Posts Tagged ‘Laura Nyro’

‘Going Down The Stoney End . . .’

Friday, February 20th, 2015

The Texas Gal and I were killing time between television shows the other night. She played a game on her laptop while I read a copy of Rolling Stone as the Seventies channel on the TV provided the soundtrack. There was a flourish of drums followed by a ringing piano introduction, and Barbra Streisand sang:

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
Now I don’t believe I wanna see the morning

And as I listened to Streisand deliver “Stoney End,” one of Laura Nyro’s (perhaps) less cryptic songs, I wondered who played piano on the track, as the piano intro and the later piano fills are two of the things that make me like the record more than I like a lot of Streisand’s work. So when the song ended, I went to the stacks to check out the Stoney End album jacket, but it turns out I don’t have the vinyl of the 1971 album. All I have is a digital copy scavenged from somewhere, and the album credits I find online list several keyboard players, so I don’t know who to thank for that chiming intro on “Stoney End.”

At that point, this post could have gone several different ways. I could assess Streisand’s work in detail, but I gave a brief assessment of my reaction to her work in a 2010 post about a drive-in movie date gone wrong, and nothing has changed my view that Streisand’s career went off the rails – artistically, at least – in 1977 with the ego-trip film A Star Is Born. (The Texas Gal dates the artistic derailment a bit later, with the 1983 release of Yentl. We both agree that early in her career – the 1960s – Streisand was a great interpreter of songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook.)

And I didn’t really want to turn my interest in Streisand’s “Stoney End” into a post on the late Laura Nyro’s music. You’ve heard folks say about Bob Dylan, “A great songwriter, but man, I cannot stand to listen to him sing,” right? I feel a little bit like that about Laura Nyro: I love her songs, as inscrutable as they may sometimes be, but on too many of her recordings, she sounds shrill to me, so even though I have a little of her work around, I rarely listen to it. Happily enough for today’s exercise, Nyro’s take on “Stoney End” – found on the 1967 album More Than A New Discovery – is one of her better performances, and I quite like it.

So, with both of those versions of “Stoney End” echoing in my ears, I wondered about other versions of the song. And in the past few days, I’ve found nine other covers of the Nyro song, almost all of them jammed between the years 1967 – when Nyro released her version – and 1972, when Bert Kaempfert released, on his album 6 Plus 6, the only easy listening version of the tune I’ve found. (Maynard Ferguson also released an instrumental version of the tune, his coming on his self-titled 1971 album, but being a typically bold and brassy Maynard Ferguson track, one can’t classify it as easy listening.)

From what I find online, the first to cover “Stoney End” were the Blossoms, an R&B backing group with a massive list of credits but perhaps best known for having Darlene Love as one of its members and for being the actual performers on a couple of Phil Spector productions that were credited to the Crystals. The Blossoms recorded “Stoney End” in 1967 for the Ode label. Sharp-eared listeners will note that Love did not take the lead vocal; one of the comments at YouTube notes that in her autobiography (My Name Is Love), Love wrote, “Some of the chorus parts were too high for me, so Jean [Thomas] took the lead.”

Actress and singer Peggy Lipton – whose musical career I examined in a post last summer – recorded the tune in 1968, also for the Ode label, and one doesn’t need to have very sharp ears at all to realize that producer Lou Adler laid Lipton’s vocals over pretty much the same backing track as he’d put together for the Blossoms a year earlier. Lipton’s single release of “Stoney End” was the first one to tickle the Billboard charts, bubbling under the Hot 100 at No. 121. (Streisand’s 1970 single release is the only other version of the song to chart; it went to No. 6 on the Hot 100 and to No. 2 on what was then called the Easy Listening chart.)

A few more covers came along as the 1960s waned and the 1970s dawned: Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys recorded the song for their 1968 album Linda Ronstadt, The Stone Poneys & Friends, Vol. III, Diana Ross recorded the song during the sessions for her self-titled 1970 album, but the track didn’t see the light until 2002, when it showed up as a bonus track, and jazz singer Selena Jones laid down her take on the tune on her 1971 album, Platinum.

And a couple of singers in recent years have recorded the song for tribute albums: Beth Nielsen Chapman added her idiosyncratic take on “Stoney End” to the multi-artist album Time And Love – The Music Of Laura Nyro in 1997, and Broadway singer Judy Kuhn included “Stoney End” on her own tribute album, Serious Playground – The Songs of Laura Nyro, released in 2007.

Of the covers noted in those last two paragraphs, only one stands out to me: The 1968 version by Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys. (And many thanks to reader and pal Yah Shure for providing the mp3 to make the video below.)

‘It’s Never Seen The Sun . . .’

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Two-and-a-half years ago, as I offered six of the records in my Ultimate Jukebox, I wrote:

“Looking for a version of ‘Spanish Harlem’ to celebrate, I imagine that lots of folks would choose Aretha Franklin’s imaginative 1971 cover, which went to No. 2. But there’s something I prefer about Ben E. King’s original, which went to No. 10 in early 1961. Maybe it’s the tropical lilt brought out by the marimba during the introduction and throughout the record, maybe it’s the baion bass provided by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Leiber co-wrote the song with Phil Spector), maybe it’s King’s hushed, almost serene vocal, or maybe it’s the saxophone solo. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it makes Spanish Harlem into a place I wish I’d seen through the eyes of all of those involved.”

Well, all that still holds true, but after King’s version popped up on the mp3 player in the kitchen the other day, I thought about cover versions as I rinsed the silverware. It might be that Franklin provided the definitive cover of the Leiber/Spector tune. But what else was out there?

The index at BMI lists twenty-seven covers of the tune, and Second Hand Songs lists thirty-six, with a lot of (expected) overlap between the lists. Combined, the two lists hold some interesting names. Among those listed whose performances I either didn’t look for or listen to entirely in the past week or so are Jay & The Americans, Chet Atkins, Manuel and His Music of the Mountains, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Freddie Scott, Arthur Alexander, Frankie Valli, Bowling For Soup, Vicki Carr, Ray Anthony, Kenny Rankin, Janet Seidel, Keld Heick and Tony Mottola.

The BMI list doesn’t show recording or release dates, but at Second Hand Songs, the earliest listed cover is a 1961 effort by Britain’s John Barry, whose version – included on his Stringbeat album – falls into what I would call easy listening territory. Other easy listening versions came over the years from Percy Faith, Andre Kostelanetz, the previously mentioned Manuel and His Music of the Mountains and guitarist Bert Weedon, whose 1971 take on the tune pleased me more than the others in that genre.

The most recent version of the tune listed at SHS was the 2010 cover by Latin vocalist Jon Secada, which I have not heard in full although what I did hear sounded promising. I had hopes for 1960s versions by Santo & Johnny and by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana brass, but both of those were draggy and limp.

So what did I like? Unsurprisingly, I like the version King Curtis released on his 1966 album, That Lovin’ Feeling. (The video misdates the track and shows the cover of the 1969 album Instant Groove.) I like the cover I featured the other day by The Mamas & The Papas. One version that did surprise me pleasantly came from Laura Nyro, who recorded the song with Labelle for her 1971 album, Gonna Take A Miracle. I’ve always admired the late Nyro’s songwriting, but I’ve found her own recordings to sometimes be shrill. This one wasn’t. And as I poked around YouTube this morning, I found a sweet live version of the tune from an October 19, 1974, performance at Union College in Schenectady, New York; according to the YouTube poster, it’s one of only three times that Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band have performed “Spanish Harlem.” (The audio is a bit muffled, but it’s still a treat, I think.)

I keep coming back, though, to Aretha’s version. It was released as a single in 1971 (with its first LP release on Aretha’s Greatest Hits) and was No.1 for three weeks on the R&B chart and No. 2 for two weeks on the pop chart. The video below attempts to identify the players on that session, but in the Franklin listing in Top Pop Singles, Joel Whitburn notes that Dr. John plays keyboards on the single, and the good doctor is not shown in the video. I’ll go with Whitburn and assume that Dr. John was there. In any case, it’s not the keyboard work that grabs me. And it’s not Aretha’s assured vocal that moves me most. So what does? It’s the drum work, which – if one can trust the video – came from the sticks of Bernard Purdie.

Chart Digging: Late October 1966

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

My ongoing tussle with a nasty sinus infection – eight weeks and counting with two different antibiotics – reminded me today of a couple of school years when I spent a fair amount of time home ill: During eighth grade, my tonsils kept telling the world that they were no longer fit company for me, burdening me with a series of sore throats that culminated in the sorest throat of all after they were removed. And during my junior year, I spent a fair number of days home complaining of ailments that – looking back honestly – were likely caused by nothing more than a desire to stay home from school.

Whatever the cause, radio was one of the comforts during sick days at home. In the earlier of the two academic years mentioned here, I’d bring our big brown Zenith up from the kitchen and – unhip creature that I was – leave it tuned to WCCO in Minneapolis. I’d listen to the morning shows – Boone & Erickson, Howard Viken – and turn the radio off in annoyance when Arthur Godfrey’s national show came on the air. I’d read in silence for an hour and then turn the radio back on when Godfrey was gone.

By the time of my junior year, there was no need to haul the radio upstairs. I had Grandpa’s old RCA sitting on my nightstand, but the only times it was tuned to WCCO were for Vikings football and North Stars hockey. (Though I followed the Minnesota Twins baseball team, I rarely listened to their games on the radio.) The rest of the time, the RCA was tuned to Top 40: KDWB in the Twin Cities during the day and either WJON right across the railroad tracks or WLS in Chicago during the evening.

I know pretty well what I would have heard had I spent a day home in late October 1969, my junior year. But I wondered what would have been on the menu had my increasingly unreliable tonsils acted up during the last week of October 1966. So I went to look.

Here’s the Billboard Top Ten for the last week of October 1966:

“96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians
“Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees
“Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops
“Poor Side of Town” by Johnny Rivers
“Walk Away Renee” by the Left Banke
“Dandy” by Herman’s Hermits
“What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” by Jimmy Ruffin
“Hooray for Hazel” by Tommy Roe
“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow” by the Rolling Stones
“See See Rider” by Eric Burdon & The Animals

Even though I didn’t truly listen to pop music at the time, I remember all of these from those days, which is a sad thing in the cases of “Dandy” and “Hooray for Hazel,” two of my least-favorite songs from the time. All of the rest are pretty good, with a few deserving special mention: “96 Tears” was inescapable and a great record, as were the Four Tops’ record and “Walk Away Renee.” The Rolling Stones record was likely the loudest thing that group ever produced, as I was reminded a few years ago when I ripped my near-mint 45 to an mp3.

And, as always, there were some gems and some interesting records once one went beyond the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s “Mas Que Nada” was sitting at No. 47, up two spots from a week earlier. The group would eventually have three Top 40 hits in 1968, with two them – “The Look of Love” and “The Fool on the Hill” – making the Top Ten, and Mendes would reach the Top 40 in 1983 and 1984 under his own name. “Mas Que Nada” would spend another week at No. 47, then a week at No. 48 before falling out of the Hot 100.

 

The Sandpipers had reached the Top Ten earlier in the year with “Guantanamera,” which had peaked at No. 9, and in October, they reached the Top 40 again with another Latin-tinged record, a cover of the garage rock warhorse “Louie Louie” translated into Spanish. At first listen a tribute to cognitive dissonance, the record was at No. 59 during the last week of October and would peak at No. 30 during the last week of November.

A few slots lower, we find the Olympics, an R&B group from Compton, California, which reached the Top Ten in 1958 with “Western Movies” and the Top 40 in 1963 with “The Bounce.” (Recording as the Marathons in 1961, the same performers charted at No. 20 with “Peanut Butter” and its immortal command: “Scarf now!”) In October 1966, the group was at No. 63 with “Baby, Do The Philly Dog,” a lively workout that I’ve seen called a Northern Soul classic. “Baby, Do The Philly Dog” fell to No. 70 the next week and then dropped out of sight.

The Arbors were a vocal quartet from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who would reach the Top 40 in 1969, when their cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” would go to No. 20. In late October 1966, the group’s second single (the first went nowhere, says Wikipedia) was in the lower portions of the Hot 100 and moving up slowly. “A Symphony For Susan” would eventually peak at No. 51 during the last week of November and the first week of December, but during the last week of October, the record – a traditional vocal workout – was sitting at No. 80.

By the time October 1966 rolled around, the Ronettes, backed by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, had registered seven hits in the Hot 100, with five of them reaching the Top 40 in 1963 and 1964. From what I can tell – and according to Wikipedia – the last week of October 1966 marked the last appearance of the Ronettes in the Billboard Hot 100: “I Can Hear Music” was at No. 100 and would be there for exactly one week. (It had been in the Bubbling Under section at No. 120 a week earlier; it would fall back to Bubbling Under at No. 113 during the first week of November and then disappear from the chart entirely.)

Finally, sitting in the Bubbling Under section, we find the original version of “Wedding Bell Blues,” which would be a No. 1 single for the 5th Dimension in 1969. Songwriter Laura Nyro’s version, however, would not make the Hot 100. In the last week of October 1966, Nyro’s version of “Wedding Bell Blues” was at No. 127 and in its second week of Bubbling Under. The record would rise to No. 107, where it would spend the last two weeks of November before falling off the chart entirely.

Maybe tomorrow, we’ll take apart a cover version and see how it ticks. If not, we’ll be here Saturday.