Laura Nyro was among the most gifted singer/songwriters of modern times and one of the first female singer/songwriters who didn’t come from the folk-music world. Her music reflected a combination of spirituality and street smarts. Bursting with talent, she possessed a penetrating, soulful voice, a commanding touch on the piano and an arsenal of impressionistic songs that drew from R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, Brill Building pop and Broadway show tunes. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, Nyro “linked high-flown poetry to the ecstatic emotions of soul music, and her singing mixed the pure tones of a soprano with the throbs and swoops of gospel and jazz.”
Along with Joni Mitchell, Ms. Nyro (pronounced Nero) was a pioneer in the confessional, free-form school of songwriting that grew out of 1960’s folk music, especially the work of Bob Dylan. A trained pianist, she had a kaleidoscopic musical sensibility that fused elements of folk, soul, gospel and Broadway tradition into intensely introspective songs that transcended easy stylistic categorization.
With her uninhibited, note-bending vocal wail, she also helped introduce the rhythm-and-blues-influenced style known as ”blue-eyed soul,” so named because it was popularized by white singers imitating black role models. And her live concerts were fervent affairs in which the dark-haired, dark-eyed singer, exotically gowned and surrounded by roses, performed with a transported intensity.
Nyro was not easily pigeonholed and seemed almost too intense and unconventional for mainstream tastes. She never attained a Top 40 single, gold album or Grammy Award. However, she did have a beloved cult following, and other performers found great success recording her songs, including Fifth Dimension (“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues”), Blood, Sweat and Tears (“And When I Die,” “He’s a Runner”), Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Comin’”) and Barbra Streisand (“Stoney End”). For back-to-back weeks in 1969, three of the Top 10 songs on Billboard’s singles chart were written by Nyro.
One of the anomalies of Nyro’s career was that she was guarded and retiring in her personal life but filled her songs and performances with uninhibited feeling and feverish intensity. She seldom gave interviews, toured infrequently and announced her retirement (which turned out to be temporary) at age 24. Nonetheless, her recorded work – especially a remarkable run of albums in her first half-decade – documented a major talent bursting with precocious soulfulness and a uniquely original musical style.
Never comfortable in the limelight, Ms. Nyro married and retreated from the music business to lead a secluded life for the next three years in a fishing village in Massachusetts.
Driven by an inner flame, Nyro was forthright and independent in her approach to music. “I’m not interested in conventional limitations when it comes to my songwriting,” she contended in the liner notes for Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro. “I may bring a certain feminist perspective to my songwriting, because that’s how I see life. I’m interested in art, poetry and music. As that kind of artist, I can do anything. I can say anything. It’s about self-expression.”
Ms. Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx on Oct. 18, 1947. Her father was a jazz trumpeter who practiced for hours at home. An undisciplined child prodigy, Ms. Nyro began writing songs at age 8 and later attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. As a teen-ager she experimented with psychedelic drugs, absorbed musical influences as far-ranging as Bob Dylan, John Coltrane and Debussy, and at 18 made her first extended club appearance at the Hungry i coffeehouse in San Francisco.
In 1966, Verve/Folkways released her debut album, ”More Than a New Discovery,” a remarkably sophisticated collection of original songs that Columbia later purchased and reissued in 1973 as ”The First Songs.” Widely admired, it led to an invitation to perform at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where her introspective music proved so out of place amid the high-powered rock of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin that she was shouted off the stage. This led to a crippling stage fright that took her years to overcome, and she never did completely.
David Geffen saw Nyro perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967; it was only her second real performance. He became her manager and got her signed to Columbia Records.
Three brilliant albums followed in three successive years: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969) and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970). Her piano-driven songs covered a lot of ground and broke with songwriting conventions as Nyro gave free rein to her feelings as a young woman coming of age in the city. Nyro’s commanding energy, passion, poetry and musicality shone through on these albums, the creative core of her catalog.
Patti LaBelle with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx
The vocal trio Labelle – Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx – accompanied Nyro on her next outing, Gonna Take a Miracle (1971). It was a joyous set of R&B, soul and girl-group remakes that harked back to her teenage love of a cappella. The album was produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, masterminds of the Philly Soul sound, and endures as a classic piece of urban-soul homage. Nyro then went five years without making a record. (More Than a New Discovery was subsequently reissued by Columbia with a revised running order as The First Songs in 1973.)
During the second stage of her career, which resumed in the mid-Seventies, the fervid outpouring of her early years gave way to a more contemplative, settled and nurturing spirit. “I’m not a prolific writer now,” she told Rolling Stone in 1976. “I still feel the same feelings as a composer, but I feel them at a slower rhythm.”
Never comfortable in the limelight, Ms. Nyro married and retreated from the music business to lead a secluded life for the next three years in a fishing village in Massachusetts. After the marriage ended in divorce, she returned to recording, ,she returned to recording, putting out ”Smile” (1976), her first album in four years. Here, and in her later Columbia albums, ”Nested” (1978), ”Mother’s Spiritual” (1984), She dedicated the album “to the trees” and the accompanying tour to the animal rights movement.
After another half decade of silence,a live album drawn from a brief tour, Laura-Live at the Bottom Line appeared in 1989. In ”Walk the Dog and Light the Light” (1993), her songs gave increasingly direct expression to the pantheism that had always lurked in her writing. But if her later songs exalted pacifism, feminism, motherhood and animal rights, the emotional turmoil of old was never far from the surface.
Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49. Shortly before her death, she compiled a double-disc career overview, Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro, for Columbia/Legacy. Four years after her death, an album of her final recordings, Angel in the Dark, was released. Unfortunately, there is very little video of Laura performing, but there are live audio performances at various venues on Youtube. This is a performance she did in 1971 at Carnegie Hall.
Nyro was a songwriter’s songwriter who lit the way for others. Her memorable songs and trailblazing style have empowered such radically original female artists as Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, Rickie Lee Jones and many others. Todd Rundgren was a disciple, admitting that he changed his songwriting style after hearing Nyro. Elton John, speaking on Elvis Costello’s interview show Spectacle, confessed that he “idolized” Nyro: “The soul, the passion, just the out-and-out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melodic changes came was like nothing I’d heard before.”
After Nyro’s death, David Geffen remembered her as “a consummate artist…a poet for past and future generations.”