Essra Mohawk first encountered Frank Zappa in 1967, walking down Bleecker Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. She was 19, visiting New York City from her home in Philadelphia with two female friends from Los Angeles. She loved Zappa's album Freak Out!, which had just been released, and when her friends spotted the lanky Zappa walking down the street with his trademark long curls, Fu Manchu moustache and soul patch, her friends started shouting out the names of L.A. locations where they'd seen him hanging out.
Zappa was on his way to the Garrick Theater, where his band, the Mothers of Invention, was amid a legendary six-month residency. "He let us in for free," recalls Mohawk, still known by her given name, Sandy Hurvitz, at the time. "We became fast friends. He started calling me 'the strange little person from Philadelphia.' "
For Mohawk, the meeting changed her life and her musical direction. More than 40 years later, Zappa still hovers: He provided her biggest initial career boost, and then, in a fit of ego and anger, nearly sabotaged her future before her first album was finished.
But Mohawk survived, perpetually evolving: She's been a singer-songwriter and a leader of psychedelic jam bands; she's been a New-Wave chanteuse and a blues-rock belter; she's posed nude for an album cover and provided vocals for the PBS Schoolhouse Rock series; she's had cuts by the Shangri-las, Vanilla Fudge, Tina Turner, McFadden & Whitehead, Peabo Bryson, Keb Mo and Cyndi Lauper, who made her "Change of Heart" an '80s classic. She's inspired songs by Procol Harum, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, among others. Other collaborations include singing with the Jerry Garcia Band and co-writing with Bob Weir, and her connections to the Mothers of Invention and The Grateful Dead make her an underground cult hero for many. She alternately describes herself as a love child and a feral child, and holds onto a bohemian hippie aesthetic, wearing tie-dye and natural fibers, talking about peace, freedom, creative expression and past lives — as such, she's the Nashville chapter head of the Musicians and Artists for Peace.
Along the way, she's dabbled in nearly every form of popular music other than country — even though Lorrie Morgan cut one of her songs — which is why longtime fans are still surprised to discover she's lived in the Nashville area for about as long as she's ever lived anywhere.
A gypsy most of her life, Mohawk moved to Nashville 16 years ago after an enthusiastic endorsement by friend Al Kooper, another legendary producer and musician. She accepted his invitation to stay at his house to get a feel for the city. "For Al to be positive about anything, I figured it must be a wonderful place," she laughs. She now owns a home in Bellevue, which she shares with her brother Gary, two dogs and a cat.
At 62, she's also primed for an unexpected career boost: Collector's Choice is reissuing her first three albums: Sandy's Album Is Here at Last, released in 1969 on Zappa's Bizarre Records; Primordial Lovers, a 1970 album on Reprise Records that Downbeat gave five stars and Rolling Stone once listed among the 25 best albums of all time; and Essra Mohawk, a 1974 album on Asylum Records.
When Mohawk met Zappa, she'd already released a pop single, "The Boy With the Way" backed with "Memory of Your Voice" on Liberty Records at age 16. She'd been offered a songwriting contract by top music publisher Charles Koppleman, and she had been courted by producer Shadow Morton, who had provided her songs to the Shangri-Las ("I'll Never Learn") and Vanilla Fudge ("The Spell That Comes After").
After meeting Zappa, she left the pop world for something infinitely different. Not long after they met, Zappa ordered a new electric piano. The day it arrived, Mothers' keyboardist Don Preston was ill. Zappa remembered Mohawk played piano, so he set it up on the Garrick stage and asked her to test it.
"I started playing and singing one of my songs, and Frank jumped up and put a microphone in front of me," she says. "Then he jumped back into the theater and listened for a bit. Then he jumped back onstage and said, 'Step into my office.' He walked over to the second row of seats and pointed, so I sat down. He looked at me and said, 'How would you like to be a Mother?' "
Playing solo on piano, Mohawk began opening shows for the Mothers of Invention, staying onstage to sing harmony during the band's set. Zappa had her sing her own song, "Archgodliness of Purplefull Magic," during the band's set, only one of two non-Zappa songs featured during the Mothers' concerts in the year-and-a-half Mohawk performed with the band.
"The first band I was in was my favorite band," she says. "I have to say, it's been all downhill from there!" She then cracks up, leaning forward as she guffaws in her high, childlike tone, showing no bitterness.
She hasn't always felt so forgiving. Zappa invited Mohawk to Los Angeles, and at age 20, she started recording her debut album with Zappa producing and the Mothers of Invention as her backing band. In the studio, as drummer Billy Mundi played a ride-out she liked at the end of one of her songs, she turned to Zappa and suggested he let Mundi play with that kind of freedom throughout the song, instead of sticking to the charts Zappa wrote for each band member.
"He glowered at me the way he could do and said, 'Who's producing this album anyway?' " Mohawk, shocked, stopped still for a few seconds, then said, "You're not." Then she ran out. By time she returned, Zappa and the band were gone, never to return. She finished the album with Mothers keyboardist Ian Underwood producing, but he more often than not erased good takes and, in Mohawk's opinion, worked at undermining the recording. Mohawk finished it with a strong band, including Eddie Gomez on bass, Donald McDonald on drums, Jim Pepper on saxophone and Jeremy Steig on flute.
"I was sad that I didn't get to finish it with the Mothers," Mohawk says. "It wasn't the album it was supposed to be. But I listen now, and I really enjoy it. It's very raw and stripped-down."
Zappa and Mohawk later reconciled, staying friends and talking regularly until his death in 1993. Meanwhile, the self-described "feral child," so long seen as ahead of her time, feels like her moment has arrived. She's determined not to let it pass her by.
"I feel very fortunate," she says. "I've managed to be supported by my music all these years. I've always worked with great musicians. I have found that the best musicians seem to be the ones who respond to my music the most. I may not be famous, but I think I'm respected, and I'll take that anytime. It feels like it's my time again, and I like that, because I still have a lot of music to make."