Sassafras & Moonshine: The Songs Of Laura Nyro
It’s funny – isn’t it? (Maybe a little sad also) – Laura Nyro struggled to reach a mainstream audience with her intense, personal and political songs and yet, as a songwriter she did just that: she reached so many people. But only as a songwriter. Her own versions of her songs were the acquired taste – what was required was for bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears and The 5th Dimension to take Nyro’s music to the masses.
I’ve always imagined her as something in-between Carole King and Joni Mitchell. It’s simplistic perhaps, maybe a little (too) obvious – but I like thinking about her in that space, achieving a little of column A and a little from column B, straddling the territories. Like Mitchell she was an idiosyncratic, esoteric songwriter. Like King she had huge success creating songs that could be adapted to suit versions of soul and gospel and pop and yet there was always something from the earnest and earthy charms of folk music still attached, no matter who came on board to define/redefine the song. In that sense it’s fair to say that Nyro’s personality remains entrenched in the songs.
But she never received the appraisal/reappraisal that Joni did (and still does). And she never had her version of a Tapestry – though who really could ever (quite) compete with that album? Somewhere, in a parallel universe, there’s a Laura Nyro album that sold like Tapestry and was taken on board and adored. It’s nice to think that. Just like it’s nice to think that Danny Gatton’s hypothetical Plugged album did similar business to Eric Clapton’s actual Unplugged album.
All of that is by way of introduction to this wonderful compilation – a mix of the well known and less well known covers of Laura Nyro. The 5th Dimension all but made a career out of covering her and they kick this disc off with Sweet Blindness, we then have the wonderful Staple Singers offering their take on Stoned Soul Picnic and rather than the Blood, Sweat & Tears cover of And When I Die which everyone knows and loves (or should) we have a version by Queen Esther Marrow. There’s The Supremes and Mama Cass and then a jump forward in time to hear how Tuck & Patti cope with Laura Nyro (perfectly, by the way).
A lovely compilation this – just enough in the way of surprises, some key covers too – and it works for the curios as well as the known and loved gems. A great introduction to Nyro too, I reckon. An extraordinarily gifted writer and performer; her work seems to grow stronger with the years.