In Wendy Wasserstein’s play Third, a professor is sitting at her desk, cigarette in hand, listening to “Wedding Bell Blues.” Her student enters, and recognizes the tune: “Is that the 5th Dimension?” The professor sharply replies, “Not in my office!” Beat. “It’s Laura Nyro. She wrote it.” He replies, “Cool. Does she have anything new out?” Professor Nancy Gordon answers, “She died of ovarian cancer a few years ago,” and changes the subject. Cancer would take Wendy Wasserstein, too, like Laura Nyro a quintessential New York artist. In her mere 49 years, Nyro’s work spoke to generations of fans, captivated by her juxtaposition in song of heaven and earth. And like Professor Gordon in the play, many fans felt that only Laura could do justice to her singular songs, despite the fact that she wrote hit records for Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat and Tears, and yes, The 5th Dimension. Well, now you can decide for yourself.
Laura Nyro was drawn lyrically to lonely and loving women, and two-timing, tom-catting flim flam men. Ace Records has just compiled a new multi-artist anthology of her songs, and Sassafras and Moonshine: The Songs of Laura Nyro (CDCHD 1336) is a lustrous collection of some of the finest pop songs ever written. And only one of those aforementioned artists appears, with the collection choosing to put the spotlight on some deliciously rare renditions from the songwriter’s catalogue rather than assembling just her most famous radio hits. Laura’s own recordings are absent, but a new collection from Legacy Recordings fills that gap, too. Playlist: The Very Best of Laura Nyro (88725477022) offers fourteen examples of Nyro Sings Nyro, culled from nine albums.
Laura Nyro’s songs possessed both a deep spirituality and a keen appreciation of earthly joys, often both at the same time in one three-minute recording! Though New York-born and bred, she also frequently embraced bucolic imagery, finding something mystical in nature and in simple pleasures. Only Nyro could have made “sassafras and moonshine” in “Stoned Soul Picnic” into something magical; and who else would have characterized her subject as having “his mean streak from the gutter, his kindness from God” than this empathetic woman? Nyro’s imaginative, evocative wordplay wasn’t always literal; when performing her own hit “Stoney End” in 2006, Barbra Streisand joked with her audience that she never understood the words: “What is the stoney end?” But however fanciful her lyrics could be, Nyro always imparted her meaning with vivid emotion.
Though her songs were intensely personal, they stylistically reflected a varied pool of influences, making them quite adaptable for recordings by other singers. A full nine of the twelve titles from her 1967 debut album, More Than a New Discovery, are heard on Sassafras and Moonshine. Rock, folk, soul, jazz, doo-wop, Brill Building pop, theatre music and even gospel all figured into her special, idiosyncratic brand of music. Artists in nearly all of those genres get a chance to “spread their wings and fly” on Ace’s new compilation. And Nyro likely would have approved that Sassafras and Moonshine overwhelmingly consists of recordings from female artists. It appropriately, leads off with “Sweet Blindness” in the 5th Dimension’s irresistibly rollicking arrangement from Bob Alcivar, Ray Pohlman and Bill Holman, as produced by Bones Howe. The group became closely identified with Nyro, recording eight of her songs including the blissful pop perfection of “Wedding Bell Blues.” Here, that most famous of Nyro’s works is performed by Bobbie Gentry in a much more plaintive arrangement with gentle flute, piano and strings billowing over Gentry’s languid vocal. Other hit versions, too, have been overlooked in favor of illuminating might-have-beens like Esther Marrow’s “And When I Die” and The Friends of Distinction’s “Eli’s Comin’” rather than the familiar singles by Blood Sweat and Tears, and Three Dog Night, respectively.
The 5th Dimension only appears once on Sassafras and Moonshine, but their influence is felt throughout, most especially on the Staples Singers’ recording of the dreamy “Stoned Soul Picnic,” which closely follows Bones Howe’s production template. Howe didn’t limit his Nyro activities to the 5th Dimension, however; his recording for the post-Diana Ross Supremes of “Time and Love” has also been selected for inclusion by the Ace team. (Howe actually intended the track for Diana Ross, whose vocal was later issued. Motown recycled the backing track for Mary Wilson and company.) The boisterous “Save the Country,” another 5th Dimension favorite, is sung here with grace by the young Thelma Houston. Houston brings gospel fervor to Nyro’s invitation to “come on down to the Glory River” to “wash you up and wash you down, gonna lay that devil down!”
Hit the jump for more, plus order links and track listings!
Jazz singers were frequently drawn to Nyro’s intricate songs; Carmen McRae was paired by Arif Mardin at Atlantic with the Dixie Flyers for her Just a Little Lovin’ album from which “Goodbye Joe” is derived. The subtle, restrained “I Never Meant to Hurt You” is a smoky late-night torch song in Chris Connor’s hands. From the pop spectrum, “Mama” Cass Elliot’s “He’s a Runner” might be that song’s single best interpretation. A story in song of another no-good guy (“He’s a runner and he’ll run away/Soon there’ll be no man/Woman ain’t been born who can make him stay/Woman, get away while you can!”), Elliot imbues her vocal with supreme understanding. Like Nyro herself, Cass Elliot was able to tap into the wells of both despair and joy.
“He’s a Runner” is just one of the lesser-known Nyro songs to take their place among her established classics. Melba Moore’s “Captain St. Lucifer,” from her 1969 solo debut LP, is another. Nyro’s offbeat love song, with some of her most fiendishly tricky melodies, is navigated with ease by Moore, who had already made quite an impression on Broadway in Hair. Charlie Calello’s orchestration and Moore’s passionate vocal meet halfway between Broadway and pop. Melba’s Hair castmate Ronnie Dyson is one of the few men on this new anthology, with his soulful recording of “Emmie,” also memorably recorded by Frankie Valli. A personal favorite finally appearing on CD is Peggy Lipton’s “Lu,” from 1970, with a fantastic Gene Page arrangement navigating its dramatic changes in tone and tempo. (One page of the booklet is dedicated to a fun ad from Cash Box promoting Lipton’s appearance on The Andy Williams Show to sing “Lu.”)
Laura Nyro’s music continues to speak to contemporary singers. Somewhat unusually for Ace’s Singers and Songwriters series, a few tracks here come from the 1990s and 2000s. Two 2007 albums have been tapped for the compilation’s most recent tracks. U.K. jazz singer Liane Carroll offers a stark “Lazy Susan,” with just voice and piano, while Broadway’s Judy Kuhn (also the singing voice of Disney’s Pocahontas) deliciously tears into the rarely-covered “Blackpatch,” from her all-Nyro album Serious Playground. Jeffrey Klitz’s band recaptures Nyro’s bright, late 1960s sound, with Kuhn savoring its indelible, atmospheric lyrics.
The 26-page booklet is loaded with memorabilia and photos, as well as a truly comprehensive essay by Malcolm Baumgart and an introduction from Nyro’s biographer Michele Kort. Throw in the excellent rack-by-track liner notes, and Sassafras and Moonshine is hands-down an altogether essential package.
Legacy’s Playlist includes Nyro’s own versions of five songs on Sassafras and Moonshine, and makes a perfect companion. Not only as a songwriter but as a singer, too, Nyro was unafraid to be feminine, sensual, passionate and sexy. As Legacy has previously compiled her own recordings on both a jam-packed 2-CD set and a strong single-disc compilation, the main attraction of Playlist is the sensual “Coffee Morning,” previously available only in Japan as a bonus track on her 1976 album Smile. (As Sony Japan’s Nyro reissue series appended many bonus tracks, we hope those see release in Laura’s home country, too.) But all fourteen tracks make a strong case for Nyro as her own best interpreter.
Laura’s own “And When I Die” is passionate but without the histrionics of David Clayton-Thomas’ hit version with Blood Sweat and Tears, while “Stoney End” serves as a blueprint for Streisand’s later recording of the song. The same holds true of “Hands Off the Man,” a.k.a. “The Flim Flam Man.” lBoth songs are included on Playlist, and Nyro’s insinuating vocal on the latter is particularly delightful: “Oh, lawd, the man’s a fraud – he’s a flim flam man! Everybody wants him – the people and the po-lice,” she sings with slyness.
As the seventies progressed, Laura headed in a more subtle, jazzy direction, largely avoiding the trademark piano introductions and the big Broadway bounce of her melodies. She became even more introspective, but never abandoned her roots. 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle was an unusual pairing with Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, and proved that they could adapt their recognizable sound for an artist. With LaBelle joining Nyro on vocals and Thom Bell, Lenny Pakula and Bobby Martin all contributing arrangements, the album became one of Nyro’s finest hours. “Jimmy Mack” is a wonderful choice from this striking R&B effort. From 1978’s “Nested,” Playlist producer Al Quaglieri has included the gentle “Child in a Universe,” a universal plea to “send some peace on earth.” Nyro’s political side hasn’t been overlooked, either, with her “Broken Rainbow” from 1993’s Walk the Dog and Light the Light addressing the plight of Native Americans. Mark Keresman supplies a short 2-page essay to Playlist, and Mark Wilder has splendidly remastered each track, making for a solid sampler of the singer/songwriter’s solo career.
As these two releases prove, the voice of Laura Nyro continues to resonate. You can read more about Laura in this installment of Back Tracks! Both the Ace and Legacy titles are available now and can be ordered below.
Various Artists, Sassafras and Moonshine: The Songs of Laura Nyro (Ace CDCHD 1336, 2012)
- Sweet Blindness – The 5th Dimension (Soul City 768, 1968)
- Stoned Soul Picnic – The Staple Singers (Stax CD CDSXD 116, 1998)
- Save the Country – Thelma Houston (Dunhill 4222, 1970)
- Captain St. Lucifer – Melba Moore (Mercury LP SR 61255, 1969)
- Stoney End – The Blossoms (Ode 101, 1967)
- Wedding Bell Blues – Bobbie Gentry (Capitol LP ST 418, 1970)
- Goodbye Joe – Carmen McRae with the Dixie Flyers (Atlantic 2776, 1970)
- Time and Love – The Supremes (Motown LP MS 737, 1971)
- And When I Die – Esther Marrow (Fantasy LP 9414, 1972)
- I Never Meant to Hurt You – Chris Connor (Contemporary LP 14038, 1988)
- Lu – Peggy Lipton (Ode 124, 1970)
- Lazy Susan – Liane Carroll (Splash Point CD SPR004CD, 2007)
- He’s a Runner – “Mama” Cass Elliot (Dunhill LP 50055, 1969)
- Buy and Sell – Nnenna Freelon (Concord CD CCD-4794-2, 1998)
- Captain for Dark Mornings – Tuck & Patti (Windham Hill CD 01934-11336-2, 1998)
- Billy’s Blues – Laura Zakian (Dancing Rhino Records CD LZDR 002, 2003)
- Emmie – Ronnie Dyson (Columbia LP 30223, 1970)
- Eli’s Comin’ – The Friends of Distinction (RCA LP LSP 4149, 1969)
- Lonely Women – Linda Hoyle (Vertigo LP 6360 060, 1971)
- Blackpatch – Judy Kuhn (Ghostlight CD 8-3307, 2007)
Laura Nyro, Playlist: The Very Best of Laura Nyro (Columbia/Legacy 88725477022, 2012)
- And When I Die
- Stoney End
- Flim Flam Man (Hands Off the Man)
- Stoned Soul Picnic
- Captain St. Lucifer
- Christmas in My Soul
- Jimmy Mack
- Coffee Morning
- Child in a Universe
- To a Child
- Broken Rainbow
- American Dove (Live)
- Timer/O-o-h Child/Up on the Roof (Live)
Tracks 1-3 from The First Songs (More Than a New Discovery), Columbia 31410, 1973 (rec. 1967)
Tracks 4 & 5 from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Columbia CS 9626, 1968
Track 6 from New York Tendaberry, Columbia KCS 9737, 1969
Track 7 from Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, Columbia KC 30259, 1970
Track 8 from Gonna Take a Miracle, Columbia KC 30987, 1971
Track 9 from Smile, Columbia (Japan) SICP-1956, 2008
Track 10 from Nested, Columbia JC 35449, 1978
Tracks 11 & 12 from Walk the Dog and Light the Light, Columbia 52411, 1993
Tracks 13 & 14 from Spread Your Wings and Fly: Live at the Fillmore East May 30, 1971, Columbia/Legacy 515209, 2004