Monday Mixtape: Southern Charm

In this week’s mixtape, enjoy songs that evoke the hazy, end-of-summer south. Songs by Dusty Springfield, Evie Sands, Jenny Lewis, Holly Golightly, and more!


The New York City Soul of Laura Nyro

“Amber was the color
Summer was a flame-ride
Cookin’ up the noon roads
Walkin’ on God’s good side
I was walkin’ on God’s good side…”
-Laura Nyro, “Lu”

lauranyro3For thirty years, Laura Nyro believed she had been booed off the stage after her performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. At just 20 years old, it was only her second live performance ever, and her brand of New York City soul contrasted sharply with the west coast-dominated lineup of pop and rock bands. Footage of Laura performing was not included in the Monterey Pop film, reinforcing the idea that she hadn’t gone over well with the audience. The story of this perceived failure followed her throughout her career, tempering her confidence, until the producers of the film unearthed forgotten footage of the festival in 1997. Their discovery was shocking: no one had booed before, during, or after Laura’s set. Instead, there were shouts of “Beautiful!” and “We love you!” The producers immediately phoned to tell Laura the news, reaching her just weeks before she died of ovarian cancer at age 49.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine failure of any kind for a singer and songwriter as brilliant as Laura Nyro. Her songs, with their dynamic shifts in tempo and mood, incorporated elements of jazz, soul, Broadway, and pop; her vocals were soulful and rich. Staunchly feminist in her vision, her lyrics questioned commonly held views about gender, race, religion, and politics. She boldly confessed her desires and asked for no judgment in return. As a result, her songs dwelled at the top of the charts, but only in versions recorded by other artists. After laboring in obscurity despite releasing five classic albums, she announced her retirement from the music business at age 24.

lauranyro4Born in the Bronx, Laura grew up knowing that she would do something creative. After teaching herself to play piano, at age eight she began to compose songs, and her future profession was chosen. By age 17, she had written most of the songs on her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, including “And When I Die”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, and “Stoney End”. These songs would go on to become massive hits for Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Fifth Dimension, and Barbra Streisand, respectively. The album was released in 1966, and led to Laura’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

lauranyro2Despite the high quality of the songs on her debut, it was Laura’s next three albums that would cement her reputation as one of the most exciting (and most overlooked) performers in rock music. Eli and the Thirteenth Confession marked a step up from her debut, with lush arrangements, wildly inventive lyrics, and more hit songs (Three Dog Night successfully covered “Eli’s Comin’”, and “Stoned Soul Picnic” returned The Fifth Dimension to the pop charts). The album visits characters throughout the urban landscape, culminating with “The Confession”, a song with lyrics that, in the 1960s, were positively shocking for a woman to sing.

Laura continued her vision with her next album, the gritty, mysterious New York Tendaberry. A love letter to her beloved NYC, the album’s title renders Laura’s invented word, “tenderberry”, in a way that evokes her Bronx accent. More stripped-down than her previous records, the album is mostly Laura at her piano, with occasional blasts of horns that feel like gusts of blazing-hot wind on a steamy city street. The painterly lyrics evoke the city at its dirty best. Her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, included a “Seasons Suite”, wherein each song represented one of the four seasons.

lauranyroAfter experiencing her biggest chart success with a cover of “Up on the Roof”, Laura decided to record an entire album of covers. Enlisting her friends LaBelle to sing with her, she recorded Gonna Take a Miracle. She chose what she called her “teenage heartbeat songs”, and brilliantly reinterpreted each of them. After the release of this album, Laura announced her retirement from the music business. Although she would eventually return and record a few more albums before her death, they did not match the simultaneous power and vulnerability evinced by her first five.

lauranyro5Today, Laura is remembered for the hits other bands had with her songs, and the influence she had on other, more popular artists. Her devotees include Jenny Lewis, Elton John, Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne, Todd Rundgren, and, most famously, Joni Mitchell, who admitted that hearing Laura’s early albums inspired her to take up playing the piano again after a hiatus (resulting in all those lovely, piano-driven ballads on Ladies of the Canyon and Blue). Despite her lack of commercial success, one listen to a Laura Nyro album removes any doubt of her maverick genius.

Cover Girls: “Always Something There to Remind Me”

Sandie_ShawFirst recorded in 1963 as a demo by Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic “Always Something There to Remind Me” landed in the lower regions of the charts the next year for Lou Johnson. It wasn’t until England’s Sandie Shaw recorded a version later in 1964 that the song reached #1 in England. Known for performing barefoot, Sandie enjoyed several other major chart hits in Europe after the success of “Always Something There to Remind Me”, including “Girl Don’t Come” and “Long Live Love”. She found further success with her own clothing line in the late 6o’s.

In 1983, with her fame largely behind her, she received a letter from Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, urging her to collaborate with them and record some of their songs. Sandie ultimately recorded three Smiths songs: “Hand in Glove”, “Jeane”, and “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, the latter written especially for her by the duo. The Smiths appeared with her to perform the songs on “Top of the Pops”, and the band performed barefoot in homage to her earlier career. The single with The Smiths reached the top 40 in England, but she wasn’t able to duplicate the huge success of  her first hit:

In 1983, just as Sandie was in the midst of her collaboration with The Smiths, a new band called Naked Eyes was hitting it big with a synthpop cover of “Always Something There to Remind Me”. This time, the song would have its biggest success on the U.S. charts, where it hit the top ten. The fame of the Naked Eyes version would far exceed any other in the states, where none of Sandie Shaw’s songs had cracked the top 40 and she was largely unknown. Vocalist Pete Byrne, a lifelong fan of the Sandie Shaw version, recorded his vocal in one take.

The Black Belles

blackbellesThere’s something to be said for a good story. According to their official Third Man Records bio, the Black Belles met at the boarding school where each member had been sent by their despairing parents. The bio shares the reasons why each girl was the black sheep of the family (sample: “Kicked out of girl scouts for poisoning cookies. Allegedly.”), before stating that the boarding school was where she “found others just like her.” Of course, given Third Man Records founder Jack White’s propensity for mythology, the bio is just good (un)clean fun.

blackbelles2In actuality, the Black Belles are Olivia Jean, Shelby Lynn, and Ruby Rogers, who were introduced to each other by Jack White. Olivia Jean, the group’s lead singer and primary songwriter, met Jack back in their Detroit days, where she formed and fronted a surf rock band. Combining the aggression of garage rock with a “friendly goth” sensibility, the ladies of the Black Belles recorded their debut in 2011. With their trademark hats and dark clothing, their look caught people’s attention right away, but their musical talent runs far deeper than their image ever could.

Songs like “Honky Tonk Horror” and “Wishing Well” deliver the hard-rocking sound Olivia Jean developed through years of playing live and as a studio hired gun. The album is uniform, but sets a mood—specifically, that it was recorded at a dance hosted by the Addams Family (a compliment if there ever was one!). The girls have toured extensively in the U.S. and England, where audiences are treated to originals and an excellent selection of covers, including the Sonics’ “The Witch”, a song that allows Shelby Lynn’s drumming to shine.

The Belles have been (mostly) quiet since the release of their album two years ago, but let’s hope they release a follow-up soon.