Dory Previn: Singer and songwriter hailed for hersearing honesty

 

The confessional singer and songwriter was a key feature of 1970s popular music, with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Carole King to the fore. They sold millions of albums and on the whole, admirers were intrigued by their lifestyles and wanted to share them. Dory Previn's personal outpourings were so harrowing that fans would admire her honesty and the quality of her performances but would not want to be her.

Dory Previn was born Dorothy Langan into an Irish-American family in New Jersey in 1925. Her father had been gassed in the Great War and believed himself sterile. As a result, he thought that Dory was not his daughter. His paranoia was so intense that he boarded up the family in the living room for some days and then locked himself in the attic. In her 1970 song, "With My Daddy In The Attic", she wanted to join him: "He wanted me to be a dancer," she told me in 1986, "and he thought it would be amazing if I could do something that nobody else could do. I used to do backbends and pick up handkerchiefs and then one day, he said, 'I have a new idea for the act, you can pick up razor blades.' I always wanted to please him and so I did it. Strange."

Another song, "Esther's First Communion" invokes her abhorrence of religious rituals, and her preoccupation with religion also fuelled "Jesus Was An Androgyne" and the humorous "Did Jesus Have A Baby Sister".

Langan sang and acted in conventional theatre productions, but when she performed in cabaret she would write new verses to her favourite songs. This intrigued the Hollywood producer, Arthur Freed, who invited her to join MGM. She wrote lyrics as Dory Langdon for the jazz pianist and composer André Previn and they were married, each for the second time, in 1959.

The Previns were nominated for an Oscar with "The Faraway Part Of Town" from the film Pepe in 1960 and then again for "Second Chance" from Two For The Seesaw in 1962. Dory Previn was sucked into the Hollywood lifestyle and "Theme From Valley Of The Dolls" reveals her unease, its staccato lyric performed superbly by Dionne Warwick. Dory commented, "My lyric is the way people speak when they have taken a lot of pills. They can never quite get out a sentence and they are repetitious. You're stumbling over words rather then completing sentences."

Her third Oscar nomination was for "Come Saturday Morning" from The Sterile Cuckoo (Pookie in the UK), written with Fred Karlin and a US hit for the Sandpipers in 1969. She also wrote "You're Gonna Hear From Me" for Inside Daisy Clover which was recorded by Frank Sinatra. She commented of "Goodbye Charlie", recorded by Pat Boone: "John Lennon said that 'Goodbye Charlie' was his favourite film song and that made me feel pretty terrific."

André Previn had an affair with Mia Farrow, whom he came to marry. Dory had a breakdown on a plane about to leave the runway and spent several months in a psychiatric hospital. The doctors encouraged her to put their thoughts into poems, which became the lyrics for her 1970 album On The Way To Where (United Artists). "Beware Of Young Girls" was directed at Farrow: "Beware of young girls, too often they crave, To cry at a wedding and dance on a grave." The song warns Previn that she will leave him, too, as indeed she did for Frank Sinatra.

The album acquired a cult following, which grew with the follow-up, Mythical Kings And Iguanas. She said of its title, "I am interested in opposites. There is nothing higher than mythical kings and nothing lower than iguanas." She dealt with schizophrenia in "Angels And Devils The Following Day". Now 45, she wrote about her own sexual encounters in "The Lady With The Braid", where she meets a man in a bar: "Would you care to stay till sunrise, It's completely your decision, It's just the night cuts through me like a knife. Would you care to stay awhile and save my life?"

Even by the standards of the day, such honesty was remarkable. In 2005, Jarvis Cocker picked "Lady With The Braid" as one of his Desert Island discs.

In the song cycle Reflections In A Mud Puddle (also 1971), she returned to her troubled relationship with her father. The problems of the movie world permeated Mary C Brown And The Hollywood Sign (1972), and the title song began with this brilliant observation: "You know the Hollywood sign that stands in the Hollywood Hills. I don't think the Christ of the Andes ever blessed so many ills." In the song, Previn dreams of hanging herself from the letter O.

Previn is a textbook example of a Marmite performer, and Robert Christgau of The Village Voice wrote of the album, "If I found a cat trapped in a washing machine, I wouldn't set up a recording studio there – I'd just open the door."

With some difficulty, Previn performed in public, leading to the double album Live At Carnegie Hall (1973) with its lightly mocking introductions. Moving to Warner Brothers she released Dory Previn (1974) and We're Children Of Coincidence And Harpo Marx (1976).

Previn married the actor and painter, Joby Baker, in 1984 and he illustrated a book of her songs. She wrote two memoirs, Midnight Lady (1976) and Bogtrotter (1980), and during the 1980s she appeared in both London and Dublin. She and Andre Previn renewed their friendship and she resented having recorded "Beware Of Young Girls". In 1997, they worked on a new piece, The Magic Number, which was premiered with the New York Philharmonic.

She wrote a sequence of songs about impending nuclear disaster, Planet Blue (2002), which was available only on download. Later she suffered several strokes and this affected her sight; having written so much about broken hearts, the irony of dying on Valentine's Day would not have been lost on her.

Spencer Leigh

Dorothy Veronica Langan, singer and songwriter: born New Jersey 22 October 1925; married firstly (marriage dissolved), 1959 Andre Previn (divorced 1970), 1984 Joby Baker; died Southfield, Massachusetts 14 February 2012.

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