November 25, 2010 – the 40th anniversary of the release of Laura Nyro’s fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Recorded in New York City in the spring of 1970, the album was released that November and soon rose to #51 on the American Billboard album chart. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a holiday-themed record; it’s not, and her label bosses did try to explain that including “Christmas” in the title would be misleading, but Nyro, who had bowed to the wishes of her “superiors” during her early recording sessions in 1966, was not going to let the same thing happen and remained resolute.
Nyro completed her “holy trinity” of albums with the release of Christmas and the Beads of Sweat; it seemed to complete an artistic arc that she had begun with 1968’s cosmopolitan Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and continued on 1969’s dramatic, noir New York Tendaberry; indeed, it was Nyro’s last album of new material for more than five years.
Somewhat strangely, Christmas ranks as the most neglected album of Nyro’s early career – more so, even, than 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle, the acclaimed collection of soul and R&B covers recorded in Philadelphia with Gamble and Huff on production duties and vocal trio Labelle on harmonies. It is also seen by some as the weak link of the trilogy of deeply intense, original works Nyro fashioned at the peak of her creativity in her early twenties. In reality, there is no such ‘weak link’ – Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is home to several extraordinary Nyro originals. But, granted, it may not possess quite the breathtaking originality of Eli or Tendaberry.
The reason for this is perhaps because it does not really bring many new elements to the table – by now, Nyro’s trademarks, such as her tempo and rhythmic changes, her distinctive piano lines, her multi-octave vocal swoops, had become familiar. That doesn’t mean they somehow worsened or became tiresome, but there is not the monumental leap between predecessor New York Tendaberry and Christmas that there was between 1967 debut More Than A New Discovery and Eli, and then between Eli and Tendaberry.
Instead, Christmas can perhaps be described as an amalgam of Eli and Tendaberry in that it is divided between joyous, uplifting soulful pop songs and more expansive, experimental, piano-driven epics. Christmas has its own distinctive flavour in that it is more exotic and Oriental-sounding than its predecessors; there are subtle Latin inflections in the rhythms and arrangement of “Blackpatch,” and of course the Oriental arrangement and melodic structure of “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp” and aquatic harp lines in “Map to the Treasure.” This softer and more exotic sound would resurface on 1976’s Smile; if there is a new element added to Nyro’s sound on this album, then this is it – an Oriental bent, a gospel mellowness. It’s a subtle addition but definitely gives the record its own distinct sound.
The original album was split with two bands playing on the different sides. This was not pre-arranged but, as producers Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin explained, just happened that way. The first side features the accompaniment of the Swampers band from Muscle Shoals, lending the songs an easygoing feel, while the second side features an array of musicians including Duane Allman on electric guitar on “Beads of Sweat” and Alice Coltrane on harp. As a result, the album as a whole is perhaps not as unified as Eli or Tendaberry, and maybe suffers for that reason, but the individual songs are first-rate. (And the semi-conceptual ‘four seasons’ arc to Side B is a four-song wonder.)
“Brown Earth” is a gloriously uplifting gospel-soul number that doesn’t really sound like any other Laura Nyro original; it rises from almost whispered verses to a rousing hook of “white dove’s gonna come today / oh what a morning / it feels so good / oh what a morning / of brotherhood,” with a multi-tracked choir of soulful, impassioned Nyros singing on the “white dove” and “oh what a morning” lines. If anything, the gospel soul sound is almost a precursor to her next project, the covers album Gonna Take a Miracle. In any case, it’s a glorious, effective opener, with beautifully conventional yet effective piano lines.
The following “When I Was A Freeport and You Were the Main Drag” is more upbeat and features the return of Nyro’s familiar syncopated piano lines; it also displays her oft-missed sense of humour. An album like New York Tendaberry was more intent on dramatics and theatrics than humour, so “Freeport” is a welcome change of tone for Nyro; it’s also a bolder, sassier, feistier Nyro on this song than the “delicate romantic” some seem to perceive her to be. The song is incredibly melodic and, in its effervescent abandon, catchy as hell and among her best in this up-tempo, jaunty category, featuring such jewel lines as “I got a lot of patience baby / that’s a lot of patience to lose.”
The laidback, easygoing feel continues into the Latin-accented “Blackpatch,” a joyous mid-tempo snapshot of a day in the life of a city woman, maybe Nyro herself. Only Nyro could make such everyday events as sending out party invitations and hanging out the washing sound beautiful and energised, but she ends the song with a knowing lyric, “womanchild on a sidestreet / flashing in blackpatch / lipstick on her reefer / waiting for a match.” Nyro’s poetry is incredibly evocative and unique, but the words fit remarkably into ultra-catchy pop melodies, which is one of her finest skills. “Blackpatch” boasts one of the most effortless and sophisticated pop-soul melodies on the album, and its arrangement, incorporating horns and congas, is tasteful and imaginative.
The tone of the album changes drastically on the six-minute piano epic “Been on a Train,” Nyro’s second “train” song about hard drugs, following from “Poverty Train,” which she debuted at June 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. “Been on a Train” is looser than its predecessor, moodier and more intense. Nyro’s detached vocal delivery on the verses is chilling, while her piano lines are much simpler than normal, putting the spotlight onto her lyrics. The song unexpectedly but dramatically changes gears when Nyro’s voice rises to a gospel soar – “you got more tracks on you baby, than the tracks of this train” – before she screams out, “No! No! Damn you mister!” in her inimitable theatrical New York Tendaberry style, before leaping into a feverish tempo change, only to settle back into the moodiness of the verses again. Its placement amid the uplifting, soulful pop songs of side one is all the more effective and for that reason, “Been on a Train” is a standout. But as a song in its own right, it remains peerlessly effective (and four decades on, harrowing and hard-hitting) as a portrait of a heroin addict, possibly influenced by the death of Nyro’s cousin from a heroin overdose in October 1969.
The mood switches back from the darkness and despair of “Been on a Train” to a sense of easygoing, romantic uplift for “Up on the Roof” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King – at that time, the very first cover version Nyro had recorded. It fits right into the mood, though, and it’s not a stretch to think of it as a Nyro original. More conventional, perhaps, but melodically it has something in common with Nyro originals. It’s a great performance with a beautiful arrangement, and was selected as the album’s single in the autumn of 1970. Ironically, this cover version became Nyro’s biggest hit in her own right, Nyro being famed as a successful songwriter for other artists.
Side two is more expansive and exotic. It begins with the superb “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp,” one of Nyro’s finest songs. It is musically sophisticated, with a beautiful Oriental-inspired arrangement and one of Nyro’s most haunting and evocative piano melodies. Her vocal performance is also top-notch, as are the poetic lyrics, which detail a “sleepy woman by the window / dreaming in the morning air / of the man who takes her sweetness / by a Chinese lamp upstairs.” It’s gorgeous, romantic, and sensual, and an album highlight. It then segues into an eight-minute epic, “Map to the Treasure,” which opens with Alice Coltrane’s watery, exotic harp, which resurfaces at some points throughout the song. “Map to the Treasure” is a mood piece, really, with wispy verses that give way to an extended and memorable piano solo that gradually increases in speed and intensity, before Nyro comes back with the vocal hook, “in the treasure of love,” only to fade away again. It is sensual, as with “Chinese Lamp,” but sexual too (“for you I bear down / soft and burning”), and the music mirrors the excitement of sex.
“Beads of Sweat” is next; it starts in much the same way as “Map to the Treasure,” with a cooing Nyro intoning over a barely-there piano, “cold jade wind…” but then surges into the most driving, hard-rocking song Nyro ever recorded. Its closest relative is “Eli’s Comin’,” which shares much of the same lyrical conceit and same musical urgency, but “Beads of Sweat,” featuring Duane Allman on guitar, is probably harder-rocking and just as intense. It’s an unexpected change of pace for Nyro but is another strong composition with several hooks. It has a kind of gospel fervour that marks it out as one of Nyro’s most inspired and original efforts.
The album closes with another epic, the seven-minute “Christmas In My Soul,” a poem Nyro set to music. It is unfortunate that Nyro ended the album on a disappointingly earnest note; it is the first real place where Nyro explores political matters – she sings of “the sins of politics, the politics of sin” – and her specific detailing of the Chicago Seven and “Black Panther brothers” dates the song and forces it into a corner, so to speak. It has little in common with the evocative, imaginative, successful poetic lyrics Nyro was writing in other songs at the time. Musically, too, it is rather overbearing, with some misplaced bells and military drums overstating the point. The melody is not one of Nyro’s most illuminating, and her vocal is pitched firmly in the upper register throughout, which makes the song a little hard work. It retains a sense of drama and ambition that is pleasing to see, but other songs on the album are also dramatic and ambitious – “Been on a Train” and “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp”/”Map to the Treasure,” for instance – but are also wholly successful. “Christmas In My Soul” is a suitably epic end to the album, but it’s actually one of the weaker and less successful songs here.
Laura Nyro probably did not intend to “retire” from the music business after this album. In concerts in 1970-72, she was performing some new songs that had not yet been recorded – “I Am the Blues,” “American Dove,” “Children of the Junks,” “Mother Earth” – that suggest she was still thinking of making a record of new songs. Instead, she did a record of oldies in 1971 before marrying and leaving the spotlight for four years. But in truth, the extraordinary twin peaks of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry represent a level of intense creativity that probably left Nyro understandably exhausted. At 22, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is probably the sound of a woman relaxing just a little, cooling off after two or three years of intense, passionate music. That’s not to say that Christmas does not fit that category – you would be hard-pressed to find songs as intense or passionate as “Been on a Train,” “Map to the Treasure,” or “Beads of Sweat” – but there is a certain softening in the sound here that suggests Nyro’s artistry was subtly changing. Indeed, “Christmas In My Soul” looks outward for largely the first time, and when Nyro returned in 1976, she was writing more about political and social concerns as well as writing about her personal life. So, in a sense, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat represents a crucial turning point in Laura Nyro’s music – it closes the chapter on her first period of original songs (and what a purple patch it was), and at the same time hints at her artistic evolution to come. As an album in its own right, it deserves more praise as being one of Nyro’s finest and most enduring efforts and is a worthy final act of an extraordinary trilogy. And 40 years later, it still shines bright.