by Jeff Fiedler
To those familiar with her, Laura Nyro’s own albums are a marvel in and of themselves, and the string of albums she would cut for Columbia during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in particular (Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, and the all-covers Gonna Take a Miracle) especially demand to be heard by any serious music buff. Her influence as both a performer and songwriter can be detected in everyone from Rickie Lee Jones and Kate Bush to Elton John and super-fan Todd Rundgren. But Nyro was also perhaps a bit too idiosyncratic and her own arrangements a bit too Broadway-like to work all that well on Top 40 radio (although her own surprisingly soulful reading of “Stoned Soul Picnic,” to be found on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, really should have done the trick), and she’d notoriously never manage to score a hit of her own. [Ironically, her only single to dent the Hot 100 at all – peaking at #92 – was a dramatically slowed-down and mellow reading of a song she didn’t even write: the Carole King-Gerry Goffin penned Drifters hit “Up on the Roof.”] But the lack of her own success as a performer aside, Nyro remains one of the most legendary songwriters of all-time and for good reason, and not merely because of her distinctive style: as the following artists all proved, it was possible to actually turn Nyro songs into commercial gold, and from the years between 1968 and 1972, Nyro’s material was hot property indeed for artists searching for obscure cover material to put their own stamp on and bring to public attention, and the following six albums would make her an industry heavyweight:
Stoned Soul Picnic, The 5th Dimension (1968, Soul City)
Often dismissed by critics as lightweight soul, the 5th Dimension remain a very underrated band and one of the finest vocal groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s. While its members seldom wrote or co-wrote any original material, it didn’t need to: the quintet had remarkably excellent taste in cover material, helping to give such tremendous up-and-coming talents as Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro wider exposure. Stoned Soul Picnic was the group’s third album (following Up, Up and Away and the near-entirely-Webb-penned The Magic Garden) but the first of many to include material penned by Nyro, in this case the soulful sway of the Top Ten-charting title track and the alternately woozy and peppy “Sweet Blindness,” the latter song a perfect example of Nyro’s gift for straddling the line between pop music and Broadway-styled fare. Nyro’s tunes are undeniably the highlights of the disc, but there’s other fine material scattered throughout, from the Ashford-and-Simpson-penned “California Soul” to several tunes penned by a young Jeff Comanor, best known for writing England Dan & John Ford Coley’s Top Ten smash “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again.”
Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blood, Sweat & Tears (1969, Columbia)
Most critics tend to prefer the group’s less commercial debut disc, Child Is Father to the Man, the only album the jazz-rock band would release before its founder, Al Kooper, jumped ship, but the group didn’t truly become a household name until the arrival of new lead vocalist David Clayton-Thomas and the release of this self-titled sophomore effort, all three singles from which would climb all the way to Number Two. The disc – which would unsurprisingly go on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year – was a captivating and experimental hodgepodge of styles that saw the group eschewing the debut album’s emphasis on original material (there are only three self-penned tunes here, though they’re all winners, particularly the horn-heavy jazz-rock of the Clayton-Thomas-penned smash hit “Spinning Wheel” and the contrasting calm of Steve Katz’s lovely “Sometime in Winter”). Instead, the group puts its focus this time around on a wildly diverse selection of covers spanning everything from Traffic (“Smiling Phases”) and Motown covers (Brenda Holloway’s “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” which could only climb as high as #39 in its original incarnation) to dramatically less obvious sources, like Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child” or, even more unpredictably, classical composer Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies,” which both opens and closes the disc to brilliant effect. The group would also give Nyro a second Top Three hit by covering “And When I Die,” a song that wouldn’t seem to be very obvious single material at first glance, never mind a Number Two hit (the gospel-tinged song’s structure is fairly complicated, changing tempo throughout) but fits into Blood, Sweat & Tears’ wheelhouse perfectly and is honed into something shockingly radio-friendly in their hands.
The Aqe of Aquarius, The 5th Dimension (1969, Soul City)
The 5th Dimension closed out the ‘60s on a high note, delivering the biggest-selling full-length of their career (and a Grammy nominee for Album of the Year, at that, losing – fittingly enough – to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ similarly Nyro-boosting self-titled sophomore outing) in The Age of Aquarius. Though the album does ultimately start to feel a bit padded in its back half (if only due to the presence of covers of recent Top 40 fare like Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days”), the group also never made another album quite as loaded with hit singles as this. There is, of course, the album’s chart-topping opening medley, which cleverly fuses the opening and closing numbers of the Broadway musical Hair (“Aquarius” and the gospel-tinged “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In),” the latter showcasing a fiery Billy Davis Jr. at his very best) to glorious effect, but there are several delightful lost hits to be found here as well, including the Neil Sedaka-penned “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing” (one of his most underrated compositions) and the Nyro-penned “Blowin’ Away.” But it’s the other Nyro-penned song here that would become her most well-known. Ironically, the decision both to record “Wedding Bell Blues” and to have Marilyn McCoo sing the lead vocal (“Come on and marry me, Bill!”) was wholly an inside joke for diehard fans and friends aware of McCoo’s engagement to fellow band member Billy Davis Jr., the couple still having yet to choose a wedding date at the time of the recording session. [Happily, the couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary this year, a true rarity in Hollywood.] But McCoo’s performance on the cut (it was perhaps inevitable that she’d thereafter go on to be the group’s most frequent lead vocalist and eventually leave the group, her and Davis going on to record as a duo through the back half of the ‘70s, even scoring a Number One of their own with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (to Be in My Show”) was too vibrant and charismatic and the final recording so breezy and fun that the intended filler cut just cried out for release as a single, and Nyro would be rewarded with her first – and, sadly, only – Number One hit as a composer.
Suitable for Framing, Three Dog Night (1969, Dunhill)
Like the 5th Dimension, the members of Three Dog Night could actually write songs when they felt like it (check out the delightfully silly and surprisingly infectious “Our B-Side,” the band’s self-penned B-side to “Shambala” that pokes fun of their tendency to eschew original material) but were typically content to simply search out the best songs they could find (this disc even includes a reading of “Lady Samantha,” a pre-solo-stardom composition from no less than Elton John), and that humility served them well: the band would go on to be one of the ten most successful acts of the Seventies, racking up over twenty Top 40 hits before calling it a day and helping to raise awareness of such cult songwriters as Randy Newman, John Hiatt, and, of course, Nyro. There are several notable singles to be found here: the jubilant “Celebrate” (a Top Twenty hit), a stirring reading of “Easy to Be Hard” (like “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” taken from the musical Hair) that would give the band their second Top Five hit (following their cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One”), and perhaps most significantly of all, Nyro’s “Eli’s Comin’,” which would reach the Top Ten and prove once and for all that Nyro’s songs could be adapted into full-blown rock songs without losing any of their emotional or theatrical power.
Portrait, The 5th Dimension (1970, Bell)
Jumping labels to Bell (then also home to The Partridge Family and Tony Orlando and Dawn), the quintet stumbled somewhat commercially – but triumphed artistically – with their first full-length for the imprint, Portrait, which found the group stretching its wings with such fare as the wordless jazz vamps of “Dimension 5ive” and a medley that combined a musical reading of the words of the Declaration of Independence with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and the Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free.” But the group didn’t neglect its pop fans, either, turning in another string of hits that included Neil Sedaka’s “Puppet Man” and a definitive reading (again, courtesy of McCoo) of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David gem “One Less Bell to Answer” that would go all the way to Number Two. There’s just one Nyro tune this time around, but it’s a great one: a group reading of the New York Tendaberry standout “Save the Country,” which brought some considerable radio polish to the song’s largely theatrical bent and would give Nyro another hit, reaching #27.
Stoney End, Barbra Streisand (1971, Columbia)
Arguably the hippest album she ever made (with the sole possible exception of 1980’s Barry Gibb-helmed Guilty), Streisand took a lot of listeners aback with this record, jettisoning the largely-show-tune-oriented format of her ‘60s albums in favor of a more traditional pop/rock record, one produced by Richard Perry (best known for his work with Carly Simon, Nilsson, and Leo Sayer) and featuring several members of the all-female rock band Fanny (“Charity Ball,” “Butter Boy”) as backing players. [Randy Newman, Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, and “Gimme Shelter” backing vocalist Merry Clayton are just a few of the other all-stars who appear on the record.] Streisand stays firmly in the pop wheelhouse throughout the disc, covering such contemporary writers as Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Nilsson, and Newman himself, but it’s the three Nyro tunes here – all released as singles – that left the biggest impression on critics and the record-buying public alike. “Time and Love” isn’t quite as stylistically perfect for Streisand as it is for the Fifth Dimension, who would cut their own near-simultaneous recording of the song, but “Hands Off the Man (Flim Flam Man)” fits her quite well, and the title cut is arguably both the catchiest and the most surprisingly hard-rocking hit single Streisand would ever have. She’d go on to score bigger hits, of course, but she arguably never made a better one.