Obituary

Essra Mohawk, eclectic singer and prolific songwriter, has died at 75

Essra Mohawk, 75, formerly of Philadelphia, an eclectic singer-songwriter who wrote a hit for Cyndi Lauper, released more than a dozen albums, and was often compared to Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Laura Nyro, died Monday, Dec. 11, of cancer at her home in Nashville.

A self-described “flower child,” Ms. Mohawk learned to sing, write songs, and play piano as a girl in West Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia in the 1960s. She went on to create a colorful career that featured her song “Change of Heart,” performed by Lauper, ranked No. 3 in Billboard’s February 1987 Hot 100. A decade earlier in 1977, her 1970 album Primordial Lovers was cited by a Rolling Stone magazine writer as one of the best 25 albums ever made.

She played the mandolin and other instruments as well as piano, and sang folk, pop rock, jazz, and blues as a headliner and alongside Frank Zappa, Joe Beck, Jerry Garcia, and other musical masters. She wrote hundreds of songs, dozens of which were recorded by the Shangri-Las, Vanilla Fudge, Fiona, and other notable singers. Tina Turner recorded her “Stronger Than the Wind” in 1989.

From the 1960s until recently, Ms. Mohawk played in hundreds of pubs, clubs, and larger venues in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and elsewhere. She told music writer A.D. Amorosi during a 2010 return to Philadelphia: “Good songs don’t get old. Time gives them more credibility.”

Amorosi described her music as “complex melodies with mystical, poetic lyrics.” In 1983, former Inquirer and Daily News music writer Jonathan Takiff called Primordial Lovers “a stunning package of dark, sensual ballads.” In 1995, he said her Raindance album was a “pungently phrased, tune-rich affair.”

Ms. Mohawk told Takiff in 1983: “The music still has to touch me, move me. If it isn’t honest, what’s the point?” Longtime disc jockey and music expert Michael Tearson said: “Essra Mohawk always followed her own path regardless. She was truly an artist through and through.”

In between gigs and making albums, Ms. Mohawk wrote and recorded advertising jingles, provided backup vocals for singers, and cut demonstration tracks for other songwriters. She sang songs for TV shows such as Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock, and collaborated with other singers and songwriters on a wide variety of projects.

“She was highly intelligent with an irreverent sense of humor,” said her cousin Jeff Hurvitz. “She was a lot of fun to be around, and her musical contributions give her a sense of immortality.”

Sandra Elayne Hurvitz was born April 23, 1948, in Philadelphia, She changed her name to Essra because friends, playing off her first initial, called her that for fun, and she was married to record producer Frazier Mohawk in the 1970s. They divorced later, and he died earlier.

Her parents wrote and sang songs at home when she was young, and relatives recall her singing along with the band at family celebrations. She played piano at 13 and released her first song at 16 under the name Jamie Carter.

» READ MORE: Essra Mohawk, lost legend

She made her first album, Sandy’s Album Is Here at Last!, in 1968 but admittedly failed to forge lasting relationships with record labels and managers over her career. She said in 1983: “I was naive.”

She graduated from George Washington High School and spent a few months at Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts before heading up to Greenwich Village in 1967. She moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1977, back to Philadelphia in 1982, and finally to Nashville in 1993.

In 1983, she compared the music scenes of Philadelphia and Los Angeles by saying: “Out there, you have to be opportunistic, be a brown noser, to succeed. Here, people respect you for your talent and your individuality.”

Born Jewish, Ms. Mohawk embraced Buddhism and advocated often for peace and environmental responsibility. She wrote poetry, read tarot cards, and collected unique perfume bottles.

She was also married to and divorced from musicians Sam Weatherly and Daoud Shaw. Shaw died earlier.

She loved animals, especially cats and dogs, and liked to watch “Monk,” “The Love Boat,” and “Match Game” on TV. “She was magical,” said longtime friend and caregiver Laurel Parton. “She was so intelligent and intuitive. She was connected.”

In 2010, Ms. Mohawk told Amorosi: “Life is a creative endeavor, an exciting work in progress. It’s a lifelong symphony.”

In addition to her cousin, Ms. Mohawk is survived by other relatives. A brother died earlier.

A celebration of her life is to be at 1 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, at Lamb Funeral Home at Shalom Memorial Park, 101 Byberry Rd., Huntington Valley, Pa. 19006.

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