"Can you surry, can you picnic?/Come on, come on and surry down to a stoned soul picnic."
Laura Nyro died five years ago. You might have missed the obituary. Her death didn't inspire the type of media coverage accorded to pop icons like Elvis Presley, John Lennon or George Harrison. In fact, you may not even be familiar with her name.
However, if you were listening to the radio in the years from 1968 to 1971, you know her music:
"Bill, I love you so, I always will/I look at you and see the passion eyes of May/But am I ever gonna see my wedding day?"
"I'm not scared of dyin' and I don't really care/If it's peace you find in dyin', well then let the time be near/If it's peace you find in dyin' and if dyin' time be near, just bundle up my coffin 'cause it's cold way down there."
"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."
Laura Nyro was still in her teens when she wrote "Wedding Bell Blues," "And When I Die, and "Stoney End." By the time she was twenty one, she had produced a body of work that would be the envy of most songwriters over the course of a lifetime.
Even so, she never had a hit record herself, and the average radio listener may have never heard her name. That's a shame. She was not only a distinctive songwriter who created her own world in song, she also possessed a deliciously idiosyncratic vocal style, a soulful soprano voice, and a deep feeling for the blues, jazz, soul, gospel and folk music that made up her music.
I wonder where the Fifth Dimension would have been without her songs. That group scored hits with "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Blowin' Away", "Sweet Blindness" and "Save the Country." Blood, Sweat & Tears took "And When I Die" to the number two slot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969, and Three Dog Night hit number ten with "Eli's Comin'." Barbra Streisand rode "Stoney End" up to number six in 1971, using the song to increase her hipness quotient and prove to her contemporaries that she was not just a singer of show tunes.
Laura Nyro, born Laura Nigro in 1947, was the daughter of a jazz trumpeter. She began playing music as a little girl, read poetry and was exposed to the works of classical composers like Ravel and Debussy by her mother. She attended Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, and listened to a wide range of music, from Dylan to Coltrane, gospel to doo-wop, Burt Bacharach to Smokey Robinson.
Her first album, More Than a New Discovery (Verve/Forecast, reissued as The First Songs by Columbia in the '70s), was recorded in 1966, when she was only nineteen, and contained "Wedding Bell Blues," "And When I Die," "Blowin' Away," "Stoney End" and "Goodbye Joe." It was a remarkable debut, but one that brought her scant public notice, at least as a performer.
A then-little known music agent named David Geffen saw her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (she was reportedly booed off the stage), quit his job and became her manager. He secured her a contract with Columbia Records, for whom she recorded her next album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession early in 1968. This LP included "Sweet Blindness," "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Eli's Comin'." Though the critics liked it, and the hits exploded off it in covers by the Fifth Dimension and Three Dog Night, it once again went unnoticed by most of the record buying public.
New York Tendaberry, released in 1969, was Ms. Nyro's only album to reach the Top 40. It included two more songs that the Fifth Dimension would record, "Time and Love" and "Save the Country." This album and its predecessor enabled her to develop a cult following, and perhaps more importantly, foreshadowed the introspective singer/songwriter movement that would emerge in the early '70s.
She released two more albums before announcing her "retirement" in 1971 at the age of twenty four. After a four-year hiatus, she returned to the recording studio, and periodically released new recordings for the next twenty years. However, she never again found the level of songwriting success that she had known during her brief heyday. She died from ovarian cancer in April, 1997, just as a two-disc retrospective was being released by Columbia/Legacy, Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro.
That two-disc set includes a healthy helping of her later work, material not nearly as strong as her early stuff. Consequently, the best place to go for a glimpse of her music is Time and Love: The Essential Masters, a single-disc compilation released by Columbia/Legacy a couple of years ago. Time and Love contains sixteen digitally remastered tracks, all but one from Ms. Nyro's pre-"retirement" quintet of albums. It's a wonderful introduction to her passionate style and unique talent.
From the opening piano chords and multi-tracked vocal harmonies of "Sweet Blindness," the listener is in for a rambunctious ride through a more joy-filled era: "Let's go down to the grapevine, drink my daddy's wine, Good morning!"
The great songs keep coming, songs that are a part of a generation's collective consciousness. If you remember these songs in their hit versions by other artists, it's fascinating to hear the composer's own interpretations. And if you're too young to remember these songs from AM radio, you'll be knocked out by the variety, depth and maturity of this young woman's vision.
"Give me my freedom for as long as I be/All I ask of living is to have no chains on me."
Listening to this music more than thirty years later, I am transported back to that time of unbounded musical optimism. I don't know why more people didn't discover the singer/songwriter behind these great melodies and lyrics. Her coda on "Eli's Comin'" blows away the more overwrought hit version by Three Dog Night. "Stoned Soul Picnic" captures the sweet, hopeful trippiness of 1967-68 better than most protest music of the time: "There'll be trains of blossoms, there'll be trains of music…there'll be trains of trust, trains of gold and dust…"
Even lesser known material like the soulful "Blackpatch" and the almost-beach music bounce of "Lu" rise above most pop music. "Sexy Mama" brings to mind the best of Joni Mitchell. The beautiful, closing cover version of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Up On the Roof" brings tears to your eyes.
Unexpected tempo shifts, inventive arrangements and that soaring soprano voice populate every song on this collection. Time and Love: The Essential Masters is one of those discs that just gets better with each hearing. It captures the talent of a fine young songwriter in full bloom, and the carefree flower-powered spirit of an era too long gone.
"Come on people! Come on children! Come on down to the glory river/Gonna wash you up and wash you down/Gonna lay the devil down, gonna lay that devil down."