Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Music: Laura Nyro

I picked up a stack of music last week, including a compilation of Dusty Springfield's A and B sides, and Laura Nyro's 1971 album with Labelle, Gonna Take a Miracle. While listening to the first, I found an article by Springfield's former lover, Canadian rocker Carol Pope. Although she never formerly came out as a lesbian, Dusty Springfield's attraction to women was the stuff of industry gossip. Gifted, yet wildly insecure, she drank and caroused her way out of her relationship with Pope. At the end of the piece, Pope described attending her funeral with her manager and friend, Vicki Wickham, who had introduced the two lovers.

Wickham is an intriguing person: a closeted (for most of her career) lesbian who made it in the mostly-male business of pop music. At the age of 20, she produced and booked one of the first television pop music shows in England, Ready, Steady, Go!". Wickham became a sought-after manager and producer. When she took on Labelle, a 60's girl group, she persuaded them to wear outlandish silver spacesuits and record "Lady Marmalade." It was an extremely successful re-branding, and the song hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1975.

So what's this have to do with Laura Nyro? Singer/songwriter Nyro was only 17 when she sold her first hit, "And When I Die," to Peter, Paul and Mary. Although she was marketed as a folk singer, her soul and jazz-inflected style didn't always sit well with folk audiences. Nyro also disliked the grind of touring and record promotion. Her best songs become hits for other artists, like The 5th Dimension. Albums such as Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969) had a limited audience when released, but influenced many later songwriters and performers. In 1970, Vicki Wickham introduced Patti LaBelle to Laura Nyro, and the two became close friends. Nyro and members of Labelle recorded Gonna Take a Miracle, an album of Motown covers. Nyro left and then returned to the music business twice between 1972 and 1984. Even devoted fans felt that her best work was behind her. She died of ovarian cancer in 1997, survived by a son and a female partner.

"Ready, Vicki, Go." The Guardian [Link]

"Laura Nyro, Intense Balladeer of the 60's and 70's, Dies at 49" The New York Times [Link]

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday Music: We Five

This is a live performance on Hollywood Palace (c.1965), a variety show that was guest-hosted each week. It seems a waste of Fred Astaire to have him introducing pop groups. We Five's hit song, "You Were On My Mind," was penned by Canadian folksinger Sylvia Tyson, of Ian & Sylvia.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday Music: Arthur Russell

The very thought of trying to write a "short" bio of the late Arthur Russell makes me feel so tired, I want to lie down. The following pretty much sums up his career: when Russell died, he left behind over a thousand tapes of his own work. At least 40 of those were just different mixes of the same song. Prolific and protean, he wrote and recorded avant-garde string music, proto-house-techno, modernist disco fusion and his own brand of eccentric, sweet pop. I included clips of two of the latter, his most accessible music. The playlist beneath has some examples of the other genres.

Russell was part of the New York downtown scene during the heyday of punk and new wave, and was a friend and collaborator with Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass and David Byrne, among others. His life was tragically cut short by AIDS, in 1992. In recent years, Audika Records has released several albums of his work.

Audika Records: Come to Life. Arthur Russell [Link]

Arthur Russell Playlist: Get Around To It (4:59)/Sketch for the Face of Helen (2:38)/Let's Go Swimming (7:58)/Terrace of Inintelligibility Part 2 (9:31)


Friday, November 6, 2009

Brainworm: Visqueen

This week, I've had a new brainworm--that is, a song I just can't get out of my head. Unlike the Starship selection, this a good brainworm. The song is "Ward" from Seattle band Visqueen's new album, Message to Garcia. Any resemblance of frontwoman Rachel Flotard's vocals to Neko Case are not entirely accidental. They are buddies, and Neko makes a guest appearance on a few of the tracks.


Please take time to visit the website of their hometown radio station KEXP, which provided this clip. KEXP's live stream and podcasts keep me rockin' through those long afternoons.

Buy Message to Garcia at Amazon [Link]

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sunday Music: Sixto Rodriguez

Forgotten geniuses. In the last half-century, the U.S. music industry has created quite a few of these. Is it my imagination, or do many of these rediscovered artists happen to not be white? One thing is clear: minority performers weren't cut much slack when it came to eccentric or difficult behavior. At an industry showcase in 1970, singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez invited a member of the Brown Berets, a Hispanic activist organization similar to the Black Panthers, to join him on stage. His revolutionary fervor did him no favors with the recording industry executives in the audience. Mediocre sales, in addition to his being "unmarketable," led to his being dropped by his label.

Rodriguez was born the sixth child of a Mexican-American family in Detroit. A gifted lyricist, he wrote songs that were political without being polemic. The album Cold Fact (1970), which sold poorly in the U.S., was exactly right for the political climate of South Africa. Rodriguez became somewhat of a legend in S.A. and Australia, even touring with the Aussy group Midnight Oil in the early 80s. It took about 30 years for his reputation to catch up in the country of his birth. Here's "Sugar Man," with a lovely psychedelic video that somewhat belies the desolation of the lyrics.

Cold Fact-A Retrospective (from [Link]

"Sixto Rodriguez: the rock'n'roll Lord Lucan" [Link]