Laura Nyro presented an unusual songwriting talent to the world when she made her recording debut in the 1960s. Her compositional style seemed to anticipate the development of the singer-songwriter as the concept would be known by the turn of the sixties on into the seventies. More personally political as opposed to be being more didactic, less allegorical, than the imagery of a Bob Dylan. The strange dichotomy that exists in her writing is that songs which are so idiosyncratic lyrically – like ‘Wedding Bell Blues’, ‘And When I Die’, and ‘Stoney End’, could be turned into considerable chart hits – but not by her.
Born Laura Nigro in The Bronx, New York, the daughter of Gilda Nigro, a bookkeeper, and Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter on October 18th, 1947, by her own confession, she was never a ‘bright and happy child’, and sought escape in music, creating her “own little world”. A self-taught piano player and avid reader of poetry and literature, through her father’s contacts she acquired professional management in the shape of Artie Mogull and his business partner Paul Barry. As a teenager, she’d used various professional sobriquets, and having used the name ‘Nyro’ when she was initially discovered, she stuck with it.
At the age of eighteen, she made her professional bow performing at the Hungry I coffeehouse in San Francisco. Under Mogull’s auspices, she signed her first recording deal. Her debut album, released on the Verve/ Folkways label in 1967, was entitled More Than A New Discovery, and it showcased a talent that was already quite fully developed. At the age of only seventeen, she’d succeeded in selling the song ‘And When I Die’ to the folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary for the sum of $5000.
In 1967, Nyro performed at the Monterey Pop Festival. Accounts vary as to the reception she received. Some witnesses say that her performance, in full evening gown, and backed by three backing singers, misfired, coming across as a kind of lounge act in the midst of the hard rocking of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who. Not long after, she fell into the orbit of future Asylum Records impresario David Geffen, who took over management and agency duties from Mogull. He extricated her from her deal by claiming that she had signed a contract with Mogull when she was still a minor. He also secured for her a new recording deal with Columbia/ CBS records, being signed after a personal audition for label MD Clive Davis in her New York apartment. Apparently, Nyro performed at her piano lit only by the glow of her TV. Despite the circumstances, Davis recognised talent when he heard it, and offered her a recording contract.
Despite the critical acclaim of albums such as Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry, commercial success for Nyro was not immediately forthcoming. Indeed, Davis latterly observed that the albums acted more like publisher’s demos for other artists to make a success of. In truth, it appeared that Nyro did not embrace the idea of being a star in her own right, and the concomitant intrusions into her private life. In November, 1970, she released her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, which included her only US chart hit single, a cover of the Carole King/ Gerry Goffin composition, ‘Up On The Roof’, which peaked at the relatively modest number ninety-two.
Nyro started the recording sessions for what would be her fifth album, Gonna Take A Miracle in May 1971. She recorded the album with the female vocal trio Labelle (Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash), at the Sigma Sound studio in Philadelphia with the producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who would soon find fame as architects of the ‘Philly Soul’ sound. The album – her only set which was comprised entirely of cover versions – was to be her last for several years. Shortly after she would marry and enter a period of ‘retirement’ from the music business.
The influence of her music can be found in the work of Todd Rundgren for starters (though in truth, he is but one of dozens). When Rundgren launched his solo career in 1970, with the album Runt, one of the songs on that album, ‘Baby Let’s Swing’, actually mentions her by name. Furthermore, it’s possible that, were it not for Nyro’s trailblazing style, the Carole King mega-selling Tapestry album may not have been as widely received – Nyro, without being anywhere near as commercially popular in pure sales terms, nonetheless was hugely influential on her writing contemporaries. Laura Nyro died aged only forty-nine years old on 8th April 1997– the same age at which her mother passed away, and from the same illness – ovarian cancer.
Laura Nyro was inducted (posthumously) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 14th April 2012, with the induction speech given by Bette Midler, no less. A storming version of Nyro’s ‘Stoney End’ (a 1971 hit for Barbra Streisand) was performed in tribute at the event by the singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles , herself another Nyro fan from a younger generation, whose love of the song and admiration for its composer is plain to see from her gleeful, energetic rendition. The influence of Laura Nyro is sure to carry on as successive generations of artists discover her work.
This month’s release ‘Spread Your Wings And Fly’ was recorded at the Fillmore East in May 1971. Nyro sounds relaxed and at home playing for an East Coast crowd and offers up a soulful, intimate performance. The set, for all the deficiencies of its original recording, still sees her artistry, singing and songwriting gifts shine beacon-like down the forty-odd years since it was made. One voice, one piano, a rapt audience, and a whole lot of magic – priceless stuff indeed.
In a Bruce Pollock interview, Nyro reflected on music, the over-arching force on her life: "Once I'm writing I'm very disciplined. I'm there for the music. When I'm writing music there's a certain magic from the music underlying life. It's like you're living at a deeper current. It's a very complete feeling. You're taking care of everyday things, but you're living at the edge of a song."
With thanks to Alan Robinson