Take A Picture
An Interview with Margo Guryan

Margo Guryan is one of those musicians whom it took the world a couple of decades to pick up on, or perhaps more precisely to catch up with. Her record Take a Picture (TAP) was first released in 1968 and despite her songs being covered by such artists as Spanky and Our Gang, Mama Cass, Astrud Gilberto, Julie London, Jackie DeShannon, Carmen McCrae, and Claudine Longet, the album received minimal response from public and press alike. But in a strange and welcome twist of fate Take A Picture, decades after its initial release, became increasingly in demand among collectors. And developed such a fervent following among Japanese "soft pop" fans that a pirated edition began generating publishing royalties for Margo in the late 1990's.

The record was officially reissued on c.d. in slightly different editions in 2000 through the auspices of several labels: Trattoria, Siesta and Franklin Castle. It was followed by a collection of equally compelling demos from the same period as TAP entitled "25 Demos" (Franklin Castle). Today Margo's popularity continues to grow as more and more people discover her amazing music. Take a Picture remains a beautiful collection of perfectly arranged soft pop songs that, despite containing hallmarks of the 1960's, in many ways makes more sense in today's post Belle and Sebastian indie-pop world than at the time of its release in the riot and assassination filled year of 1968. In fact, when I first heard TAP being played in a record store and inquired as to whether or not this was a new release or something reissued from the 60's, I was told in all sincerity by the clerk that this was a new artist. Time has clearly vindicated Margo Guryan as both a singer and songwriter.

W: What's the first music you can remember hearing?

MG: I remember hearing classical music playing on the radio as my parents read, and I remember nursery rhymes. As I got older and was more able to relate to words-and-music, I remember "Tea For Two" which is the first song my father taught me to play on the piano. And popular songs that I heard on the radio like "Four-Leaf Clover", "Now is the Hour" and "Chatanooga Choo-Choo"; and in the movies things like "Margie", "Varsity Rag", "Meet Me in St. Louis", "Easter Parade". Oh, and "Easter Parade" reminds me that Christmas songs, like "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas", were songs that were learned early and well.

W: How old were you when you began to play music and what was your first instrument?

MG: I was six when I started formal piano lessons.

W: A lot of people I've known were made to take piano as their first instrument early in life and, at least at that early age, were less than enthused about it, did you want to learn the piano? Did you enjoy the lessons?

MG: I can't remember my 6-year-old reaction to lessons, but I know I never liked my piano teacher. She wasn't a warm person, and I have no idea if she even liked children. My lessons with her lasted until I graduated from high school. I remember pleading with my parents to stop my piano lessons. Thankfully, they never allowed this. I remember trying to conjure excuses for not practicing. Occasionally, my piano teacher would 'report' me to my parents. This would result in my father sitting down to practice with me. I hated that.

However, I genuinely loved music and would spend my practice time making up songs. I rarely practiced what my teacher assigned. For example if I had to learn a sonata, I'd practice the development sections; they had more interesting chord progressions. Luckily, if my parents heard the piano, they usually didn't investigate.

W: In the liner notes to Take a Picture there's a story that you had an epiphany in regards to the potential of pop music when a friend played you God Only Knows by the Beach Boys and afterwards you began to compose your own pop songs. What different genres of music were you listening to prior to this?

MG: Well as a young child, I was encouraged to create poems for any occasion, which today would require a greeting card. When I was old enough to play the piano comfortably, it was an easy transition to fit my words to music. So my first songs were pop songs. I breathed in the AABA form of contemporary popular music and spewed out my own versions. I kept some of the songs I wrote, the words only, as I didn't know how to notate music, in the back of the notebook my piano teacher kept to record lesson assignments. Recently, I played some of those for Linus (recording artist and head of Franklin Castle records Linus of Hollywood) - laughing hysterically - who actually threatened to record one of them!

When I got to college (Boston University), I fell in love with jazz. I liked it all - especially Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Parker, Coltrane, Monk, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker. I could go on! Though I never thought I'd veer from the jazz path, "God Only Knows" did, in fact lead me into the pop world of the late 60's.

I must mention that I was signed to Atlantic Records in '58 to record an album of songs I had written at that time. They were jazz flavored and though the session I did for Atlantic didn't work out, one of their premier jazz singers, Chris Connor, recorded a song I wrote at that time called "Moon Ride".

And there was also classical music that I found exciting and interesting: After my initial romance with Bach, which continues, and Rachmaninov, I was attracted to Stravinsky and Prokoffiev, and more modern composers.

The first record my father ever bought for me, I think I was about 10 or 11, -- which came along with a record-player -- was "East of the Sun" b/w "Conception" by George Shearing. I met Shearing later - while I was at BU - and played for him, but never remembered to tell him his was the first record I ever had. We played Bach for each other, and he sent me a Christmas card with a note in Braille, along with a Braille alphabet so I could decode the message. I think I still have it.

W: Who are some of the modern composers that you like?

MG: Some of the current composers I find intriguing are Schonberg, Alban Berg, Gunther Schuller, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and some Lutoslawski. I don't know these composers in any authoritative way but I've heard music they've written which appeals to me.

W: In regards to your signing to Atlantic, tell me more how that came about, who signed you, was it Ahmet Ertegun or his brother? Was Jerry Wexler at Atlantic at this point?

MG: I was sent to Atlantic Records by Herb Eiseman, a music publisher at Frank Music (Frank Loesser's company). I had played some songs for him, and though he didn't feel they were "commercial", he liked them. He felt Atlantic was a company which might be interested in my direction, and an appointment was made. I've always felt Herb was instrumental in getting me started.

At Atlantic I met with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. They asked me for my demos. I said, "What are demos?" They looked at each other, rolled their eyes a bit and asked what I had expected to do. Puzzled, I told them I had expected to play songs for them. They escorted me to another room where there was a piano, and I did what I expected to do. I played one, then another and another. They didn't stop me, but when I was through, one of them reached in a desk drawer and pulled out a bunch of song contracts. They didn't discuss anything that I recall -- and I don't recall them leaving the room to talk about their apparent decision.

They asked me to go "around the corner" to a specific address, and to do exactly what I had done for them, but this time with a tape rolling. I did. The engineer was Tommy Dowd, who later became a superb producer. This is how I found out what "demos" were!

A week or two later there was a phone call at my home. My father answered. I didn't hear much of anything, except at the end of his conversation, I remember him saying, and "You'd better tell Margo yourself; she won't believe me." He handed me the phone after telling me it was Jerry Wexler. Jerry told me that they wanted to sign me to make an album of my songs. My father was right; I wouldn't have believed him.

W: What are some of your favorite pop songs? Summertime and My Funny Valentine are two of my favorites.

MG: I also love "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine". Other all-time favorites are "My Ship" (Kurt Weill & Ira Gershwin), "My Romance" (Rodgers & Hart), "I Didn't Know What Time it Was" (also Rodgers & Hart), "Bewitched" (another R. & H.!), "What'll I Do" (Irving Berlin)...a rare 3/4 ballad that's great to play, "The Nearness of You" (Hoagy Carmichael & Ned Washington), "Makin' Whoopee" (Gus Kahn & Walter Donaldson...and what a fun song to play!), "Nature Boy" (Eden Ahbez), "It Never Entered My Mind" (another Rodgers & Hart), "It Could Happen to You" (Burke & Van Heusen), "All the Things You Are" (Kern & Hammerstein) especially for the chord changes which are a lesson in the cycle of fifths!.

I know there are lots more...I'm very fond of Melissa Manchester's "Midnight Blue" and a song called "And Roses and Roses" on The Astrud Gilberto Album (Caymmi & Gilbert).

W: Favorite singers?

MG: As a young person I liked Peggy Lee, her soft, non-bombastic approach was one I -- perhaps obviously -- always liked. I was and am enamored of Ella Fitzgerald and later Astrud Gilberto. I've always thought Astrud had a wonderful sense of time and feel; the way a song would drift magically from her lovely presence. For a while I liked the jazz singers of the 50's like Chris Connor, Anita O'Day, Jerry Southern, etc., but their behind-the-beat approach became mannered, and is still copied today by "jazz" singers, in a way that became infuriating to me. I liked Sinatra's easy-going interpretations and his marvelous arrangements, also Chet Baker, and Kenny Rankin and, earlier, Nat King Cole.

W: Who encouraged you to start singing professionally?

MG: No one, really! When I was in college, I used to take my roommate along whenever I was to play my songs for someone. She had a "good" voice and I never considered that I did, and I had taught her all my songs. When Atlantic signed me, I was the most surprised person in the world! And, as I mentioned, the recordings did not turn out well.

Later, when David (Margo's husband and producer David Rosner) was doing demos of my songs for April/Blackwood (the publishing arm of then-Columbia Records), he would use girl singers with "good" voices. I had tried recording, but had a range break which made my singing inconsistent. The demos turned out badly because the lovely ladies with good voices had no time! I knew the songs would never be recorded as I intended and, almost in tears, I pleaded with David to let me try again. When we did "Think of Rain", David decided to try doubling my voice. It worked because it smoothed out all the inconsistencies. That song was also the first one I ever arranged, again at David's suggestion. Thereafter, all my demos were arranged by me with my voice doubled. They're the ones you hear on "25 Demos".

W: Prior to hearing God Only Knows how aware were you of the developments in pop/rock? The implication in the liner notes to T.A.P. seems to be that prior to this you didn't pay much attention to it, but it seems that you would have been aware of the large strides that people like say the Beatles were making?

MG: No, and yes. I was married to Bob Brookmeyer (a well-known jazz trombone player), at the time and listening to pop/rock was verboten. I can't say I was much interested, anyhow. I knew about the excitement caused by Presley but I wasn't a fan...I didn't "get it" and the Beatles- the early Beatles work didn't impress me greatly, but by the time Sergeant Pepper came out, it was clearly "all over"! I remember going to a record shop to buy Sgt. Pepper and finding a long line outside. Not having a clue, I walked past them, into the record store and told them what I wanted. "Get on the line," I was directed.

W: Your music is now grouped in sort of a vaguely defined genre called "soft pop" and is very popular in Japan, where many records by people who were overlooked or not taken seriously in the 60's are being reissued (ex. the free design, the association, the millennium). When and how did you become aware of the renewed interest in your music?

MG: Sometime in early '97, David (Rosner) received a call from a guy named David Brown at Distortions a record label in the East. It's a collectors-type label, I believe, and Brown said that my album was on the "wish list" of every collector, particularly Japanese, who passed his way. He wanted to release "Take A Picture", as I recall, but we didn't own the rights to it and couldn't really help him out. He sent a follow-up letter in which he said he was going to contact Arista soon, but he had the feeling that they would have wanted way too much money or it would have been too low priority with them.

So that never happened...probably for the best. It took David (Rosner) quite a while to secure the rights, and we're both quite happy with the way it worked out. But, my hat's off to David L. Brown who also said, "I'd sure like to hear any demos or unreleased tunes from this era." I guess he was ahead of his time by a few years! He ended the letter by saying, "This is the right time now to re-release this LP because it was so ahead of its time that it took 30 years for people to get hip to it. Anyway, hope to hear from you and tell Margo that she is a big hit in Japan!!" Of course, we chuckled at this last bit...and didn't believe a word of it!

At about the same time (early 1997) we received an unusual royalty statement from Japan. On the accounting were a lot of the songs from TAP. We couldn't figure it out. David contacted his Japanese sub-publisher...and through several conversations found out that a pirated edition of TAP was released in Japan on Keystone Records.

I was delighted to have an actual CD of my album. I even faxed Keystone to inquire about whether I might order copies at a writer's or publisher's rate as Japanese CDs are expensive! They seemed quite pleased to hear from me and said the album was sold out. They had only one copy left and were happy to send that to me at no charge. They did, and I still have it! It seems to have been issued some time in 1996.

I was also given a paperback book by someone called Soft Rock...The Sound of Late 60's Pop Music. It has several pictures of the TAP album, but I couldn't read what was written about it as it was in Japanese! We had it translated. It begins: "You may not know who Margo Guryan is. There is very few people who does." I loved it!

That's the story. It continued when Linus (Linus of Hollywood) heard "Sunday Morning" and recorded it. My relationship with him produced the Franklin Castle re-issue. At the same time, there was interest from Trattoria in Japan and Siesta in Spain. The album was released at about the same time, 2000, I think, in all 3 territories.

W: Did you ever do any public performances of your 60's material? Any plans for performances these days?

MG: No ... to all of the above. If you've discovered anything about me, it's that I did not want to be a performer; I wanted to be a songwriter. The late 60's interfered with that plan, as one could no longer be one without being the other.

W: What label released Take a Picture originally and was there any marketing done for it at the time, any push by the label or did it immediately fall through the cracks?

MG: Bell Records released "Take A Picture" originally. After the album was finished, David and I were asked to meet with Larry Utall, the president of the company. He said it was now time for me to do some promotion, i.e., television and "record hops". I sat there silently shaking my head from side to side. This isn't what I wanted to do.

They did release a few singles and sent these to radio stations and the trade papers like Billboard, Record World and Cashbox. I did get some airplay and a few one-paragraph reviews in the trades, but that was it.

Bell didn't drop the ball, I did.

W: Who are the musicians playing on TAP?

MG: The musicians on TAP were studio musicians, most of whom I didn't know. They were probably hired by either John Hill or John Simon. There was definitely John Hill (guitar); Kirk Hamilton (flute, bass); Phil Bodner (oboe); Paul Griffin (keyboards); Buddy Saltzman (drums). These musicians were not on every track, of course, and so there are many not identified.

W: What were you're hopes/expectations for TAP upon its completion?

MG: I guess Harry Nilsson was my ideal. I hoped that some of the terrific recording artists of the day would hear the songs and want to record them. Harry, by the way, made very few appearances, although I recall one TV special that was terrific. Most of the recordings I did get were via normal publishing channels - demos. I'm not sure the album did anything to increase my writing exposure to the pop world.

W: Were you satisfied with the album at the time?

MG: Pretty much so, yes.

W: Are their any songs that you feel came out better in their earlier demo versions than on Take A Picture?

I guess I liked "Can You Tell" better as a demo. And though the "beer hall" version of "What Can I Give You" was great fun, I have a fondness for the song as it appears on "25 Demos".

W: What current plans do you have in terms of music: composing arranging etc.?

MG: I really have no firm plans, William. I'm awaiting some good ideas!!

W: Are you happy with the ways things turned out in terms of your music career? In retrospect do you feel the belated acclaim you have received is in some ways more satisfying that if things would have happened closer to the release of Take A Picture?

MG: I don't see the point of ruminating on what-might-have-been or crying over spilt youth. I might have become rich and famous at a young age, but I also might have gone down in a Lear Jet while cruising around the country to my numerous arena gigs. See what I mean?

I'm a testament to fact that life is full of surprises. To have a long-abandoned hope of having my music acknowledged is strange and wonderful. Yes, I'm happy with the way things have turned out!

© 2003William Crain