Today is the birthday of Laura Nyro, whose songs were big hits for the likes of the 5th Dimension and Three Dog Night, vocal groups in the Top Forty in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The song of hers I knew and liked best was “And When I Die” as recorded by Blood, Sweat and Tears. I didn’t hear Nyro’s versions of her own songs till way later—early this century, in fact. One thing the internet did, besides making lyrics to most any song available, was make info on almost any musical artist available. Searching for figures who had become somewhat “obscure” by then led me to a few finds. Nyro died in 1997, and that fact caused a certain revival which is probably what made me seek her out.
Today’s song is from the album of hers I like best. It’s the second of the three I know—the earliest, which was recorded for Verve in 1967, was re-released by Columbia as The First Songs and features “And When I Die” and “Stoney End,” two of my favorites as well, but the recording quality—or maybe it’s the CD quality—isn’t as good as on the second album. The third, which seems to be the critics favorite, is New York Tendaberry (1969), which is certainly the most complex but less “pop” in arrangements. It’s the pop quality of Nyro’s writing that allowed others to have such big hits with her songs, and I miss that quality when she lets it languish for too long. There are other qualities as well—particularly, on Eli and the 13th Confession, a gospel feel that lets her “rave” a bit. She has a very aggressive singing style, not at all “pretty,” full of passion and, at times, subdued frenzy. It takes some getting used to. To say nothing of an operatic register.
“Eli’s Coming” won out as my choice over “Sweet Blindness” which is an infectious rave-up that always makes me feel good—listen to how she slurs “ain’t gonna tell ya what I been drinkin.’” “Eli” is more brooding, a song that Three Dog Night treat to way too much bombast. Nyro’s version is slinkier, sultry, with an interplay between her voices, multi-tracked to sing with herself. And her piano playing is so insistent. The horns kicking in with the “better walk, walk, but you’ll never get away” really stir it up.
My favorite parts are the opening and the siren-song-like return around 2:47, then that funkier groove, 3:00, with the breathy “better hide your heart, girl” (3:07), setting off the intertwining of different vocal lines that carries the whole thing up a notch for a full minute of wailing vocals overlapping at the end. The caution against Eli starts to feel like a “play hard to get” strategy, though not without risk. “You’ll never get away” because, apparently, you can’t really hide your heart from yourself. So even if you can elude Eli, you can’t deny what you want. “Cry, but he’s never gonna follow” might be suggesting that, after all, Eli’s not the one in need. “He’s comin’ to get me, mama” as though there’s just something about him that gets to her and that, if she doesn’t hide her heart, she’s lost.
As a song sung by a woman to herself, that dimension of trying to deny the pull to Eli gets registered in how stirred up the vocals are. And yet there’s no denying that the hiding feels necessary, a coping mechanism, as does the urgency of trying to get away “from the burn and the heartache.” What I love about the song is the way it’s so torchy and yet also has this insistence that it won’t let that flame subsume the spirit. She might be able to get away from it, intact, in the end.