Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Following the cultural tumult that was the end of the 1960s, many musicians opted for a more introspective, seemingly autobiographical approach to their songwriting. Artists like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and scores of others suddenly made it okay to turn down the volume and once again focus on the lyrical content that tended to get swept aside during the height of psychedelia. Yet not all introspection resulted in the creation of original material. With the nation seemingly falling apart, many artists began looking back to the late-1950s and early-1960s, essentially their formative years, to help better understand how they arrived and, in the process, finding themselves temporarily transported to better times.
For a musician like Laura Nyro, herself always open and contemplative within her own songs, the approach transcended the internal here and now in favor of a more accurately autobiographical look at how she ended up where she did by the time of 1971’s Gonna Take A Miracle. Rather than digging deeper into herself in an attempt to find a wealth spring of inspiration, she returned to her original inspirations as though they were a palate cleanser designed to erase the memories of the preceding years’ social unrest. By returning to her roots and the music that inspired her in the first place – her “favorite teenage heartbeat music,” she called it – Nyro sought to find her center, looking backwards for answers contained within what was beginning to be (incorrectly) perceived as a simpler time.
Her final album as part of a four-album deal with Columbia Records, Gonna Take A Miracle followed a logical through line from her own releases which combined soul and R&B with folk and pop. By enlisting the help of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and the supporting vocal talents of Labelle, Nyro was able to deliver a fully realized album full of R&B and pre-rock classics with aplomb.
Laura Nyro & Labelle – I Met Him On a Sunday (The Shirelles cover)
Opening with an a capella version of the Shirelles’ “I Met Him On A Sunday,” Nyro and the three women making up Labelle – Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash – break the music down to its simplest format, stripping away superfluous instrumentation in favor of the street corner feel of early doo-wop. Having set the stage, transporting listeners back to an earlier era of popular music, Nyro and Labelle seek to bridge the seemingly immense gap represented by the 13 intervening years. From their perspective, the 1958 of their respective youth – and the year the Shirelles released the song as a single – must have felt an entire world away. From here, Gonna Take A Miracle swings full-on into Motown territory, with nearly half of the album’s ten tracks having been originally recorded for Berry Gordy’s label. In each, Nyro and LaBelle strive to match the tenor of the original, attempting to remove the post-Altamont melancholy that seemed to permeate the industry.
Laura Nyro & Labelle – The Bells (The Originals cover)
For “The Bells” – the only contemporary song on the album, having been recorded the previous year by the Originals – Nyro’s soulful pleading threatens to break the song apart, her emotionally wrought performance playing as a life or death matter. Here, too, we get the successful pairing of Nyro’s strained, soulful vocals and Patti Labelle’s full-throated ululations comingling to spine-tingling effect.
Laura Nyro & Labelle – You Really Got a Hold On Me (The Miracles cover)
Similarly, the Miracles song “You Really Got A Hold On Me” benefits greatly from the call-and-response approach between Nyro and Labelle that helps emphasize the pleading elements contained within the song. Aided by a fine Gamble and Huff arrangement, it’s a stellar example of how to interpret a song as well-known and well-loved and truly make it one’s own.
Laura Nyro & Labelle – Nowhere to Run (Martha Reeves and the Vandellas cover)
On the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ cut “Nowhere to Run,” they stretch the original to nearly twice its length, up the soulful intensity and enliven the performance with a euphoric, almost gospel feel. Having grown up with these songs, Nyro plays them with a lived-in comfortable familiarity that helps lend that much more of a personal feel to the album. Despite the familiarity of the majority of the tracks on Gonna Take a Miracle, Laura Nyro and Labelle make these songs their own, reimagined in their own image with the help of powerhouse producers Gamble and Huff.
Having found the spotlight too much, Nyro would proclaim her retirement from the music business that same year. While her emotional fragility and inability to cope with the rigors and demands of success may have been the reasoning behind her decision to walk away, one can’t help but view Gonna Take A Miracle as an intentional final chapter and summation of a career that played as musical autobiography. While she would eventually return to recording, she’d never again reach the heights of Miracle and its preceding releases.
Gonna Take a Miracle is available on Amazon.