Margo Guryan – Singer, songwriter, composer
Born September 20,1937; died November 8, 2021
Margo Guryan, who has died aged 84, was a singer and songwriter whose debut album, Take a Picture (1968), disappeared almost immediately after it was released. By rights, the record’s collection of smart, playful and sometimes fragile self-penned songs should have made her a star. Her creations were by turns jauntily soulful and delicately romantic, with occasional psychedelic trappings evoking a sunkissed wooziness that sounded like off-kilter showtunes for the Aquarian age. Her refusal to tour or promote her material, however, saw both Guryan and Take a Picture fade from view.
Only when she started receiving royalty cheques from a Japanese bootleg release of Take a Picture did Guryan become aware of the influence her Beach Boys inspired confections were having among sixties obsessed baroque-pop cognoscenti. Duglas T. Stewart of BMX Bandits was a fan; he tweeted late last week that part of his musical advent calendar was Guryan’sa song, I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You. Guryan wrote the song in 1967 after she was commissioned to pen a Christmas ditty for French singer Claudine Longet.
Others attracted to her work included Saint Etienne, who recorded a cover of the same song for a 1998 fan club record.
Take a Picture was belatedly recognised as a classic of its era, with Rolling Stone magazine hailing it as ‘an early prototype for countless lounge and dream-pop excursions’. Naming Take a Picture as one of forty one-album wonders, the magazine said the record ‘bridges the gap between Burt Bacharach and Belle & Sebastian’.
Margo Guryan was born in Far Rockaway, New York. Both her parents played piano, and she took lessons from the age of six, inbetween exposure to classical music records and pop radio. A jazz influence came from albums by George Shearing and Barbara Caroll gifted her by her father along with her first record player.
She studied classical and jazz piano at Boston University, and was initially signed to Atlantic Records as a singer. While her sole recording session was a disaster, she nevertheless received her first credit as a writer when Chris Connor recorded her song, Moon Ride (1958). A year later she attended the Lenox School of Jazz summer programme in Massachusetts, under the tutelage of John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Fellow students included saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry, with whom she played alongside drummer Max Roach for a student project.
Guryan later wrote lyrics for Coleman’s Lonely Woman (1962), and penned words for Dizzy Gillespie and others before becoming enraptured by pop. This came after Guryan’s friend, jazz vocalist and pianist Dave Frishberg, introduced her to the Beach Boys’ recently released 1966 album, Pet Sounds. As the record’s elaborate arrangements showed what was possible in a pop song, Guryan listened to God Only Knows over and over before writing her own song, Think of Rain. This was recorded by Jackie DeShannon, Longet and others before Guryan sang it on Take a Picture. Other works by Guryan were recorded by Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, Julie London, Carmen McRrae and Mama Cass Elliot.
Take a Picture’s opening track, Sunday Morning, had already been a hit for vocal harmony based group, Spanky and Our Gang, by the time Guryan recorded it. She returned the love with a song named after the group that resembled a children’s TV show theme tune. Other songs on the album include Someone I Know, which drew from J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, much as The Beach Boys would do later on their 1979 song, Lady Lynda.
With Take a Picture attracting more attention following its first official re-release in 2000, the archival 25 Demos (2001) collection followed. Expanded several times since, the record features material recorded between 1967 and 1994. “It’s still amazing to me to have something resurface after thirty years,” Guryan told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “People say I’ve been rediscovered. It’s not true – I’ve been discovered.”
Perhaps emboldened by this, in 2007, Guryan released a single, 16 Words. This featured a lyric drawn from a sentence spoken by American president George W. Bush during his 2003 State of the Union address, outlining how the British government had learned that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from Africa. The flipside featured Yes I Am, what Guryan called “an angry little ditty that I wrote for Nixon” Her final known recordings came on The Chopsticks Variations (2009), an album of piano instrumentals based on Euphemia Allen's nineteenth century composition, The Celebrated Chop Waltz.
Guryan was active on Twitter, and in January 2021, hosted a Take a Picture edition of Charlatans singer Tim Burgess’ Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, commenting on each track as people listened to the record in real time. Guryan wrote how she read Garbage vocalist Shirley Manson say how she liked the Take a Picture track, Love Songs. ‘that made me happy’ Guryan said, and later shared the announcement of the twentieth anniversary edition of Manson and co’s Beautiful Garbage album.
Guryan’s final tweet was to share a video of Dutch retro-pop duo, Elman & Young covering her song, Timothy Gone. Released three days before Guryan’s passing, the song sounds as fresh as it did more than half a century ago. The heart emoji accompanying Guryan’s tweet suggests she thought the same.
She is survived by her stepson, Jonathan Rosner, her stepdaughter-in-law Amy Rosner, and two grandchildren, Rachel and Lauren. Her second husband, music publisher David Rosner, predeceased her in 2017.
The Herald, December 7th 2021