Saturday, April 20 is Record Store Day, an annual global event that celebrates independent record stores and the art of music. In honour of the day, and also in honour of Laura Nyro’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’d like to share my favourite record: Gonna Take a Miracle.
A Laura Nyro record to call my own
I first heard of Nyro through colleagues at campus/community radio when I was an impressionable and music-hungry teenager. I was immediately struck with Nyro’s incredible vocal performances that captured both her vulnerability and strength. She didn’t have a perfect voice, yet her bravado masked any slight flaw. Gonna Take a Miracle immediately became my go-to album. No matter what mood I was in, no matter how many times I had listened to it, I knew that Nyro’s rich reimagining of songs like “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Spanish Harlem” would immediately make me happy.
I then searched for a vinyl copy of the album for years. On my last birthday, I went on a weekend getaway with my sweetheart to a favourite small town of ours, and visited my favourite Mennonite-run eclectic antiques market. There, in a dusty back corner in an unmanned vinyl collector’s booth, I found deep within the milk crates of the miscellaneous section a copy of my beloved Gonna Take a Miracle to call my very own. When I first placed the needle on the record and heard the comforting sound of Nyro’s voice fill my living room, I knew it was worth the hunt.
The distinctive style of Laura Nyro
Nyro was a Bronx-born songwriter, singer and pianist. Nyro herself is an under-the-radar kind of musician who shied away from the spotlight. She was a successful female songwriter in the tradition of Ellie Greenwich and Carol King. Although she wasn’t as prolific as Greenwich or as famous as King, Nyro did pen a number of hit songs for other artists, such as the 5th Dimension, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Three Dog Night and Barbra Streisand. When perusing songwriting credits, I’m always delighted to learn of another Nyro hit. Such songs include “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “And When I Die.”
Nyro was also a solo artist who released 10 studio albums and a number of live records that were steeped with her own distinct blend of pop, blue-eyed soul, jazz, R&B, show tunes and doo wop. Her piano arrangements were at the root of each song, while her highly emotive vocal performance, touches of ’60s-style horns and Broadway musical flourishes elevated her sound from simple, straight-ahead pop numbers to layered, interesting compositions.
Laura Nyro’s teenage dream, and dream team
Gonna Take a Miracle was described by Nyro as an album of her favourite teenage heartbeat music. Released in 1971, the record features inspired and soulful arrangements of Motown standards and R&B hidden gems from the ’50s and ’60s. To help realize Nyro’s vision, the singer recruited Patti LaBelle and her vocal group, LaBelle, which included members Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, to record with her. To round out the dream team, the powerhouse duo of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were brought in as producers. Gamble and Huff were largely credited as the leaders in the Philadelphia soul sound, and their influence can be heard throughout Gonna Take a Miracle.
Seven days were booked in-studio to record the album, yet most of the songs were done live and in one take in the last day and a half. According to the liner notes by Duglas T. Stewart, the band was just having too much fun the first few days to do any work. Because of that, you can hear the dichotomy of intimacy and grandeur, virtuosity and imperfection.
The opening track “I Met Him on a Sunday” was a top 50 hit for the prototype girl group the Shirelles, who wrote the song in 1958 when the four members were still in high school. Nyro and group LaBelle immediately capture the schoolyard innocence with the opening notes of the song, keeping the beat with hand claps and snaps, each taking turns on lead vocals and recounting what happens with this boy over the week – “I met him on a Sunday/ and I missed him on Monday ... and I kissed him on Thursday/ and he didn’t come Friday.” By the time they say “bye bye baby” on Sunday again, the whole band kicks in, complete with percussion on a cowbell, then backing off to let Nyro take the last note, which seamlessly matches the soaring first note of track two, “The Bells,” a slow, soulful track written by Marvin Gaye and made a hit by male R&B Motown group the Originals.
Laura Nyro takes on Martha and the Vandellas
The fun that the band experienced in studio can be heard on three standout tracks – all versions of songs popularized by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. When first glancing at the track list, it’s fair to wonder why anyone would attempt the hits “Nowhere to Run,” “Jimmy Mack” and “Dancing in the Streets,” but the audaciousness of Nyro and company pay off in these imaginative and energetic interpretations.
Clocking in at five minutes, “Nowhere to Run” starts off immediately with pulsing energy provided by drum and bass, then the LaBelle’s striking harmonizing and Nyro’s alto soaring above them. By the time the tambourine and piano kick in, you’re already dancing.
Hand claps can be found everywhere on the album and on “Jimmy Mack” the hand claps and piano provide the anchor for Nyro’s pleading for the return of her love before another comes to rescue her from her loneliness.
Track three on the album takes the Curtis Mayfield composition “Monkey Time” and blends it with “Dancing in the Streets,” creating a mash-up before the concept of a mash-up was cool.
With these three versions and the other seven that round out the collection, Nyro and LaBelle have created an underrated treasure that I’m proud to call my favourite album.
Do you have a similar faterful story of finding a beloved record? Please share your stories in the comments.
Gonna Take a Miracle
Record Store Day: Feel the music (literally)
Record Store Day 2012: Grant Lawrence's Top 10 Record Stores in Canada
More in this series:
On the record: Dusty in Memphis
On the record: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun
On the Record: D’Angelo’s Voodoo, 12 years in retrospect