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                           Muses on The Music

The Album that Smelled

February 23, 2016

            Last week’s post about the musical “Hair” got me thinking about Laura Nyro, and thus the Album that Smelled.

            It’s not quite “Seven Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon,” but follow me here: the 5th Dimension had a hit with a medley from the musical, but had more success with songs penned by Nyro. The album that smelled? We’ll get to that later.

            Like most people, I was first exposed to Nyro’s music via other performers’ recordings of her songs. That coverage started when she was 17, with Peter, Paul and Mary recording “And When I Die,” for which their record company paid the precocious New York teenager $5,000.

            PP&M recorded the song in 1966, but the trio — which had had four Top 10 hits up to that point — never issued it as a single. It was the leadoff track on their sixth studio LP, “The Peter, Paul and Mary Album,” the lowest-charting (No. 22) release for an act that had scored two No. 1 albums and a No. 2; none of the three songs from that album released as singles charted higher than No. 100.

            So it fell to Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr. and company to punch Nyro through to the general public consciousness. “Stoned Soul Picnic” was the 5th Dimension’s highest-charting single so far when it hit No. 3 in 1968; they followed that with another Nyro creation, “Sweet Blindness,” which hit No. 13 the same year.

            McCoo et al then hit No. 1 with the “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in” medley, in mid-1969. That fall, they released Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” and scored their second No. 1 of the year.

             “Blowin’ Away,” also penned by Nyro and a late 1969 release, didn’t fare quite as well, but did chart at No. 21. The final 5th/Nyro collaboration, “Save the Country,” made it to No. 27.

            Other performers had been having major success with Nyro’s songs, though. Blood, Sweat & Tears had a No. 2 hit with “And When I Die” late in 1968; Three Dog Night (which also had had a Top 10 hit with a “Hair” song) took her “Eli’s Comin’” to No. 10, and Barbara Streisand had a No. 6 with Nyro’s “Stoney End” (and also a No. 51 with her “Time and Love”).

            While her songs sold a lot of singles for other artists, Nyro never released many of her songs as singles. “Save the Country” was issued as a single — a different version than the one that is on her third studio album — but it did not chart.

            In fact, Nyro’s only charting single was a cover — of the Gerry Goffin/Carole King chestnut popularized by the Drifters, “Up on the Roof,” which got to No. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100. Her albums had some commercial success, “New York Tendaberry” (which included “Save the Country”) reaching No. 32.

            “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” her second studio album, got no higher than No. 181, despite including “Sweet Blindness,” “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Eli’s Comin.’” Nyro’s LPs, however, won high praise from critics, and the list of artists who have cited her as an influence is impressive: Elton John, Rickie Lee Jones, Carole King, Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren and Steely Dan, among others.

            Reading about Nyro’s life and art is fascinating. I didn’t know that she was offered the lead vocalist position with BS&T, but turned it down. She had a relationship with Jackson Browne, another artist whose work I enjoy; she retired from the music business several times, but still cut original recordings as late as 1993.

            Nor was I aware that she had died in 1997, at the age of 49, from ovarian cancer. That might seem like cruel irony for a self-professed feminist whose beliefs were reflected in her lyrics and life, but her mother died from the same disease, at the same age.

            “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” plays through the headphones as I write this, and it still sounds as good as it did the first time I heard it, in the winter of 1970-71. I was turned onto it by my then-roommate, Paul Zmudzinski, a classically-educated musician who also was driving cab in Madison at the time.

            While playing the album, Z called me over and asked me to smell the paper album liner, noting that it seemed to be perfumed. It did, and the scent was the sort I would have associated with the woman pictured on the LP’s front cover. Paul said he was pretty sure that it smelled that way when he first opened it, and wondered if it came that way from the factory.

            Flash forward three-plus decades, and I was visiting someone who owned a copy of “Eli.” I asked to smell the liner sleeve — which got me a weird look, as I recall — and, to my disappointment, there was no scent of perfume.

            However, her Wikipedia entry says that, indeed, the lyrics sheet — a rarity for LPs in those days — was perfumed, at Nyro’s request. Owners of the album say that it still has that pleasant scent.

            The album I smelled in the new millennium apparently had lost that scent. The recording in my iTunes library is off a CD, which although I never thought to sniff it, probably wasn’t perfumed.

            The music, though, still delights one of the other senses.

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