Herb Bernstein had already started recording Nyro’s second album, but Geffen wanted a fresh start. Producer Charles Calello worked in-house at Columbia, but felt underused. He complained to Davis, who offered him the Nyro job. In late 1967, she invited him to her one-bedroom apartment at 888 East Avenue and played him her new songs on a spinet piano. “She lit half a dozen candles and dimmed the lights,” says Calello. “It felt like history in the making. I was going through a period of frustration, and all of a sudden, someone gave me the key to the cookie jar.”
Until now, Calello had mostly worked on production-line pop. “What Laura played me was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Songs that change tempo, emanating deep emotion.” His challenge was to bring her songs to life in Columbia’s studio without destroying their integrity. He assembled a looser band than the usual studio staples: “It was more important that the musicians understood the songs than what was written on paper.” Rather than set up in individual booths, the players assembled around Nyro (who sang at the piano and overdubbed her vocals later). “It was a thrill,” says drummer Artie Schroeck, even though he found Nyro “very strange”. A devout stoner, she smoked in the studio and led the other musicians astray.
Nyro mints her unique vocabulary on Eli And The Thirteenth Confession, from the recurring “captain” and made-up words like “surry”, to her antic, driving tempos and vocal physicality. The sessions took two months. The players were enjoying the romance, and Calello was maximising the possibilities of the studio’s new eight-track. Columbia was unimpressed. “I got a call from the legal department when they found out I had spent $28,000 and I still wasn’t finished,” says Calello. “The head of business affairs said, ‘You’re over budget. What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘We’re not making music, we’re making art.’ And he said to me, ‘We don’t make art here. We make money.’” He collected his pink slip.
Prior to Calello’s sacking, the ensemble had attempted to start Nyro’s third LP. She only had two completed songs, “New York Tendaberry” and “Captain Saint Lucifer”, and according to Schroeck, insisted on transporting her own piano to the studio, despite the Steinways on offer. “She was trying to write during the day, record at night, and the frustration was enormous,” says Calello. “After the first session, I told David I didn’t want to continue. I saw that it was going to be a fiasco.”
Eli barely made a dent on arrival in March 1968 – though its innovative lilac-tinged lyrics sheet left a scent. (“Anything she wanted, I would get for her,” Geffen told PBS.) Although The New York Times was calling her “the hippest thing in music” by October, it was clear Nyro wouldn’t be the face of her success. By autumn, LA R&B group The 5th Dimension had taken “Stoned Soul Picnic” to No 3 on the pop charts, and No 1 on the R&B charts. This was a reversal in fortunes – they had been marketed as a pop act, failing to succeed in their natural niche. They would cover Nyro seven times. In 1968, she released the rapturous gospel polemic “Save The Country” following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Two years on, The 5th Dimension repurposed it to oppose the Vietnam war. “We weren’t known as a protest group, just a group of singers who tried to make happy music, so it was perfect,” says the band’s Billy Davis Jr.