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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!!!!