Anthology Recordings today announced the release of Karen Black’s Dreaming of You (1971-1976), a Cass McCombs compiled and co-produced collection of original songs by the late polymath, most immediately recognizable for her Academy Award-nominated, Golden Globe-winning performance in Five Easy Pieces, as well as work in the films The Great Gatsby and Nashville, among many others. An actor, musician, writer and unyielding creative spirit, Dreaming of You (1971-1976) gathers for the first time the best of Black’s studio and demo recordings, meticulously restored from the original tapes with the help of Cass McCombs and her husband Stephen Eckelberry. The result is a holistic depiction of her dreamy, introspective, and earnest musical identity. Dreaming of You (1971-1976) will be released on July 16th, 2021, and is now available for preorder.
A first preview of the collection is out now in “I Wish I Knew The Man I Thought You Were.” While the bulk of the material on the album is from the 1970s, this song is one of two on the album that Black and McCombs wrote together in 2012. It is a devastating account of the power dynamic between professor and student, based on a harrowing personal experience Black endured in the ‘60s. Black’s anguish is palpable as she sings over featherlight reverberations of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and pedal steel, stirring a sense of distant memory and lingering hurt: “I wish I knew the man that I thought you were / He’d tell me not to trust the man you are.”
Cass McCombs explains, “Karen and I met working on my song ‘Dreams Come True Girl.’ We became friends after that and she showed me her lyrics and we talked about making an album together. I adapted ‘I Wish I Knew The Man I Thought You Were’ from her lyrics, based on a personal experience of hers during college. We only got through a few songs together before she departed but I kept the idea of finishing a record together and we unearthed a moldy box of tapes from her garage. Among these tapes were audio from all parts of her life, including the early 70s recordings that comprise most of the album. It was my honor, together with her husband Stephen Eckelberry, to be the archivist and custodian of these recordings, songs that leap out with the markings of her indelible spirit.”
Amid her meteoric rise as a skilled character actor, Black also wrote and recorded a host of original songs, many with two of the era’s most prestigious producers, Bones Howe and Elliot Mazer (six of Howe’s recordings appear on Dreaming of You [1971-1976]). Recalling the everywoman quality of Judy Collins and the quiet mystery of Billie Holiday, she largely sings over simple acoustic guitar strumming, her voice a beacon amid tales of fantasy and heartache. Black’s range swings from fluttering highs to earthen lows, with a distinctiveness that evokes the enduring quality of early Asylum Records. When she wasn’t on set, she scrawled hundreds of poems and lyrics, and set them to acoustic guitar or piano. As with acting, for Black songwriting was a study in confession and in character. She often completed multiple takes of a song exploring that relationship, changing her tone, phrasing or cadence in each.
Black’s love of singing was a throughline in her acting career, from her early days on Broadway, to her breakout film role in Five Easy Pieces. In the latter she played Rayette, a small-town waitress who sings Tammy Wynette songs to her boyfriend Robert (Jack Nicholson). As Parm, she serenades George Segal’s Jay with one of her original songs in Born to Win; in Cisco Pike she was Sue, the free-spirited love interest of Kris Kristofferson; in Robert Altman’s Nashville, she was Connie White, a country star set on retaining her crown. Black wrote all the songs she performed in Nashville, garnering her a Grammy nomination.
Though Black never inhabited the traditional role of career musician, there was evidence of this desire throughout her films and public appearances. She performed her original songs on The Carol Burnett Show in March 1972 and again, five years later, on Dolly Parton’s short-lived variety show Dolly. A 1978 photo shows Black singing with Carly Simon onstage at Studio 54. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Black performed her Toni Basil-directed one-woman show, “A View of the Heart,” in which she sang Bowie, Dylan, and her own compositions.
Black and McCombs met in 2008 through a mutual friend, while he was in the midst of tracking his 2009 album Catacombs, which led to her guest spot on “Dreams Come True Girl.” The pair became fast friends, collaborating again on “Brighter!” from his 2013 album Big Wheel and Others, and also wrote toward a solo album for Black. “She’d given me all of her poetry and I was trying to work them into some kind of meter that would work as songs,” McCombs says. They were able to record two of them before she died, “I Wish I Knew The Man I Thought You Were” and “Royal Jelly.”
After her death in 2013, evidence of Black’s prolificacy languished on quarter-inch reels in neglected boxes. McCombs and Eckelberry soon endeavored to revive them. For three years McCombs and Bay Area restoration engineer Tardon Feathered cleaned, transferred and reviewed the remains of Black’s musical legacy, working from tapes caked in mold and debris. What they found was an embarrassment of riches. “We went looking for a needle in a haystack, and ended up with a haystack of needles,” McCombs says.
Among the trove of music Black left behind lingers mystery. Memories of her sessions have long faded. Tape boxes missing accompanying reels prompt further intrigue. What’s clear is the talent and ambition of a self-taught and self-made woman, making waves in a new era of Hollywood, and pushing beyond even those shifting boundaries. Her songs reveal a complete portrait of the musical identity she so often teased on screen, where confession and character form a poignant and singular bond. “Karen touched every person that she met immediately,” McCombs says. Through her recordings, that spirit lives on.