Laura Nyro (and Labelle)
Columbia 30987, 1971

When we were first confronted with "soul" in the musical sense, we quickly attempted to slap a label on it, and when that label proved too small to accommodate both James Brown and Marvin Gaye, the risk avoiders that ran radio decided that once again, "white" and "black" music would have to go their separate ways. Things haven't changed much, either, since it's a safe bet that your local "classic rock" station doesn't play a note of Laura Nyro — unless it's sung by Three Dog Night or David Clayton-Thomas.

LP sleeveIndeed, practitioners of musical apartheid would be utterly flummoxed by Nyro. She wrote intense songs with unexpected rhythms, as did your favorite "progressive" act, but she sang them as soulfully as any preacher's kid from the streets of Detroit, something not quite expected from a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx. Verve, which signed her for an album in 1966, couldn't come up with any better description than More Than a New Discovery.

Eventually, she settled at Columbia, where she recorded three albums of original material in three years, and while they sold fairly well, cover versions of her songs sold even better — just pick up any Fifth Dimension anthology. Perhaps as a response, the New York Tendaberry took a side trip to Philadelphia in 1971, and Gonna Take a Miracle was born.

With practiced R&B veterans Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at the helm, and the newly-foreshortened Labelle not very far in the background, Laura Nyro let her voice and her soul run free through eleven classic songs, from doo-wop to Motown. The voices weren't always in perfect harmony, and the arrangements weren't always ideal, but none of that mattered; what came out of those sessions was the textbook definition of soul — gospel on an earthly plane, if you will — and it was so shattering that Nyro herself couldn't come up with a follow-up for four years. Columbia reissued the Verve album (as The First Songs) during the interim, but by then, apparently, the magic had moved on.

The gem of this collection, perhaps, is "The Wind". After reviewing the original by Nolan Strong and the Diablos, Gamble and Huff decided to emphasize its ethereal qualities and toss out the rest. And it works: the voices are muted and wistful, the chorus soft and breathy, nearly wordless — not unlike the wind itself.

In some ways, Gonna Take a Miracle is godmother to all those tribute albums cluttering up the racks these days. And while one last miracle was not forthcoming — Laura Nyr