A relatively unsung twentieth century masterwork is Christmas and the Beads of Sweat by Laura Nyro.
The first track, Brown Earth, begins with an evocation of morning that brings to mind the opening of another music: Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. Brown Earth’s lyrics include the words ragamuffin boys, a description that has an unintended personal meaning due to my involvement with South Asian ragas, and the fact that Nyro is one of the progenitors of my musical development.
Beads of Sweat, the eighth track on the album, is an apocalyptic masterpiece, and one of the most searing recordings ever made. Nyro assembled some of the finest musicians of her time for this effort, including Duane Allman on lead guitar; Chuck Rainey on bass; Dino Danelli on drums; Ralph MacDonald on percussion; and Cornell Dupree on rhythm guitar. Her portentous lyrics evoke images that place her in a class with Bob Dylan, The Doors, and the Beatles.
Gonna Take A Miracle is a collaborative album Nyro made with Labelle, the vocal trio comprised of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. This momentous recording includes the song, The Bells, one of the most beautifully etched embodiments of pathos ever captured on tape. Composed by Marvin Gaye, and first recorded by The Originals, this immaculate gem leaves me at a loss for comparisons, and similar to Brown Earth, I find myself ruminating over much larger scale works, including The Dreaming of the Bones and West Side Story.
Laura Nyro composed most all of her masterpieces before taking a five-year hiatus from music at the age of twenty-four; an accomplishment rarely if ever matched in the history of Western Music, as even Mozart composed his greatest works at a later age.
Nyro had long brunette hair and dark brown eyes. Her ancestry is Russian Jewish and Italian. She once stated that romantic relationships were contemplated, in part, for how fruitful their yield of musical inspiration might be. I was startled and amused to read a letter online from someone who had her for a summer camp counselor!
Ever since first hearing her while a teenager, I have regarded Laura Nyro’s music as among the most beautiful and powerful in any genre. Drawing comparisons with European painters, her harmonies resonate like El Greco’s View of Toledo; her profound introspection recalls de Chirico’s stark public squares; her vocal timbres bespeak the nourishing pigments of Gauguin; and the expanse of her expressive vision tenders the majesty of Giovanni Bellini.
Along with John Lennon, she is my favorite singer of all.
- Michael Robinson, April 2012, Los Angeles
© 2012 Michael Robinson
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Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist.