During Bronx-born Laura Nyro’s 30-year career as a recording artist and songwriter, she has enjoyed public periods of recording and touring interspersed with frequent time out to enjoy her private life. Nyro has been hailed as one of the most visionary and powerful singers and songwriters of our time, inspiring and influencing both musicians and music lovers alike. To trace her career it is necessary to chart the evolution of soul, jazz, blues, and folk music during the last half of the twentieth century.
Nyro’s songwriting began in her childhood and was perhaps encouraged by her musical Italian-Jewish parents—her father was a jazz trumpeter, and her mother would play recordings by Leontyne Price and classical compositions by Debussy and Persicetti while Nyro read poetry. At Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, Nyro’s concentration was songwriting, and she sang at night with a neighborhood harmony street group in subway stations. In an interview with Columbia Records, Nyro recalled her teen years: “When I was sixteen years old and used to go out and sing ... the music was happening then: that’s when John Coltrane was happening with jazz, when soul music and girl groups and everything was just really rich, and things were very open.”
By the time she was 17 she had already written what has been called her classic, “And When I Die,” which was first performed by Peter, Paul and Mary, and later by Blood, Sweat and Tears. Other hits popularized by various singers and groups during the late 1960s and early 1970s included “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Blowin’ Away,” “Save the Country,” and “Sweet Blindness,” all for the Fifth Dimension; “Eli’s Comin,”’ for Three Dog Night; and “Stoney End” for Barbra Streisand. These songs have been acclaimed as “landmarks of an era.” A biography from Columbia Records quoted Stereo Review’s description of them as “unexpected,” with “a dazzling display of lyrical and musical innovation that gave [Nyro’s] music a fresh feeling that set it apart.” Nyro told People that “I just worked on my craft, and the next thing I knew, I would hear my work on the radio.”
Other artists who have recorded Nyro’s songs include Chet Atkins, Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll, Roy Ayers, Chris Connor, George Duke, “Mama” Cass Elliot, the Don Ellis Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Thelma Houston, Julie London, Carmen McRae, Melba Moore, Linda Ronstadt, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Mongo Santamaria, Frank Sinatra, and Junior Walker and the All-Stars. Her music
For the Record…
Born October 18, 1947, in Bronx, New York; father was a jazz trumpeter.
Began career in 1964, writing songs for the Fifth Dimension, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Barbra Streisand, and Three Dog Night; first public performance at the hungry i coffeehouse, San Francisco, 1965; recorded first studio album for Verve/Folkways, 1967; toured the United States and recorded studio and live albums, 1967—; recorded for Columbia Records, 1967-94; first appeared at Carnegie Hall, 1970.
has been performed by the Alvin Ailey dance company (“Cry”) and the Canadian Ballet (“Emmie”).
“San Francisco Sound”
Nyro’s first public appearances were during a two-month stint in 1965 at the famous hungry i coffeehouse in San Francisco, where local radio stations described her singing as “the San Francisco sound.” In 1966 Verve/Folkways released her first album, More Than a New Discovery. Other Verve/Folkways artists during that time included the Blues Project, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Janis Ian, and Dave Van Ronk. Nyro joined Columbia Records in 1967, and Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was brought out in 1968. Columbia Records reported that Eli was hailed by Jon Landau in Rolling Stone as the work of “an original and brilliant young talent” and by Pete Johnson of the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most stunning creations of recent pop music.”
In the late 1960s Nyro began appearing throughout the United States at music festivals, including the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. In 1970 Dave Dexter, Jr., of Billboard’described how Nyro performed her “Monterey act” to “an overflow, almost hysterically demonstrative crowd in Royce Hall on the spacious UCLA campus.” She “reigned as Queen of the Campus,” Dexter commented, adding that Nyro was also “perhaps Queen of California.”
At the Berkeley Community Theater, Nyro again performed to a standing room only audience. Ralph Glea-son of Rolling Stone observed, “One of the most impressive things about Laura Nyro’s concert is her extraordinary contact with her audience. They are deep into her songs, they pick up on the opening piano chords and applaud. While she sings, they writhe in their seats and call out requests when she pauses.” David Nathan of Billboard praised her as one of the “most compelling performers” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During 1970, Nyro also made her first major appearance in New York City with two sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall. In describing the concert, Nancy Erlich of Billboard reported, “In a voice as gentle as a razor, Miss Nyro communicated her very personal vision of the world through her distinctive compositions.” Vince Aletti of Rolling Stone believed that the high point of the concert was the songs from her albums, with Nyro’s version of “Spanish Harlem” the piece that “received the heaviest response.”
Nyro’s recordings over the next few years were impressive. In 1969 New York Tendaberry was released to more critical acclaim, followed by Christmas and the Beads of Sweat in 1970. Alec Dubro of Rolling Stone commented on Christmas and Tendaberry, pointing out that they “form a chapter in her book, just as her first Verve album and Eli did. She has moved out of the small cult status. Her position now is the result of her own work rather than any capture of the public’s fickle fancy.” Gonna Take a Miracle, with backup provided by Patti LaBelle, was released in 1971 by Columbia, which acquired and reissued More Than a New Discov-eryas The First Songs in 1973. After taking time out for her personal life, Nyro released Smile in 1976.
Nancy Erlich of Billboard noted that upon Nyro’s 1976 return to Carnegie Hall, the performer was “in different form.” The reviewer stated, “The image of the eccentric stage personality and the songwriter of constant inspiration but erratic control is wiped out completely.” The new Nyro, described Erlich, “held the stage with grace and dignity. The show was paced and rehearsed to fine detail and flowed like a continuous thought.” David McGee of Rolling Stone remarked that the concert “brought back meaning to that misused, overused word, magic.”
Nyro’s four-month tour following the release of Smile resulted in a live album in 1977, Season of Light/Laura Nyro in Concert. She then turned producer for her subsequent album, Nested, in 1978. The singer explained to Columbia Records that the tour following the release of Nested “was very special. I’d sing my new songs and just drift into the old Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions songs I sang as a kid. I was pregnant at the time and I felt super healthy—I sang up until a few weeks before I had the baby.”
Tim Windbrandt of the Soho News, according to Columbia Records, remarked that her “show was almost understated in its simplicity. Miss Nyro wore a red, strapless dress and performed without any backup musicians at all. What the performance lacked in texture, it made up for in intimacy. It was almost like having Laura in one’s own living room. The baby figured into the between-song patter: ‘We’re both really happy to be here,’ [Nyro] announced.”
For the next six years, Nyro took time off to raise her son. In 1984 she broke her silence with the release of Mother’s Spiritual, described by Columbia as “a major work of 14 original new songs. The lyrics of Mother’s Spiritual were presented on the walls of the Chicago Peace Museum as a feminist vision... they still stand as a statement of Laura’s unwavering principles.”
By 1988, however, Nyro was back on the tour circuit, playing 35 concerts in major cities around the United States. David Nathan of Billboard described her concert at the Mayfair Theater in Santa Monica: “Nyro’s appeal lies as much in occasional on-stage glimpses of her off-stage persona as it does in her pointed, image-provoking material; her easy camaraderie with both musicians and audience and a wry humor are very endearing. But it was Nyro’s poetic imagery coupled with her distinctive vocal delivery that made her show simply spellbinding.”
Laura Live at the Bottom Line was released on the Cypress/A&M label in 1989. She explained to reporters that she wasn’t ready for another studio recording because of a strong urge to “be singing and to be a musician again, but in a soulful way.” Laura Live introduced eight original songs and included some of her classics as well as “street-corner songs of her youth.”
In 1993 Nyro recorded her first studio album in nine years, Walk the Dog and Light the Light, after working on it with Gary Katz for a year and a half. A Rolling Stone reviewer called the album “irresistible” and a writer for People magazine described it as “seductive.” Nyro herself said the album is about compassion and healing. Her new songs showed concern for many contemporary sociopolitical issues; for example, she wrote the Native American protest song “Broken Rainbow” for the 1985 Academy Award-winning documentary of the same name, and an animal-rights song, “Lite a Flame.”
Nyro’s feminist concerns emerge with “A Woman of the World,” a song, Nyro said, about “healing, asking more joy for yourself ... [and] harmony.” “The Descent of Luna Rose,’” the singer explained, “is about women’s monthly cycles of renewal laced with a sense of humor.” Another song, “Louise’s Church,” was dedicated to the sculptor Louise Nevelson “and other artists of inspiration,” including the ancient Greek poet Sappho, singer Billie Holiday, and painter Frida Kahlo.
Nyro described “Art of Love” as a “holiday song and a peace song.” She used international voices to sound her message of peace: a Tibetan monk and an Iraqi woman mingle with voices from Israel, Africa, America, and Italy. These voices represent the voice of people with a “Peace on Earth” vision of life—“just decent people,” Nyro elaborated, “the man on the street, the child from the school down the block.” Nyro’s “To a Child” was rerecorded for Walk the Dog, and Jim Bessman in Billboard observed that it “reflects Nyro’s devotion to raising her son, who is now a teenager.”
Nyro described her career in the early 1990s to Bess-man: “I have complete freedom as a songwriter, which is a very good feeling.... I can take a ‘Mother Earth’ approach to its children, write about the environment, about peace. I look at my music as ‘soul talk,’ a healing using the language of love, and I think there’s more of that kind of feeling in it now.”
When Nyro’s contract with Columbia Records expired in 1994, she told Contemporary Musicians in a telephone interview that she felt this was the appropriate time for her to review her options and search for alternatives “that fit me a little better.” Nyro explained that she was interested in continuing to make music in situations that were “less corporate, less competitive, and less capitalistic.”
On Columbia Records, except where noted
More Than a New Discovery, Verve/Folkways, 1966, reissued as The First Songs, 1972.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, 1968.
New York Tendaberry, 1969.
Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, 1970.
(With Patti LaBelle) Gonna Take a Miracle, 1971.
Season of Lights, 1977.
Mother’s Spiritual, 1984.
Laura Live at the Bottom Line, Cypress/A&M, 1989.
Walk the Dog and Light the Light, 1993.
Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Summit Books, 1983.
Billboard, June 14, 1969; December 13, 1969; February 21, 1970; July 4, 1970; March 13,1971; May 8,1971; April 17, 1976; October 1, 1988; October 21, 1989; August 26, 1993.
BMI Music World, July 1968; October 1969; November 1969.
Down Beat, July 24, 1969; April 2, 1970; April 15, 1971.
Life, January 30, 1970.
Melody Maker, January 30, 1971; February 13, 1971; May 15,1971; January 8,1972; March 18,1972; November 9, 1974; February 7,1976; April 17,1976; October 24,1987.
People, August 30, 1993.
Rolling Stone, January 21,1970; April 16,1970; February 18, 1971; April 8, 1976; May 6, 1976; June 3, 1976; October 14, 1993.
Variety, March 25, 1970; August 24, 1988.
Village Voice, April 10, 1984; December 5, 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records and from phone interviews with Nyro in May-June, 1994.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
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