In this third article in the series dedicated to singer-songwriters, we turn our attention to a number of female artists who all released excellent albums in 1970. We start with one of most iconic musicians in the genre regardless of gender.
“Gentle, shy Joni Mitchell flew into London last week with her friends, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to do her last concert for a long, long time.” wrote Caroline Boucher in the January 10, 1970 issue of Disc and Music Echo magazine. Reprise Records, Joni Mitchell’s record company, held a reception in her honor a few days before she took the stage at Royal Festival Hall in London on February 7th. After a hectic year of touring in 1969, this show would mark a break from live performances in 1970, spare a few appearances on TV shows and festivals. At the Royal Festival Show half of the songs she performed would be included in her upcoming album, to be released in April 1970.
Ladies of the Canyon is full of songs with various references to Laurel Canyon, Mitchell’s area of residence since early 1968. Like many of her album covers, this one features one her paintings, about which she said: “The figure is a self-portrait and in the folds of the skirt I put the view from the window of my Laurel Canyon house. So it was just a personal neighborhood statement.”
The album’s title track name-checks three of her friends in that free and idyllic time and place.
Trina wears her wampum beads
She fills her drawing book with line
Trina Robbins moved back to LA from NYC in February 1968. She met Joni Mitchell during the recording of Mitchell’s debut album, Song for a Seagull. Robbins was girlfriend of Paul Williams, publisher of Crawdaddy rock magazine. She wore those popular Love Beads, otherwise known as wampum beads. She also loved to doodle in a sketchbook that was always on hand.
Annie sits you down to eat
She always makes you welcome in
Annie Burden, wife of photographer Gary Burden, was keeping house and family in Laurel Canyon. She was host to many artist gatherings in her house and described her life there as: “I simply made babies and brownies, encouraged by the fact that Joni Mitchell saw me as a sort of Martha Stewart of the ’60s.” Husband Gary Burden later designed the album cover for Blue.
And last but not least:
Estrella circus girl
Comes wrapped in songs and gypsy shawls
Estrella Berosini was raised in a circus to a Czech highwire performer. About that shawl she said in an interview: “Joni, Crosby and I were out and about, exploring, seeing folks, shopping. We went to a boutique in Hollywood. Joni saw that I liked this shawl, so she bought it for me. I wore it a lot. It was gypsy-like.” Berosini had the honor of being one of the very first to hear the song while Joni was still working on it. At the time she was not impressed: “When she finished singing Ladies of the Canyon for me, she looked up with a clear smile. Crosby stood smiling his light up the world, mustache grin, accompanied by those long, thick eye lashed sparkling eyes. What was I supposed to say?!? She was really rusty on the piano, and didn’t play it nearly as well as guitar, or as good as she would get real soon. The song, though very sweet, seemed a little twee, and my father would be furious at any association of me to a gypsy, and it just wasn’t as good as her other songs. All I could do was smile and say, ‘Oh wow’ and ‘Far out’ and ‘Thank you, thank you so much’, but I couldn’t fool them.” Here is the song in its fully developed form:
Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell’s third album, marks a shift in her style of musical accompaniment. In addition to her unique guitar playing, she was looking to enrich the sound palette in the recording studio and add additional instruments. During her trip to England in January of 1970 she discussed the topic in various British music magazines: “I want my music to get more involved and more sophisticated. Right now I’m learning how to play a lot of new instruments. I’m beginning to write on the piano which is a much freer instrument.” Ladies of the Canyon is indeed the first album to feature her piano playing prominently, and the instrument contributed significantly to the distinctly new method of arrangements and accompaniment. As the circus girl said, Joni Mitchell did get much better very quickly at her piano playing skills. In another interview she added: “What I’m doing now is much apart from the last two albums. I think it comes from the new instruments. The more different ones you hear and learn to play, the more different music lines you begin to create for each one. It broadens your scope and you begin to see things in many more ways.”
Ladies of the Canyon was Joni Mitchell’s most successful album to date, including some of her best known songs. Big Yellow Taxi was released as a single and over time became a standard of popular music. Woodstock, a song she wrote in lieu of participating in the music festival, was famously covered by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young on their album Déjà Vu in 1970. My personal favorite cover of the song is by Matthews Southern Comfort, also released the same year. The Circle Game, an early song Mitchell wrote in 1966, became famous with Tom Rush’s cover in 1968. While introducing the song at Gerdes Folk City in 1968 Mitchell said: “I wrote it for a friend of mine named Neil Young who, at the time that I knew him was a Canadian ex-rock ‘n roll type turned folkie from Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is just about as bad as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan I guess.”
The songs mentioned above are all well-known and much loved in Joni Mitchell’s repertoire. But my favorite songs on the album are lesser-known, all featuring her accompaniment on the piano. For Free is a song that came to Joni Mitchell when she was strolling the streets of New York City: “I was out shopping one day, and there was a street musician – what you would call a ‘busker’ – playing on the corner. He was playing real good and for free. But nobody wanted to know him. I thought, here’s me, who plays for fortunes, and who drives to shows in big limousines, who plays either for friends or for those who can afford to go to my shows; and then there is this clarinet player – who probably knows more about music than I will ever learn – and he is playing for free!”
When Mitchell introduced the song in a live performance in July 1969, she described it as “a kind of country and western thing, country and western happy-trails-to-you swing-along thing.” By the time she recorded it for the album the arrangement went through important modifications. Gone is the C&W vibe and instead we have a slow piano backing, a delicate string arrangement and best of all, a clarinet solo. Joni Mitchell did not invite many studio musicians to play on her albums early in her recording career, but For Free is a standout track for featuring the wonderful playing of reed man Paul Horn.
The next song is one of many Joni Mitchell wrote about a romantic relationship in her life. She met Leonard Cohen in 1967 during the Newport Folk Festival when they both performed along other then-young singer-songwriters including Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Ste. Marie and Arlo Guthrie. She later recalled the impact of his performance on her: “Leonard did ‘Suzanne’, I’d met him and I went, ‘I love that song. What a great song.’ Really. ‘Suzanne’ was one of the greatest songs I ever heard. So I was proud to meet an artist. He made me feel humble because I looked at that song and I went, ‘Woah. All my songs seem so naive by comparison.’ It raised the standard of what I wanted to write.”
The two artists had a brief love affair, inspiring the song Rainy Night House on Ladies of the Canyon. Joni Mitchell recalled the story of the song: “I went one time to his home and I fell asleep in his old room and he sat up and watched me sleep.” The verses of the song end with variations of the same theme:
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see, who in the world I might be
I sat up all the night and watched thee
To see, who in the world you might be
You gave up all the golden factories
To see, who in the world you might be
Mitchell explained: “There’s some poetic liberty with those two lines; actually it’s ‘you sat up all night and watched me to see who in the world…’ I turned it around. Leonard was in a lot of pain. Hungry ghosts is what it’s called in Buddhism. I am even lower. Five steps down.”
My favorite song on the album is The Arrangement. In 1969, after releasing his autobiographical book The Arrangement, Elia Kazan adapted it to a film about an ad firm executive who attempts to rebuild his shattered life after suffering a nervous breakdown. The music was scored by David Amram, a versatile musician, composer, arranger, and conductor who incorporated jazz into much of his work. He collaborated with Kazan previously on the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass. Joni Mitchell was approached to write words for some of the music he wrote, but none of her contributions were used in the final film. She wrote her own music and released the song The Arrangement on Ladies of the Canyon. The story is told from the perspective of the mistress, played by Faye Dunaway in the film.
The song features Joni Mitchell singing and accompanying herself with a piano. She talked about the significance of the musical achievement of this song: “On the Ladies of the Canyon album, there’s a song called The Arrangement which seemed to have more musical sophistication than anything else on the album and even the delivery … I can listen to that one band on the album with a certain amount of satisfaction.”
A review of the album in Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1970, links this song to our next singer-songwriter in this review: ”There are also flashes of the Laura Nyro influence in Ladies of the Canyon. And on at least one song, The Arrangement, the similarity in piano and vocal styles is striking, with melodic gymnastics that run rampant throughout.”
In November 1970 Laura Nyro released her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Unlike her two previous albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry, she decided to relinquish the producer duties this time around. Felix Cavaliere, known as a founding member, co-lead vocalist and keyboard player for the Young Rascals (Good Lovin’, Groovin, How Can I Be Sure), got a call from David Geffen, Laura Nyro’s manager: “I am going to introduce you to the most difficult person you’ve ever met in your life. It’s extremely difficult to work with her. I know that she likes your music very much and I know you would probably get along. Would you be interested?”
David Geffen was correct on all accounts. Cavaliere and Nyro did get along very well, sharing their love of soul music. Cavaliere recalls: “There’s a special thing about the New York/Philadelphia/ East Coast kind of oldies thing. You loved that stuff, you grew up on it, and Laura definitely had that. She knew all the songs, all the words.” But Nyro was also quite possessive of her ideas about how the songs should sound. Cavaliere brought in famed producer and arranger Arif Mardin to help with some of the intricate arrangements required for the songs. Both of them had to find cunning strategies to get their suggestions heard. Cavaliere: “She was a dear friend of mine. But – ah! – you could not change one note of her music. We had to bargain with her; we had to con her into changing some things. She adored us so much that she would not offend us twice. So we always made sure that the second idea that we had was the one we really wanted!”
The record label found the same reluctance to bend when it came to the album title. Laura Nyro was advised to change it, with the reasoning that any album released in November with the word Christmas in its title is bound to get booted off the shelves come January. No dice. Columbia resorted to add the phrase ‘Songs for every day of the year’ on album ads.
The two producers brought in the best of the best of recording musicians to play on the album. Half the songs are accompanied by one of the finest rhythm sections that ever was, the Muscle Shoals. Other musicians on the album included Young Rascals drummer Dino Danelli, bass player Richard Davis, Cornell Dupree on electric guitar, reed man Joe Farrell, percussionist Ralph MacDonald and Chuck Rainey on bass. And if that was not enough, two other star musicians guested on two of my favorite songs on the album. The first is the (almost) title track, Beads of Sweat.
The song features fine electric guitar playing by none else than Duane Allman. The recording took place in May of 1970, a few months shy of his work on the legendary recording session of Layla by Derek and the Dominos. Late in 1970 Allman said this about the experience in an interview: “I played on one cut off her new album called ‘Beads of Sweat’ and I didn’t play much on that, just a couple of licks. It was real enjoyable man, she’s a real outasight chick and a fantastic artist and composer.”
And we come to my favorite track on the album, the atmospheric Map to the Treasure.
Where is your woman?
Gone to Spanish Harlem?
Gone to buy you pastels?
Alice Coltrane plays harp on this long track, on which Nyro shows her skills on the piano. The two artists were introduced to each other as followers of Guru Swami Satchidananda. Nyro became aware of the Indian spiritual leader through Felix Cavaliere, and all three musicians travelled to Sri Lanka for a meditation retreat with Satchidananda. In 1970 Alice Coltrane released the fantastic album Journey in Satchidananda as a dedication to him.
There are mantra-like passages on this track that sometimes remind me of the music of Meredith Monk.
The beautiful album’s cover art illustration was created by a Beth O’Brien, a fan of Laura Nyro who left the drawing at the stage door before a performance in Boston. It was created with a felt-tip pen on watercolor paper. O’Brien received $300 and 2 tickets to a performance of the singer in New York.
Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were both invited to perform at the Woodstock festival in 1969 but declined for different reasons. We end the review with a singer who actually performed at that festival and like Mitchell immortalized that historical event in a song released in 1970.
In the late 1960s Melanie Safka saw minor success with her song Beautiful People, a song that was picked up to be played by underground radio stations. She was signed to Buddah Records and released a couple of solo albums on that label. The label’s office was located in the same building as Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. She got invited at the very early stages of the project. She remembers: “It was the Aquarian Exposition; it wasn’t even called Woodstock yet. I thought it would be families with picnic blankets and a pastoral scene on a hillside somewhere. There’d be things for sale and I could go shopping for arts and crafts.”
Her uniformed perception of that festival was quickly corrected once she hit the traffic in a car driven by her mom (driven to Woodstock by a mom is a vastly uniformed decision in itself): “I was terrified out of my mind from the minute we hit traffic! I got to the hotel and it wasn’t even the original place where I was supposed to go, and then they ushered me to a helicopter and that is where I was separated from my mother for the rest of the day.”
Melanie went on stage after Ravi Shankar on the first night of the festival. It rained during Shankar’s set, planting a hope in Melanie’s heart that the inclement weather would cancel her spot and save her from performing across half a million people. Melanie picks up the story: “I’m in this revelry of thinking that’s what’s gonna happen and they called me and right as I’m waiting I hear Wavy Gravy making an announcement about his collective passing out candles, and something inspirational happened: the crowd started lighting the candles. So when I got on the stage, the candles were being lit.” Melanie came on stage a relatively unknown artist and left it a celebrity. Like the band Santana, she was paid $750 for her performance.
Melanie’s performance was not included in the film that was released in 1970, but live footage survived. Here goes:
In March of 1970, a month ahead of her next album, Melanie released the song Lay Down (Candles in the Rain). The song was inspired by her feelings during that performance at Woodstock:
We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each other’s wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace
The song is a great collaboration with her label mates, the gospel group the Edwin Hawkins Singers, who had reached the national Top Ten the previous year with “Oh Happy Day”. Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) became Melanie’s first US hit, reaching no. 6 in the Billboard top 100.
Categories: A Year in Music