group L7.
All of this suggests someone willing to take on most challenges. “She was totally ready for anything,” confirms Eckelberry. “She didn’t think of herself that way, but I saw her as fearless.”
So why did those ’70s recordings end up in a box in his house, rather than being peddled around record companies? Eckelberry points out that his rare recording sessions were just asides in his career. “One session was only two or three days of his life. She was so busy, constantly working, that it was one of those things that slipped out right away. “
He also notes that she was still creating. Even after her acting career rose from those 70s heights to a succession of B-movies and horror films, she was writing poetry and a musical. Some songs from decades earlier just weren’t that important to her.
McCombs met Black in 2009 and quickly got her to sing with him on “Dreams Come True Girl”. “We kept coming together and finding new ways to collaborate,” he says. They recorded more – two new collaborations feature on a single that accompanies the album – and had planned an album together when Black passed away. And then the tapes appeared.
“I talk a lot, a lot of tapes,” McCombs says. “Not just reel-to-reel tapes, but different media – half an inch, a quarter inch, an inch. Shoe boxes and shoe boxes of cassettes. Crazy, totally undocumented. We didn’t know what was there.
“On some, she was studying for movie roles. Some were recordings from her one-woman show, just live recordings. Others are from his practice bands of musical ideas. And others are what ended up being the album, professional recordings that she made in the early 70s. She was a very, very creative person. It wasn’t just music. One day, I went to her house, and she said, “Sit down, Cass. And she immediately had to draw me. She was always doing and being creative. She had a spirit of rebirth.
There was very little information about the songs – the album’s credits note that they came from “various recording sessions between 1971 and 1976” with “instrumentation from various session musicians” – but McCombs did was struck by the quality of his writing and by his voice. “She does it in a way that’s always spontaneous, it’s just an eruption of her, of her soul. His mind is just ejecting from a real place. Granted Karen was a great technical singer, but what makes her interesting is that she is completely herself. “
What intrigues him is that the recordings could have dragged on for so long. “It seemed strange to me. . . that these songs did not come out. Or even be on the verge of being released. They haven’t even taken the next step, where you go back to the studio and record with other musicians.
Listening to tapes was also a strange experience for Eckelberry. He hadn’t known Black when she made them – they got married in 1987 – and now he was hearing about his wife whom he had never known.
“It was both familiar and a revelation,” he says. “It was Karen, and it was this young Karen that I didn’t know. She was 40 when I met her but she still looked younger than her age. She always played people younger than she was. And she had a young voice. But boy, that youthful sweetness, it was amazing to hear that. It really is a time capsule. Suddenly you are transported to the beginning of the 70s.
In his later years, in these horror films, Black has become a cult figure. Once a leading figure in New Hollywood, she had become the queen of horror. Younger creative types collaborated with her, and after her death, experimental hip-hop group Death Grips released footage of her reading from a film script titled Abyss to preview an album of the same name. But these were all other people’s plans. With the release of Dreaming of you, Black’s real voice is finally heard again.
“Dreaming of You (1971-76)” is released July 16 on Anthology Recordings. ‘Nashville’ returns to UK cinemas from June 25
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