Listen to this track from singer-songwriter, pianist, and mistress of orchestral pop with gospel overtones Laura Nyro. It’s “Eli’s Coming”, a key track on her 1968 Eli and the Thirteenth Confession album, her second album, and many say her best. Never has a love song sounded so ominous, while also being so lushly constructed and arranged.
Laura Nyro’s ability to put across music that was a successful fusion of tin pan alley, confessional singer-songwriter fare, gospel music, and showtune panache is unparalleled. This was a fusion that came through various exposures to all of these strains of music and more, while having graduated from High School of Music and Art in Manhatten, and playing clubs while still a teen.
She was a singular figure in music at the time of this release, anticpating the confessional style, but still being a sophisticated enough songwriter and arranger to be able to construct little movies that had a life of their own apart from their creator. This is just as well, since many of her well-known songs are well known because they were performed by others including Blood Sweat and Tears (“And When I Die”), Three Dog Night (who covered this song), Barbra Striesand (“Stoney End”), and the Fifth Dimension (“Sweet Blindness”), just to name a few.
This song just doesn’t fool around, challenging the rules of pop music immediacy by meeting the requirement of being accessible while also being appealingly unpredictable at the same time. I love the changes in tempo, for instance. This aspect is an important innovation to pop writing that Nyro helped to make available to her peers, and those over whom she has musical influence, such as Jenny Lewis, Ricky Lee Jones, and Elton John, who’s “Burn Down The Mission” was a Nyro-influenced gem in his own catalogue early on.
Also, Nyro’s voice on this is so connected to the material. It sounds to me as more than just a vocal performance; it’s an acting performance. We believe in this song because it’s written and arranged well, but also because it’s sung by someone who believes it too, complete with multitracked Lauras that seem to be filling not so much the role of backup singers as they do a sort of broadway style Greek chorus.
That’s what really stands out for me with this tune; just how cinematic it is, how well paced it is. It really is like a little movie, where perhaps the details of the action are less important than its emotional core. And this is the strength of this tune, and in Nyro’s music overall. It is a pop song without following the rules of pop. It is not bound by verse-chorus-verse. It takes it’s time, it builds, comes to a climax, and then tapers off into a denoument, and a fade to black. In this, it’s a pretty revolutionary example of how pop writing could still be complex and lush, yet not sound as though it’s self-indulgent on the part of its writer.
Maybe it’s this sense of drama, this cinematic quality to her music which attracted so many artists of such differing musical styles to take on her material and have such success with it.
For more information about Laura Nyro, check out this Laura Nyro biography.
5 thoughts on “Laura Nyro Plays “Eli’s Coming””
Your “Movie” analogy is spot on. I feel the same way about many of Laura’s songs. I grew up liking the covers a lot, but when I got to hear Laura’s original recordings, I was STUNNED at how much better they are!
It’s a shame her greedy Manager David Geffen put far more energy into farming out her great songs, than he did trying to establish Laura herself as a major recording Artist. Her versions just mop the floor with the watered down covers every time, but Mr G. went for the easy money, doling them out to already established Radio Darlings, while raking in his 50% of the royalties. It saddens me that there are still too many People who mistakenly think she wrote those songs FOR other Artists.
Thanks for comments, Artamus.
That creativity vs commerce split seems pretty timeless, no matter which era we’re talking about. But as you say, she recorded some storming versions of her own material. I wonder how much of a cut she got from the publishing. I imagine Geffin took his cut.
And thank YOU for such a nice write up.
Geffen indeed took his cut, and then some. Laura and David were 50/50 partners in “Tuna Fish Music”, the publishing co. for her songs. David did help Laura get out of the bad contract she was stuck in at Verve(where they pretty much treated her as a hired hand on her own album!), and he convinced the powers that be at Columbia to give her much greater creative freedom – which resulted in her crafting the Masterpiece “Eli” album.
But I suspect that that sweet 50% deal got the better of him. It’s not hard to figure that the royalties from just one Artist(who had yet to have a hit single), were not going to be as much as having several already established hit makers cover her songs. Why bother trying to convince the radio programmers to put Laura into heavy rotation, when there were guaranteed to get played A-list acts lining up to shovel royalties his way…. Not to mention all the others – there were about a zillion non 5th Dimension covers of “Stoned Soul Picnic”, with some Artists even using it as the title of their albums..
Had David simply been just Laura’s Manager, and was making the customary 10% sans songwriting royalties, than I think it would have been a very different story – we would have heard Laura herself on the radio a lot more often. I think that’s why Laura didn’t sign with Geffen’s Asylum label in the ’70s – she probably had nightmares thinking about all the Disco remakes of her songs he’d be pushing. ;))
Ha! Awesome. Thank you for the background story, Artamus!
You’re welcome. I’m no expert on Laura’s Life story, but I do Love her a lot, and I read every bit of info on her that I can get my grubby little mitts on. Loads of fact free urban Mythology out there, but there are also real accounts that tell of a good Woman who just wanted to do her Music her way. Although she was often frustrated by record execs(along with Mr. Geffen), who insisted that they knew best(they didn’t!)
Ultimately, she pretty much did what she wanted to do, when she wanted to do it, and didn’t care what the suits thought, even if it meant they weren’t going to lift a finger to promote her own recordings of her songs because she hadn’t done them “Their way”. She always stood up for Musical integrity, and she gave us truly fantastic albums that stand the test of Time, like “Eli & the 13th confession”, and the criminally underrated “Nested”(my 2 personal favorites!)