Finding Nimoy: Examining the Unsung Musical Merits of the Man Who Played Spock
In 1967, with his role as science officer and lieutenant commander Spock on Star Trek beaming him into living room television sets all across America, Leonard Nimoy boldly went one place he'd never gone before: the recording studio.
A year earlier, Dot Records, a small label known for country, rockabilly, and R&B, approached Desilu Studios, which produced Trek, about the possibility of tapping actors from the show for outer-space-themed records. A memo from Desilu exec Herbert F. Solow makes it clear that the production company was very interested in the idea:
"I think we should push any record company that wants to do an outer space or Vulcan or any other single record or album, be it straight dramatic music, weird music, Nichelle Nichols singing, Bill Shatner doing bird calls, or even the sound of Gene Roddenberry polishing a semi-precious stone on his grinder."
New Times feature
Leonard Nimoy is scheduled to appear Saturday, May 28, at Phoenix Convention Center for Phoenix Comicon.
Three starring members of the cast went for it. Nimoy signed on with Dot, while Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, chose to record for Epic Records. William Shatner signed with Decca. The three quickly got to work, each releasing albums within the next two years while still shooting the show.
Nichols was no stranger to song (witness her vocal performance in first-season episode "Charlie X"), and her 1967 debut, Down to Earth, featured the starlet teaming with jazz arranger Gerald Wilson for a surprisingly nuanced album of soulful ballads. Shatner, on the other hand, couldn't sing, and his record, 1968's The Transformed Man, is all the proof ever needed of the fact. The album finds him dementedly shouting, moaning, and panting over soft-psych arrangements of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "It Was a Very Good Year," among others.
But it was Nimoy who really took to the recording process. Over the next four years, Nimoy would turn out five vocal albums for Dot Records. The songs on the records run the gamut from Vulcan-themed novelty tracks to socially conscious Summer of Love-era folk to singer-songwriter standards to kitschy lounge soundtracks to one unfortunate ode to a little Hobbit.
"The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" has lived in infamy as one of the prime examples of what happens when an actor thinks it's a good idea to have a go at singing. The song sits uncomfortably on the shelf next to Eddie Murphy's "Boogie in Your Butt," Bruce Willis' rendition of "Respect Yourself," and Nimoy's Trek partner Shatner's legendarily kooky take on "Rocket Man."
But here's the real kicker when it comes to Nimoy's musical output: Some of it is good. Seriously good.
Nimoy's debut, Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space, bears on its cover sleeve the mark of Nimoy's prime mistake as a musician. While Nichols and Shatner wisely eschewed aggressively tying their records to their characters, Nimoy's album cover features the actor decked out in full Spock regalia, gripping a model of the famous starship from the series. Deeper still, all the songs are sung from the fictional character's perspective, complete with space sound effects and Spock's deadpan inflection.
That isn't to say the record doesn't have some enjoyable moments. "Where Is Love?" from the musical Oliver!, showcases one thing Nimoy had going for him that Captain Kirk didn't: his voice — a soothing baritone with surprising tenderness. Yet the record never manages to touch down, bound by too many concessions to novelty status. The inclusion of the Star Trek theme by Alexander Courage doesn't help, nor do the constant references to "illogical behavior" and the spoken-word "Twinkle Twinkle Little Earth" (sample lyric: "Catch a falling Earth and put it in your pocket").
Nimoy managed to flip the script a little with his second album, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy. Released in 1968, the album is divided thematically. Side A is devoted to Spock songs and contains the best of its kind, "Highly Illogical." The song swings a go-go beat, and Nimoy comes across as ominously hilarious, singing about the self-destructive tendencies of the human race, "For in spite of computers and advanced psychology / Behavior patterns are still a mystery / I predict the future of this earthly human race / Is that having made a mess of Earth they'll move to outer space / There goes the neighborhood!"
Side B is where Leonard Nimoy the singer truly appears. Nimoy never stakes much claim on songwriter territory, but the second side of the record reveals him as a unique interpreter. Skip "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" (unless you're watching a Lord of the Rings marathon) and head straight for "Gentle on My Mind" and his take on Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter." The songs come across somewhere between Lee Hazlewood's country-noir excursions and the "cosmic American music" Gram Parsons was rambling on about over in the San Fernando Valley.
Nimoy's third release, The Way I Feel, also released in 1968, finally sees Nimoy shed the Spock persona completely. Opener "I'd Love Making Love to You" sets the mood. It's a starkly sexy ballad, with a spritely piano line weaving around Nimoy's sly come-ons. It's all very PG, but this is Nimoy getting in touch with his inner superfreak. The Spock character would no doubt find Nimoy's proclamation "Nobody knows what's going to happen anyhow / But you're here now / We're so near now" a shortsighted theory, and who knows how blasphemous Trekkers found the song; one of the few times Spock tried to get any action on the show, he wound up fighting Captain Kirk with some sort of shovel weapon over it.
(Complete aside: You may be asking yourself whether there's a website where you can check how many times Spock got laid during the original series. Google the subject, and a plethora of sources will appear.)
But The Way I Feel doesn't solely focus on Nimoy's libido. "Billy Don't Play the Banjo Anymore" protests Vietnam, while "Consilium," a spoken-word piece co-written by Nimoy, reads like a pep talk to beleaguered Trekkers: "Accept what life brings / And live it fully."
The bid at serious artistic credibility didn't earn him the hits his Spock records did, but he soldiered on with two more efforts, The Touch of Leonard Nimoy in 1968 and his masterpiece, The New World of Leonard Nimoy, in 1970.
With former producers Charles R. Grean and George Tipton gone, the record is sparse, and the minimal country arrangements leave room for Nimoy's voice, developed at this point to an expressively ragged croon. Nimoy's performance of "Abraham, Martin, and John" articulates the mournful death of '60s idealism nearly as well as the beautiful Dion version. "I Walk the Line" and "Everybody's Talkin'," both iconic songs, receive tasteful renditions, while Nimoy chooses to give Jackie DeShannon's "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" a new feel, combining gospel phrasing, funky horns, and killer pedal steel.
The record features Nimoy's most moving song, the Mel Tillis-penned "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." Kenny Rogers & the First Edition scored a bigger hit with it, but Nimoy's version is far more haunted and terse, telling the tale of a man paralyzed by "the crazy Asian war," as he begs his girl Ruby not to leave him. It's heartbreaking as Nimoy delivers this couplet in his wounded baritone, "If I could move, I'd get my gun and put her in the ground . . . for God's sake, turn around."
The New World of Leonard Nimoy proved to be the man's last foray into the studio, a doggedly beautiful end to a strange and brief musical career. Of course, Nimoy didn't stop his creative endeavors — writing, taking up photography, and acting — in the years that followed his musical end. In 2009, he reprised his role as Spock in J.J. Abrams' retcon of the Star Trek franchise. I'm hoping he'll consider reprising his role as a singer, too. After all, Has Been, Shatner's collaboration with Ben Folds, was shockingly excellent. Imagine what Nick Cave or T. Bone Burnett could do paired up with Nimoy and the right collection of songs. To let the man's singing voice go unheard? Well, that wouldn't be logical.
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