Earlier this year to the surprise of many Laura Nyro was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was her third time up for consideration and others up for consideration included much more famous artists who sold millions more records. But a dedicated cadre of supporters, including many rock and pop icons, had campaigned relentlessly for the piano playing thrush and songwriter who had been dead for 15 years.
Count me as one of Nyro’s biggest fans. I already knew her music, but not the composer, through recordings by The 5th Dimension and others when I stumbled on her sophomore album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, surely one of the most flawless LPs of all time. It was totally original, soulful, powerful, lyrical and by turns bluesy, jazzy, folky, and unashamedly pop. I played the shit out of that record and followed her strange and sometimes troubled career ever after.
Born Laura Nigro on October 18, 1947 in Brooklyn, she was quintessentially a product of that rich and unique urban world. Her father Luis Nigro, a trumpeter and piano tuner, was Italian and Jewish. Her mother Gilda was from a Russian Jewish family. She was a cultured woman with a wide collection of recordings ranging in styles from opera and classical composers like Ravel and Stravinsky to Billy Holiday and other jazz and blues singers. In the summers the family accompanied Luis to the Catskills where he gigged with resort jazz bands. Laura was immersed in music and began to pick out tunes on the piano at an early age. She was writing songs by age 8.
It was a secular household. Laura’s mother’s family especially was part of the Jewish left. As a girl she attended Sunday school classes at the New York Society for Ethical Culture whose Humanist and progressive values helped shape her world view.
Laura crossed the river to Manhattan to attend the prestigious High School of Art and Music where she found friendship and encouragement from both staff and like minded students. She continued to absorb various musical styles including the lively folk music scene and the infectious pop of the Brill Building tradition. She particularly admired the harmonies of the popular girl groups she heard on the radio. She and her high school friends would join the street corner a capella singing popular in the city and busk for change on the subway.
The protest music of the era influenced her music. She explained, “I was always interested in the social consciousness of certain songs. My mother and grandfather were progressive thinkers, so I felt at home in the peace movement and the women's movement, and that has influenced my music.” Nina Simone was a particular influence. Her songs were already more complex and subtle than the straight forward ballads and broadsides of another favorite, Pete Seeger.
Fresh out of high school changed her professional name to Nyro, after trying out several others. She was becoming known as a song writer and sold And When I Die to Peter, Paul and Mary for a very respectable $5000. Always struggling with stage fright, she made her professional debut far away from New York City at the Hungry I in San Francisco.
In 1966 two of her father’s music business acquaintances, Artie Mogull and Paul Barry became Laura’s managers. Her father always denied that he had anything to do with it. They signed Nyro to a record deal on the Verve Folkways label. Record producers unsure of Nyro’s piano ability used session pianist Stan Free on most of the cuts. Released in January 1967 More Than A New Discovery was not an immediate hit, but attracted a cult following. In 1973 after Nyro was established the album was re-titled First Songs and re-issued with a different song order by her new label, Columbia.
More important, as her managers probably expected, it attracted a virtual stampede of artists eager to record her songs. It has been compared to a demo. Among the songs on the album were Wedding Bell Blues, Stoney End, Billy’s Blues as well And When I Die.
The 5th Dimension struck gold with Nyro’s music—Blowing Away, Wedding Bell Blues, Stoned Soul Picnic, Sweet Blindness, Save The Country and Black Patch. Other artists recording her songs included Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with Eli's Coming; Barbra Streisand with Stoney End, Time and Love, and Hands off the Man retiled as Flim Flam Man; and Blood, Sweat and Tears who had a huge hit with And When I Die.
Later that year Nyro made her second major public appearance at the fabled Monterrey Pop Festival. A legend has grown up that it was a failure, possibly due to the insecure artist’s own ambivalence about the performance. It was not included in the documentary film made there. Recently re-discovered footage, however, shows that not only did she perform well, but the audience was highly receptive.
Shortly after that show top agent David Geffen sought to buy her contract. Mogull and Barry were reluctant to part with their slice of Nyro’s lucrative publishing and she had to file a lawsuit maintaining that she was under-age and taken advantage of. After ridding herself of her former management, she signed a deal with Greffen that included the creation of a publishing company, Tuna Fish Music, under which the proceeds from her future compositions would be divided equally between them. The company also soon purchased the publishing rights to her earlier material. A very sweet deal for Geffen, but high demand also paid off for Nyro.
Nyro was seriously considering an offer from Blood, Sweat, and Tears to become the new lead singer following the departure of Al Kooper. But Geffen had other ideas, bringing her to legendary Columbia producer Clive Davis who signed her as a solo artist. David Clayton-Thomas became the new voice of the band which then had one of their biggest hits with And When I Die.
In some ways, Nyro might have preferred to be in a band. She was uncomfortable in the spotlight. She said her only truly joyful times as a performer was busking with her friends in high school.
But Nyro demanded and got creative control of her albums in her deal with Davis. The result was her widely acknowledged masterpiece Eli and the Thirteenth Confession released in 1968, one of rock and pop music’s most fertile years. Although only a moderate hit, reaching No. 189 on Billboard’s Pop Album Chart its underground following was deep and devoted. Like its predecessor, it was mined by other artists who made hits. In addition to Eli’s Coming and Stoned Soul Picnic the album included Sweet Blindness, Poverty Train, Emmie, Woman’s Blues, and Confessions.
In 1969 she followed up with her most commercially successful album, which many of her fans also consider her best. New York Tendaberry was Nyro’s ode to her hometown, haunting, stark and beautiful. It took more than a year to record because of Nyro’s perfectionism and because her inability to read music or describe clearly what she wanted from the musicians in musical terms they understood made production tedious. Her close friend Janis Ian was once called to a session with Nyro in tears because she could not get the musicians to understand what she meant when she asked them to “play purple.” Ian was able to translate that as legato—slow and smooth.
Notable tracks included the title number, Save the Country which became a peace movement anthem, Time and Love, and Sweet Lovin’ Baby. The album ran up to No. 32 on the Pop Album chart.
Nyro’s next album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat was a departure—recorded with the Swampers, a band from Muscle Shoals and featuring the driving guitar of Duane Allman on some tracks and stripped down solos with her piano and ethereal harp by avante guarde jazz artist Alice Coltrane on others. Despite the schizophrenic duality of the album, many of Nyro’s admirers consider it her most ambitious work. It was the first of her albums that did not produce a hit for other artists. Ironically, it was also the first to contain a non original cut, Carol King’s Up On the Roof which became Nyro’s only hit single. The album peaked in the charts at No. 51.
In 1971 Nyro took a whole new track with her collection of R & B, Soul, and girl group favorites Gonna Take a Miracle recorded in Philadelphia with veteran soul musicians. Her friend Patti Labelle and her group Labelle sang back-up, or more correctly collaborated as if on a group project. The result was a stunning, rich, sometimes raw collection. Nyro’s renditions of Spanish Harlem, Jimmie Mack, Dancing in the Streets, and You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me are now considered classic. Not only did the album make it to No. 46 on the Pop Chart, but it hit an even higher on No. 41 on the separate Black Albums chart.
The record was very nearly Nyro’s swan song. At age 24 she announced her retirement from music after its release. She resented Columbia’s attempts to market her as a celebrity—she refused to do television and was too shy and tongue tied to do the usual rounds of press interviews and radio station drop-ins. Touring and live performances were always excruciating for her, although in her final tour with the emotional support of Patty Labelle she had done better. But she knew she could not lean on her again.
After an affair with Jackson Browne in 1970 and ’71, Nyro met and married Vietnam veteran and carpenter David Bianchini. Together they retreated to rural Massachusetts. While the 1973 Columbia re-issue of her first album kept her memory fresh for her fans, the emotionally fragile Nyro tried to find a new life. She discovered, despite her background as a confirmed New Yorker, that she liked the relaxed life of the country. But her marriage was soon troubled.
In 1975 Nyro took twin blows when her marriage shattered and her beloved mother died at age 46 of ovarian cancer. Nyro decided to immerse herself once again in music. She teamed up with Charlie Calello on an album of new material, Smile. Far more laid back than earlier albums, it had a smooth jazz feel also used and explored Chinese themes and instrumentation on some of the tracks. It produced no hits but was warmly embraced by her fans and climbed to No. 60 on the Pop Album Chart.
Nyro even agreed to tour with a band in support of the album. Her performances also included earlier material and a live album was released the next year.
In 1978 She after a becoming pregnant during a brief affair with Indian born Harindra Singh. Nyro once again left New York City for Danbury, Connecticut where she set up a studio in her home. The result was Nested, often described as maternal. More melodic than her last original albums it also contained some of the more political work with which her late career would be identified.
Despite touring in support of the album while heavily pregnant, the record was a commercial bust. Columbia withdrew it from circulation and it was unavailable domestically until it was re-issued as a CD in 2008. Many of her fans have never heard it.
After completing the tour Nyro’s only son Gil Bianchini was born. She retreated once again from music for three years to devote herself to him. Gil is now a rapper/hip hop artist know as Gil T who often samples his mother’s work in his pieces.
After the failure of the album, Nyro once again retreated from the music business, concentrating on raising her son. In the early ‘80’s she began a relationship with painter Maria Desiderio which lasted the rest of her life.
By the time she once again returned to music it was deeply informed by feminism, lesbianism, the ecological movement and a new found personal peace. Mother's Spiritual, released in 1984 represented more than a year of intense work in the studio. It represented her only original material of the decade. Despite criticism in some quarters that she had lost her edge and about her overtly political material, the record found a niche audience not only among devoted long time fans, but in the early world of women’s music. It was her last original album to chart, barely breaking in at No. 189.
Four years later Nyro undertook her first live tour in years with a full band. Although many of her fans' early hits were played, she wanted to feature her new music. The concert tour produced a live album released in 1989, Laura: Live at the Bottom Line. Columbia wanted a new studio album and refused to release it but allowed her to put it out on the minor label Cypress which had no money to promote it. Nyro had to spend $18,000 of her own money for a quarter page ad in The Rolling Stone.
The album included six new, previously unreleased songs, many of which had a bright, humorous style which took her fans by surprise. Having quit smoking her voice was in the best shape it had been in years. But it was not a success.
Discouraged, she returned to Columbia to complete her commitment for two new studio albums. 1993’s Walk the Dog and Light the Light, mix of new material, re-visits of older material and covers was made with a small combo proximately featuring percussionist Nydia “Liberty” Mata, with whom Nyro had collaborated since the mid-1970s and was produced by Steely Dan producer Gary Katz. Although highly melodic, it represent Nyro’s most political work yet including feminist and animal rights songs as well as Broken Rainbow which was written and recorded for an Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name about the Navaho in 1985. One again the album was positively reviewed and Nyro even toured with small harmony quartet in club venues in support. But sales disappointed Columbia. Although Nyro would work on another album for the company, Angel in the Dark, the label would not release it until after her death.
She toured sporadically, playing clubs and often for women’s audiences. Two more live albums, one recorded in Japan were released.
In 1996 Nyro was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She worked with Columbia on preparing a definitive retrospective as she battled the illness. Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro was released early in 1997 as a two disc CD to glowing reviews and strong sales.
On April 8, 1997 Laura Nyro died with her lover and son by her side in her Danbury home. She was 46 years old—the same age that the same killer claimed her mother.
Her death predictably led to a renaissance of interest in her life and work. A tribute album by 14 female artists or acts was recording and released later that year. Participants included Phoebe Snow, Jill Sobule, Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash, Jane Siberry, Lisa Germano, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Patty Larkin.
Posthumous releases of her last studio album and live recordings from the early ‘90’s followed as well as various compilations. Artists continue to record her songs.
The fragile body may be gone, but the spirit and the voice lives on.