Songwriter Margo Guryan, whose 1968 album was ‘discovered’ three decades later, dies at age 84

Margo Guryan, in the studio during the making of "Take a Picture"

Margo Guryan, the singer, songwriter and composer whose music was “discovered” three decades after its initial release, has died at her Los Angeles home. She was 84.

Guryan, a native of Far Rockaway in Queens and eventually a student of classical music and jazz, had already had her songs recorded by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Chris Connor, Claudine Longet, Jackie DeShannon, Freda Payne, Anita O’Day and Spanky and Our Gang when she released her now-legendary solo album “Take a Picture” via Bell Records in 1968.

Because she refused to tour or make appearances to promote the release, it slipped into obscurity. But in the late 1990s, Guryan began to receive royalty checks from Japan, where the album had been bootlegged.

“When I was a kid, the ‘Take a Picture’ album was history to me,” said her stepson, L.A.-based music publisher Jonathan Rosner. “By the time the late ’70s rolled around, it was as if it never happened. She was always proud of that record, but it was in the past. Then along came those mystery royalties from Japan. Her album had been pirated, but it turns out they had to pay publishing royalties at the pressing plant.”

“It’s still amazing to me to have something resurface after 30 years,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “People say I’ve been rediscovered. It’s not true — I’ve been discovered.”

An album that gained widespread acclaim after its re-release in 2000, “Take a Picture” offers up jazz-tinged psych-pop songs that speak to hope and heartache — both articulated in Guryan’s airy vocals. She embarked on making the album with producer John Simon, who departed the project to work with Janis Joplin, and finished it with John Hill. Both worked under the eye of the songwriter’s publisher (and eventual second husband), David Rosner, who had the idea that doubling the singer’s vocals gave her a more robust sound.

The full-length includes Guryan’s best-known single, “Sunday Morning” — which became a hit for Spanky and Our Gang after the sunshine popsters released it as “Sunday Mornin’” — and spawned the song “Spanky and Our Gang,” which she penned as a salute to the group for recording her song. “Sunday Morning” was also eventually recorded by the likes of Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, Julie London and L.A. artist Linus of Hollywood, among others.

“When I heard the album, it was like discovering a secret ‘Pet Sounds,’” said Linus of Hollywood, whose label collaborated on the re-release of “Take a Picture” and the ensuing collection “25 Demos.”

Indeed, the Beach Boys played a role in Guryan’s artistic direction. The songwriter’s friend (and jazz great) Dave Frishberg turned her on to “Pet Sounds.” “I listened to all the songs but returned to ‘God Only Knows,’ which I played over and over again,” Guryan said in an extensive 2018 interview. “Then I turned off the record player, sat down at my Wurlitzer and wrote ‘Think of Rain’ … the first song I wrote in that style.”

Rolling Stone eventually cited “Take a Picture” as one of the 40 Greatest One-Album Wonders, calling it “an early prototype for countless lounge and dream-pop excursions [that] bridges the gap between Burt Bacharach and Belle & Sebastian.” The album went on to be re-released on vinyl by Sundazed Music, CD and digitally by Oglio Records and on cassette (with an ensuing collection “27 Demos”) by now-defunct Burger Records.

It’s ironic that Guryan is known for that solo release more than for her credits as a songwriter and lyricist. “Some 10 years before ‘Take A Picture,’ I was signed to Atlantic Records as a singer, mostly because they liked my songs,” she told L.A. Record in 2015. “The one session I did (at the behest of Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, recording with Nesuhi Ertegun) was a disaster. They told me to ‘sing out,’ and the louder I sang, the worse it got. But it did get me my first recording: Chris Connor released ‘Moon Ride.’”

Guryan’s later endeavors, which included many years as a piano teacher, included the 2007 single “16 Words” (a song built around a sentence uttered by President George W. Bush during his 2003 State of the Union address) and the 2009 collection “The Chopsticks Variations.”

She has been cited as an influence by assorted pop artists over the years, and her version of “Why Do I Cry?” even got some love from lip-synchers on TikTok in recent months. Last year, L.A. artist Bedouine covered Guryan’s Watergate-era volley, “The Hum.” The title track from “Take a Picture” will open the season finale of HBO Max’s “Doom Patrol.”

Guryan is survived by her stepson, Jonathan Rosner, stepdaughter-in-law Amy Rosner and two grandchildren, Rachel and Lauren Rosner. Her husband, David Rosner, died in 2017.