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247: Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Posted by jeff on Sep 28, 2017 in Other, Song Of the week

Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Cantor Joseph Malovany, ‘Kol Nidre’

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Uh-oh.

The big one’s coming up. Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. The Day of Judgement. The final verdict in the Book of Life.

As a boy, my Christian friends had ‘He’ll know if you’ve been bad or good.’ What was at stake was a new Lionel caboose.
I got God Himself with His indelible quill inscribing “who will live and who will die; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning.”
After that, you don’t need “House on Haunted Hill” for nightmares.

It all starts at the beginning of the month of Elul, 40 days before Yom Kippur, when the serious ones among us start getting up every morning (still night for me) at 4AM or some such unGodly hour to recite prayers of penitence. Then 10 days before, you get Rosh HaShana – two full days of wearing white, dipping apples in honey and spraying your dress shirt with pomegranate juice, hoping (praying) that He inscribes you (at this point in magic ink which takes 10 full days to dry) in The Book of Life. Or else…

800_afe2ed68f5589d31e73e2402b1b81fadThen the night before you take either a chicken or 18 units of your local currency and wave it over your head three times to transfer to it your transgressions. I’ll let you guess which means I employ.

On the afternoon of The Evening, here in Israel everything shuts down. By the time the sun is heading for the horizon, there’s nary a soul on the street. The radio and TV stations close down. You ask forgiveness from those you’re closest to for anything you have done to hurt them over the year. Because Yom Kippur only works to absolve you of your transgressions against Him if you’ve already made amends with humanfolk. Three out of every four Jewish citizens prepare to fast.

A simple last meal, all spruced up in your finest whitery (except for the rubber souled shoes), you take the Dead Man Walking trudge to the synagogue–hoping for the best, fearing the worst, something even more ominous than the 25-hour fast that’s just begun. Water, fire, sword, beast…

You sit in your reserved seat (that cost you a pretty penny) as the cantor takes his place on the altar, and he begins that familiar, haunting chant: Kol nidrei, v’esarei, ushvuei, v’haramei, v’kinusei, v’chinuei…

כָּל נִדְרֵי, וֶאֱסָרֵי, וּשְבוּעֵי, וַחֲרָמֵי, וְקוֹנָמֵי, וְקִנוּסֵי, וְכִנוּיֵי …

kol_nidre_in_the_machzor_of_worms

Kol Nidre from Worms prayer book, circa 1275.

The whole congregation is so geared up, so tense, so penitent, so scared out of their wits, that the guy could be singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ (in a minor scale) and you’d be on the verge of meltdown.

Actually, it’s not far from that. Kol Nidre is legalese, a contract. More precisely, the dissolution thereof. It’s a string of technical terms: All the vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and pledges, and consecrations that we’ve taken upon ourselves – seven technical terms of legal commitments, English can’t keep up with them – we disavow them. We declare them null and void with another list of gibberish verbs to satisfy the lawyers.

Not only that. The prayer—I mean, the contract– is mostly in Aramaic, the long-dead lingua franca of the neighborhood, Jesus of Nazareth’s native language, the language of the Talmud. Only one sentence in the middle is in Hebrew.

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Not only that. The content has no clear connection to atonement. It’s pretty much perceived as “If I said to myself ‘I swear I’m never taking this route to work again in my life’”, I’m retracting that. All my vows not involving a commitment to another person, I’m unilaterally dissolving. It’s a technicality, making sure that none of my stupid promises stick, so that I won’t get in trouble with The Big Boy for not keeping them. It’s so deeply ingrained that all year long some folks of my ilk say, “Okay, so I’ll see you for lunch on Tuesday, b’li neder” (but it doesn’t count as a vow).

And, of course, the melody.

Some believe that the tune for Kol Nidre was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The opening of Kol Nidre is what the masters of the Catholic plain-song term a “pneuma”, or soul breath. It begins with a long, sighing tone, falling to a lower note and rising again, as if only sighs and sobs could begin the prayer service.

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Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt

What I’m driving at here is that it’s not the inherent content of this legalese text that moves us so on the cusp of the most solemn day of the year. It’s the moment, the state of mind and soul, the drama.

What’s the point of Kol Nidre then? For me, it’s the beginning of a 25-hour attempt to purify myself spiritually, to cleanse myself of unkept promises and transgressions by genuinely and profoundly atoning before my conscience and God. The point transcends legalese.

It’s music, the music of the Jewish soul. We all know that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,/to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak”. Not legal contracts.

There are countless recordings of Kol Nidre, ranging from the sublime to the profane, from the sacred to the ridiculous.

Perhaps most famous is Al Jolson’s rendition in “The Jazz Singer”, the first talkie (1927). Jack Robin (ne Jakie Rabinowitz) rejects his parents’ expectation that he will succeed his father as cantor, in order to pursue his career as a ‘jazz’ (popular) singer. In the movie, the errant, assimilated son is reconciled with his parents and his tradition. But that was a Hollywood ending, expressing the wish fulfillment of producer Sam Warner, the brother who kept peace between his two Alpha siblings Harry and Jack (unburdened by such compunctions over jettisoning  their tradition). Sam died at the age of 39, ending harmony within the Warner family, the day before the premiere of the movie. He was buried on the eve of Yom Kippur. Just like the movie.

Jan Peerce

Jan Peerce

I won’t even mention the 1952 remake of the film starring (Lebanese Maronite Catholic) Danny Thomas or the 1980 embarrassment starring Laurence Olivier and Neil Diamond (who at least was an MoT).

I wish my intuitive association for Kol Nidre were one of the great cantorial voices of the Twentieth Century. Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) was a poverty-stricken cantorial legend in the US. The Warners offered him $100,000 (equivalent to $1.3 million today) to portray the father in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ but they could not persuade him to sing Kol Nidrei. He felt that it was too sacred to be used as entertainment. They did persuade him to do a cameo in the movie, playing himself.

Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker (brothers-in-law and fierce competitors) both began their singing careers as cantors before succumbing to the bright lights of opera.

Richard Tucker

Richard Tucker

All of these versions include instrumental accompaniment. In a traditional service, it is sung either by the cantor alone or accompanied by a male choir. Of course, it can’t be recorded or filmed due to the prohibitions that apply to the day. So these recordings don’t really communicate the starkness of the moment. Here’s one dignified, authentic version, by Cantor Joseph Malovany (b. 1941), that communicates the beauty of the music. It’s worth watching till the end, where he talks a bit about Kol Nidre.

But we don’t choose our mind’s associations, and when you press the Kol Nidre button on the juke box of my mind, what comes on is the version by Perry Como (1912-2001).

Perry was the son of Italian immigrants, a barber, and one of the most popular singers of the mid-century. He was famous for his gentle voice, his calm demeanor and relaxed disposition, his cardigan sweaters, and his all-round niceness.

An example of Como’s popularity came in 1956, in a poll of young women asked which man in public life most fit the concept of their ideal husband: it was Perry Como. A 1958 nationwide poll of U.S. teenagers found Perry Como to be the most popular male singer, beating Elvis Presley, who was the winner of the previous year’s poll.

Perry Como

Perry Como

Perry had a weekly television show from 1949 till 1963, and a monthly one till 1967. That sentence bears some thought. Think of the stature of such a public figure.

In the late 1950s, Jews in the US were still living in the shadow of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, self-conscious of the hospitality extended to them by their adopted country (in harsh contrast to virtually every other state in the world), excluded from many hotels and country clubs and universities and industries, striving desperately to achieve acceptance and safety. My grandparents were “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”. Many Jews of my parents’ generation sought refuge in assimilation, but most still held a complex, tenuous commitment to their faith. But we absolutely carried the awareness of still wanting and needing to be accepted.

approved-gentilesAnd every year, just before the High Holidays, Perry Como – Mr Consensus – would sing Kol Nidre on network television. It was the ultimate expression of America embracing its Jews, the most reassuring promise that we were welcome and safe – perhaps the first time in history where a Jewish population would find such acceptance, such a haven.

Of course, I see things differently today. I see assimilation as an existential threat to American Judaism. I don’t know if Al Jolson’s great-grandchildren will be in synagogue for Kol Nidre this year. I will.

And I no longer depend on Perry Como for affirmation of my faith or peoplehood or personal well-being.  As far as my earthly life goes, I’ve put my eggs in a much different basket. And as far as my spiritual life – well, I’ll be doing some hard and serious thinking when listening to the music of the cantor singing Kol Nidre.

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271: Laura Nyro, ‘Walk on By’ (Bootleg Collection)

Posted by jeff on Sep 20, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

It’s Erev Rosh HaShana, the eve of the Jewish New Year. I’m (supposed to be) all geared up to stand before my Maker, give account for whether I’ve been naughty or nice during the past year, and to pray very very very hard for a positive review in the book of life for the upcoming year (ה’תשע”ח, 5778 by our count).

To tell the truth, it’s a bit hard to be writing about rock music as that Book of Life is being dusted off, the Celestial Inkwell refilled, the Quill of Fate sharpened. I need to write a posting about Penitence (you’d be surprised how impenitent rock stars tend to be), the Cycle of the Year (b-o-r-i-n-g), or at least Jewish peoplehood.  And y’all people were so nice about the piece I posted a few weeks ago about Laura Nyro’s stunning live bootleg version of ‘Stoney End’. So here goes:

Spring, 1970, Kent State. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Bill went Westwards. Mike went south. I went to the East.

I became tribal. We all needed a belief to cling to. 1970 was a seller’s market, and a lot of new beliefs, cults, religions were hitting the shelves. I decided to go for The Hoary. I figured if my direct ancestors had been practicing our particular breed of ritual and practice and deportment for 3000 years, that was a good enough starting point for me. So I chose to strap myself to the Jewish tradition, all the way from Adherence to Zionism.

So I tend to perceive the world through Jewish and Israeli eyes (and in our case, ears). I’ve been doing my bi-annualish Laura Nyro binge on her early years (nothing new there), her first album (excavating treasures from underneath the layers of mucky arrangements), and especially the bootlegs from that period.

And I’ve been listening to Laura as a 19-year old Jewish girl pounding the piano and singing her Jewish heart out. As far as I know, Laura ignored her ancestry (she was ¾ Jewish, only her paternal grandfather was Italian), as did most of the other Jewish girls I knew in 1968 (including Carole King, Janis Ian, Carly Simon, Lesley Gore, Bette Midler, Cass Eliot, and Barbra Streisand).

That doesn’t stop me from retrospectively listening to Laura through parochial ears. I would think that even a Martian observer would detect a certain irony here—so many people ignoring or denying how much their common ancestry has informed them. To be perfectly honest, perhaps the galvanizing moment of my life was sitting in an SDS meeting (as a beer-carrying observer), listening to Messrs Klein, Rothman, Blackman, Cohen and Steinberg bashing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Laura has a Jewish soul. Not a solely Jewish soul. Soon we’ll get to her Motown in My Soul. But the passion, the compassion, the drive to describe and define and analyze—I see these as part of the Jewish character.

So I decided to present you this week with a Rosh HaShana gift – a collection of live bootlegs of Laura performing songs which never appeared on her official studio albums (maybe for Vol. 2 we’ll  – all covers, mostly Motown-ish, garnished at the end with a few standards. The order is chronological. For my ears, and I hope for yours, this is a treasure trove of obscure delights:

1. ‘Walk On By’ (Fillmore East, June 20, 1970 )

Written by Burt Bacharach/Hal David for Dionne Warwick. SoTW 034 tells the whole story.

2. ‘Up On the Roof’ (Fillmore East, June 20, 1970 )

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Drifters. I told the whole Carole King story in SoTW 234: Carole King, ‘Up On the Roof’ (Live, 1971). Someday maybe I’ll write yet another post about why I think Laura owns the song more than The Drifters or even Carole King herself.

The only song in this collection which did appear on an official album (“Christmas and the Beads of Sweat”), I believe the only cover she recorded other than “Gonna Take a Miracle”. I cheated. Sue me.

3-4. ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’/’Natural Woman’ (Fillmore East May 30, 1971)

3 Written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

4 Written by Goffin/King with Jerry Wexler for Aretha Franklin.

5. ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Shirelles. The whole story is in SoTW 182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

6. ‘Come and Get These Memories’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland for Martha and the Vandellas. SoTW 062 tells the story of another hit of theirs.

7. ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

8-9. ‘I’m So Proud’/’Dedicated to the One I Love’ (NYC, June 27, 1990)

8 written by Curtis Mayfield for his group The Impressions.

9 written by Lowman Pauling and Ralph Bass, made famous by The Shirelles and The Mamas and The Papas.

10. ‘Baby, It’s You’ (“Late Sky”, unreleased studio recording, 1994-5)

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Shirelles. Later recorded by The Beatles.

11. ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by Burt Bacharach/Hal David for Dusty Springfield.

12. ‘He Was Too Good to Me’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart in 1930, eventually becoming a jazz standard (here by Chet Baker).

13. ‘Let It Be Me’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Composed by Gilbert Bécaud in 1955, a hit for The Everly Brothers in 1960 and for Betty Everett and Jerry Butler in 1964.

14. ‘Embraceable You’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1928, eventually becoming a jazz standard (here by Judy Garland).

 

So that’s my Rosh HaShana gift to y’all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

If I may be so haughty as to address The World on behalf of the Jewish people, we have tried throughout the millennia to contribute to the world we live in. As the prophet Isaiah says (42:6):

I the LORD have called you in righteousness, and shall hold your hand and keep you and give you as a people’s covenant, as a light for the nations.

אֲנִי ה’ קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק, וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ; וְאֶצָּרְךָ, וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם–לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם.

Over the last 100 years, we’ve contributed not a little to popular culture (Vaudeville, Hollywood, Broadway). More specifically for our concerns here, we’ve given you ¾ of Laura Nyro, and 8 of the 14 songs here.

Wishing everyone, everywhere, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or musical taste a very good year, a Shana Tova, full of health, happiness, pleasant surprises, and great music.

 

 

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4

096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’

Posted by jeff on Sep 14, 2017 in Jazz, Song Of the week

In SoTW 060, I talked about one of the very finest pieces of music I know, the 1961 live performance of Bill Evans’ first trio, “Live at the Village Vanguard”, with Scottie LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. I wrote there that ‘this is as beautiful as music gets, and no words can rival that’. This album is also widely acknowledged as being the invention of the modern piano trio. The recording was made on June 25, 1961. Ten days later, on July 5, LaFaro ran his car into a tree and was killed instantly.

He and Evans hadn’t been buddies. LaFaro harped at Evans frequently to give up his voracious heroin habit, to no avail. But LaFaro’s death had a debilitating effect on Evans. He lost interest in playing for half a year. Evans: “Musically everything seemed to stop. I didn’t even play at home.” His only recording sessions were unenthusiastic efforts, done only to earn a few bucks to support his habit. Bill’s brother remembers him wandering around NYC wearing some of LaFaro’s clothes. It was a bleak time.

On April 4, 1962, Evans made his first attempt to record a solo album. He recorded four cuts and aborted the session. The recordings were shelved until they were released in 1981without fanfare on a posthumous hodgepodge album of outtakes, “Conception”.

The four cuts–the Irish standard ‘Danny Boy’; a Dave Brubeck original ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’; and two standards, ‘Easy to Love’ and ‘Like Someone in Love’, have been considered Evans eulogy to Scott LaFaro. They’re uneven, unfinished, unpolished. But they are performances in which the man’s soul is speaking directly. Without mediation, without technical obstacles. Evans, his pain, and the music. Evans’ liner notes to his first official solo album, “Alone”, 1968:

Perhaps the hours of greatest pleasure in my life have come about as a result of the capacity of the piano to be in itself a complete expressive musical medium. In retrospect, I think that these countless hours of aloneness with music unified the directive energy of my life. At those times when I have achieved this sense of oneness while playing alone, the many technical or analytic aspects of the music happened of themselves with positive Tightness which always served to remind me that to understand music most profoundly one only has to be listening well. Perhaps it is a peculiarity of mine that despite the fact that I am a professional performer, it is true that I have always preferred playing without an audience. This has nothing to do with my desire to communicate or not, but rather I think just a problem of personal self-consciousness which had to be conquered through discipline and concentration. Yet, to know one is truly alone with one’s instrument and music has always been an attractive and conducive situation for me to find my best playing level. Therefore, what I desired to present in a solo piano recording was especially this unique feeling.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Brad Mehldau’s very fine new solo album, “Live in Marciac” and how differently he performs as a soloist versus his usual trio setting. I also expressed the opinion that I admire his solo works more, across the board. Could it be that I’m saying I like solo piano jazz?

Bill Evans towers over the last 50 years of jazz piano. He recorded from 1960 till his death in 1980. Three major jazz pianists emerged in the decades that followed, all  immeasurably influenced by him – Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and especially Keith Jarrett. And the three of them still exert a great influence over the newer generation of jazz pianists, Brad Mehldau being by far the leader of the pack. The musical resemblance between Granddaddy Bill, Pa Keith and Li’l Brad is unmistakable.

I know it’s not fair to compare musicians, but I spend most of my waking hours doing so. And these three do encourage the comparison–all of them frequently play tunes ostensibly unsuited to quiet, introspective solo piano, usually medium tempo, light love song Standards. It’s a practice Bill Evans started, I believe. The bottom line is that I listen to Bill Evans four or five times as much as I listen to Brad, and to Jarrett hardly at all. I’d like to demonstrate why.

Here’s Bill Evans’ version of ‘Danny Boy’ from that aborted 1962 solo session. And here’s Keith Jarrett solo from 2002, clearly echoing Evans’ treatment. You listen and tell me which of the two men does a respectable, lovely job, and which is expressing a world view of pain, profound insight and gravitas. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I prefer to listen to Bill Evans playing with one arm tied behind his back (or paralyzed by the needle) to Jarrett at the top of his game.

And here’s Brad Mehldau doing ‘My Favorite Things‘ solo. I find it very admirable. But why do I feel that, in comparison to Bill Evans, I’m watching a kid? Mehldau was 41 at the time of this recording, 10 years older than Evans was in these solo recordings.

I think Keith Jarrett’s a competent but rather superficial jazz pianist, not a drop more. And Brad Mehldau isn’t Bill Evans. That’s okay. No one is. Well, enough with the comparisons. We haven’t come to bury Keith Jarrett or to minimize Brad Mehldau, but to praise Bill Evans.

Here’s Dave Brubeck’s original ‘In Your Own Sweet Way‘. A lovely tune, indeed. Here’s Miles’ especially lovely treatment of it, his first quintet (discussed in SoTW 041). And here’s Bill Evans. Playing his pain alone in a studio at night, mourning Scott LaFaro.

Here’s ‘Like Someone in Love’, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, a sweet piece recorded by Dinah Shore in 1944.  Here’s Ella’s lovely version. And here’s Bill Evans taking a bit of fluff, and investing it with the weight of the weary world.

And then there’s our favorite of the four, a Cole Porter gem, ‘Easy to Love’. Here’s the original, sung by James Stewart(!!!) in the 1936 movie, “Born to Dance”. And for comparison, here’s Ella’s definitive classic treatment. Tender, tasteful, loving, right? Here’s a lightweight version by Billie Holiday, no stranger to pain herself.

And then Bill Evans plays it. And he takes you to dark, harrowing places. I listen to this, my kishkes squinch up. Life as a lemon. His deftness only emphasizing the wrenching beauty of the exquisite pain he’s playing. He speaks with the voice of a musician using his art to describe the world as he has viewed it. A man who has experienced all the pain in the world. A man who has a lot to say. An artist who can inform you. What I call life-changing music.

Over the rest of his career, Evans recorded solo infrequently. Two of them are well-known among Evans aficionados. On his very first album, in 1959, he recorded Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Some Other Time’. At one point, he began improvising on the introduction to the song, and the result was his legendary ‘Peace Piece’. In 1966, three days after his father died, Evans recorded a 4-part medley, ‘In Memory of his Father’. Here’s the first part. With his last trio (1979-80), Evans frequently recorded ‘Nardis’ with an extended solo piano introduction, but the style there is muscular and energetic, a whole different ballgame. Here’s a whole long SoTW on the evolution of Bill’s treatments of ‘Nardis’ over the decades. There are also two albums he released in 1968 (“Alone”) and 1975 (“Alone Again”). They’re fine, even moving on occasion; but typically of his middle years, not Evans at his best.

Much less-well known is the two-volume “The Solo Sessions”, recorded January, 1963, but not released until 1984. These are some of Evans best recordings, the fruition of what unevenly accomplished in our four 1962 recordings. If you are as taken by them as I am, dig up the 1963 sessions. They’re moving, profound, unforgettable. For me, works that make listening to music the best part of my life. As always, Bill says it best: Perhaps the hours of greatest pleasure in my life have come about as a result of the capacity of the piano to be in itself a complete expressive musical medium.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”
079: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (“Kind of Blue”)

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270: Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle Bootleg, 1971)

Posted by jeff on Sep 1, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle bootleg, 1971)

Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Studio recording)

Laura Nyro, ‘Flim Flam Man’ (Fillmore East bootleg, 1971)

Laura Nyro, ‘Flim Flam Man’ (Studio recording)

I have been listening to Laura Nyro regularly for a very long time – I’d guess I’ve had “Eli & the 13th Confession” binges at least three or four different times a year for the past 49 years now, probably a couple thousand times altogether. Every single time I listen, I discover new joys. And every single time, my admiration for her grows.

You do the physics. We’re talking about one big heap of admiration.

Shall I spell it out? I love Laura. She challenges me, astounds me, bewilders me, frustrates me, rivets me, inspires me, teaches me, consoles me, excites me, reassures me, loves me. She even gets me to dance.

I’ve been listening to two Laura re-issues in recent weeks. The brand-new “A Little Madness, A Little Kindness” presents a new mastering of her first two albums, “More Than a New Discovery” (aka “First Songs”) and “Eli & the 13th Confession” (released here in the original mono mix for the first time). The ear-lifted sound gives me a welcome brace of cold water. After literally thousands of listens, every new angle helps.

The obscure 2012 “Sassafras & Moonshine” is a collection of Laura covers, not always the best-known versions, 12 of the 20 cuts by black singers, hence emphasizing the omnipresent R&B (even gospel) elements in Laura’s writing and performing. It’s deepened my appreciation for a number of cuts – especially some slow ones that I always felt could benefit from a bit more focus, even commercialization, especially Mama Cass’s ‘He’s a Runner’.

Photo – Stephen Paley

So often I think of Laura as a voice from a higher world. In this recent binge I’ve been listening to this early material of hers thinking of her as a (3/4) Jewish girl a year older than myself, thereby  trying to drag her down into a graspable reality by putting her into a familiar context. Even that doesn’t dispel the magic, it enhances it. I knew a lot of 18 year-old Jewish girls in 1966, and I listened to a lot of creative young musicians. Laura was – and is and I imagine always will be – unique. You can compare a lot of artists to Laura. You can’t compare her to anyone.

I first discovered Laura Nyro (just as I did Randy Newman and so many others) by studying and cross-checking the liner notes and the songwriting credits on record labels, internet being over twoscore years away. In this case, it was the lead cut on Peter, Paul &Mary’s (finest) album, “Album” (1966), ‘And When I Die’, written when she was 16.

I’m not going to tell you the whole backstory (you can read it elsewhere) about how in 1966 music macher Art Mogull (who had signed the very young Bob Dylan to his first publishing contract) called a piano tuner out of the phone book, who pestered him so much about his daughter’s songs that Mogull told him the 18-year old could come in the next day, how Mogull signed her on the spot (“Over a period of months, I signed [for Verve Records Al Kooper’s] Blues Project, Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, and Janis Ian”), gave her to Milt Okun to handle, how Okun gave ‘And When I Die’ to his group Peter, Paul & Mary; and then passed her on to arranger Herb Bernstein:

Milt Okun teaches Laura arrangements suitable for ‘the average listener’

She was very artsy-fartsy. If you heard ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ the way she first played it for me, you wouldn’t believe it was the same song. She had that little riff—dah bah buh DOO buh DOO—that she used a lot, but she’d stop every sixteen measures and go into another tempo. I said, ‘Look, I’m as artistic as the next person, but you have to think of the commerciality of these things. If you’re gonna change tempo every thirty seconds, you’re gonna lose the average listener.’

The suits didn’t even let Laura play piano on the album. Because her sense of rhythm was idiosyncratic, Okun felt it would be hard for her to lead other musicians through Bernstein’s arrangements, so he hired a studio musician. Janis Ian: “Quite often you weren’t allowed to play on your own records. It was a lot more difficult to be treated seriously as a woman player. And you weren’t expected to be a songwriter, or to lead a band. Those were things the boys did.”

Laura’s (1947-1997) first album (released 1966, when she was 19) has always been somewhat the neglected little sister for me. Sure, it spawned more hits for her than any subsequent album (‘Wedding Bell Blues’ and ‘Blowin’ Away’ for the 5th Dimension, ‘And When I Die’ for Blood Sweat and Tears, and of course ‘Stoney End’ for Barbra Streisand.

But those covers invariably dragged the songs down into radio-friendliness, dumbed down the emotions, smoothed over the rhythmic quirkiness, sanitized the passion. Made it all sweet and non-threatening for Okun’s “average listener”. Middle of the Road-kill.

I always thought of the album as containing a bunch of great songs which were forced to into a girdle (why haven’t those been banned along with Confederate statues?) by The Suits. I’ve often imagined the ‘What If’ album that was never recorded.

I’ve been listening a lot to live performances from the prime of her career (up to her first hiatus, 1966-72), mostly bootlegs of dubious sound quality, as well as some pretty cool covers of the first album from “Sassafras & Moonshine”, hereafter “S&M” (sic).

I wrote a whole blog posting (SoTW 233) about the amazing range of her interpretations of ‘And When I Die’, so I’m leaving that out of the discussion here. Other than ‘AWID’, I’ve found  half a dozen versions of ‘He’s a Runner’, two of ‘Buy and Sell’, and one of ‘Flim Flam Man’.

I also wrote a posting (SoTW 009) about why I think Barbra Streisand was a great singer up to the age of 22, when she “traded guts for glitz and sacrificed her artistry on the altar of auto-adulation.”I’ve heard her ‘Stoney End’ all the way through maybe five times, and then only out of duty. I find it offensive – plastic, superficial, demeaning of the true original. Which I had never heard–

Until recently I discovered, tucked away inside a 1971 solo Laura bootleg from Seattle (great thanks to fellow Nyrotic Rick Sakoda), a recording of her performing ‘Stoney End’. And I got a revelatory peek at the first album that should have been. (If you care to take a trip to ‘the mythological, apocryphal real album that should have been but never was’ territory, I highly recommend Nick Hornsby’s novel “Juliet, Naked”.)

Stoney End

Here’s the hit version you probably know best, by Barbra Streisand.

And here’s a much more honest version by Sara Bareilles, sung at the ceremony of Laura’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Here’s Laura’s studio recording (the new remastered version, girdle and all).

And here’s Laura’s 1971 Seattle bootleg version. There’s no real into or ending. She just kind of noodles into it via a bunch of minor chords (even though the song is in major), as if she doesn’t know what song she’s going to sing. At least it’s not that horrific intro Herb Bernstein forced on her.

I was born from love and my poor mother worked the mines
I was raised on the Good Book, Jesus, till I read between the lines
Now I don’t believe I want to see the morning.
Going to the stoney end I never wanted to go.
Mama, let me start all over
Cradle me, Mama, cradle me again.

 

Stoney End

I can still remember him with love light in his eyes
But the light flickered out and parted as the sun began to rise
Now I don’t believe I want to see the morning…

Never mind the forecast, ‘cause the sky has lost control
‘Cause the fury and the broken thunder’s come to match my raging soul
Now I don’t believe I want to see the morning…

This ‘stoney end’ is both tempting and frightening. ‘The morning’ is bringing a new reality, a new awareness. She wants her mother’s reassurance, but she also wants to break through to this new, adult reality. She’s passionately confused. Just like a 17 year-old rock and roll sorceress. Just like a sexennial music blogger.

This bootleg reading has a minor cast to it, emphasizing the ominous aspect of the journey. But the lyric remains vexingly enigmatic. Streisand once said that she never understood the words. Laura wrote it at 17. Here I am, a grown-up male, 50 years on, still puzzling over what she meant.

Stoney End

I’m just so grateful I’ve discovered this version, ‘Stoney End’ the way Laura meant it, the ‘real’ version. Here are some more alternate versions of Laura songs you may or may not know, all from that neglected little sister of a first album. They may be revelatory for you, or mildly interesting, or near misses, or bloopers. That’s for you to decide.

The important thing is that you listen to Laura Nyro. Because she’s so wonderful in so many ways. Because she’s in a league of her own. Because great music deserves to be listened to. And because it will enrich you. Trust me. Trust her.

Stoney End Studio Seattle 1971 Streisand

Darlene Love & The Blossoms (“S&M”)

Sara Bareilles

Linda Ronstadt

He’s a Runner Studio Japan, 1972

Video, 1969

Mama Cass

Blood, Sweat & Tears

Flim-Flam Man Studio Fillmore East, 1971 Streisand
Buy and Sell Studio Japan, 1972 Susan Vega

Nnenna Freelon (“S&M”)

Wedding Bell Blues Studio San Francisco, 1992 Fifth Dimension (video)

Bobby Gentry (“S&M”)

Lesley Gore

Glee

 

 

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