Forgotten Artists – Dory Previn

Today’s FORGOTTEN ARTISTS article brings you something a little different from AUK writer Gordon Sharpe. Here, Gordon takes a look at the career of one of the great lyricists of American music. Dorothy, ‘Dory’, Veronica Previn not, ‘Preview’, as Mr Morecambe would have it, was born in 1925 or thereabouts and passed away in 2012. Her given name was Dorothy Langan of an Irish Catholic family based in New Jersey. She was a lyricist, singer-songwriter and poet.

During the late 1950s and 60s, Previn wrote lyrics for film songs with her partner and then husband Andre Previn, during which phase of her career she received several Oscar nominations.  One of their last projects together was writing for the film, ‘The Valley of the Dolls’. Artists they wrote for included Rosemary Clooney, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr., Doris Day, Jack Jones, Marilyn Maye, Carmen McRae, Matt Monroe and Nancy Wilson.  Her last film work was on the score of, ‘Last Tango in Paris’, especially notable for the music of the great Gato Barbieri.

The Previns divorced in 1970 and following that split Dory recorded the 6 albums that interest us the most – all in the space of six years. There was also a well-received live album. Previn was a cerebral writer, possibly comparable with Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell in that respect.  She wrote openly and honestly about her private life and its considerable ups and downs.  In her work, there was an element of irony that might explain why for many years I had assumed she was Jewish – with that winning aspect of the written word that can focus on bittersweet humour and self-deprecation.  She also probably thus avoided the tendencies of Mitchell and Simon, by sometimes taking herself less than seriously.  Her work is very well described by New York Times music critic Don Heckman,

‘Ms Previn is no great singer, her guitar playing is only adequate, and her melodies sometimes have an uncomfortable tendency to move in too-familiar directions. But her message is stated so brilliantly in her lyrics, and the tales she has to tell are so important, that they make occasional musical inadequacies fade away’.

Previn suffered from psychological issues and received in-patient help at times including ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) both before and after her split from her husband. Her father was a traumatised World War One veteran and had a huge negative effect on her childhood. His mental health deteriorated after the birth of a second daughter, culminating in a paranoid episode in which he boarded the family up in their home and held them at gunpoint for several months. There is also a suggestion that Previn’s mother was an alcoholic.

You could compare Previn to Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Laura Nyro.  I like the comparison to Nyro, seeing them both as outsiders to some extent – though Nyro was always the soul-influenced romantic, a quality that Previn did not really share.  Her most famous song may have been about the way she felt Mia Farrow inveigled herself into the couple’s life and then went off with her husband; thus in, ‘Beware of Young Girls’, she sang,

She was my friend / I thought her motives were sincere… / Ah but this lass / It came to pass / Had / A dark and different plan / She admired / My own sweet man.

To her credit, Previn was able to see more than one side to the situation,

I don’t know how he stayed so long, he left me for another woman after I had left him for another reality.

 Previn was not a keen flyer or traveller and neither a radio-friendly talent nor a regular live performer.  Again the New York Times sums up well why she was never as big as some of her contemporaries (four of her albums landed at around the top 200 mark and no further),

 …. Partly because her voice was never as big as theirs, but also because her lyrics — frank and dark, even when tinged with humour, and often wincingly confessional — were not the stuff of pop radio. They were, however, clear antecedents of the work of later balladeers like Sinead O’Connor and Suzanne Vega.

A key song among her work, ‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas,’ sees Previn contrast the ability to enjoy the grandest flights of fancy with her mistaken belief that,

….Everything of worth/Is in the sky and not the earth/ And I never learned/To make my way/ Down…./ Where the Iguanas play/

The final aching refrain acknowledges this absence and hopes that someone will,

‘Teach me/Reach me’.

‘The Lady with the Braid’, reeks of unrequited passion, and describes a personality likely to repel as much as attract, as she fusses around her apartment trying to make everything perfect for the oh-so welcome guest.  It’s not surprising that many of the comments that accompany Previn YouTube clips mention the word, bedsitter, and the concomitant loneliness of the isolated or different.  It’s a heartbreaking song,

 When you leave / Will you come back? / You don’t have to answer that at all…….. / It’s just the night cuts through me like a knife / Would you care to stay awhile and save my life? / Would you care to stay awhile and save my life? / I don’t know what made me say that / I’ve got this funny sense of humour / You know I could not be downhearted if I tried’.

‘Mary C Brown and the Hollywood Sign’, recounts in jaunty fashion (so often there is the telling contrast between the presentation and content of her songs) the true,  anonymised, story of an actress who, in despair, finally throws herself from that very sign,

I don’t think the Christ of the Andes/Ever blessed so many ills/……./I doubt if the statue of liberty/Ever welcomed more refugees………..Mary Cecilia Brown / Rode to town on a Malibu bus / She climbed to the top / Of the Hollywood sign / And with the smallest possible fuss / She jumped off the letter “h”/ ‘Cause she did not become a star / She died in less than a minute and a half / She looked a bit like Hedy Lamarr’.

It could be the soundtrack for Nathaniel West’s, ‘Day of the Locust’, both skewer the dark underbelly of Hollywood, the hopes and dreams and the lives it chews up and spits out.

‘With my Daddy in the Attic’, gives us the ambivalent story of her destructive relationship with her father, and how she wished for more – victimised but wishing for something positive from her tormentor.  All this in a simple and affecting few words,

With my / Daddy in the attic / That is where / My dark attraction lies / With his / Madness on the nightstand / Placed beside / His loaded gun / In the terrifying nearness / Of his eyes / With no / Window spying neighbours / And no / Husbands in the future / To intrude / Upon our attic.

Children of Coincidence’, lays bare the arbitrary nature of life and the things that occur, or don’t, for no good or particular reason,

Crossed connection, lost connections / Empty corners, crowded intersections / Accidents and incidents / We’re children of coincidence and chance’.

Previn had exceptional lyrical gifts and her life gave her the chance to exhibit them.  Hers seems like an existence acted upon and at the whim of others rather than self-determined, and it took a great toll on her.  I’m not sure why she never had children – there may have been a simple answer and she did enjoy the company of various step-children and grand-children after her third marriage, to Joby Baker in 1984. This relationship lasted until her death, of natural causes, and the marriage was a lengthy one, 28 years. Not having read anything to the contrary, I do hope that it was a happy one.  You feel she deserved it.

Dory Previn’s most significant albums:

‘On My Way to Where’ (1970)
‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas’ (1971)
‘Reflections in a Mud Puddle/Taps, Tremors and Time Steps’ (1971)
‘Mary C Brown and the Hollywood Sign’ (1972)
‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ (1973)
Dory Previn (1974)
We’re Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx (1976)

In 2002, Previn’s anti-nuclear and environmentally themed, ‘Planet Blue’, a recording reportedly issued in protest at the war in Iraq, was made available as a free Internet download. Although she suffered several strokes, which worsened her eyesight, she continued to write during the 2000s.

In 1977 Previn published her first autobiography, ‘Midnight Baby’. It was followed by a second volume, ‘Bog-Trotter’, in 1980.

For the buyer, there is a ‘Best of’ on United Artists as well as a twofer of ‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas’, paired with ‘Reflections in a Mud Puddle. Both offer good starting points.

8 Comments

  1. A timely reminder of an artist I had a lot of time for way back, and has prompted me to listen to my personal favourite song of hers, ‘Scared to be alone’, which brings both a shiver to the spine and a tear to the eye, as if listening to it for the first time–a prime contender for saddest song of all time, and displaying all you highlight, especially the vulnerability in her voice, and combination of craft and openness of her lyrics. I’ll revisit more of her songs!

  2. I was raised by a pair pf bohemians that had all of her albums, so her songs were part of my childhood. She was a complete treasure, and a real original. Thank you for writing about her, and hopefully exposing new listeners to her catalog. I learned so much from her, about what a song could be.

  3. Excellent and comprehensive overview. Really appreciated. Terrific songsmith.

    Whisper it maybe, but Noel Edmonds played her quite a lot on his Radio 1 shows in the 70s. Her and other less appreciated but excellent artists (Harry Chapin, Jim Croce for example)..

    • Thank you – clearly she’s not as forgotten as I thought judging by the response – glad you enjoyed the piece. Didn’t know the Noel Edmonds info – both of those artists might be due a retrospective, though to be honest I am less of a fan of Harry Chapin.

      There may be one out there but Dory would be an excellent subject for a tribute compilation?

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