A Selection of Underrated ’60s Singers Who Deserve Your Attention

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One of the more exciting album releases of February is Karen Dalton’s 1966, a series of recently exhumed reel-to-reel recordings the late singer made with her husband in a Colorado cabin way back in, yes, 1966. The recordings were apparently a rehearsal for a show, and they are sublime, so intimate that it sounds like the singer is sitting right there in the room with you. Dalton has long been one of our favorite ’60s singers, but sadly she never gained anywhere near the success she deserved, and even now she remains a largely overlooked talent. She’s not the only one, either — so here’s a selection of some of our favorite under-appreciated singers from in and around the Greenwich Village folk scene of the mid to late 1960s.

Karen Dalton

She could and arguably should have been as well-known as Janis Joplin, but instead Karen Dalton seems destined to be forever a footnote to the 1960s, championed by music aficionados but unknown to the general public. Part of the reason for this is that she only made two studio albums — 1969’s It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best and 1971’s In My Own Time — largely because she disliked the recording process intensely. (She also apparently disliked the stage, which is perhaps why the home rehearsal recordings of 1966 are so good, capturing her in an environment where she was most comfortable.) And then, of course, there was her lifestyle — she drank heavily and abused drugs, and eventually drifted away from music completely. She died of AIDS in 1993.

Judee Sill

There are plenty of parallels between Karen Dalton and Judee Sill. Like Dalton, Sill only made two studio records — a self-titled debut in 1971 and its follow-up Heart Food in 1973 — and like Dalton, her music’s pristine, deeply spiritual beauty formed a sharp contrast to the shambolic nature of her personal life. During the 1960s, she was a heroin addict who held up shops to finance her habit, and although her career flared briefly with her studio albums, they didn’t sell well, and a planned third record never came to fruition. After a car accident in the mid-’70s left her with constant back pain, Sill became addicted to prescription painkillers, and died from an overdose of pills and cocaine in 1979. As is seemingly always the case, it was only after her death that her music found the audience it deserved, and in recent years, her songs have been covered by everyone from Fleet Foxes to Linda Ronstadt.

Harumi

Japanese singer Harumi is a rather mysterious figure. This song is from his self-titled debut, which was recorded in NYC in 1967 and released a year later — as far as we know, it’s his only album (there’s talk that he made another record in his native Japan a couple of years later, but we’ve never come across it.) He had a beautifully understated voice, and apparently also a penchant for dropping lots and lots of acid (as evidenced by the fact this album contains a 24-minute track called “Twice Told Tales of the Pomegranate Forest”). What became of him after the 1960s, no one knows, but Harumi remains a weird and wonderful relic of a weird and wonderful time. (The song above also features on the fantastic mix the late Trish Keenan of Broadcast made for a friend shortly before her tragic death early last year. If you’ve not heard it, the playlist is a treasure trove of psychedelic oddities and rarities — check it out on Soundcloud here.)

Bridget St. John

Like many of the artists on this list, UK singer/songwriter Bridget St. John basically disappeared from the public eye for decades, only to find something of a career renaissance in the 2000s. Her beautiful, low-register voice is more than a little reminiscent of Nico, as is the abiding air of melancholy in her songs.

Vashti Bunyan

Sure, Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective’s patronage dragged Vashti Bunyan into the limelight some 30 years after her career sank without trace, but that still means that she spent three decades in complete obscurity, which we reckon qualifies her for a place on this list. Bunyan’s influence on the mid-2000s psych folk/freak folk scene has been well-documented, but it’s also worth appreciating her work in its own right.

Linda Perhacs

The beneficiary of another Banhart-helmed career resurrection, Perhacs only released one record — 1970’s Parallelograms — which stiffed completely on its release, although listening today, it’s hard to see why. Her voice is delicate and beautiful, and the music has a singular beauty that’s just as compelling now as it must have been four decades ago. Like Bunyan, Perhacs’ work has happily found a far more receptive audience in the new millennium.

Elizabeth Cotten

Cotten was born in 1895, and in a curious parallel to the way that singers like Bunyan and Perhacs’ work has been exhumed by a new generation, she’d been retired from music for 25 years when the Greenwich Village scene discovered her output, largely because she was encouraged to return to music by the Seeger family, for whom she’d been working as a housekeeper. Both her voice and her distinctive guitar playing (she was left-handed, and basically played a right-handed guitar upside down) were hugely influential on the renaissance of folk during the 1960s, and they deserve an audience in 2012.

Rodriguez

We touched on Sixto Rodriguez’s story yesterday, so we won’t rehash it here — but for all his unlikely career renaissance, Cold Fact still remains a relatively overlooked classic of its time. At least it finally found the audience it deserved, though, even if the process took 40 years and involved a story you couldn’t make up if you tried.

Leonda

Like Karen Dalton, Leonda was of Native American descent, and her heritage shows through strongly on this track, in particular, which is taken from her only studio album, 1969’s Woman in the Sun. We’ll be honest and say we don’t know a huge amount about Leonda, but neither, it appears, does anybody else, since the only information we can find about her online is her Allmusic bio. Readers?

Molly Drake

And finally, yes, Molly is indeed related to Nick Drake — she is, in fact, his mother. There’s more than a bit of a family resemblance in the music, too, isn’t there?