When one considers “The Great American Songbook,” one typically thinks about a loosely defined canon of enduring songs written between the 1920s and 1950s by such American composers as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and others, for the theater, Hollywood, and beyond.
But are there any American songwriters whose work is worthy of being considered a part of the Great American Songbook since the 1950s?
For our money, the answer is yes.
Given it’s 2017, we feel enough time has elapsed to begin to consider the enduring contributions of composers of one of greatest decades of popular music: The 1960s.
As such, in the 1960s, we find songwriters like Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Jim Webb, and more who enriched the canon of outstanding American music.
But unlike in decades prior, in the 196os, we begin to see the rise of great female songstresses, that among them Carole King and Joni Mitchell.
Chatting with talented singer/songwriter/pianist Christine Spero before her afternoon March 5, 2017 performance at the Fanwood Public Library in Fanwood, NJ, we discover that we’re in agreement regarding our belief that it’s time to expand the Great American Songbook to include the best creators of music from the 1960s.
Some of these artists are still etched into the consciousness of the American listening public.
For example, Brian Wilson’s music is consistently heard live around the world in concert by the Brian Wilson Band and The Beach Boys, not to mention in recent Hollywood films like Love & Mercy.
Moreover, Carole King’s songs are heard by thousands each week on the Great White Way in the hit musical, Beautiful, and by millions on the small screen in recent years on prominent award shows including the The Kennedy Center Honors.
Sadly, however, we also have to agree with Christine regarding the fate of one of the greatest American songwriters of the 1960s — Lauro Nyro. Except for a small but devoted following, Nyro’s brilliant melodies, harmonies, and lyrics have been nearly forgotten by the general listening public.
Bemoans Christine, “I wish more young people could hear this kind of music” — where “lyrics counted” and “sophisticated music” held sway. Regrettably, she laments, “Laura’s music has nearly faded into obscurity.”
That said, there are a few contemporary artists who are doing their part to “keep the flame alive” for Nyro’s music.
Nearly a decade after performing in Diane Paulus’ outstanding Off-Broadway Nyro-inspired musical, Eli’s Comin’, in 2007, Broadway singer/actress Judy Kuhn released her tribute to Laura’s music — Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro.
More recently, composer/pianist/arranger Billy Childs recruited the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter, Chris Botti, Rickie Lee Jones, Alison Krauss, and more to create his 2014 Laura Nyro tribute: Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro.
Contemporary million-selling recording artist Sara Bareilles gave a heartfelt performance of “Stoney End” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio during the Hall’s 2012 induction ceremony for Laura Nyro.
In addition, other current artists — notably Melissa Hammans with her Laura Nyro/Carole King/Joni Mitchell Back to the Garden show, Kate Ferber with her One Child Born tribute, and Christine Spero with her Spero Plays Nyro live concert performances and CD — come to mind.
Praise for Christine Spero’s interpretation of the Laura Nyro songbook comes from such highly-regarded musicians as The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, The Young Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ Steve Katz.
Another proponent of Spero’s tribute artistry is Laura Nyro’s own brother, Jan Nigro, who asserts that Spero “can play and sing Laura’s songs like few others,” going on to add, “It’s such challenging music to sing, and she does it so beautifully.”
Christine Spero, 64, was born in Queens, NY, into a family of musicians. Both her grandmother and great-aunt were classical, ragtime, and silent movie pianists.
At the age of 10, she moved to Long Island. As a teenager, she was tapped to record at New York’s RCA Studios by producer Neil Sedaka to lay down tracks with her group at the time, 7th House. The group’s first 45 rpm single, “Ode To Freedom,” was written by Christine and featured a B-side, “River Queen,” written by Sedaka himself.
Moving from New York to San Francisco, Spero continued to study music and was influenced by numerous classical and jazz musicians, among them the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
Christine now lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where she continues to write, record, and perform with her band, The Christine Spero Group, an ensemble which includes her brother-in-law, saxophonist, percussionist, and music producer Elliot Spero.
And here at the Fanwood Public Library, Christine is here with Elliot to present a duo version of her live concert tribute to Laura Nyro, Spero Plays Nyro.
In this relaxed atmosphere, among the book racks and library tables, Spero opens her afternoon concert with “Buy and Sell” accompanying her clear voice on electric keyboard, deftly handling the complexity of Nyro’s innovative melodies, harmonies, and lyrics singing, “Pass the time and dry the tears/On a street called buy and sell.”
Accompanying Christine this afternoon is Elliot, 57 — an expert sax player originally from Queens, NY — doing double duty today on various wooden flutes and percussion instruments including cymbals, chimes, conga drums, and a djembe, a West African goblet drum — oftentimes playing multiple instruments simultaneously!
Information about Laura Nyro’s songs also constitutes a large part of the Spero Plays Nyro experience.
For instance, explaining how Laura “was full of imagery,” Spero provides a bit of foreshadowing to her listeners, telling them how easy it is to “picture the city” in works like her next piece, “New York Tendeberry.” An extremely difficult song to perform due to its unusual melody and chord changes, Spero makes the piece her own as she conjures up visualizations in her listener’s minds with such poetic Nyro lyrics as: “Rugs and drapes and drugs/And capes/Sweet kids in hunger slums/Firecrackers break/And they cross/And they dust/And they skate/And the night comes.”
Revealing to the audience, “I didn’t know Laura, but I did get to see her perform,” Spero also provides her listeners with numerous intruiging stories about Laura’s life.
One story centers on a 16-year-old Laura who sells the rights to one of her songs to folk icons, Peter, Paul and Mary. That composition, “And When I Die,” ultimately becomes a #2 hit on the Billboard charts for the teenage songwriter by the jazz/rock and pop group, Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Playing a “more mellow version” of the tune which Laura Nyro herself played at New York’s Bottom Line, listeners at the Fanwood Library are treated to a toe-tapping reggae/funk influenced rendition of “And When I Die.” The repeated tag line of “one child born” at the end reminds some long-term Nyro afficiandos — the “Nyrotics,” as Elliot jokingly calls them — that when Laura died in 1997 at the age of 49, she really did leave the world with one child born: a son.
Spero reminds the older baby boomers who make up the majority of the audience today that, during one week in the 1960s, Laura had three hits on the Billboard Top 10: “Eli’s Comin’” by Three Dog Night, and two songs recorded by The Fifth Dimension — “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Sweet Blindness.” At this point, Christine and Elliot launch into a rollicking version of “Sweet Blindness,” Spero’s voice perfectly inhabiting the soulful world of Nyro’s music and lyrics, the audience clearly enjoying the performance as much as the duo enjoys giving it.
Before moving on to her next piece, Spero provides the audience with more interesting tidbits about Nyro, telling them, for example, that if ever Laura was asked to autograph her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, before signing, she would always cross out the word “New” in the title.
In talking about Nyro’s creativity and sense of drama, she also references singer Bette Midler who once said, “Laura could take a trip to the grocery store and make it sound like she had taken a trip to the Kasbah.”
Here, Spero goes on to perform another very challenging Nyro composition, “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp.” Opening with a moody Asian-influenced soundscape that morphs into a dynamic piano chord progression, Spero’s wistful vocal is accompanied by Elliot’s tasty percussion and wind flourishes.
Ending with a jazz improvisation, the members of this gifted duo flex their instrumental muscle, impressing the audience with a heartfelt and passionate in-the-moment performance.
Reminding the audience that “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp” comes from Laura’s album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, a record which was produced by The Young Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, Spero starts to play a few bars of the Cavaliere penned Rascals song, “Groovin’.” The moment she stops, however, listeners in the audience sigh and Spero wonders aloud if it would be appropriate to perform the entire piece, given — as the lyrics suggest — we’re all here in the library “groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon.” Not surprisingly, the audience wholeheartedly agrees and ultimately finds themselves bopping along to Spero’s breezy performance of this classic 1960’s Rascals’ hit.
Moving on to a Nyro composition which Spero says, “The Fifth Dimension thought would be a hit, but wasn’t,” she performs a spirited version of “Black Patch.” Elliot provides the snappy rhythm to propel the song ever forward, Spero’s joyful voice singing out about “Happiness on the uptown side/Of my party in the morning tide.”
On one of many highlights of this afternoon’s performance, audience members groove to the music in their seats as Spero channels the spirit of Laura Nyro on a soulful version of “Eli’s Comin’.” Opening with a mysterious out-of-tempo intro, the song soon shifts into high gear, Spero soulfully and intensely warning, “Eli’s comin’, hide your heart, girl!”
Moving on to a lesser known piece which Laura composed for a film on the forced displacement of Navajo tribe members, the audience is taken on a musical journey with “Broken Rainbow,” Elliot impressing the audience as he skillfully plays both wind and percussion instruments simultaneously.
Following heartfelt applause, Christine reveals to the crowd how she was originally introduced to the music of Laura Nyro.
At the age of 16, while working at her neighborhood King Kullen market, Spero reveals she was given a promotional copy of Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession LP by a co-worker who also spun records for a local college radio station. Holding up the album jacket, the audience laughs when Christine goes on to joke that, nowadays, the record probably smells more like her attic than “the original lavender scented lyric sheet” which initially came packaged inside the record album jacket.
Moving on to yet another highlight of the afternoon’s performance, Spero plays one of her own original compositions — one she dedicated to both Laura Nyro and jazz great John Coltrane. Entitled “Laura and John,” Spero gives a lively yet emotional performance which tugs at the audience’s heartstrings upon singing lyrics like, “You left the party way too soon.”
Spero also tells an intriguing story about a time in 1967 when Laura played the Monterey Pop Festival. During her performance at this event — the very first large music festival, with a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands — Laura thought that listeners were booing her when, in fact, they were chanting “beautiful.” Unfortunately, according to Spero, the experience scarred Laura and, as a result, Nyro decided against performing at the next big music festival which took place two years later in upstate New York — Woodstock.
Performing a tune which Spero calls “heavy duty stuff,” she goes on to give a heart-wrenching performance of the song Nyro did at Monterey entitled, “Poverty Train,” accompanied by Elliot on winds and percussion.
Next up is the title track from the Nyro album, Smile, an “avant garde” piece which ends with a spacey instrumental jam called “Mars.”
Moving on to a Motown tune from an album which Laura recorded in 1971 with Patti LaBelle’s group, Labelle, Spero performs “The Bells,” a song initially recorded by The Originals. Then, she deftly segues into a finger-snapping rendition of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ hit “Jimmy Mack,” the audience spontaneously snapping and clapping along.
After an ebullient version of Nyro’s “Lucky,” Spero performs a number which she reveals was “Laura’s highest-charting single as a performer,” a cover version of Carole King’s “Up On the Roof,” which managed to break the Top 100 in 1970.
This is followed by “Once It Was Alright Now,” a song which Spero describes as having a “constantly-changing feel” — a hallmark of Nyro’s innovative compositional style. And next up is a wonderful Latin-influenced rendition of “Stoned Soul Picnic,” a Nyro gem on which the “There’ll be trains of trust, trains of golden dust” bridge features some of the most brilliant melodic/harmonic writing in pop music history.
After a lively version of “Wedding Bell Blues,” Spero concludes this afternoon’s performance with a number she says is as “appropriate for the times today” as it was when Nyro originally wrote it in 1968, “Save the Country.” Connecting with the audience on lyrics such as “We could build the dream with love, I know/We could build the dream with love,” Spero receives a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of her hits were performed by other artists, in the 1960s, Laura Nyro made herself a creative force in American popular music. As with the case of Bob Dylan — who always had something important to say, even if one didn’t especially like the way he was singing it — some listeners had a difficult time listening to Laura sing her own catalog of songs, however, finding her voice less refined than other more polished entertainers.
But many of those who’ve made it a point to go on and listen to her various recordings have come to find a performer who grew to become one of the most soulful singers in music history, particularly during her later years when her voice mellowed and became more resonant and controlled.
So that’s pretty much the story with respect to Laura Nyro and the musical element we commonly refer to as “timbre,” or tone color.
But what about the talents of Laura Nyro with respect to the six remaining elements of music?
In terms of “melody,” “harmony,” “rhythm,” “form,” “texture,” and “dynamics,” in our opinion, Laura Nyro ought to be considered among the elite of 1960’s era songwriters.
And what about her talents as a lyricist?
A half-century following its creation, her ingenious poetic imagery still has the ability to stir souls.
Thus, our response?
Not every composer can write music that can make a listener experience an emotional lump in the throat by virtue of its melodic/harmonic brilliance or heartfelt lyrics.
But Laura Nyro’s music can.
Especially when Spero Plays Nyro.
For more on Christine Spero — notably information about upcoming performances including a Spero Plays Nyro duo performance at the NJ Botanical Gardens in Ringwood, NJ on April 22 at 2pm; a Spero Plays Nyro duo performance at The Springfield Public Library in Springfield, NJ on May 21 at 2pm; and a live performance of the entire Christine Spero Group at the NJ Botanical Gardens in Ringwood, NJ on July 21 at 6:30pm— please go to www.christinesperogroup.com. For more on the life and music of Laura Nyro, please go to www.lauranyro.com