By BRUCE WEBER
Published: February 14, 2012
Dory Previn, the lyricist for three Oscar-nominated songs who as a composer and performer mined her difficult childhood, bouts of mental illness and a very public divorce to create a potent and influential personal songbook, died on Tuesday at her home in Southfield, Mass. She was 86.
Ms. Previn rose to prominence as a singer-songwriter with a substantial cult following in the early 1970s and she enriched a period in pop music history that also saw the emergence of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Laura Nyro.
She never became as widely known as they were (though she did record a live double album at Carnegie Hall), partly because her voice was never as big as theirs, but also because her lyrics — frank and dark, even when tinged with humor, and often wincingly confessional — were not the stuff of pop radio. They were, however, clear antecedents of the work of later balladeers like Sinead O’Connor and Suzanne Vega.
In “With My Daddy in the Attic,” Ms. Previn wrote of her complicated relationship with her disturbed father. In “Esther’s First Communion,” she wrote about a girl’s indoctrination into religious ritual and her revulsion at it. In “Yada Yada La Scala,” she wrote about women in a mental hospital. In “Lemon Haired Ladies,” she wrote about an older woman pining for a younger man:
Whatever you give me
I’ll take as it comes
I’ll manage with crumbs.
Unusually for a pop singer of the day, Ms. Previn’s background was in neither folk nor rock. Her early success came in Hollywood, writing songs for the movies, generally as a lyricist working with her husband, André Previn, who later earned fame as a classical composer and conductor.
Together they were nominated for two Academy Awards: in 1960 for “Faraway Part of Town,” from “Pepe,” and in 1962 for “Second Chance,” from “Two for the Seesaw.” But their best-known collaboration was the theme from the 1967 film version of Jacqueline Susann’s drug-soaked show-business novel “Valley of the Dolls” (later recorded by Dionne Warwick), which begins:
Gotta get off, gonna get
Have to get off from this ride
Gotta get hold, gonna get
Need to get hold of my pride.
The halting, almost stammering progression of laments, Ms. Previn later said, came from her own experience of relying on pills.
In 1969, working with the composer Fred Karlin, Ms. Previn earned a third Oscar nomination, for “Come Saturday Morning” from “The Sterile Cuckoo,” which became a hit for the Sandpipers.
By then, however, the Previn marriage was in a shambles. Mr. Previn had begun an affair with the actress Mia Farrow, then in her early 20s, whom he later married, and Ms. Previn, who had a history of emotional fragility and mental illness, fell apart. Fearful of traveling in general and of flying in particular, she had a breakdown on an airplane that was waiting to take off, shouted unintelligibly and tore at her clothes, and spent several months in a psychiatric hospital.
The episode, as awful as it was, proved to be a turning point in her life and career.
Her first album afterward, “On My Way to Where” (1970) — the title was a reference to the airplane debacle — included perhaps her most famous song, “Beware of Young Girls,” about Ms. Farrow, and received polarized reviews. On her second, “Mythical Kings and Iguanas” (1971), many critics noticed a growing vocal confidence. Her third, “Reflections in a Mud Puddle/Taps Tremors and Time Steps” (1971), included a pained report of and reflection on her father’s death, and drew praise from the New York Times music critic Don Heckman.
“Ms. Previn is no great singer, her guitar playing is only adequate, and her melodies sometimes have an uncomfortable tendency to move in too-familiar directions,” he wrote. “But her message is stated so brilliantly in her lyrics, and the tales she has to tell are so important, that they make occasional musical inadequacies fade away.”
Dorothy Veronica Langan was born in New Jersey — sources differ on the town, Rahway or Woodbridge — on Oct. 22, 1925, and she grew up in Woodbridge. Her father, Michael, was a laborer and a frustrated musician who pushed her toward music and dance. He had also been deranged, Ms. Previn wrote in a 1976 memoir, by his service in World War I. He had been gassed, she wrote, and he was convinced the gassing had made him sterile; therefore she could not be his daughter. For a while he locked himself in the attic.
Ms. Previn left home as a teenager and worked in summer stock and in commercials and sang in small clubs, writing new verses to popular songs. Her work came to the attention of Arthur Freed, the producer of MGM movie musicals like “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” who hired her for MGM, where she met Mr. Previn. They married in 1959. She had been married and divorced previously.
In addition to her husband, Mr. Baker, a painter whom she met in the 1970s and married in 1984, she is survived by three stepchildren, Michelle Wayland, Fredricka Baker and Scott Zimmerman, and six step-grandchildren.
In the 1980s, Ms. Previn and Mr. Previn reconciled as friends, and she came to loathe the fact that she was best known for their breakup. But the pain and grief were the foundation of her art. In the hospital after her breakdown, she was encouraged to write down her feelings, and they emerged as poems.
“I was always afraid to write music,” she said in 1970. “I wouldn’t have presumed to with a musician like André around the house. But I play a little guitar. So I started working them out on the guitar, thinking I could interest some singer in recording them and that’s how all these songs were born.”
An obituary on Wednesday about the singer and songwriter Dory Previn contained several errors. She and Joby Baker, who survives her, married in 1984, not 1986. The name of one of her three stepchildren is Michelle Wayland, not Michele. The album Ms. Previn recorded in 1970 is called “On My Way to Where,” not “On the Way to Where.”
In addition, the obituary referred incorrectly in some editions to that album. It was the second album of her career, not the first. (It was the first album she recorded after separating from her husband, the composer André Previn, and suffering a breakdown. Her first-ever album was “The Leprechauns Are Upon Me,” which she recorded in the late 1950s under the name Dory Langdon.)