Recently, I’ve been reviewing albums which although not strictly Philly Soul, feature many of the musicians, songwriters, arrangers and producers who were architects of the Philly Sound. This include Ecstasy, Passion and Pain’s Ecstasy, Passion and Pain, Joe Simon’s Drowning In A Sea of Love, Dusty Springfield’s A Brand New Me, Eddie Kendrick’s Goin’ Up In Smoke, Eddie Holman’s A Night To Remember and Dick Jensen’s Dick Jensen. These were just a few of the artists who travelled to Philadelphia, seeking a Philly Soul makeover. For some artists, their careers were needing rejuvenated, so turned to innovative, pioneering producers like Norman Harris, Bobby Martin, Thom Bell and of course, Gamble and Huff. In the case of Laura Nyro, her career was certainly not in need of rejuvenating. Quite the opposite. Before Laura headed to Philly in 1970, to record what would become Gonna Take A Mircale she’d released three album. She’d enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success. With this success, came artistic freedom. So, Laura Nyro headed to Philly, to record her most ambitious, genre-sprawling album Gonna Take A Miracle. On Gonna Take A Miracle Laura combined doo-wop, gospel, soul, pop and R&B. Producing Gonna Take A Miracle, were Gamble and Huff, who were about to found Philadelphia International Records.

Laura Nyro was born in the Bronx, New York in October 1947. Her father was a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter, while her mother loved classical music. So, it’s no surprise that with Laura was surrounded by music, she immersed herself in it. The soundtrack to Laura’s childhood was classical composers like Debussy and Ravel, jazz singers Billie Holliday and opera singer Leontyne Price. By listening to the classical composition, Laura taught herself to play piano. By the age of eight, she was writing her own songs. Later, she attended Manhattan’s High School of Music. Growing up, she discovered Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Motown, Curtis Mayfield and Van Morrison. Soaking all these diverse musical influences, fate intervened, and in 1966, almost inevitably, Laura made the first step in her musical career.

It was through her father’s business, that in 1966, Laura was introduced Artie Mogull, a record company executive. Together with his business partner Paul Barry, the auditioned Laura and they’d become her managers. They negotiated Laura’s first recording contract, which was with Verve Folkways. Laura released her debut album More Than A New Discovery in January 1967, which reached number ninety-seven in the US Billboard 200. While More Than A New Discovery was a commercial success, later, other artists would cover songs from the album. In 1969, The 5th Dimension enjoyed a number one hit with Wedding Bell Blues, while Blowin’ Away reached number twenty-one. Blood, Sweat and Tears covered Stoney End, which reached number two in 1969. Then in 1971, Barbara Streisand covered Stoney End, which reached number six. Following the success of More Than A New Discovery, Laura released her sophomore album in 1968.

Eli and The Thirteenth Confession was Laura Nyro’s sophomore album, released in March 1968. This is perceived as Laura Nyro’s classic album. However, it only reached number 181 in the US Billboard 200. It included two classic tracks, Stoned Soul Picnic and Eli’s Comin.’ Again, other artists covered songs from Eli and The Thirteenth Confession. Three Dog Night covered Eli’s Comin,’ which reached number ten in the US Billboard 100. The 5th Dimension had a number three single with Stoned Soul Picnic, and their cover of Sweet Blindness reached number thirteen.

New York Tendaberry was released on Columbia Records and marked Laura’s major label debut. Released in September 1969, eighteen months after her sophomore album, New York Tendaberry was perceived as almost as good as Eli and The Thirteenth Confession. It would prove to be aura’s most successful album so far, reaching number thirty-two in the US Billboard 200. Like her two previous albums, artists including The 5th Dimension and Barbara Streisand covered songs from the album. Now Laura had released a trilogy of critically acclaimed albums, she was seen as one of the great musical hopes for the new decade that was about to dawn.

Laura’s first album of the new decade was Christmas and The Beads of Sweat, released in November 1970. Unlike her two previous albums, Laura didn’t produce Christmas and The Beads of Sweat. Instead, Arif Mardin and Felix Cavaliere took charge of production, although technically, Laura was in charge of the project and arranged each song. Good as the album was, it didn’t quite match her three previous albums. The result was an album that reached number fifty-one on the US Billboard 200. It also featured Laura’s only hit single, a cover of Up On The Roof, which reached number ninety-seven in the US Billboard 100. After four successful albums, Laura was given artistic freedom, so decided to head to Philly for album number five.

The reason Laura Nyro headed to Philly, was quite simple. She wanted to work with one of the hottest production teams Gamble and Huff, who in 1971 would found Philadelphia International Records. With Gamble and Huff, this gave Laura access to the greatest musicians and arrangers of the time. M.F.S.B. as they became known, were Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band. Arrangers included Bobby Martin, Thom Bell and Lenny Pakula. Adding backing vocals were Labelle, the trio of Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. 

Patti LaBelle and Laura had met in 1970, when Laura was about to be interviewed by Labelle’s manager Vicki Wickham. Vicki had invited Patti along and instantly, they bonded. They ended up touring together, and Patti even cooked for Laura. So, when Laura came to record Gonna Take A Miracle, Labelle were chosen to add the backing vocals. Recording of Gonna Take A Miracle took place during the summer of 1970.

Unlike Laura Nyro’s four previous albums, Gonna Take A Miracle comprised ten cover versions. This included covers of The Shirelles’ I Met Him On A Sunday, The Originals’ The Bells, The Royalettes’ It’s Gonna Take A Miracle and Nolan Strong and The Diablos’ doo-wop classic The Wind. Other tracks included the Smokey Robinson penned You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me and Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector’s Spanish Harlem. There were two Holland-Dozier-Holland composition, Jimmy Mack and Nowhere To Run. The ten tracks that became Gonna Take A Miracle were recorded at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios in Philly.

Accompanying Laura, were many members of the classic lineup of M.F.S.B. This included bassist Ron Baker and guitarists Norman Harris and Roland Chambers. They were joined by organist Lenny Pakula, Larry Washington on bongos and congas, percussionist Vince Montana Jr. Strings came courtesy of Don Renaldo and horns Sam Reed. Non-Philly musicians included drummer Jim Helmer and Nydia Mata on congas and bongas. Labelle added backing vocals. These ten tracks became Gonna Take A Miracle, which was released in November 1971.

On the release of Gonna Take A Miracle in November 1971, it reached number forty-six in the US Billboard 200 and number forty-one in the US R&B Charts. Not only did Gonna Take A Miracle match the success of previous albums, but crossed-over into the US R&B Charts. This meant Laura’s fifth album, Gonna Take A Miracle was being heard my a much wider audience. However, what do Laura’s cover versions of Gonna Take A Miracle sound like? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Opening Gonna Take A Miracle is a cover of The Shirelles’ I Met Him On A Sunday. Laura’s tender, soulful vocal is accompanied by Labelle’s cooing, sweeping harmonies. They play their part in the track’s doo-wop sound, and add handclaps and finger-clicks. Then when M.F.S.B. enter, things get even better. Piano and percussion join in, giving the track a joyous, doo-wop sound, before it reaches a beautiful crescendo.

The Bells allows Laura to deliver a breathtakingly beautiful vocal. Tender and ethereal, the doo-wop influence continues. Labelle add harmonies, while M.F.S.B. build the drama and emotion. Piano, rhythm section, percussion and shimmering strings enter. Norman Harris lays down one of the best guitar parts on Gonna Take A Miracle, its crystalline sound weaving its way across the arrangement. By then, Labelle and Laura are delivering each other to greater heights of drama, emotion and sheer soulfulness.

Monkey Time and Dancing In The Street is a two song medley, that literally bursts into life. It provokes memories of the Brill Building songwriters. Propelled along by piano, thunderous rhythm section, Larry Washington’s Latin tinged bongos and congas. Then when Monkey Time segues into Dancing In The Street, M.F.S.B, Labelle and Laura move through the gears. Laura’s vocal is powerful, strident and confident, while Labelle add soaring, gospel-tinged harmonies. Lenny Pakula’s Hammond organ adds to the song’s sheer soulfulness, as the drama builds. Labelle and Laura surpass themselves. They testify their way through the song, driving each other to greater heights of soulfulness, adding a gospel hue. What was formerly a poppy slice of sugary soul, is transformed into something that’s much more meatier, soulful and altogether much better.

Desiree has a wistful, understated sound when it unfolds. Laura’s melancholy vocal is accompanied by piano, percussion and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes. Labelle add sweeping harmonies, as Laura delivers a heartfelt, wistful and beautiful vocal.

You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me was written by Smokey Robinson and is given new meaning by Laura and Labelle. Sometimes, Laura’s vocal references Dusty Springfield and Carole King. With just piano and urgent harmonies, Laura delivers a fiery vocal, filled with frustration and anger. Labelle add some of their most potent harmonies. Needy and powerful, they match Laura every step of the way. Later, M.F.S.B. kick loose. Things get even better. The rhythm section, percussion and piano combine. Norman Harris adds jazz-tinged guitar, while Lenny Pakula’s Hammond organ adds an atmospheric sound. Then Larry Washington’s bongos and congas propel the arrangement along, as Laura and Labelle combine. Laura’s vocal and Labelle’s harmonies needy, emotive, urgent and deeply moving and soulful.

Spanish Harlem is a song that’s been covered by a many artists. The problem with covering such a familiar song is reinventing it. Gamble and Huff manage to do this. Latin percussion and piano accompany Laura’s gentle, scatted vocal. Soon, a moody bass, growling horns and cooing, sweeping harmonies enter. By then, Laura is injecting new meaning into song, bringing out the song’s subtleties and nuances. This she does with an arrangement that’s broody and dramatic but elegant and ethereal too.

Jimmy Mack is another oft-covered track, but rather than reinvent the wheel, Laura delivers it with a swing. Soaring, gospel-tinged harmonies are joined by a driving rhythm section, piano and Norman Harris’ crystalline, jazzy guitar. Soon, M.F.S.B, Labelle and Laura Nyro, accompanied by handclaps, are delivering a joyous, uplifting and rousing version of a classic track that swings, and then some.

Very different to the previous track, is The WInd. Pensive, wistful and thoughtful describes the track. Just Laura’s ethereal vocal, tender harmonies and subtle piano combine. The result is a captivating, enchanting and bewitching track, that quite simply, is beautiful.

Nowhere To Run sees Laura return to the Motown songbook. With Labelle accompanying her, they’re transformed into a sixties girl group, who are certainly not lacking in soulfulness. The rhythm section provide the arrangement’s heartbeat, and with the piano, propels the arrangement along. Norman Harris and Roland Chambers add guitar, while Ron Baker’s bass helps drive the arrangement along. It’s as if Laura and Labelle are spurred on, delivering one of their most dynamic, dramatic and urgent performances, where emotion and soulfulness are im abundance.

It’s Gonna Take A Miracle proves the perfect track to close Gonna Take A Miracle. Just Laura’s scatted vocal, piano and sweeping, elegant harmonies combine. They’ve the effect of stopping you in your tracks. They’re laden with emotion, heartache and hurt. Lush strings that sweep above the arrangement prove the perfect accompaniment, adding the finishing touch to this heartachingly beautiful track.

Afforded the artistic freedom by her record company, Laura Nyro decided that Philly was the place to head for her fifth album. This was a shrewd decision, considering how influential a musical city Philly had become. Laura timed her decision perfectly. Gamble and Huff were about to enter the most creative and innovative period of their career. Bringing Gamble and Huff onboard meant M.F.S.B. would provide the accompaniment to Laura’s vocal. Bobby Martin, Thom Bell and Lenny Pakula would also come onboard, arranging the ten tracks. Labelle’s backing vocals played a huge part in Gonna Take A Miracle’s success. They drove Laura to greater heights of soulfulness, as ten familiar tracks were reinvented on Gonna Take A Miracle. These ten tracks were given new meaning, and in the case of Dancing In The Street and Nowhere To Run, become much more meaty and soulful. Gone is the poppy, saccharine soul of sixties Motown, which was nothing more than a sanitized version of soul music. From the opening bars of I Met Him On A Sunday, right through to the closing notes of It’s Gonna Take A Miracle, Laura Nyro produces ten captivating and  compelling performances.

For anyone yet to discover the delights of Laura Nyro’s music, then Gonna Take A Miracle is a good place to start. Gonna Take A Miracle is a genre-sprawling album, where Laura seamlessly switches between doo-wop, gospel, soul, pop and R&B. Each of the ten tracks on Gonna Take A Miracle will be familiar to most people, although maybe not like this. Indeed, Laura Nyro, guided by Gamble and Huff, and accompanied by M.F.S.B. and Labelle, produces ten peerless performances on Gonna Take A Miracle. After you’ve discovered the delights of Laura Nyro’s Gonna Take A Miracle, then surely, you’ll head on a voyage of discovery through her critically acclaimed back-catalogue. Standout Tracks: I Met Him On A Sunday, Jimmy Mack, The Wind and It’s Gonna Take A Miracle.



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