Karen Black’s Matt Sklar-directed video for “Royal Jelly” has premiered. The track is the third and final single from Dreaming of You (1971-1976), a Cass McCombs compiled and co-produced collection of original songs by the late polymath out this Friday, July 16th via Anthology Recordings. While the bulk of the album’s materials is from the 1970s, “Royal Jelly” is a 2012 collaboration sung by Black and featuring music and lyrics by McCombs. Black was an actor, musician, writer and unyielding creative spirit, and Dreaming of You (1971-1976) gathers for the first time the best of her studio and demo recordings, meticulously restored from the original tapes with the help of McCombs and her husband Stephen Eckelberry. The result is a holistic depiction of her dreamy, introspective, and earnest musical identity.
“Royal Jelly” follows the raw, heartfelt “Babe Oh Babe” and lead single “I Wish I Knew The Man I Thought You Were,” the other album track that Black and McCombs recorded together in 2012. The latter is a devastating account of the power dynamic between professor and student, based on a harrowing personal experience Black endured in the ‘60s.
Amid her meteoric rise as a skilled character actor with Academy Award-nominated, Golden Globe-winning performances in Five Easy Pieces, as well as work in the films The Great Gatsby and Nashville, among many others, 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. Black wrote all the songs she performed in Nashville, garnering her a Grammy nomination. Though she never inhabited the traditional role of career musician, there was evidence of this desire throughout her films and public appearances. Two of the songs from the 1971 sessions of Dreaming of You (1971-1976) were later developed by Black for inclusion in the soundtrack of the 1973 Canadian film The Pyx: “It All Turned Out The Way I Planned It” and “Passing Through,” which she renamed “I Was Touched By Your Passing Through.” 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 “I Wish I Knew The Man I Thought You Were” and “Royal Jelly” before her passing.
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.