October 18, 1947 – Laura Nyro:
“They say a woman’s place is to wait and serve under the veil, submissive and dear. But I think my place is in a ship from space to carry me the hell out of here…”
It would never have happened to me when I was young. I was a fearless performer as a youth. I became more reticent and more shy as I got older. Still, some performers shun the spotlight and find that back road to success. Laura Nyro was a perfect example. Crippled by chronic stage fright, she never found more than a cult audience with her solo career; but when her songs were covered by Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, The 5th Dimension, Three Dog Night or Blood, Sweat & Tears, they effortlessly reached the Top 10 on the charts. Somehow, those reinterpretations brought her material closer to the audience’s musical preoccupations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
You probably missed Nyro’s obituaries when she left this world. Her death didn’t bring the type of media coverage that pop icons like Elvis Presley, John Lennon or Janis Joplin had when they passed. In fact, you may not even know her name. That’s a shame.
But, if like me, you were listening to the radio from 1967 to 1971, you know her impassioned, iconoclastic music. Nyro was still in her teens when she wrote: Wedding Bell Blues, And When I Die, and Stoney End. By the time she was 21 years old, she had already produced a meaningful and large catalog of songs, a stronger body of work than most pop songwriters have in a full lifetime. But, she never had a hit record as herself.
Nyro was not only a distinctive songwriter who created her own world with her music, she possessed a delicious vocal style, soulful, with deep feeling, fused with Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Folk and Broadway.
I wonder where The 5th Dimension would have been without her songs. That pop-soul group scored big hits with Stoned Soul Picnic, Wedding Bell Blues, Blowin’ Away, Sweet Blindness, and Save The Country. Blood, Sweat & Tears took And When I Die to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts in 1969. Three Dog Night hit Number One on the charts with Eli’s Comin’. Streisand had a Number One hit with Stoney End in 1971, using that song to increase her hipness quotient and prove that she was not just a singer of show tunes.
Nyro was born in The Bronx in 1947, the daughter of a jazz trumpeter. She began playing music as a little girl. She read poetry and was introduced to the music of classical composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy by her mother. She attended Manhattan High School of Music and Art. She was a big fan of a wide range of music, from Bob Dylan to John Coltrane, Gospel to Doo-Wop, Burt Bacharach to The Supremes.
Nyro’s first album, More Than A New Discovery (1966), was recorded when she was just 19 years old (Madonna was 25 when she released her first album). It was a remarkable debut, but it brought her little attention as a performer.
A little known music agent, who I shall call “David Geffen” for legal reasons, saw her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where she was booed off the stage. He quit his job and became her manager. He got her a deal with Columbia Records and she recorded her next album Eli And The 13th Confession in 1968. The critics liked it a lot. But, they became hits from the cover versions of the tunes done by The 5th Dimension and Three Dog Night, not from her own albums. Nyro’s original versions went unnoticed by most of the public, except for listeners of extreme savvy taste, like me.
New York Tendaberry (1969) was Nyro’s only album to reach the Top 40. It included two more songs that The 5th Dimension covered: Time And Love, and Save The Country. This album gave her a cult following and foreshadowed the whole introspective singer/songwriter movement that emerged in the early 1970s. Ironically, Nyro’s own bestselling single was a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin‘s Up On The Roof.
Nyro released two more albums and then left the biz in 1971, giving up at 24 years old. But, after five years away, she returned to the studio and periodically released new albums for the next two decades. In 1997, a retrospective boxed-set was being released by Columbia: Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best Of Laura Nyro. Nyro selected the tracks and approved the final project. She lived to see its release and she said that she was pleased with the final project.
Nyro was taken from this world by that damn cancer in 1997. She was only 49 years old; taken by the same ovarian cancer that had claimed the life of her mother at the very same age. She left behind a partner of 18 years, artist Maria Desidero.
A tribute album, Time And Love: The Music Of Laura Nyro, with Nyro’s songs performed by 14 women singers and groups, including Phoebe Snow, Suzanne Vega, Roseanne Cash, and Jane Siberry was issued shortly after Nyro was gone.
Nyro’s huge influence on other musicians has been acknowledged by: Janis Ian, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Melissa Manchester, Rickie Lee Jones, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, and Sandra Bernhard. She is Bette Midler‘s favorite singer. Barry Manilow lists her amazing album (and my own personal favorite Nyro LP) Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat on his Desert Island Discs list. The juicy Jackson Browne tune That Girl Could Sing is about Nyro. Elton John and Elvis Costello discussed Nyro’s significant influence on both of their music during the premiere episode of Costello’s interview show Spectacle (2012) on the Sundance Channel.
When I was a callow youth, I loved Nyro beyond all reason. Her songs are very much a part of my musical consciousness. The Husband is a big fan also. If you remember her songs in their hit versions by other artists, it is fascinating to hear Nyro’s own interpretations. If you’re just too young to remember these songs from AM radio, you will be knocked out by the variety and depth of her vision. Listening to her music more than 45 years later, I am transported back to that amazing time in music. I don’t know why more people didn’t discover the singer/songwriter behind the great melodies and lyrics. Stoned Soul Picnic captures the sweet, hopeful trippiness of the late 1960s better than most protest music of the time:
“There’ll be trains of blossoms and there’ll be trains of music. There’ll be trains of trust, trains of gold and dust…”