Essay

The Short, Strange Music Career Of Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy passed away on Friday at the age of 83. The actor was best known for playing the alien Mr. Spock on the 1960s TV show Star Trek and in multiple associated movies beginning in the late 1970s and running all the way to 2013. But there was much more to him than that role, as the title of his 1975 autobiography, I Am Not Spock, made clear. Post-Trek, he delivered memorable performances in the 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and on an episode of Columbo, hosted the paranormal mystery show In Search Of…, and directed the movie Three Men And A Baby (seriously), among other things. But one of the most interesting aspects of Leonard Nimoy’s career, believe it or not, was his musical work. Most actors-turned-musicians — Nimoy’s Star Trek co-star William Shatner, Don Johnson, Bruce Willis — suck at it. Nimoy’s five albums from the late ’60s aren’t great, but they’re also not that bad. Well, three-and-a-half of them aren’t, anyway.

Nimoy signed with Dot Records, a division of Paramount (the studio that produced Star Trek), in 1966, and his first album, Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space, was as cheesy a cash-in as could be imagined. The cover photo shows Nimoy, in costume, holding a model of the starship Enterprise, and the track listing includes thoroughly 1960s gems like “Music To Watch Space Girls By,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Earth,” and “A Visit To A Sad Planet.” The latter was actually released as a single; it’s a spoken-word piece in which Nimoy/Spock laments mankind’s inhumanity and self-destructiveness.

The album was successful enough to merit a follow-up, 1968’s Two Sides Of Leonard Nimoy. This was where things started to get interesting. The first side was, again, recorded in character as Spock, with tracks like “Spock Thoughts,” “Highly Illogical,” and “Follow Your Star.” But the second side was Nimoy expressing himself through covers of folk and pop songs, including “Gentle On My Mind,” a track Elvis Presley would record the following year on his greatest album, From Elvis In Memphis. Nimoy also sang “The Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins” on Side Two of Two Sides Of Leonard Nimoy, and the video for that is a must-see.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were no five-year stretches between albums; artists cranked out material. So later in 1968, Nimoy released his third album, The Way I Feel. And while there was a small drawing of Spock in the upper left corner of its collage-style cover, it was but one piece of the image, which also included acoustic guitars, a Renaissance musician playing a lute, butterflies, images of the sun, and a cowboy. This is a straightforward, good-not-great album of late-’60s folk-pop that includes versions of “Sunny,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” as well as one song co-written by Nimoy, “Please Don’t Try To Change My Mind,” which was released as a single.

The Touch Of Leonard Nimoy, from 1969, is Nimoy’s best album. Many of the songs are arranged for piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a lush, subtle orchestra, with horns and backing vocals coming in at crucial moments. Nimoy worked hand-in-hand with conductor/arranger George Tipton on the album, and even wrote or co-wrote four of its 11 tracks — “Maiden Wine,” “Contact,” “The Man I Would Like To Be,” and “Piece Of Hope.” He also performs Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” and “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” another song Elvis would later record. He performed “Maiden Wine” in character as Spock on an episode of Star Trek:

The fifth and final Leonard Nimoy album, The New World Of Leonard Nimoy, marked a slight shift in direction, and not for the better. Paired up with producer Steve Clark and arrangers Ben Benay and Mike Henderson, as opposed to the team of Charles Grean and George Tipton, who’d worked on the two previous releases, the sound is more country than folk-rock, not a good fit for Nimoy’s stagy, dramatic cadences. His innate gravitas won’t allow him to slip into the loose, loping country grooves; his version of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” sounds like he’s just been handed the lyrics. The album’s not a total loss; there’s a version of “Everybody’s Talkin'” (the theme from the movie Midnight Cowboy) on which Nimoy sings in a slightly higher-than-usual register, sounding almost like Bob Dylan circa Nashville Skyline. Another highlight is “The Sun Will Rise,” the only Nimoy-written song on The New World…. Moving away from the album’s overall country-rock sound, it’s a psychedelic pop-rock tune that sounds like something from the Hair soundtrack.

Leonard Nimoy never made another pop-oriented album after 1970, but he continued to perform in musical contexts from time to time. He appeared in several musicals, including Fiddler On The Roof, Oliver!, Camelot, The King And I, and My Fair Lady. He also read from classic literature with orchestral backing, and appeared in two music videos: the Bangles’ “Going Down To Liverpool,” and more recently (and funnier), the alternate video for Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song.”

None of Nimoy’s solo albums are currently in print, though his death may change that. In the meantime, Spaced Out: The Very Best of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, a 1997 compilation that combines 17 tracks of his with seven from Shatner’s 1968 LP The Transformed Man, is available, and streaming on Spotify.

[Photo via Michael Ochs Archives.]