Tiggerlion on Gonna Take A Miracle by Laura Nyro and LaBelle released 17/11/1971
Laura Nyro was brought up in The Bronx. She was the product of Russian/Polish/Jewish/Italian ancestry, her father a piano tuner and musician, her mother a book-keeper. She was introverted as a child and spent long hours, alone, listening to her mother’s records, ranging from Nina Simone to Ravel. She taught herself piano, read a lot of poetry and composed her first songs at the age of eight. At Manhattan’s High School Of Music & Art, she cut a desultory figure. According to Janis Ian, a fellow pupil at the time, pale with long, dark hair, she had the air of “the full Morticia” decades before Goth was invented. However, once the school bell rang, she liked nothing better than singing joyful songs on subways and street corners harmonising with a group of other girls.
At the age of nineteen, she found herself in a studio recording her debut album. The singer/songwriter genre was in its early stages but, even so, she stood out. Her songs are full of drama and intensity, driven by the piano and featuring multiple rhythm changes and jazz motifs. They sound personal but remain elusive. Her style is instantly recognisable yet other performers felt they could easily impose their personality on her songs. Despite a dedicated audience, she became more successful as a writer than a performer. Clive Davis, the boss of Columbia, who bought her out of her previous deal, described her albums as demonstrations for others to follow. She’d been canny enough to form a publishing company with David Geffen, each with a fifty per cent share of the profits. Fifth Dimension had hits with Wedding Bell Blues, Blowing Away, Sweet Blindness and Stone Soul Picnic, Blood Sweat & Tears with When I Die, Three Dog Night with Eli’s Comin’, and Barbara Streisand covered Stoney End and I Never Meant To Hurt You. Royalties were so productive, she and Geffen sold Tuna Fish Music for $4.5 million. At just twenty-two, she was a millionaire with nothing left to prove.
Her first album for Columbia, Eli And The Thirteenth Confession, is the one with exuberant, uplifting songs. The second, New York Tendaberry is more introspective but full of gospel fervour. The third, Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat, is R&B on side one, assisted by the hundred carat soul pedigree of The Swampers from Muscle Shoals, and almost a symphony on side two. All three aspects came together for her fourth and contract ending album: exuberance, gospel and R&B. It is easy to assume Gonna Take A Miracle, an album of covers, probably the first of its kind by an artist who primarily writes their own material, is a half-hearted contractual obligation record but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a carefully thought-through expression of an artist’s heart and soul that could only be achieved in collaboration with a group of sisters, sympathetic and supportive producers and stellar musicians.
The album had its germ of origin on the album, Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat, when Laura covered Up On The Roof, a Goffin/King composition originally performed by The Drifters. However, that germ sprang roots on the day Vicki Wickham, a TV producer and music manager, interviewed Laura Nyro. She brought along her client Patti LaBelle and the pair became engrossed in conversation, the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Patti accompanied Laura on tour as her cook and general companion. Up to that point, she was best known as the leader of the BlueBells, a girl group with big hair, matching outfits and synchronised dance steps. It was no coincidence that Patti dated Otis Williams of The Temptations nor that one of the members, Cindy Birdsong, left to replace Florence Ballard in The Supremes. By 1970, they had remained a trio, with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, shortened their name to LaBelle and were looking to appeal more to a Rock audience. Lady Marmalade and space age suits were five years away.
Putting a list of songs together that they all loved was the easy part. Recruiting Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, just as they were launching the Philadelphia International Records label, was a masterstroke. Their feel of the material was second to none and their production skills exemplary. They also had a book full of ace musicians to call on: Norman Harris & Roland Chambers guitar, Ronnie Baker bass, Jim Helmer drums, Lenny Pakula organ, Larry Washington & “Liberty” Mata bongos and Vincent Montana Jr. percussion, all gathered together for two weeks at Sigma Sound Studios.
The keys that unlocked the magic were the arrangements. Any preconceptions Gamble and Huff had, or Laura herself, were quickly abandoned. As excited as she was at the prospect of playing with these musicians, they, on the other hand, struggled to adapt to her quirks and foibles. It took a little while, a great deal of discussion and considerable patience to lock into her groove and accommodate her dynamism. A great fan of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, who had supported her in full-on Bitches Brew mode at The Fillmore East, she had McCoy Tyner-esque pedal points and fourth chords. Gamble and Huff needed to shape the R&B of the band around Laura’s stylings and LaBelle’s doo-wop gospel while staying true to the songs. They did so with affection and warmth and a little help from their friends, Thom Bell for the strings and Bobby Martin and Pakula for the horns.
Straight away, the album puts us in the subway of Laura’s youth as she sings her heart out with the three women, singing in the round, a capella, accompanied only by handclaps and finger snaps, each taking a line in turn. The song is I Met Him On A Sunday by The Shirelles, issued in 1958, a perfect example of “favorite teenage heartbeat music” as Laura described it. They go straight to their wellspring of joy. It’s impossible to listen to it without being uplifted. Laura, Patti, Nona and Sarah must have felt like teenagers again. However, it segues into The Originals’ The Bells, a performance that implodes lost innocence almost halfway through. These are not women on a nostalgia trip. They are grown, matured, experienced, damaged even, but no less passionate and no less subject to the vagaries of love. The vocals swoop and holler over Thom Bell’s restrained strings, almost, but not quite, untethered and deranged. Marvin Gaye had co-written and produced the song for his backing group but this version puts the backing vocalists on an equal footing with the lead and keeps the production to a minimum.
The Monkey Time/Dancing In The Streets is where the party starts with purses on the floor and snakebite for fuel. Major Lance and Martha Reeves have never felt so free and uninhibited. There is no hint of insurrection here. They take on face value the exhortation to dance. It’s track three of ten and the band kick in properly for the first time. Helmer’s drumming keeps Laura’s piano sharp. She is definitely the focal point, taking the lead throughout, with LaBelle proclaiming encouragement. By the last minute, when the horns finally play the famous riff and the repeated “don’t forget The Motor City”, the girls have kicked off their shoes, let their hair down and are waving their arms above their heads.
Desiree is the secret teenage crush hidden in a private diary. An obscurity by The Charts, its place on the album seems odd, sandwiched between two big dance numbers, until you realise that Laura’s longest relationship, one lasting most of her adult life, was with Maria Desiderio. LaBelle are solemn and attentive as they cross their hearts and swear to die. Its quiet simplicity, just piano, vibraphone and voices, is its beauty.
You Really Got A Hold On Me is another signature tune for Tamla Motown and Smokey Robinson in particular, and was thrillingly covered by The Beatles no less. As such, it has a special place in every music lover’s heart. In 1973, it was a bold decision to do another version. Whereas Smokey just seemed to want a hug and Lennon was vulgar in his desire for sex, Laura and LaBelle begin with the confused kindling of first love. Then, hormones enraged by the relentless rhythm section, the ecstasy in the voices increase and there is no denying they are experiencing a collective sexual awakening. It’s a remarkable conclusion to side one. First up on side two, Spanish Harlem has the feel of a morning after. LaBelle’s role is performed by horns that maintain a discrete distance, as though they are birds in a tree outside, as Laura wakes with her Spanish rose, “with eyes as black as coal, that look down into my soul/And starts a fire there and then I lose control.” As Aretha had already proved, it’s a song that suits the female voice extremely well, and there is tone in Laura’s, a belief, as her heart opens up, like a flower blossoming, that tells us love is a miracle.
Within one more heartbeat, another boy catches her eye. Jimmy Mack is free, relaxed and glad to be alive. The groove rolls around the piano just as the LaBelle’s backing ‘woo’s envelope the lead voice and, again, the handclaps take us to the street corners of the Bronx. The Wind is the oldest song, a doo-wop classic by Nolan Strong and the Diablos, released when Laura was a child. They treat it with respect, the voices harmonising beautifully, anchored by a quiet piano and vibraphone. It’s nostalgic about a lost love, a wistful daydream before the big finish.
Nowhere To Run, a third Martha Reeves and The Vandellas song, is a tour de force. The Motown original is centred on the rhythm section of Bennie Benjamin and James Jefferson. Baker’s bass pops and squirms as brightly as Jefferson’s and tambourine and handclaps solidify the beat, but, on this version, it’s the vocals that steal the limelight. The song is stretched to double its length by inventive harmonising of the title phrase, spinning with delight rather than twisting with the paranoia of the words themselves. The effect is hypnotic. The finale is the title track, a song of heartbreak originally by the girl group The Royalettes. It is entirely built around Laura’s emotional range from hushed sorrow to a roaring grief, LaBelle matching her all the way, cushioned by a sensitive string arrangement and Laura’s own piano.
These ten tracks, eleven songs, five of which are Tamla Motown, map a route around and through a young girl’s heart. These are songs designed to move an audience both physically and emotionally. Revisited and refashioned by grown women, they carry greater resonance. Gonna Take A Miracle is an album about an individual, the best expression of her career, but, also, that of a collective, a group. It captures the conflict and dichotomy of adolescence, being both shy and brazen at the same time. Laura Nyro was known as a singer/songwriter, bracketed with Carole King and Joni Mitchell, someone who created and performed music essentially by herself. She could have made another inward looking album like Tapestry or Blue but, instead, opened herself up, wilfully rejected her categorisation and immersed herself in a collective endeavour. On an album consisting entirely of other people’s songs, she found the perfect vehicle to articulate the myriad aspects of her personality. It’s also an album of liberation, a shrugging from the shoulders of the burdens of responsibility, the responsibility of living up to the music business’s unrealistic expectations. It’s the sound of Laura Nyro pleasing herself.
She intended Gonna Take A Miracle to be her swansong as she retired to quiet domesticity as soon as recording finished. The dark cloud that overshadows this album is that at the tender age of twenty-four, Laura Nyro was worn out, to such a degree she felt old before her time and longed for her ‘youth’. She wasn’t hard-wired to cope with fame, struggled with the attention it brought, the hyperbolic marketing and suffering from crippling stage fright. The sleeve, reflecting her personality, is understated, a natural looking portrait against an innocuous green background and with mostly lower case font. Her marriage failed, she had a son by another lover and made a comeback in 1975 when she regained control of her music and her destiny. She observed the business from the arm’s length of a lower-key career, focussing on evolving her art and balancing her need to express herself with a full family life. She set up home with Maria Desiderio and lived happily ever after. She died at the age forty-nine of ovarian cancer, the same age and disease as her mother.
Gonna Take A Miracle is a crowd-pleaser of an album that demonstrates the power of music to bring together people from different backgrounds and cultures. Recorded at a time when musical tribes were fracturing, it speaks to kinship and common ground, about how we, as humans, are basically the same, with similar experiences and feelings. It’s about caring and sharing and bringing out the best in each other. It tells a love story, a public one with music with a hint of a personal one with Maria. The music within the LP’s grooves is more positive and hopeful than any other record released in that bumper year of 1971. Gonna Take A Miracle is a small miracle in itself, enough to make you believe in true love and restore your faith in the ability of the even the most fragile amongst us to stand firm and assert their true personality.
You Really Got A Hold On Me