Essra Mohawk, Self-Described Flower Child Singer-Songwriter, Dies at 75

Essra Mohawk, a prolific singer-songwriter and self-described flower child whose soulful, dreamlike songs captured the sunny optimism of the Woodstock era, and whose varied career included performing with Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia and seeing one of her songs turned into a hit single by Cyndi Lauper, died on Dec. 11 at her home in Nashville. She was 75.

The cause was cancer, her cousin Jeff Hurvitz said.

Over the course of a career that lasted more than a half century, Ms. Mohawk never achieved the fame of contemporaries like Joni Mitchell, Carole King or Laura Nyro (to whom she was often compared). And she missed a chance at hippie immortality when her driver took a wrong turn on the way to the Woodstock festival in 1969.

“We got there in time to see the last verse of the last song of the last act of the first night, and then the stage went dark before we got to it from the parking lot,” she recalled in a 2009 video interview.

Still, Ms. Mohawk made her mark. Her album “Primordial Lovers,” produced by her husband, Frazier Mohawk, and released shortly after Woodstock, was met with critical praise. In 1977, the rock critic Paul Williams wrote in Rolling Stone that it was “firmly on my list of the top 25 all-time best albums.”

While still in her teens, Ms. Mohawk was briefly a member of Frank Zappa’s anarchic band, the Mothers of Invention.Credit…via YouTube

She recorded more than a dozen albums over the years, and, early in her career, served a stint as a member of Frank Zappa’s iconoclastic band, the Mothers of Invention.

In the 1970s, Ms. Mohawk sang memorable songs like “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” and “Interjections!,” for “Schoolhouse Rock!,” the series of animated educational shorts that was a Saturday morning television staple for the children of Generation X.

In the early 1980s, she carved out a small place in Grateful Dead lore by touring with one Dead side project, the Jerry Garcia Band, and helping write a song, “Haze,” for another, Bob Weir’s Bobby & the Midnites.

Ms. Lauper’s exuberant rendition of her song “Change of Heart” shot to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987. Two years later, Tina Turner released a version of Ms. Mohawk’s “Stronger Than the Wind.”

Ever dogged about finding an audience for her work, Ms. Mohawk even appeared in 1977 on “The Gong Show,” the campy showcase of amateur talent hosted by the colorful Chuck Barris, in which acts deemed flops were dispatched with the strike of a large gong.

Some audience members jeered during Ms. Mohawk’s performance of her “Appointment With a Dream,” which involved her own ethereal take on scat singing. Still, she received two scores of 8 (out of 10) and one of 7 from the panel of three celebrity judges.

“No, I wasn’t gonged, thank goodness,” Ms. Mohawk wrote in a 2016 post on the blog Rockasteria. “In fact, I scored a 23, my lucky number, but I came in second to a guy who played two saxophones at once.”

Essra Mohawk was born Sandra Elayne Hurvitz on April 23, 1948, in Philadelphia, the younger of two children of Henry Hurvitz, a taxi driver, and Anne (Sosnow) Hurvitz, who worked at a beauty shop. She later adopted the name Essra, a twist on Essie, a nickname she picked up early in her career.

Ms. Mohawk was married three times. No immediate family members survive. Her brother, Gary, died this year.

By her early teens, she was already playing piano and filling notebooks with her songs. After graduating from George Washington High School in Philadelphia in 1966, she briefly attended the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts before moving to New York to start a music career.

That career got a jump start when she was 19 and she and a couple of friends were strolling down Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and met Mr. Zappa. “Frank invited us all in to see his show for free,” she said in a 2003 interview. “We became friends, and it wasn’t long before he had an opportunity to hear me play my music. He asked me join the Mothers right on the spot.”

Being a satellite in the Zappa orbit came with its Zappaesque quirks. The band’s lead singer, Ray Collins, “came up with the name ‘Uncle Meat’ at one of our rehearsals, telling Frank that he thought it was a great name for a rock star,” she recalled in an interview with the British site Zappanews. “Frank immediately spun around and, pointing at me, proclaimed, ‘You’re Uncle Meat!’”

Displeased with the name, Ms. Mohawk wriggled out of it a few months later, so Mr. Zappa appropriated it as the title for a Mothers album in 1969.

Mr. Zappa signed her to his label, Bizarre Records, and, under the name Sandy Hurvitz, she released her first album, “Sandy’s Album Is Here at Last!”

She released her last, “The One and Only,” in 2019. But she never forgot the invaluable career boost she missed out on with that wrong turn on the way to Woodstock.

“Had I played Woodstock, we all know how that would have changed my life,” she said in 2009. But, she acknowledged, perhaps that was a blessing: “Knowing me, being the feral child that I was, I would have had no restraint, and I would have been long dead.”

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