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Laura+Nyro

 

Laura Nyro would have been 62 today, had she not passed at the way-too-young age of 49.

Can we even begin to imagine the music she would have made in the intervening years?

I imagine she would have tackled even more of the torch classics. I fantasize that she would have hooked up with some majorly creative producers (Daniel Lanois would be my dream pairing), although i also know how stubborn Laura was to do it her own way. I’m sure she would still be singing beautifully, writing gorgeous melodies, sharing her crone wisdom!!

What do you think?

Put Laura in the Hall!

Look out Cleveland, Laura's coming through....

Look out Cleveland, Laura's coming through....

First the Berlin Wall fell …. then a black man was elected President of the United States … and now this: Laura Nyro is a finalist for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

People have asked me how we can help promote her election, and I have no idea other than to track down the 500 writers who vote on this. But I assume that information is very proprietary. Ask all your friends, though:  Maybe someone knows a voter!

I visited the Hall in Cleveland 7 years ago when I was on my Laura Nyro book tour. I had already stopped in St. Louis (thank you Jodie Serkes and the duo Jasmine) and Chicago (thank you Jane Conron); then I hitched a ride with Laura’s cousin Dan Nigro to Philadelphia (thank you Linda Johnson). We stopped in Cleveland on the way, and what I remember most about that day at the edge of Lake Erie was how many bugs swarmed over Danny’s car. ( I think they were mayflies.) If Laura gets in, obviously we’re going to have to make the pilgrimage again.

And if she wins, I’ll  move heaven and earth to be at the induction (any guess  who will induct her? I’ll put a bet on Elton John; my theory is that his paean to Nyro on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle show really woke up the Hall to its shocking oversight of such a trailblazing artist). I was lucky enough to have a friend in high places in New York who got me a ticket to the induction ceremony the year Dusty Springfield was recognized, and it was an awesome evening: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Paul McCartney….

Aren’t my fellow Laura fans just thrilled? And when you tell any voters you can find to mark Nyro on their ballot, suggest they vote for Darlene Love as well!

(Bonus question: What song am I referencing in my caption on the photo above?)

 

An end to violence

 you say you want an end to violence

feel safe in the universe

             —Laura Nyro, “The brighter song”

 

 

They killed George Tiller today.

In the lobby of his church.

I say “they,” although it was an individual white man who fired the gun.

They are the insane foes of a woman’s right to choose if and when she’ll give birth. They are the people who scream “murderer!” at women driving into the parking lots of clinics that perform abortions. They are the people who fetishize fetuses—the “unborn”—but no longer recognize the life and soul in a full-grown, breathing, compassionate human being. They are hypocrites.   

“When hate speech meets insanity, this is the result,” wrote Melinda Henneberger of the blog “Politics Daily.” Indeed, as my filmmaker friend Arthur Dong pointed out in his powerful documentary Licensed to Kill—about men who had murdered gay men—those killers had been “licensed,” so to speak, by the hatemongers, who can then plead innocence. “We didn’t pull the trigger,” they can say. Yes, but they loaded the guns.

I met George Tiller a few years ago in the offices of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. magazine, where I’m an editor. You know how you can quickly recognize a loving person? A person of incredible bravery? A person with a mission, a calling? Those are the qualities I immediately saw in Dr. Tiller. I was deeply moved by his story. How he’d carried on the work his father, also a doctor, had done underground in Wichita, Kansas, before Roe v. Wade. How he stepped in to help terrified, very young girls get late-term abortions, perhaps because they’d been too frightened to admit their pregnancies earlier. Perhaps because they’d been raped, or incested by a family member. One of the most famous anti-abortion groups is known as Operation Rescue, but George Tiller was the true rescuer.

His killer was certainly a true believer. A “godly” man, he probably considered himself, because who but a god could have told him it was all right to take a life? In a church, no less: a sanctuary where George Tiller regularly went for prayer and solace, and certainly for strength. For too many years to count, George Tiller has been a lone, brave man in the U.S. heartland, willing to offer his services to girls and women even though he has been constantly picketed, harassed, prosecuted, shot, and now, in a heartbreaking conclusion, killed.

I’ve never needed an abortion myself, but God bless my legal right to the integrity of my own body. Just imagine being told that you cannot have that right. That the State can tell you that you must have a child, even though you don’t want to carry a pregnancy to term. That the State can invade your bedroom, your body, your soul. How fine a line is it between the determination that women must have children and a dystopian world in which women are forced to have children for the State’s purposes. Science fiction writers often speculate on that scenario; given the virulent, violent, murderous actions of anti-abortion fanatics, it’s easy to see why that horrifying vision gets played out in novels, let alone women’s worst nightmares.

I’ve cried all morning about this man I met just once, but of whom my magazine has written many, many times. He was a hero to women. He was a hero in a society that distorts religion—distorts the notion of God—to turn love into hate and murder. You can kill George Tiller, because even a great and brave man cannot stop a bullet from draining out his life. But you can’t stop another dedicated, fearless soul from stepping up to continue his work, offering women hope in a patriarchal society that wants to keep us, still, forever, in our place.

Photograph by Stephen Paley

Laura by Stephen Paley

Here’s a piece in London’s Guardian in which a reader recommends ten great songs about nature–including Laura’s “Mother’s Spiritual.

Rob Fitzpatrick writes:

Laura Nyro sees nature as the ultimate mother, a giver, provider, a force above the squabbles of religion or commerce …

The album Mother’s Spiritual is, of course, Laura’s ultimate ecofeminist statement. I mean, who else was writing songs about trees in the early 1980s? (Who’s writing songs about trees now, for that matter?). But do y’all think that the song “Mother’s Spiritual” was about Mother Nature herself?? Here are the lyrics if you don’t know or remember them:

On a street corner where the kids boogie all night
or where the winds sing and the stars shine like
holiday lights, come a band of angels, salvation
in their might and as for peace on earth…

Feel this love, my brothers and sisters, feel the
season turn, she is the mother of time. Wonders
that take you, rivers that give, that’s where
mother’s spiritual lives

Talk of a ruby, love, lover’s share. Find your
love, lose your love here and there. So you go
home, do your own thing, the ocean sings to me
that love is always alive and part of thee.

Feel this love, my brothers and sisters, feel the
season turn, she is the mother of time. Light and
darkness come to her kiss cause that’s where
mother’s spiritual lives.

Come to the lights my sisters and take what you
need. Doesn’t matter, my brothers, your Sunday
creed cause each one’s a lover to this winter
night star, a pilgrim, a pioneer, that’s who you
are.

Feel this love, my brothers and sisters, feel the
season turn, she is the mother of time. It’s not
war, it’s life she gives and that’s where mother’s
spiritual lives.

Farewell, Aunt Kaye

Aunt Kaye and Laura, 1987. Courtesy of Danny Nigro

Aunt Kaye and Laura, 1987. Courtesy of Danny Nigro

Laura Nyro’s paternal aunt, Kaye Nigro Pope, died the other day at age 91. Laura’s dad Lou, now a remarkable 93, is the last of his three siblings still with us.

I had a lovely interview with Kaye when I was working on my Nyro biography . The best story she told me was about a very close encounter she had with infant Laura. Kaye’s son Joel, her brother Mike’s daughter Willette and Laura were all born within a month of each other, and one afternoon Kaye found herself watching over three crying babies. 

“So I breast-fed Joel,” she told me, “and then I breast-fed Willette, and then I breast-fed Laura.”

As I wrote in my book, “Considering they all nursed from the same well, so to speak, it’s perhaps not surprinsing that Laura’s generation of first cousins includes an inordinate number of musicians.”

Thanks to Laura’s cousin (and my dear friend) Danny Nigro for the wonderful picture of Laura and Kaye at a family gathering in 1987.

Be My Little Baby

Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes passed on the other day–she was Ronnie Spector’s (nee Veronica Bennett) sister. We still have Ronnie with us, and Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, but every loss from that great era of the girl groups just makes it feel like it’s drifting further away.

Nyro of course was deeply influenced by the girl groups of the late 50s/early 60s, although the Ronettes were probably not at the top of her pantheon. I’d guess the Shirelles held down that spot, considering that Laura later covered their hits “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.” And don’t forget the one-hit wonder Jaynetts of the awesome “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses,” and certainly not Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles or the Shangri-Las. I always detected a good dose of lead singer Weiss’s yearning in Laura’s voice. Check out “Right Now and Not Later” and see if you don’t agree.

In my Nyro bio, I quoted media critic Susan J. Douglas about how the girl groups, unlike their female predecessors, “were not singing about doggies in windows or old Cape Cod” [anyone remember Patti Page?] but rather giving voice to real teen concerns about identity. I wrote that the music “certainly gave voice to an angst-filled, hungry-for-experience girl like Laura.”

There are lots of collections of girl-group music (besides albums devoted to a single group), but I’m especially fond of this one, One Kiss Can Lead to Another, which contains some amazing oddities (“Peanut Duck,” anyone?) and great lesser-known songs. 

I went a little crazy with the links here, but you might enjoy a nice musical adventure through girl-group land–the land of innocence, now sadly lost–if you follow them.

UPDATE: Great piece in The New York Times today about Estelle. Life wasn’t all “walking in the rain and wishing on a star up above,” sadly…

nyropond

The house in Danbury, Connecticut, where Laura Nyro lived and died is up for sale: Here’s the info.

In the photos on the realty site, you can see both the “big house” and the cottage over the pond. The property is really quite lovely, and it’s easy to imagine Laura walking around amidst her beloved “trees of the ages.”

Save the Country. Now.

mswinter09metallic_small

Have you seen the latest issue of Ms. magazine? I’m pretty proud of our cover (I’m senior editor of the magazine, if you didn’t know)–we take Prez Barack at his literal word that he’s a feminist, and we also let him know that we’re holding him to it!

I try to imagine Laura Nyro in one of our “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts–well, it’s hard to imagine Laura in any sort of T-shirt, but I can picture one filled with trees. Her feminism always seemed connected directly to the earth, and to the goddesses. I think it’s good for all of us to step back from the concrete and turmoil of politics sometimes and go back to the loamy soil of ecofeminism. Love Mother Earth. Appreciate the interconnectedness of each of us, along with all the flora and fauna. Trust the tides, the deep deep wisdom of the planet. Tread lightly. Practice “enoughism.”

But don’t forget to make your voice heard against injustice and for the equality and empowerment and care of all. That’s my Laura thought for the day.

Light the night

lauranyro

I really enjoy this post from Billy Cheer’s “This is Fag City” blog about the greatness of New York Tendaberry. Here are my favorite lines:

It doesn’t even invite you in, it seems polarizing, like someone cuts off the lights, some of you will be able to navigate and some [of] you will not. … It’s just so difficult, it’s the sound of someone figuring out how they feel, and then changing their mind.

I love that image of Laura creating a darkness that the listener can either navigate or not. I have terrible night vision myself, but for me Laura’s music always lights the night.

Vintervind (Winter Wind)

Who knew that someone had the guts to cover Laura’s “Beads of Sweat”? And a Swede, no less!

Turns out that Moniqa Sunnerberg recorded both that song and another challenging Nyro composition,  “Gibsom Street”, on her 1972 album Sunnerligen. But she translated “Beads of Sweat” into “Winter Wind”. Guess that was taken from the opening line of the song, “Cold jade wind/not an angel in the sky.” 

This was the most rockin’ song that Laura ever recorded, thanks to Duane Allmann’s searing guitar solo (which some Swede didn’t do a half-bad job reproducing) and Young Rascal Dino Danelli’s pounding drums (his bandmate, Felix Cavaliere, produced the track). It really does capture a feeling of New York on a cold, hard-raining day, with Laura comparing the wild weather to her own raging soul.

Laura’s lyrics also reference another song about wind, “Mariah,” which Helena Lind (see previous post) told me that she and her sister used to harmonize on with Laura.  Here’s the overdramatized Harve Presnell version from the film Paint Your Wagon (the original recording was by the Kingston Trio).

The Preludes

Helena (left) and Phyllis Stokes

Helena (left) and Phyllis Stokes

One more remembrance, and this one takes us back to Laura’s high school days.

If you’ve read my book about Laura  you might remember the Stokes twins, Helene ( Helena) and Phyllis, who sang harmonies with Laura in the marble-walled bathroom at the High School of Music and Art. As 10th graders, Laura and the twins formed a trio that they named the Preludes–which they pronounced “prell-yudes” rather than “pray-ludes” because they thought the latter sounded “too square.” They would cut classes together and perform impromptu bathroom concerts of such songs as “I Met Him on a Sunday,” “Wind,” “Heat Wave,” and “They Call the Wind Mariah.”

“What voices!” one of their other classmates raved to me.

They even had a tryout with Roulette Records, at which they sang “Yonder Come the Preludes”–which Laura had composed with her own lyrics and the melody of “Midnight Special.” But the girls were ill-prepared for a musical career, asking each other during the audition, “Uh, what should we sing?” Morris Levy, the notorious president of the label, told them, “Girls, go home and practice, and come back when you’re ready.” 

After a couple of people I interviewed for the book told me about the Stokes twins, I became determined to find them. I even visited the High School of Music and Art (in its new Lincoln Center digs) and looked through an old yearbook to see their pictures. But I couldn’t locate Helena Stokes Lind until after the hardback came out (so there’s a little more info about them in the paperback version). We’ve remained in occasional touch since then (she still performs!), and I sadly learned that her sister passed away this year. (The picture above, which Helena just sent me, shows her and her sister shortly after the time they pal’d around with Laura.)

Hence this tribute. Phyllis, I hope you’re harmonizing with Laura again, in some wonderful marble-walled bathroom in the sky. Yonder come the Preludes!

I am the blues

Happy New Year, Tribe!

I don’t want to seem like a full-time obit writer, but we have lost some great ones lately. After Eartha, there was jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and roots-rocker Delaney Bramlett, who, along with former wife Bonnie Bramlett, was a contemporary of Laura’s in the ranks of late-60s performers. I also learned that, before my blogging days began, guitarist Joe Beck passed on at age 62 (see/hear him play a very tasty “Summertime” above).

Beck played on the song “I am the blues” on Laura’s Smile album. I hear both an acoustic and electric guitar on that fabulous arrangement, but, frankly, I don’t know which is Beck and which is John Tropea, who plays on every cut and would later tour with Nyro. Anyone have an idea who’s who? Although there are a few standout guitar licks during the song, the track really belongs,  instrumentally, to Randy Brecker on trumpet, the great Richard Davis on bass and Laura on piano.

Another Nyro connection with Beck: He died in Danbury, Conn., as did Laura.

“Listen to the music of the night wind…”

I want to be Evil

I googled Eartha Kitt, who died the other day at 81, AND Laura Nyro and, frankly, didn’t come up with any significant links. So I’ll have to suggest two of my own:

1) Both were iconoclasts, refusing to stick to the well-trod path carved for women performers.

2) Both had a great sense of humor. Check out the song above to see/hear just one example of Ms. Kitt’s. As for Laura, her funny side didn’t usually show on stage, at least in her early days of performing when you could hear a pin drop if she paused mid-song but nary a laugh at anything said or sung. By the late 1980s, however, she had written and frequently performed an entirely humorous song, “Japanese Restaurant”–how about that! It never ceased to draw laughter, especially when she told the waiter that she’d given up smoking, so now she wanted a big bowl … of chocolate ice cream.

Stephen Paley

photo credit: Stephen Paley

 

Come young braves

come young children

come to the book of love with me

Respect your brothers and your sisters

come to the book of love

I know it ain’t easy

but we’re gonna look for a better day

come young braves

come young children

 

I love my country

as it dies

in war and pain

before my eyes

I walk the streets

where disrespect has been

The sings of politics

the politics of sin

the heartlessness that darkens my soul

                                                   on Christmas

 

Red and silver

on the leaves

fallen white snow

runs softly through the trees

madonnas weep

for wars of hell

They blow out the candles

and haunt Noel

the missing love that rings through the world

                                                   on Christmas

 

black panther brothers

bound in jail

chicago seven

and the justice scale

Homeless Indian

of manhattan isle

all God’s sons have gone to trial

and all God’s love is out of style

                                                  on Christmas

 

Now the time has come to fight

laws in the book of love burn bright

people you must win

for thee America

her dignity

for all the high court world to see

                                                  on Christmas

 

Christmas in my soul

                      Christmas in my soul

            Christmas in my soul

                                                

                                                  Joy to the world

          

 

 

 

 
   
 
 

Laura’s Dad

Sorry I haven’t been around in a week or so–deadline time at Ms. magazine, where I’m the senior editor.

But I’m back, and here’s a nice song sent to me by Brian Gari that he wrote for Lou Nigro, Laura’s dad. Lou’s still going strong at almost 93, living now in Ithaca, N.Y., near his son Jan, daughter-in-law Janice and their son. When I was doing my book about Laura, Lou was the first person in the family who was willing to speak with me, and remained supportive throughout the project. I’ll always be grateful to him for his trust in me. I had a few nice visits with him in his Manhattan apartment, which was filled with paintings of Laura and her female relatives that were done by her great uncle and great aunt, William Meyerowitz and Theresa Bernstein Meyerowitz (who died in 2002 at age 111!).

 Brian’s song is about Lou’s involvement with the Vineyard Theatre production of Eli’s Comin’ in 2001. Lou was there nearly every night (I think he attended some 36 performances), often greeting people at the door and talking about his daughter. It was a great time in his life, and Brian memorializes it in this song.

By the way, in the cast of the show at the Vineyard was Anika Noni Rose, who has since been in the film Dreamgirls and in an all-black Broadway version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof . Judy Kuhn, who played the main character in Eli, has since put out an album of Nyro songs, Serious Playground,  and performed full shows of Laura songs. (Those of you who familiar with the famous Life magazine article about Laura will pick up Kuhn’s riff on Stephen Paley’s photo of Laura on a fire escape.)

Laura’s on The Agenda

I was a guest December 4 on a Sirius XM radio show called “The Agenda,” which is hosted by Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and journalist-politico Mary Breslauer. Both are Nyro fans, so they asked me to talk about Our Laura for about 15 minutes.

If, like me, you don’t have digital radio, no problem: The show is available on the HRC website’s blog. Scroll down to the December 5 entry, last paragraph, and you can click onto audio of the interview. Enjoy!

I met him on a Sunday

Isn’t this an impressive reproduction of the Laura-and-Labelle version? Performed by college students, I believe.

Watch it all the way through–the second-to-last subtitle is hilarious.

Bam-a-lam

Ever notice how Laura used a lot of actual names in her early songs? Bill, Susan, Emmie, Joe, Billy, Eli, Tom (check out this gutsy Audra McDonald version)–and I’m not even counting Jimmy, because Laura didn’t write Jimmy Mack. Later, she employed the names of goddesses (Sophia, Hecate) and famous artists  (Louise, Sappho, Billie, Frida) in her lyrics, but gone were the love songs (or angry diatribes!) addressed to named, if not actual, people. Her earlier songs certainly emerged out of an era where named characters were more common in songs (Suzie Q, Michelle, Sally, Billie Jean, ad infinitum), but these days the love object is more often addressed anonymously as “you” or “she” or “he.” (And as a side note, it’s a real mixed blessing to have a name that’s been used in a well-known song, as this “ma belle” can attest …)

Now that I’ve made a Laura connection in this post I have a rationale, if thin, for blogging today about the best rock song I never heard until just the other day, “Black Betty.” How did I miss this garage-y classic?!? I came across it as background music on some YouTube video I was watching (and have already forgotten), and then Googled around until I found the original, by a group called Ram Jam. Then I learned that it has been much covered, including an even-more-intense version by Spiderbait, a little-too-mellow version by Sheryl Crow and a weird-but-intriguing version by Nick Cave.

Most surprisingly, I learned that “Black Betty” is actually derived from an old folk song that was famously sung by Leadbelly. The meaning of “Black Betty” is much debated, but in the Ram Jam version–especially as seen in their goofy video above–it sure sounds naughty.

Meet me on J Street

 

Can you send some peace on earth?

Laura Nyro, “A Child in a Universe”

Laura Nyro was 3/4 Jewish, although she didn’t have a Jewish upbringing. As far as I could gather, the closest thing to religious training she had was going to an Ethical Culture Society school.

I’m 100 percent Jewish, was Bat Mitzvah’d and attended religious school for about 9 years, but I imagine that what Laura and I got out of our very different religious educations was similar: Do unto others … Honor your parents. Don’t cheat and steal. Seek peace–both inside and for the world.

So I don’t think I’m taking too big a leap to also imagine that Laura would support a web community like J Street. Here’s a bit of how it describes itself:

J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own – two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.

In other words it’s all-pro: pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian state and, above all, pro-peace. As a Jew, I’ve grown quite disgusted by the strain of American Judaism that rabidly defends Israel no matter what, and would deem anti-Semitic anyone who dares offer criticism. This is irrational, and I always thought Jews were among the most rational of people! I’m equally disturbed by those who would elevate the suffering of the Palestinian people above that of all others, and thus demonize the state of Israel. Face it, everyone is suffering in this stalemate. And that’s why we need a peace that embraces the pragmatism of compromise, recognizes the hurt on both sides and fulfills the need for homeland(s) and security.  

I suggest you check out the group–and watch the above video, where the founder explains why he brought it into existence. J Street is trying to expand their membership, and this is my small effort to spread the word. ‘Tis the season to seek peace.

Burn down the mission!

Did you see the Spectacle show with Elvis Costello and Elton John on the Sundance Channel last night? What did you think?

If you didn’t see it, I can’t say this too strongly: YOU MUST SEE THIS SHOW!!!!!!!!!!!! If you don’t have Sundance Channel yourself, call a friend who does! The episode repeats tonight at 11 p.m., Sunday at 2 a.m. and 2 p.m., Tuesday at 12 a.m. and Wednesday at 5 p.m. It’s also available “on demand” on some cable systems.

Elton and Elvis talk about Laura Nyro and her influence on music and musicians for at least a quarter of the hour show! My jaw dropped–considering that I NEVER hear Laura’s name spoken on TV, I could hardly believe that she was the subject of such a long and loving homage. It included Elton playing “Burn Down The Mission” (see the top of this post for a fantastic early version on a BBC show), and explaining how Laura’s musical fingerprints are all over it. I must admit I never considered that before, but it all makes sense. “Mission” was a cut on Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection album, which came out a year after Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Go back to Christmas and play “Map to the Treasure,” then check out “Burn Down The Mission.” There’s no coincidence at all about how similar the form of Elton’s composition is, and he’s completely honest and humble about it on the show.

Extra bonus on the show: The New Orleans great Allen Toussaint plays keyboards with Costello’s band, and does a verse of Elton’s “Border Song” with Elvis.

DON’T MISS THIS SHOW!!!!

Take her to the Pilot

odetta

The great Odetta has left us for that heavenly choir, where she’ll join Laura … and Dusty, Billie, Janis, Marvin, Eddie, David, Sam, Mahalia, Ella, Sarah and so many other great voices. What a mighty sound!

I just wrote about Odetta here, and of my fond memory of her singing “Take Me to the Pilot” with Elton John in the 1970s. I knew she wasn’t well, but so hoped she could make it to the Obama inauguration. Her spirit will certainly be there.

My friend Jennifer Warnes passed along to me this letter, written yesterday, from Odetta’s manager:

Dear Family and Friends of Odetta,

The Grand Lady Odetta passed this evening at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. For more than a decade she fought the brave fight with chronic heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis in her lungs. The tribute concert in her honor on March 24, 2007 in Washington was supposed to be her swan song. At the time, her doctors said she could never leave her bed without oxygen for the remainder of her life. However, she got out of that bed and went on to give dozens of concerts around the world since that time. Just seven weeks ago, she performed before tens of thousands of fans at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park with Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett and Wavy Gravy sitting mesmerized below her at the stage. Even though she had been getting weaker through the month she refused to cancel any of her upcoming concerts. However, on October 31st, after returning from concerts in Toronto she entered the hospital for tests. The next day she went into kidney failure. For the next three and one half weeks she battled on–at all times lucid, and determined to sing at Obama’s Inauguration. She went into cardiac arrest this evening. Her old heart just couldn’t fight any more. Her spirit, her will and her determination were greater than anyone I had ever known. I don’t think Joe Louis could have lasted one round with Odetta!

Eighteen months ago, Odetta and I were invited to the publisher’s office of The New York Times to give her oral history obituary. The arrangement with them was that we would not tell anyone about the oral history obituary, that they would be the first to publish her obituary, and that the readers could then view the oral obit Odetta gave by clicking on The New York Times website. Because I didn’t get back from the hospital after Odetta’s transition until 10:00 pm tonight and wasn’t able to speak to Tim Weiner, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who interviewed her, until 10:45 pm, I don’t think it will be making the front page, but has been given royal treatment. [See it here.]

May Odetta’s luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages. Though I know she will always be with me, I will be missing her. . .

Doug Yeager,
Manager of Odetta

And finally, here’s another photo of Odetta taken at the McCabe’s tribute on October 2 at UCLA’s Royce Hall (the photographer is Matt Kramer, who I knew decades ago when he did the lighting for Laura and others at the Troubadour!). L to R is quite a lineup: Eric Andersen (anyone remember him?), Lincoln Myerson (the concert director at McCabe’s), The Grand Lady, Jackson Browne (Laura’s one-time lover!), Jennifer and the great Van Dyke Parks (who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting). Didn’t Odetta look so full of life and joy?

odetta-and-jennifer

Soul Man

I call singer-songwriter Tim Dillinger a soul man in a blurb I did for his memoir that was just released, Snapshot . It’s a collection of lyrics and poems and stories and pictures, and it’s full of heart.

Tim can flat-out SING, in a voice that ranges from tenor-husky to mountaintop-falsetto. And although he’s white on the outside, he channels the black church in his spirit and vocals. Can I get an Amen, sisters and brothers! 

I met Tim through my Laura Nyro book–he’s a bigtime Nyro fan who contacted me, shared his music with me and invited me to guest on his radio show. I was impressed by both his talent and his good vibe. He’s also one gutsy young man, coming out as gay amidst the Nashville soul and gospel music scenes (he’s now moved to New York–smart move, Tim!). Among other things, he runs an entertaining blog which I really need to catch up on.

Here’s something that Tim wrote in his new book, picturing Laura (a huge source of inspiration to him) on a celestial plane:

I imagine Laura Nyro.  She flies in a black lace gown, her dark hair, still adorned with hints of gray, dancing around her waist.  Her sanctuary is lit with thousands of candles and the back wall is a window that overlooks the greenest forest.  She has a cat and a dog—maybe more than one of each.  The space boasts murals of goddesses, created as a favor by Frida Kahlo.  Her piano is covered with compositions that are in various stages of completion. 

 

The space has been acoustically designed to re-create the echoes of the subway stations she sang doo-wop in during her teenage years.  Her harmony group visits daily and together they bask in the glory of the sonic synergy that happens when women converge in song.  She titillates them with her memories of collaborating with Labelle, three women held with the utmost regard in this tomorrowland of sorts. 

 

They have concerts as the mood strikes for an audience of the notorious women of the ages. Like her concerts on earth, they are events, but these are of even greater epic proportions.  The women are still whispering about the night Nina Simone came and they sang “He Was Too Good To Me” together…or when she, Miles Davis and John Coltrane came together.  That evening redefined the word improvisation.

 

There is a crystal ball in the middle of the room and she sees artists, yet mortal, on planet earth.  Her assignment is to send inspiration, song ideas and warmth to the artists of her choosing. At times, she flies back to earth, as there are some who are aware that she is with them.  Those are the ones with whom she spends extra time. 

 

Even in her afterlife, she is employed by the muse…or at least, that’s how I like to think of her.

Up top is a video of Tim performing–it’s kind of crude visually, done to a backing track, but I particularly like his singing here. You can hear more of his music on his blog. Enjoy!

Elvis and Elton and Laura

Who knew that Elton John was influenced by Laura Nyro?

But early descriptions of Elton’s upcoming appearance on the new show Spectacle: Elvis Costello with … on the Sundance Channel point out that he discusses the artists who impacted his life and career–including our Laura. The show airs this Wednesday night at 9 p.m., then repeats on subsequent days and times.

Laura and Elton will always be connected for me by one special place: the Troubadour in West Hollywood. I saw Laura for the first time there, in 1969, and the next year Elton had his historic American debut there as well. I had to bribe my sister to come with me to see Elton–I had just heard his songs on the radio and was smitten by “Border Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot” as I recall–and we still marvel to this day that we managed to be there on that historic night. When you read histories of the Troubadour, they gush about Elton’s gig (and it was fantastic)–but, as is so frustratingly typical, those remembrances  leave out Laura’s equally magnificent series of performances at the club.

I’m curious to hear what Elton has to say about Laura. Was he encouraged to perform at the piano because of her? Did her rich combination of musical sources inspire him to throw everything into the mix as well?

I’m not such a big Elton John fan these days, but he can still put on quite a show–and I love the song above, which is his mature version of the 1977 recording he did with Philly producer Thom Bell (who was a string and horn arranger on Laura’s Gonna Take A Miracle). Looks like Elton was trying to do his own Miracle-type soul album, but it didn’t work out, and in 1979 he released just three of the remixed songs, including the irresistible “Are You Ready for Love.”  

I’m thrilled to introduce you to an excellent cover version of “Poverty Train” by a band called What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? (I know–oddball name!). The lead singer/songwriter is a Nyro fan named Brian King, and after he sent me an mp.3 of the song I asked if I could post it–and he was kind enough to create a YouTube video to go with it. Mr. Fox deserves your attention: When I listen to their album, I feel like I’m hearing a soundtrack of musical theater. Clever, outre, cool strings, hot vocals…

Here’s what Brian has to say for himself:

What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? is a cabaret-noir band fronted by myself on voice, guitar and piano; Nathan Cohen on violin, and Mike Leggio on upright bass.  In one set, our eclectic ensemble can travel from New Orleans soul to a dark acoustic coffeehouse, from a Middle Eastern desert to the woods of medieval France. Our songs are bustling with memorable characters, like the boy who turns into a cartoon from watching too much TV or the woman who rescues herself from the tower. Others explore themes of love, sexuality and identity. We got our start as a trio in the seaport town of Gloucester (where Laura Nyro lived when she was married to David Bianchini). A night at the bar where we had a weekly residency would not be complete without my solo rendition of “Poverty Train.”  

I was introduced to the music of Laura Nyro through my friend Joanne Schreiber, who toured with the all-women band ISIS in the 1970’s. [Note from Michele: Nydia Mata and Jeanie Fineberg, who played in the Season of Lights band with Laura, were also ISIS members. Nydia was a longtime friend of Laura’s and played on Gonna Take a Miracle as well.] I bought a copy of New York Tendaberry at a yard sale and was immediately struck by the pure artistry of Nyro. It’s like there is no space between Laura and the song. Everything she has done feels so immediate and honest, and yet the arrangements are delicate and intricate but always feel natural, never contrived.  She’s had a huge impact on me, and I strive to be as true to the muse as she was. I even have her picture above my piano to remind me to listen to the soul of the song.  

I also feel there is special connection among Laura fans.  My car once broke down in winter in Provincetown and I had little money. I had stayed the night at a bed and breakfast, and sat down at the piano and played ‘The man who sends me home.’  The manager came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Keep playing Laura Nyro and you can stay here as long as you need to.’ 

Laura’s touched so many people.   

In 2007, Scott Billington (who produced Laura’s posthumous album Angel in the Dark) heard me play my song “Cold Rain” at a party, which led to the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, to record the track for her 2008 release Simply Grand.  What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? has become a staple in the Boston underground cabaret scene, and grown to include Nate Greenslit on drums, Courtenay Vandiver (Jethro Tull, Dave Stewart) on cello, and Lori Perkins on hammond organ. Our first full studio CD, And Other Stories, has just been released and is available for sale on CDBaby.com, eMusic.com and iTunes.

By the way, Desmond Child sang “The man who sends me home” at the Laura Nyro Memorial Concert in October of 1997 and it was extraordinary–there’s something about a man singing that song that makes it extra sexy, IMHO…

And I kissed him on Thursday

I don’t know much about Jenny Lewis, but I’d like to hear more from her. Especially since I found out that the ex-Rilo Kiley singer was inspired by Laura’s Gonna Take A Miracle album when she did her first solo undertaking, Rabbit Fur Coat.

Here, she and the Watson Twins perform the Laura-and-Labelle version of “I Met Him on a Sunday,” originally recorded by the Shirelles in 1958. (There’s another quite-different version they recorded in 1966–check out this rather hilarious playing of it by an audiophile.)  Jenny and the Twins leave out the “doo-sun-day-run-day-run-day-run-day-papa-doo-ron’s”–which I do miss.

So many things to be grateful for tomorrow. My family, partner, friends, doggies, house, city, world, president-elect and so much more. One special gratitude: The Internet. Can you even remember what our lives were like without it? The connections with people, the instance access to information and culture, the commerce, the depth of it all….

Have a wonderful Tofurkey day, Tribe!

I guess someone thought it was funny to mash up The Orlons’ song “Envy” with a horrifying scene from Fatal Attraction.

I don’t. But I didn’t want y’all to miss out on the song, which, as I mentioned in Soul Picnic, sounds like a direct influence on Laura’s “Blowin’ Away.” Agree??

The Orlons were one of those great Philly vocal groups, precursors to those produced by Gamble and Huff, who also produced Laura’s Gonna Take a Miracle. Kenny Gamble was also married to Dee Dee “Mashed Potatoes” Sharp, for whom The Orlons sang backup on some records.

Flim Flam Hip Hop Man

This is pretty infectious. I guess it’s meant to be rapped over (hey, Gil-T, check this out!).

Hey Love

Does this remind you of “Stoned Soul Picnic” or what?

The chording, the syncopation, the harmonies…

I guess Laura loved her a little Stevie.

You took my heart, misery

Enjoy this little discussion about the meaning of the title of one of my all-time favorite Nyro songs, “When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag” (from Christmas and the Beads of Sweat).

I always thought there was a double-entendre to “main drag”–on the one hand, it’s the most prominent street in a town, but on the other it’s something that really weighs you down. In my book, I suggested that there could be a play on the fact that the town of Freeport, Long Island held drag races … But as with all of Laura’s early lyrics, it’s the elusiveness that’s most appealing: You don’t really understand what she’s saying, but then again, somehow, you do.

A penny for your thoughts on this …

The elephant of the plain

In the zoo
They gave him a cage
Circus put a sparkle
On his face
Away from life
The elephant walks
Shadow across a dream …

Oh freedom

Lite a flame …

In “Lite a Flame,” Laura wrote about the heartbreak of elephants wrenched from their free lives and forced into cages, or killed for their ivory. A growing movement has taken root that has recognized the soul needs of elephants–who have very strong family systems, extreme sensitivity and high intellect along with their indelible memories–and is lobbying to remove them from zoos and circuses and send them to sanctuaries.

The biggest elephant sanctuary in the U.S. is in Hohenwald, Tennessee, and that’s where a 60-year-old Asian elephant named Shirley (my mother’s name, so she’s extra-special to me) has lived for the past 9 years. Before that, she spent 30 years in a circus, and then 20 years in a zoo where she was well cared for but the only elephant in residence.

In 2000, one part of a film called The Urban Elephant told the story of Shirley and her reunion with another elephant at the Tennessee sanctuary, Jenny. Watch the first part of their story above, then continue it here. If this doesn’t bring you to tears, you may not have a heart.

At The Elephant Sanctuary’s website, you can learn more about Shirley and her 13 other Asian sanctuary sisters, watch live images on the “Elecam,” and meet the 3 African elephants that reside in a separate section of the lush acreage. (Laura’s song is really about the larger-eared Africans–“the elephant of the plain”). In temporary residence there now, too, is a skin-and-bones male Asian, Ned, who’s recovering from neglectful treatment elsewhere and will eventually be sent to a sanctuary that accepts males (Hohenwald is strictly Big Girls Only).

Laura was an early visionary about the need to bridge the false separation between humans and animals. As she sang, oppression of animals is no different from that of people:

It’s like prejudice
For the color of your skin
Prejudice for a woman
Prejudice for an animal
Like the elephant of the plain

I had so much fun looking for “Eli’s Comin'” videos that I went YouTube surfing for other Laura covers and came up with this gem from Liza Minelli. Could the choreography be kookier, the outfits groovier, or the backup dancers gayer? Love the Japanese subtitles, too.

Couldn’t find a video of Frank Sinatra doing “Sweet Blindness” with The Fifth Dimension (I’ve seen it on a rented video)–but how about the Yale Redhot & Blue doing their very WASPy version?

Here’s Laura’s own downbeat rendition from the Bottom Line in 1978, illustrated by a gorgeous, voluptuous photo from I’m-not-sure-when. And finally, back to the source–the irresistibly happy and inebriated original from 1968.

Forty years later, this song’s as hot as ever.

Three Dog Night is still singing it (even with only Two Dogs on board). Justin Timberlake is singing it. It was played as a promo for the new TV show Eli Stone. And you could spend an hour on YouTube finding other versions of various entertainment value, ranging from the Yale Whiffenpoofs to some German school band to a choreographed version by Chantilly (Virginia) High School to an even classier high school song-and-dance rendition. Who would have imagined that Laura’s composition would become part of the standard high school repertoire?

As always with covers of Laura’s songs, I don’t think any version can match the original, with its ominous, propulsive drive. What a mixed message Laura sends: Doesn’t it seem that, while she may be running away from Eli, she actually wants to get caught? Any thoughts?

Okun and Odetta

odetta-milt-okun-4ef0da8

I’ve mentioned Milt Okun here before: He produced Laura’s first album, More Than A New Discovery, but also played a significant role in the careers of such artists as Peter, Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba and John Denver. Add to that list the legendary folksinger Odetta–who is pictured here with Milt backstage at a recent L.A. concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the great little Santa Monica folk club McCabe’s. Odetta’s 77–isn’t she gorgeous? And Milt’s 84–he looks fantastic.

I saw Odetta open for Elton John at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the early 1970s, a time when she ventured briefly into a pop-soul vein. All I remember from that night was the huge rush I got when Elton joined Odetta to sing “Take Me to the Pilot” (which she herself recorded in 1970). Odetta’s career goes way back–she started out in musical theater in the 40s, then joined the folk music movement of the 50s and was a huge influence on the likes of, oh, Dylan and Baez and Joplin. Check out these amazing performances from way back when. Odetta was still out performing this year, but is currently hospitalized with kidney failure. Say a prayer, y’all: Odetta is yearning to sing at our 44th president’s inaguration, and lord knows she deserves that honor. (And wouldn’t she just give Barack the boost he needs as he sets out to lead us through these challenging times!)

Thanks to Sherry Rayn Barnett for this photo–she’s an old friend, a fellow music nuthead (and a musician herself) and a terrific photographer. Two of her photos of Laura appear in my book, and she’s pretty much shot everyone who’s anyone in music over the past few decades. In her past life, she was also a member of a wonderful comedic women’s band of the 70s–check out The New Miss Alice Stone Ladies Society Orchestra. That’s Sherry on guitar, and my dear friend Miriam Cutler singing lead on “(They Say That) White Girls (Can’t Sing the Blues),” a premise it’s hard to disagree with when you listen to Odetta sing.

gw510h323

If you haven’t heard already, there will be an international protest against LGBTQ (XYZ…) discrimination this weekend at 10:30 a.m. PST (I’m a West Coaster, so pardon me for being PST-centric). To find out if there’s something happening at your community’s City Hall or courthouse, check out the amazing Join the Impact website, started just a week ago to organize the inchoate anger and hurt after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which amends the state’s constitution to take away the rights to same-sex marriage that the state’s Supreme Court had recently approved. Oh, those activist judges!! (Wait, only ONE of the seven was appointed by a Democrat?)

Lest we forget, there were two other state amendments banning gay marriage (Florida and Arizona) that passed on November 4th , and a successful initiative in Arkansas barring ANY unmarried couple from fostering or adopting a child. Overall, a good day for the haters. Or, rather, those who want to corner the market on love.

Check out Judith Warner’s wonderful-sad piece in the NY Times today.

Do I have to even try to connect this with the loving spirit of Laura Nyro?

I’ll see you in downtown L.A. tomorrow morning.

anna_magnani

[Anna Magnani]

Well, at least what one Italian–Giuseppe “Beppe” Colli, a Nyro fan in Italy who publishes the bilingual online music magazine Clouds and Clocks–thinks of Laura. He’s just published a review of the rereleased Nested. Check it out.

Laura Nyro (nee Nigro) was, of course, a quarter Italian, loved Italian men and women (including one-time husband David Bianchini and longtime love Maria Desiderio) and was a fan of Anna Magnani, especially in The Rose Tattoo.

Even a year ago, at age 75 (above), Miriam Makeba–who died yesterday shortly after a concert–was still shaking her South African groove thang. I own the vinyl of her album Pata Pata, from which the big-hit title song came. The 1960s were certainly an odd time on the Top 40–we had the usual American pop and soul and bubblegum fare, but an occasional foreign oddity (“Dominique” by Belgian nun Soeur Sourire, “Sukiyaki” by Japan’s Kyu Sakamoto and, yes, Makeba’s “Pata Pata”) snuck in.

I’m still, 45-some years later, trying to reproduce the Xhosa language “click” sound that peppered Makeba’s songs. She will always be remembered for bringing South African sounds to this country, for her great voice and captivating spirit, and for her surprising marriage to American black radical Stokely Carmichael (she was earlier married to that other famed South African musician, trumpeter Hugh Masekela).

Laura had to be aware of Makeba, was probably a fan, but I forgot until I googled their names together that I even mentioned Makeba in my Nyro bio! She’s in a footnote, because my Laura Nyro scholar buddy Patricia Rudden suggested to me that Makeba had multitracked her voice on an album before Laura did. An even stronger Nyro-Makeba connection is Milt Okun, who not only produced Laura’s debut album, More Than A New Discovery, but in 1960 produced Makeba’s debut, Miriam Makeba.

An anti-apartheid activist who was exiled from her homeland for decades, Miriam at least stayed around just long enough to know that America had finally ended our own form of apartheid last week. …

Laura’s fab sidemen

fabfaux

They’ve been doing this for a decade, but I only learned recently about The Fab Faux, a group of top-notch musicians that faithfully reproduce Beatles songs. The Laura connection here is bassist Will Lee  (recorded with her on Smile and Nested) and guitarist Jimmy Vivino (toured with her in 1988-89, appears on the Live at the Bottom Line album). Both of them were kind enough to do interviews with me for my Nyro bio. If you’ve read the book, you might remember that Lee’s a member of Paul Shaeffer’s band on David Letterman’s show and Vivino is in Max Weinberg’s band on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The drummer in the Faux is Rich Pagano (could he be the brother of Frank Pagano, who played with Laura and Vivino in the 88-89 band?).

It might be a little late notice for the show they’re performing tonight, at Queens College , but at the end of the year (December 26 and 27) they’re doing two shows at Terminal 5 in NYC, the first consisting of Abbey Road and Let It Be and the second The White Album.

If you’re wondering why these guys do this, I think the cartoon above at least tries to explain it. I love musical obsessives!

I’m really missing Coretta Scott King right now.

She fearlessly spoke out in favor of gay rights. Here’s what she said in a speech 10 years ago:

Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood. This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group.

Coretta passed nearly three years ago (on my birthday, coincidentally). But we need a voice like hers more than ever, because the saddest stats I read about the election were these: Gay Americans voted 70 percent for Obama. Black Americans voted 70 percent against gay marriage in California.

Something’s really wrong here. Those 70 percent in the African-American community are forgetting the truth that all oppressions are equally abhorent. They may even have forgotten that it was just 41 years ago that the Supreme Court voted to allow interracial marriage, in the Loving v. Virginia case.

loving

[Mildred and Richard Loving]

Just as the civil rights struggle of the 60s was joined by Jews with a fresh memory of their own oppression, now is the time for black Americans to realize that the gay rights struggle is theirs as much as anyone’s. Coretta realized this, and eloquently spoke truth to bigotry. Barack came out against Proposition 8, but it was too little too late (and, frankly, the No on 8 campaign left much to be desired). Still… we need powerful new voices to take Coretta’s place.

There’s more than one King at the glory river. Please, my black sisters and brothers, come on down.

Can I get an Amen?

From Laura Nyro’s great progenitor, Nina Simone… This says it all.

Stand!!

My friend Gilda Zwerman, a sociology prof at SUNY Old Westbury, was a red diaper baby. Laura was a red diaper grandchild. No question, Laura would have smiled at what Gilda wrote to her friends tonight:

i dedicate this e-mail to my mother and to sly stone
 
in 1958 when i entered the first grade at p.s. 64, in brooklyn,  my mother told me that  when the national anthem was played, i was to remain seated.  when asked why, i was told to say that i would stand when the  board of education found a way to integrate the public schools in new york city.  as you know, i have remained seated for a half century.  i hereby announce that as of 11/4/08, i will be standing.

Let it please be him

The first couple of lines of the chorus perfectly express my mood this morning …

Go Barack, go!!!! I feel I can safely say that you have the endorsement of the spirit of Laura Nyro…

All I can think of tonight is the election, and that makes me hear the song “Save the Country” over and over in my head, like a mantra, like a prayer. So of course I went searching for a version to put in a post, because you’ve all seen the one of Laura on the Kraft Music Hall–which has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube, by the way.

Forget the Fifth Dimension‘s take on the song–way too cheery (but love their clothes!). Lo and behold, I just discovered Bobby Darin’s live nightclub version (above). Darin was the guy who 1) Laura took her songs to early in her career (he had a publishing company), and he told her to go home and write something like “What Kind of Fool Am I.” When she returned, she played him “What Kind of Fool Are You.” 2) Hosted the Kraft Music Hall special, which remains the only extant video of Nyro performing in her early heyday.

I think Bobby’s version is surprisingly good–big band arrangement (a la Blood Sweat & Tears), heavy on the funk, and he’s in great voice.

Bottom line… Come on down to the glory river and vote for a big change in this country of ours. We’re definitely in need of salvation tomorrow.

Silverlight shines

I always thought it was too-good-to-be-true serendipity that, when Laura was recording the album Mother’s Spiritual, two of the musicians she chose to work with were surnamed Silverlight and Sunshine. Say their names together and it sounds like a Nyro lyrical line.

If you’ve read my book, you might remember that drummer Terry Silverlight and bassist Elysa Sunshine, along with guitarist John Bristow, spent nearly two years, on and off, practicing, demo’ing and finally committing to vinyl (remember records?) the 13 songs that made up Laura’s 1984 album. I’ve interviewed each of them, and they’re all three lovely people who still occasionally keep in touch.

Thought I’d give a shout out to Terry today: He has a new CD and will be performing with his band in NYC on November 12. All the info is here. Continuing the network of Nyro connections, the top musicians backing Terry on his CD include Lew Soloff (of Blood Sweat & Tears fame), who performed that lung-busting, stratospheric trumpet part at the end of the album version of “Save the Country” (see page 78 of my book for that story), and bassist Will Lee (of David Letterman band fame), who played with Laura on both Smile and Nested. Will also plays in Terry’s band.

Of course I can’t help myself from YouTubing and Googling John and Elysa as well, and here are a few little gems I’ve come up with:

–John convincingly covers Pink Floyd.

–Elysa playing and singing behind soul singer Vinny St. Marten

–Elysa’s daughter Tiana, who toddled around with Laura’s son Gil way back when in Danbury, is now a sweet-voiced musician herself.

Get ya get ya ya-yas!

Labelle is back!! Thirty-two years after they broke up as a trio, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash have recorded another album, Back to Now, and plan on touring. I haven’t heard any of the songs yet–have you? What do you think?

Any Laura Nyro fan worth her/his salt knows the role Labelle played in Laura’s oeuvre: They added those wild, wailing background vocals to Gonna Take A Miracle, lending real-deal Philly soul to Laura’s homage to her own teen spirit. The album still remains a favorite; in fact, Out magazine recently judged it #39 on its list of the 100 Gayest Albums of all time, just one ranking below the beloved Dusty in Memphis.

Everyone knows where Patti LaBelle went after the group busted up–top of the charts–but Nona also put out some stellar solo albums (can’t say I ever heard from Sarah in all these years). I’ve always loved Nona’s voice, and saw her perform a few times (she’s in amazing shape).

OK, here are more more roundabout connections between Labelle and Laura and Vicki Wickham (Nona’s longtime partner, and the woman who introduced Laura and Patti) and Dusty, plus my old friend Norma Tanega. Labelle’s first big hit, of course, was “Lady Marmalade,” which was written by Bob Crewe. Bob produced Norma’s one-hit wonder, “Walking My Cat Named Dog,” which was arranged by Herb Bernstein. Herb arranged Laura’s first album, More Than A New Discovery. Norma went to England to promote “Dog,” met Dusty, and ended up moving in with her. Dusty was managed, on and off, by Vicki. Vicki also managed Labelle…. and around it goes.

I’ve got fury in my soul

A few posts back I briefly mentioned Billy Bragg doing “Save the Country” in a recent show–and now I’ve discovered a video of him performing his lovely version of Laura’s immortal call to action.

Although you can hardly understand Bragg’s Essex accent, the first six minutes or so of the tape, in which Bragg raps about the coming election, are worth a listen: The passionate Brit folk singer reminds us that we musn’t give into cynicism if President Obama doesn’t fulfill all of our wildest dreams. We must remember, instead, that if Barack does win, “We will live in a world of possibilities.”

So come on, people!

Surry on down to Tampa Bay

If you’re near the Tampa Bay area in early November, check out Nyro fan Barry Silber’s play about Our Laura, And a World to Carry On. Co-written with Carole Coppinger and directed by Silber, it plays on November 7, 8 (at 8 p.m.) and 9th (3 p.m.) at the Carrollwood Players Theater, 4335 Gunn Highway, Tampa.

The show is a benefit for the community theater. And it’s only $10–a bargain!

Elphaba is … Laura?

From an interview with Gregory Maguire, author of the 1995 novel Wicked, upon which the musical of the same name was based:

Q. What nonfictional character from history or modern culture would you like to re-imagine or reveal the secret history of?

A. My nonfictional heroines include Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson and Laura Nyro, who are all dead, sadly. In a way, Elphaba is based on all three of them.

UPDATE: More from Maguire on how he imagined Elphaba:

In her college years, I imagined her as [songwriter] Laura Nyro: long dark hair, beautiful voice and a lot of passion. Later on, I imagined her as young Virginia Woolf, who used to call her sister Vanessa “Nessa.” I was thinking of Edwardian young women not allowed into the same colleges as their boyfriends or brothers. In the second half of the story, when she goes to the castle and becomes a recluse, I thought of her as Emily Dickinson, who was so far ahead of her time, it took half a century to catch up to her. I liked that [Dickinson] had had the courage to withdraw from a community that was not healthy for her.

Melissa and Jill

I thought I was oh-so-clever with my “C’mon and marry me, Jill” post about Proposition 8, and now I read that Melissa Etheridge had the same idea at a big fancy No on Prop. 8 fundraiser in L.A.! In other homage-to-Nyro news, I read that Billy Bragg performed “Save the Country” in a recent set. Guess Laura’s on a lot of people’s minds in these last few days before Nov. 4….

Give me my freedom …


The first cover of a Laura Nyro composition–“And When I Die”–was recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary in 1966. The connection between the folk stars and the young composer was made through Laura’s first producer, Milt Okun–a lovely guy, by the way, who even showed up at my L.A. book signing back in 2002. Milt, at the time Laura met him, was working with three popular folk acts–the Brothers Four, Chad Mitchell Trio, and PPM. Decades later, after Laura’s death, he began to administer her song catalog through his Cherry Lane Music Publishing, but I don’t see her name now on their roster (anyone have an update on this?).

I just came across this great YouTube clip (above) of Peter, Paul and Mary singing “And When I Die” at the building site of the Sydney Opera House (!) in 1970. It’s so nostalgic of that era. Enjoy!

Can you just imagine how excited Laura Nyro would have been at the thought of Barack Obama being president of the United States? I don’t want to count my president before the votes are cast (or counted!), but I can’t help but be cautiously excited.

Of course Laura, like all of us, was frustrated by the realities of U.S. politics (“Save the Country,” anyone?). Yet no one was a more righteous American than her–America being a promise, a dream, a shining hope. How many times she used the word America in her songs (“Christmas in My Soul,” “American Dove,” “American Dreamer” … have I forgotten any?).

And then there’s the terrific song she recorded during the dark days of the Reagan Administration, “The Right to Vote.” It’s snarky. It’s pretty hopeless. Yet it’s funny, and we laugh along with her disdain of The System.

Thank you sirs for the right to vote
Bet you didn’t know I had a voice in my throat
Now let’s see should I vote for “A” or “B”
“A” talks a lot
But not to me
“B” wants war
Kill or flunk
Forget the vote – I’ll just go out and get drunk

They say a woman’s place
Is to wait and serve
Under the veil
Submissive and dear
But I think my place
Is in a ship from space
To carry me
The hell out of here

Patriarchal great religions
Full of angels
Forgiving and fair
While they push the buttons and blow up the place
Might as well
Make room for a worthier race

They say a woman’s place
Is to wait and serve
Under the veil
Submissive and dear
But I think my place
Is in a ship from space
To carry me
The hell out of here

All the colors in a race riot
In the land of the free
All the women are on a diet
I’m hungry
Are you hungry
I’m hungry
So hungry
For peace and quiet

Thank you sirs for the right to vote
The microwave
And the old mink coat
Now let’s see should I vote for “A” or “B”
“A” talks a lot
But not to me
“B” wants war
Kill or flunk
Forget the vote – I’ll just go out and get drunk

They say a woman’s place

A woman’s place

I won’t forget the vote November 4, but I absolutely plan to go out and get drunk that night. I just hope it’s because I’m celebrating, not because I need to anesthesize myself for the next four years.

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