Laura Nyro was justly regarded as one of the finest songwriters of the 1960s and ‘70s, a tunesmith whose melodic fusion of pop, soul, jazz, and folk dovetailed brilliantly with her passionate, distinctly literate lyrics. But the great paradox of Nyro's career was that her albums were widely thought to be too personal and esoteric to appeal to a mass audience, while the same songs were often major successes when covered by other artists -- Three Dog Night scored a big hit with "Eli's Coming," Blood, Sweat & Tears charted high with "And When I Die," Barbra Streisand enjoyed what was both a hit single and her most credible stab at rock & roll with "Stoney End," and the 5th Dimension practically made a career out of covering Nyro, hitting the charts with "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Blowin' Away," and "Save the Country." Nyro fared so well at the hands of other artists that Ace Records has compiled 20 worthy interpretations of her songs on the collection Sassafras & Moonshine: The Songs of Laura Nyro. One could easily assemble a very enjoyable album out of the many covers of Nyro's songs that were hits in her heyday, but the expense of licensing those recordings prevented them from appearing on this disc (the one selection by the 5th Dimension included here was their lowest-charting Nyro cover, "Sweet Blindness"). This drawback, however, has resulted in an album that ultimately offers a broader picture of Nyro's influence and the stylistic diversity of her work. While most of these performers focus on the pop and R&B facets of Nyro's music, Sassafras & Moonshine features several selections where the jazz subtext of her songs is drawn to the surface, and Chris Connor's "I Never Meant to Hurt You," Tuck & Patti's "Captain for Dark Mornings," and Laura Zakian's "Billy's Blues" all bring a subtle but telling sensuality to the deep moods of Nyro's songs about love. And as is often the case with Ace's songwriter-focused compilations, they've uncovered some fine overlooked sides, particularly the Staple Singers' rich version of "Stoned Soul Picnic," Carmen McRae's Southern soul remake of "Goodbye Joe," a sexy take on "Wedding Bell Blues" from Bobbie Gentry, and Esther Marrow's ferocious workout on "And When I Die." Sassafras & Moonshine is hardly the last word on the work of Laura Nyro as seen through the eyes of other musicians, but it's a splendid reminder of just how powerful her songs were (and still are), and how well they adapt to the voices and attitudes of others.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming