Essra Mohawk's 1970 album Primordial Lovers was the first of the singer-songwriter's recordings to properly reflect the scope of her talents. Although she had already released one LP, Sandy's Album Is Here At Last! (originally issued billed to Sandy Hurvitz and now also available as a CD reissue on Collectors' Choice Music), the production of that recording had not come out as she originally intended. More sympathetically produced by her husband of the time, Frazier Mohawk, Primordial Lovers showcases her eclectic blend of rock, soul, and jazz elements in a variety of arrangements. The result isn't easily comparable to fellow singer-songwriters of that or any other era.
Primordial Lovers was recorded for Reprise Records, home to numerous singer-songwriters as the label evolved into a more contemporary and rock-oriented company in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Initially signed to Frank Zappa's production company Bizarre, Essra moved to Reprise after label head Mo Ostin heard her perform with flute player Jeremy Steig at Steve Paul's Scene Club in New York. While her previous album had been recorded at New York's Apostolic Studios, Primordial Lovers would be cut in October and November of 1969 in California (primarily in Los Angeles, with some sessions taking place in San Francisco).
Frazier Mohawk had a good deal of production experience under his belt before Primordial Lovers. Originally known as Barry Friedman before changing his name in the late 1960s, he'd worked on notable recordings by Los Angeles psychedelic folk-rockers Kaleidoscope, blues-rock pioneers the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, goth goddess Nico, and acid-folkies the Holy Modal Rounders. "Primordial Lovers was a finished album, whereas the first album was released unfinished," points out Essra today. "For the first album, I was up against people who were keeping me from doing my art, who found pleasure in actually erasing great takes just for the hell of it." In contrast, "Frazier totally respected the artist and their art, and his function as a producer was to facilitate that. We pretty much agreed on everything and put on the best of what we had."
Though Essra's intention with her debut album had been to use backing musicians throughout the LP, most of the tracks on that release featured only her own piano accompaniment. On Primordial Lovers, she was able to play with an assortment of talented instrumentalists, the lineup varying from song to song. Among the notable contributors were guitarist Lee Underwood, who played on numerous Tim Buckley albums; Dallas Taylor, original drummer with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and guitarist Doug Hastings, who'd been in Rhinoceros and done a brief stint with Buffalo Springfield. Passages such as the bridge to "I'll Give It to You Anyway" gave her the opportunity to use vocal arrangements she terms "vocal collages," one of the things she enjoys most about recording.
Essra was especially pleased to cut a few of the tracks with the band of guitarist Jerry Hahn, whom she'd come across while the group were playing at the famed Whisky A Go Go club in Hollywood. "They had that same quality that I have and enjoy in others, which is the ability to go anywhere musically, and not be pigeonholed, not be stuck in a single way of sounding," she observes. "I heard their fluidity and flexibility and therefore, [they were] more than capable to handle my music. So much so that we wanted to be a band. That would have been a great thing for music. But unfortunately my manager and their manager didn't see eye to eye, and didn't let us get together. Whereas Frazier Mohawk had the mindset to always follow the heart of the artist—'If they want to get together, put 'em together!' It's a shame."
Essra retains fond memories of the songs, several of which she continues to perform to this day. "My favorite was 'I'll Give It to You Anyway.' I still play that. 'I Am the Breeze' is one of my favorites. I enjoy the progression and how the music takes you, where the lyrics take you. Music is more about flowing than trying." In addition, "I still perform 'Spiral.' In fact I've recently been contacted by the Wilhelm Reich Foundation in San Francisco, and have written music to Wilhelm Reich lyrics because of that song. Because it was inspired by Wilhelm Reich, they gathered whatever few handful of music artists were influenced in any which way by Wilhelm Reich, and we're all writing music for this project."
In retrospect, Mohawk feels it might been wise to release "Thunder in the Morning," written on Lowell George's baby grand piano, as a single. "I guess it became a turntable hit. [That's] what they called it when an album cut got a lot of airplay. If they had been really on the case and wanted me to succeed, or wanted this project to succeed, they would have jumped on it and made a single out of it."
Essra sees similarities between another of the LP's tracks, "I Have Been Here Before," and a composition credited to David Crosby on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà Vu album. "He did make me play it for him every time he saw me over at Stephen Stills's house," she says. "He had me play it for him a total of three times, three different occasions. Each time I implored him to let me play him something else. I said, 'I have lots of songs, David, let me play some.' 'No, I want to hear that one.' He always insisted that I just play that one. When I heard "Déjà Vu," it was real 'déjà vu' for me. 'Think I've heard that song before'...and since then, I hooked up for a while with Tim Drummond, who played bass with them, and played that song a lot. He said, 'Oh wow, it's even a lot of the same chord progression to the chorus.' I did think he should have not just given me some kind of credit, but probably a percentage of the song."
For this CD, a piano/vocal demo of "I Have Been Here Before" is one of five bonus tracks that have been added to the songs that appeared on the original release. Three of these—the aforementioned demo version of "I Have Been Here Before," "Someone Has Captured Me," and "Could You Lift Your Heart"—are piano/vocal demos done before the Primordial Lovers sessions, though the final two of those songs did not end up making the LP in any form. Essra did begin work on a subsequent recording of "Could You Lift Your Heart" at the album's sessions, but it wasn't finished, though she'd still like to complete a produced version of the song. She never attempted a fully produced track of "Someone Who's Captured Me," written about a relationship with someone she was living with in Mendocino in 1968.
Though done at the Primordial Lovers sessions, "Question," featuring Jerry Hahn on electric guitar, was another song that didn't make the album. "Drifter," the last of the bonus tracks, is so titled as it's inspired by the time in the late 1960s when Essra was going back and forth between her native Philadelphia and New York when she was playing with the Mothers of Invention. Though written between her first and second albums, she's not sure when she recorded it, and thinks it might been cut in the period between Primordial Lovers and her third album, Essra Mohawk.
Though pleased with the album, Mohawk was disappointed with how the cover come out. "The cover was supposed to be one set of bodies, so it would have been mostly white instead of mostly black," she explains. "It would have wrapped around the front and the back, and then superimposed would have been the sky, like a sunset or something like that, and the earth, so that the horizon between the heaven and earth would have matched, coincided with the line between the two bodies. Thus the title Primordial Lovers. That would have sold a lot, too. You know, bright colors sell. I'm a graphic artist, I'm not just a musician; I went to college for art. Bright colors attract the eye, not black."
Essra also regrets that the album didn't reach a wider audience. "I was inaccessible because nobody promoted me," she feels. "I wasn't given any opportunity to sell. There was no promotion, there was no tours, there was nothing. I didn't get to get out and play. Total mismanagement; no agent, no gigs, no nothing. Just my music. I gave it all. But I was not given in return what my music deserved." Primordial Lovers would be her only album for Reprise, and it would be a few years before she recorded her next LP, Essra Mohawk, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music.
by Richie Unterberger
1. I Am the Breeze - 3:12
2. Spiral - 4:08
3. I'll Give It To You Anyway - 3:21
4. I Have Been Here Before - 6:42
5. Looking Forward To the Dawn - 8:39
6. Thunder In the Morning - 4:34
7. Lion In the Wing - 6:43
8. It's Up To Me - 2:21
9. It's Been a Beautiful Day - 2:13
10.I Have Been Here Before (Piano Vocal) - 5:49
11.Someone Has Captured Me - 4:01
12.Could You Lift Your Heart - 3:42
13.Question - 4:48
14.Drifter - 3:20
All songs by Essra Mohawk
*Essra Mohawk – Keyboards, Vocals
*Jerry Hahn - Guitars
*Lee Underwood - Guitar
*Doug Hastings - Guitar
*Dallas Taylor - Drums
*George Marsh - Drums
*Mel Graves - Bass
*Jerry Penrod - Bass
*Joe Keefe - Vibraphone
*George St. John - Oboe
*Ben Wilson - Tenor Sax
*Cale Robinson - French Horn
*Ken Shroyer - Trombone
*Phil Teele - Bass Trombone
*Al Aarons, Warren Gale - Trumpets
*Bruce Cale, Ken Jenkins - Bass
*Zitro - Drums