“Oh, what could have been,” muses Stephen Eckelberry, a deep sigh escaping his lungs. When speaking with American Songwriter, as the release date for Karen Black’s posthumous collection Dreaming of You (1971-1976) swiftly approaches, he’s eager and animated, offering up quick anecdotes about his late wife’s love of singing and songwriting. “She was a little bit shy about singing, professionally, even though she was not shy at all about singing in her personal life,” he goes on, describing, as best he can, Black’s artistically intuitive nature.
He should know more than most. Eckleberry met Black in 1983, and they married four years later. To this point, Black had already mounted an impressive body of work, onstage and screen, from starring roles in Five Easy Pieces, alongside Jack Nicholson, to landing an ingenue role in Broadway’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (she was replaced by Phreshy Mark in the role of Philia) and other high-profile gigs, including Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby adaptation, and John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust. Black’s career would later veer into B-movies and horror films, with such notable terror-filed pieces as Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings, and much later Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses─but her mystique and magnetism never seemed to wane.
Black also starred in the 1975 satire/drama Nashville, taking on the role of singer-songwriter and country superstar Connie Smith, and wrote two songs for the soundtrack, earning her a nod in the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the 18th Annual Grammy Awards. She played opposite Ronee Blakley, as country rival Barbara Jean, and their friendship could not have been stronger. There was a kinship they shared, both personally and in their work. “Ronnee felt about singing the way Karen felt about acting. Ronee could sing at the drop of a hat, and she always admired that about Ronee,” offers Eckelberry, “and Ronee admired Karen for her acting. She was a born actor who loved to sing. Ronee was a born singer who loves to act.
“Karen would embarrass her children in supermarkets by singing—or in the car, pretty much all the time. It was like a professional hobby for her,” he continues. “Acting was a lot more fun. She was a true pro when it came to acting. I’ll tell you the level of her dedication: when I first got together with her in ‘83, she said, ‘Let me run some lines with you.’ So, I ran some lines with her. And she had a goal to be able to deliver the lines perfectly 10 times in a row. But if she messed up once, she’d reset the counter to zero.
“She didn’t want to be held back by the lines and didn’t want to be thinking about the lines; they had to come completely naturally. Her acting preparation probably had something to do with the singing. But the way she prepared for acting was she would do a character study, an emotional study─all this stuff to prepare. And then when it came to actually doing it, she’d forget about it and just turn on the tap. She wasn’t thinking about it. It just takes more work to be totally prepared as a singer.”
Even though Black’s childhood singing teacher once told her she had perfect pitch, according to a recent conversation Eckelberry had with Black’s sister Gail Brown, she still didn’t seem to possess as much confidence to develop her music any further. “Singing was an important part of her life, but she had such high standards for herself. It had to be perfect─and maybe it was a crutch actually having such perfect pitch or perfect relative pitch.”
It’s hard to imagine Black lacking courage and confidence. When listening through Dreaming of You, a stacked 17-song release comprised of various demos and tapes─frequently feeling as though Bobbie Gentry, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt were combined into one electrifying entity─the listener can’t help but feel a timeless yearning emanating from her voice. Her songwriting is as intoxicating, as she flutters from the gothic drabness of “Headache” to the folk/rock twang of “Babe Oh Babe” before descending abruptly into the bohemian “That’s Me.”
After Black was diagnosed with ampullary cancer in 2010, Eckelberry began the task of filming the last three years of her life. The project also included shooting rehearsal footage of a song called “Brighter,” a collaboration between Black and producer/musician Cass McCombs, who she’d befriended a few years prior. Following Black’s death in 2013, Eckelberry and McCombs continued to work on various odd-end projects. When McCombs suggested doing a music video, the flood gates soon burst wide open. “Cass started saying, ‘Don’t you have some songs around you can find of Karen’s. I’ve done two with her that I haven’t released, maybe we can find a few others.’”
Eckelberry, in the middle of moving at the time, rummaged through boxes and storage containers, hoping to reduce them down a bit. “And then I inadvertently got a call from Northwestern University and they said, ‘Listen, we’d like to take Karen’s stuff. I said, ‘Well, she didn’t graduate.’ They said, ‘We don’t care. She went Northwestern,’” he remembers. University representatives made the drive down, sometime in 2014, and sorted through her belongings, taking “mostly her papers.
“Then, I found a couple of tapes of these reel to reels. I vaguely remember that I might have seen them before. But I just didn’t think about them,” he continues. Later, upon deciding to leave Los Angeles altogether, Eckelberry scoured through more boxes and uncovered a treasure trove of riches. “It was this eureka moment, and it was just so exciting.”
But the new-found collection, composed of old magnetic tapes, had to undergo an arduous process called baking. “You can’t just stick it in a machine and play, because the magnetic particle starts falling off the acetate. You have to take the tape and put it in an oven, set it at a low heat—like 200 degrees for several hours. And you actually bake it.”
Once the process is complete, undertaken by San Francisco-based engineer Tardon Feathered in this case, only then can you play the tapes─“but you only get one shot once you hit play. And you better have everything, all the wires, hooked up.”
Dreaming of You (1971-1976) zips among the heart-rending title track, for which a music video starring Hunter Carson is set for release, and the throaty, brooding “You’re Not in My Plans” to the most realized song of the bunch, “I Wish I Knew the Man I Thought You Were,” which she initially wrote while taking a class with Harriet Schock. “It was the only song that she really worked on, in a sort of Leonard Cohen type of way,” says Eckelberry. “Harriet has a process where you develop something that happened into your life into a song, and it takes several stages. Karen really wanted to do that, so she did this class with Harriet and developed this song in the class.”
“It’s a Me Too song,” he quickly adds.
Black unravels the devastating yarn with the pain still red-hot in her heart. I wish I knew the man I thought you were / I would tell him when you touched me / It astonished and betrayed me, she sings.
The song didn’t find its wings until 2012, a year before she died, when McCombs and Black recorded two songs together, with the intention of making a full album. “Karen had cancer when she wrote it. She knew she was going to die,” Eckelberry says. “And so I think she wanted to settle things and put an end to certain things that had happened in her life. She needed to process it, and that was her way of doing it.”
Dreaming of You (1971-1976) is a composite of Karen Black’s long-forgotten songwriting, “a true expression” of her, only scraping the surface of a superstar music career that never was. “When she acted, she was a consummate character actor. She was almost so good as a character actor that it harmed her ability to be a movie star because she was so totally enveloped in the role. So here, you have an opportunity to see the real Karen. The creativity that comes straight from her. It’s not the dialogue of some screenwriter, no matter how good they may be; it’s her own. And that is the greatest thing that comes out of this for me.”