Essra Mohawk & The Killer Groove Band
Born Sandra Elayne Hurvitz in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, she attended Philadelphia College of Art as a Fine Arts major on scholarship.
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Essra's first record release was a single "The Boy With the Way" /b-side "Memory of Your Voice" on Liberty records in 1964. A "New Comer Pick" in Cashbox, it was produced by Hutch Davies (Shirley Ellis' "Name Game"). A year later in New York both Koppelman & Rubin and United Artists offered her a position as a staff writer. She took neither offer. It was Shadow Morton, who produced both the Shangri-Las and Vanilla Fudge, who discovered her and her music. In 1966, the Shangri-Las recorded Essra's song "I'll Never Learn". Soon after that, her song, "The Spell That Comes After" was recorded by Vanilla Fudge on their Renaissance album. The words to I'll Never Learn were recited by Shadow Morton on Vanilla Fudge's version of "Season of the Witch", also on the Renaissance album. In 1967, Essra was discovered once again. This time by Frank Zappa who, after hearing her play was so blown away, he immediately invited her to join his band, The Mothers of Invention. Essra was the their first female member. Within a year Frank Zappa signed her and released her first solo album on Verve. While performing with the Mothers, Essra also opened for Cream at their first concert in New York, Procol Harum, Albert King, The Electric Flag, The Grateful Dead(their first performance in NY.), and Jimi Hendrix. The song "Quite Rightly So", by Procol Harum's Keith Reid, was written about Essra.
In 1969 Essra recorded her second album in Los Angeles and San Francisco for Reprise after Mo Ostin, then Vice President, discovered her singing at a club in New York. He asked her on the spot to come to the label. The result was Primordial Lovers , an LP that received a 5 star review in Downbeat, raves in Mix, and was stated as being "one of the best 25 albums ever made" in Rolling Stone magazine. Unfortunately, these reviews came over a year after the release of the album. New fans found it hard to secure the LP due to poor distribution and the sale of the Reprise label following the release. Even though Primordial Lovers was lost in the shuffle, this critically acclaimed musical work continues to generate a cult following for Essra even to this day. She wrote most of the songs while living in Mendocino, California. While recording the album, Essra married her producer, Frazier Mohawk and from that time on was known as Essra Mohawk. She also sang in a background vocal trio put together by Carole King.
Essra's third album, released in 1974 on Elektra/Asylum, once again without proper promotion or distribution, led England's music magazine, Melody Maker, to declare it, "the richest and most unheralded event in American music that year". It was produced by Tom Sellers, who died tragically in 1988 a freak accident right before he and Essra were to begin work on a new project.
After moving back to Philadelphia in the 70's, Essra continued to sing as a session vocalist. She is especially known for singing on Schoolhouse Rock, the educational and musical cartoon series that continues to air on American TV . Essra's vocals are on "Interjections", "Sufferin' Till Suffrage", and "Mother Necessity". After ABC Video released the cartoons on video twenty years later, they received an upsurge of popularity and the troupe, led by music director, Bob Dorough, began performing live in the mid 90's. A new album called Schoolhouse Rocks the Vote, on which Essra sang, wrote, and produced a track entitled "Do You Wanna Party" about political parties in the U.S., was released on Rhino in Sept.'98 .
Essra's fourth album was released on Private Stock records in 1976. After the same lack of support that has kept Essra's remarkable music in the shadows, she left the label and moved back to California in 1977 where she began practicing Buddhism. Paul Kantner wanted her to be the lead singer in Jefferson Starship after Grace Slick dropped out for a while but he couldn't convince the rest of the band to use another female vocalist so they chose a male, Mickey Thomas, instead.
During 1980 and 1981 Essra performed as a background vocalist with the Jerry Garcia Band. In the same period she co-wrote "Haze" with Bobby Weir and his band Bobby and the Midnights for their Arista release. Also Essra collaborated with Al Jarreau, Mark McEntee of the Di Vinyls, Eric Bazilian of The Hooters, Al Stewart and Narada Michael Walden. She sang and recorded with John Mellencamp. Mellencamp was known to track her down wherever she lived for her advice and encouragement while he was struggling to succeed. Essra's music and ideas were the inspiration for Joni Mitchell's song, "Woodstock". Essra was scheduled to play at the original Woodstock but her manager missed a turn and they arrived too late. She finally played at the 25th Anniversary at Bethel. David Crosby's "Deja Vu" was inspired by Essra's song "I Have Been Here Before". David would ask her to play it for him whenever he saw her and then wrote "Deja Vu" as a result.
In 1982 Essra moved back to Philadelphia from Los Angeles where her longtime friend Rena Sinakin brought her into the McFadden & Whitehead pre-production sessions. Essra conjured up "Not With Me" overnight for the duo and they released it on their Capitol album that year. Essra recorded two more solo albums in the 80's. Both were released independently and both were produced by her then husband, Daoud Shaw who was Van Morrison's drummer for many years and original drummer for Saturday Night Live. She first met him during those early days on Bleeker St. in New York's Greenwich Village where she jammed vocally with jazz greats such as Mike Manieri, the Brecker Bros., Eddie Gomez and Jeremy Steig. As a result her vocal style developed more along the lines of a wind instrument than that of a typical pop singer.
Her tenure with the Mothers of Invention then also helped to propel the young Essra to a highly creative and original stance as a vocalist. Essra's influences are eclectic, beginning with her parents, Anne and Henry Hurvitz, who sang and wrote 40's style standards. Essra lists as her influences: Judy Garland, Nina Simone, The Coasters, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Thelonius Monk, Erik Satie, Ornette Coleman, Billy Holiday, Otis Redding, The Beatles, Ravi Shankar, The Rolling Stones and Ravel.
Essra's career as a songwriter really took off when Cyndi Lauper recorded "Change of Heart" in 1986. It went to number 3 on Billboard's top 200, winning an award from BMI for air play. The album it was on, "True Colors", went platinum. Since then, many artists have recorded Essra's songs and continue to do so. Efforts to archive the singer-songwriter's over 600 songs, are under way.
Essra's first album on CD, Raindance (1995) was entered for two Grammy nominations for Best Pop Album and Best Female Pop Vocalist. A retrospective compilation of some previously released songs, and some unreleased recordings has been released on CD this year as Essra Mohawk: The Secret Diva. Also in the works is a documentary being produced by Bernadette O'Reilly and Frank Carrado, directed by Chuck Fishbein.
Essra has been living in Nashville, Tennessee since 1993. She has just released her new CD (8/99), Essie Mae Hawk Meets the Killer Groove Band, featuring legendary bass player Tim Drummond and other world class musicians. She is also busy writing her autobiography, every chapter starts with a song with spiritual lessons intertwined throughout. Essra's career is still blooming, and it is destined that much will be added to this biography....stay tuned!
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