Monday, August 15, 2005

Girl Group Doo Wop Brill Building Heaven

Gonna Take a Miracle [Expanded]
Laura Nyro with LaBelle

When I saw this CD in my local B&N last week it was all I could do not to scream, I was that ecstatic. Even if I had screamed, I'm sure the guys behind the counter would not have flinched. They're used to me coming in, usually looking for something that's a little bit off the beaten track, and then when I find it they have to put up with 10 minutes of me waxing rhapsodic about how fabulous whatever it is, is.

Now you must understand, my LP version of Gonna Take A Miracle is 34 years old, and for at least the last 25 of those years it's been unplayable, thanks to a certain ex's surefire breakup technique:

1) take a paperclip.
2) bend one end of paperclip outward.
3) take Terrible Soon-to-be Ex-girlfriend's favorite LP out of its cover.
4) apply sharp outwardly-pointing end of paperclip to LP.
5) repeat step 4 ten or eleven times

Not to mention that my cat Sonny sprayed boy-kitty spunk all over it.

But was all that enough to make me throw the LP away? Oh god no. I tried scrubbing off the cat jizz but nothing could get rid of the reek, so I wrapped it in 3-mil poly and eventually it got stashed away in boxes with all the other vinyl. For a long time it was so painful to remember how much I loved that record that I put it out of my mind completely for lo these many years, never seeking it out on CD until suddenly: there it was! In re-mastered, reissued and EXPANDED CD format! And it was all I could do not to do the ecstatic scream thing.

In the late 60s and into the 70s, there was a succession of female singer-songwriters who provided the soundtrack to my life. Sometimes it would be Joni Mitchell singing A Case of You; other times it would be Judy Collins singing Marat/Sade
but most often it was Laura Nyro singing New York Tendaberry

My mother, bless her eternally well-intentioned but incurably ditsy heart, would put up with Laura Nyro playing nonstop on the clunky big console stereo in the dining room of our house in south Minneapolis; endless hours of Bronx-born Jewish/Italian Nyro wailing, until finally Mom would say:
"Honey, would you please turn that colored woman down!?"

And after I got through laughing, of course I would. Turn the volume down on Laura Nyro, I mean. At least, I did until Gonna Take A Miracle came out in 1971. Then whenever it was on the turntable the volume was always cranked up to 11. Always.

Laura Nyro and Patti Labelle happened to meet in 1971 and discovered they were rabid fans of each other's music. They shared a love for the kind of music they grew up singing, the a capella arrangements soaring up from street corners and echoing in train station stairwells. Laura was already beginnning to gravitate towards that style in her newest album Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, which included the Goffin-King song Up On the Roof. With Laura singing lead vocals backed by soul trio "Labelle", which included Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sara Dash, they decided to do an entire album of nothing but covers of those girl group, doo wop, Brill Building Sound songs from the early 60s.

The liner notes say there was a very tight six-day window to record in, but the singers spent so much time just "vibing" together that 5 days went by without recording a single note. So the recording was all done on that sixth and last day, and because of the time constraints, most of the tracks are first takes. For that reason, and even more because of the obvious love and bond between the musicians that manifests on every track, the sheer power and raw emotion of this album knocks you right back on your ass.

This record was the soundtrack to our days in 1971 and 1972 and 1973, and by "our days" I mean mine and Annie's and Chris's and Greta's and Barbara's and California Chris's and a couple other women whose names I've forgotten now.

We were white, Scandy, Lutheran girls attending a small liberal arts college in rural Minnesota. More important [to us, anyway] was that we were also Earth mothers; girl freaks; hippie chicks; and Amazons [plus one Little French Waif]. We felt deeply. We had raised consciousness. We had passion in our souls. We had sisterhood, and sisterhood was powerful. This was our music, and we did not share it with men. Ever. [Oooh, like they felt so left out. Of course, guys were unbelievably relieved to not have to listen to this stuff.]

Gonna Take a Miracle could be a good soundtrack for those times when we were newly in love and life was a never-ending stoned soul picnic, but more frequently it was the soundtrack when relationships went sour. When love went bad and nothing was ever going to be the same ever again.

And by "love" we didn't mean that Incense and Peppermints I Got You Babe crapola.
No, even then we knew that what we meant was Crazy love. Obsessive love. Years Of Psychotherapy In Your Future love. Restraining Order love. Love so wild and scary that white Scandy Lutheran girls --even progressive counterculture ones-- would never be able to express it in song. Only dark, ethnic, New York women, with their powerful voices and gritty strength were capable of really, really, really singing about that kind of love.

These are the tracks that appeared on the original release in 1971:

1. I Met Him on a Sunday
[doo Sunday ronday ronday ronday boppa doo ron]
2. The Bells
[remember, if you ever leave me I'll go insane!]
3. Monkey Time/Dancing in the Street
[wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate]
4. Desiree*
5. You've Really Got a Hold on Me
6. Spanish Harlem
[love's growing in the street, right up through the concrete]
7. Jimmy Mack
[that boy he keeps coming around/he's trying to wear my resistance down]
8. The Wind*
9. Nowhere to Run
[cuz I know you're no good for me, but free of you I never will be]
10.It's Gonna Take a Miracle
[didn't you know/it wouldn't be so easy letting you go?]

*If you had to skip any, I'd say skip the two dreamy, ethereal cuts "Desiree" and "The Wind". We don't want that "wispy" "breathy" "dreamy" love shit. No! We want obsessive compulsive love like "You Really Got a Hold On Me" and psychotic I- hear- voices- nobody- else- can- hear love like "The Bells"!

The expanded part of the CD is four previously-unreleased tracks from a May 30, 1971 performance at the Fillmore East. Just Laura at the piano, first riffing through Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing and then a segue to You Make me Feel Like a Natural Woman and then a verse of Ooh Child Things Are Gonna Get Easier, and finally you can hear a collective ecstatic gasp from the audience as they recognize the opening of Up On The Roof.

It's sweet soulful psycho girl music. And

no, Ma, I will NOT turn that colored woman down.

This post also appears here.

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