Take her to the Pilot


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?


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