Laura Nyro (October 18, 1947 – April 8, 1997).
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
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There’s hardly a stranger case in the rock era than Laura Nyro’s. There have been many performers who said they were going to make their statement, collect their money and get out before they were thrown out, but Nyro really did it. She didn’t quit for a few years and then stage a big, media-sweeping comeback. She didn’t wait until she’d lost her following or her record deal and then head for the hills. She was really hot, and then she really stopped. She’s pop music’s J.D. Salinger. (Bill Flanagan, Musician Magazine)
There is a confessional, purgative, Spanish Catholic mystery lurking in her songs that sometimes comes out as pure gospel rejoicing, and other times it’s a bit more of a secret, but she’s always reminding you that God and the Devil are at each other’s throats…It’s a mythic, romantic way of looking at things, but Laura’s music is always earthbound for all its lyric elusiveness, and often it’s just plain pagan. “Some people think of my music as purely sexual, some think of it in a spiritual, religious way, and, like, what it is, everything. All the rivers flow.” (from a “Bronx Ophelia,” by Michael Thomas in Eye Magazine, May 1969)
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Consider this. You are a young songwriter recording your first album. You play music that doesn’t really fit into any one category. It’s folk/Motown/Broadway/jazz/Muscle Shoals all-in-one. To compound the challenge, your music is written into the teeth of a hurricane of change in songwriting. Dylan is just one year removed from Highway 61 Revisited, and is now releasing Blonde on Blonde. The Beatles’ Revolver is on the airwaves; Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds will soon join it—there’s some good music out there.
Joni Mitchell has not yet even signed her own contract with Reprise and most every other woman in the business is singing someone else’s songs. This is, after all, the year when the only women to top the charts will be Nancy Sinatra with “These Boots are Made For Walking,” and Petula Clark’s “My Love.” Despite the obstacles, that first album is full of songs destined to become immense hits, songs that are melodically complex, inventive, and irresistible—the equal of anything from Goffin-King or Mann-Weil.
Within five years you’ll reel-off four albums worth of your own songs and a fifth that is an album of soul and R&B covers. The albums—More Than a New Discovery (1967), Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970), and Gonna Take a Miracle (1971)—are a match for the music of Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, or Jimmy Webb. You’re signed to your Columbia contract by your new manager, David Geffen—you’re the reason he becomes a manager in the first place—and you get a huge advance. You do all of this between your 19th and 24th birthdays, when, soon after, you withdraw from the scene, a legend.
As incredible as this may sound, this just touches the surface of the amazing burst of creativity that was Laura Nyro’s between 1966 and 1971, as brilliant a period of music-making as has ever been accomplished by a solo artist, matched only, maybe, by Stevie Wonder’s quartet of albums between ’72 and ‘76—Talking Book, Innervision, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life, and he already had a decade of experience behind him by that point.
To use that over-used phrase, Laura Nyro was nothing if not a prodigious musical talent, a woman possessed by a blinding inner vision of the music she needed to make. It was a muse she alone could hear, and in pursuit of this vision she was relentlessly self-critical and demanding. The evidence of that talent is there for all to hear on those albums.
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I bought my first Laura Nyro record sometime in the early ’70s. It was her first album, re-titled and re-issued by Columbia as The First Songs. Soon, I bought the rest of her catalogue. I still have those vinyl albums, their covers worn, with white rings on the jacket sleeves from being pulled-out one too many times from some tightly packed milk crates. Their covers were mysterious and exotic to me. Nyro’s photo on Eli was particularly arresting—all dark hair and eyes.
When I heard the news that she had died, it hit me like a freight train. Laura Nyro’s music was forever linked to youth—her’s; mine. This essay is not a retrospective of her music, nor an attempt at biography. It is simply my own appreciation of her music, using three songs from those incredible first albums as launch points, an appreciation of music made by one so young who, as it came to pass, died so young as well.
The album on which this song is found, New York Tendaberry, was recorded at Columbia’s New York studio A in February of 1969. The album was released in September of that year. The song, “Gibsom Street,” is as good a place as any to start our walk through her music. The song begins with the saddest of piano lines—they are the embodiment of reverence. You can almost see the snow gently falling outside on a cold New York winter night; Studio A has become a holy place, a church.
“Gibsom Street” is a sterling example of Nyro’s genius. Listen to the segue from the gentle, almost hymn-like opening, to the powerful, rocking, gospel-fueled chorus, and then back again. Her remarkable voice spans the entire spectrum of emotion, from a gentle whisper to full-throttled soprano. “Gibsom Street” is not the work of an apprentice. Nyro’s music, in its dynamic range, its pageantry, is far closer to the musical Hair, or maybe Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story, or what Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber are trying to capture with their first musicals. She achieves the kind of drama that will forever elude Bacharach in his own attempts at Broadway.
Dynamic is also a good word to describe the song “New York Tendaberry.” Listen to how Nyro begins the song, with the quietest of whispers, gently moving over this lush rhyme:
New York tendaberry
A rush on rum
Of brush and drum.
It’s how she uses the sounds of the words to draw you in. How she lavishes attention and care on each sound, highlighting each of them in turn, as little moments all their own. Listen to her pure voice on the second to last line of the song—“though silver tears”—before singing, in the smallest, quietest of voices, “New York tendaberry,” in a whisper barely audible above the crackle of the vinyl record, whose hisses and pops sound like rain on a sidewalk.
Wedding Bell Blues
This song, from the album More than a New Discovery is a wonderful celebration of melody, a mini tribute to every “girl group” of the ‘60s. It was recorded in 1966. The song is so familiar that even those who’ve never head of Laura Nyro instantly recognize the song’s opening “Bill……..” Soon after, you realize that this isn’t the Fifth Dimension (the harmonica is usually the giveaway) but you can clearly see how closely that group stuck to the template Nyro gave them. Listen to the full, easy soulfulness of Nyro’s vocal, the complete self-assurance and immaculate sense of timing, phrasing, and rhythm on an otherwise throwaway line like “I was the one came running/When you were lonely…”
More astonishing is to learn that this was one of the first songs she ever wrote. Something like writing “Yesterday” as your first composition. As light as this song may seem, it not only gave Nyro a big hit (as songwriter), it also serves as an excellent map to her musical style: the bold piano line, the un-classifiable blues-jazz-operatic vocal (as though Joan Baez was transmorgrified with Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Spector, Nina Simone, and Dusty Springfield all at once), and the backing vocal using the old-time gospel tradition of the “call and response” technique.
All through that first album, Nyro’s vocal ability is showcased. On “Billy’s Blues” Nyro blows away all of her contemporaries with a dusky, sexy jazz vocal. On “And When I Die” she adds gospel Queen Mahalia Jackson to her vocal DNA. Watch for how she handles the line “when I die/there’ll be one child more/when I die,” at the end of the song, the way her voice slides from the lower to higher registers, simulating the gospel lead and choral back-up vocals in one voice—remarkable.
“Eli’s Coming,” from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, is practically an entire primer on pop styles in one 3 minute and 57 second song. The song starts with just a throaty Hammond B3 organ and a vocal from Laura that starts low and then moves into a pure high soprano. The beat then kicks in, the drums and piano driving the song forward, the brass section playing like banchees, and Nyro singing both lead vocal and backing vocals in a fast staccato, the band barely able to keep up. Nyro then stops the band cold and shifts back to the organ before settling into an easy pop beat with the strummed electric guitar for the play-out, her backing vocals whooping and wailing behind a Supremes vocal.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is an encyclopedia of Nyro’s vocal dexterity and skill as a composer. On “Lu” we hear a swinging beat combined with the doo-wop sound Nyro so loved. Listen to how skillfully she transitions from the main melody to the transition in the middle of the song which is a bizarre combination of Dionne Warwick fronting Blood Sweat and Tears, and then back out again. “Emmie” features a wonderfully lush vocal line that runs the gamut of the pop vocabulary –from a gentle pop ballad complete with strings and vibes that sounds like Bacharach’s “Alfie” combined with elements of Pet Sounds (especially the use of tympani), to an ending straight from Motown or Phil Spector.
A primer all its own is the song “Once it was Alright Now.” She starts the song with a driving rock ‘n’roll, honky-tonk piano (like some sort of precursor to Presley’s “Burning Love”), then abruptly changes the pace to a segment built around a musical phrase straight out of the Bacharach song book (a kind of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” melodic phrase and vocal), and then, quick-silver, she changes the pace again and is off and running on a doo run run beat. The doo run run beat morphs into the honky-tonk piano again—she rides the beat good and hard, growling out the lyric—and then just when you think she’s gone off to hang out with Jerry Lee Lewis and the good ol’ boys, she changes direction again. With a high soprano she moves into an R&B beat—like something from Aretha Franklin meets the Temptations–and then, she winds it down again. You hear her high soprano over a gentle trumpet and vibe(!) combination that sounds like a children’s nursery rhyme. It’s a mind-blowing 2:58 of pop.
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There’s a famous photograph of Laura Nyro, taken sometime around the recording of New York Tendaberry. It shows Nyro seated at her piano, talking to Miles Davis. There’s a story that she had asked Davis to sit in on one of the sessions, to contribute something to a couple of her songs. It’s said that after Davis heard Nyro run through the song—I’m not sure which one—that he turned to her and said: “I can’t play that; you’ve already done it all.” That pretty well sums up just how good Nyro was.
Nyro retired from the eye of the storm. She had nothing to prove, and she didn’t make music for fame. Maybe the muse left her for a time—we’ll never know for sure. In that disappearance she achieved a kind of mythic status among musicians and listeners, a status only slightly dimmed by the relative disappointment of her later albums.
She became a kind of Bobby Fischer of music, the young prodigy who appears out of nowhere, dazzles the world, and then vanishes. Forevermore, her admirers dreamt that she would return, like some sort of female Arthurian legend, to sweep aside the pretenders to her throne. Her rare public performances were proof of her skills. On any given night she retained the ability to be as captivating a performer as she so desired. From the moment she took the stage, she did make much of what came after her seem like so much filler, like chaff to the wind.
Now, Nyro is truly gone. But as long as those records are played, we will be reminded of how Nyro managed to capture lightning in a bottle. How many of us even dare dream of such things?
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Sources and References
For the casual listener, one need not go any further than the 1997, 2 CD compilation package, Stoned Soul Picnic–The Best of Laura Nyro (Columbia/Legacy C2K 48880), which brings together cuts from across her 25 years with Columbia. She approved the final selection of tracks before she died (although not before having to wrangle with Columbia). It was nice that she had a chance to do that, knowing, as she did, that the cancer would prevail.
All the early albums mentioned in this essay are still available. In 2001, Angel in the Dark, (recorded 1994–1995) was posthumously released. In 2012, Laura was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Laura’s original website is still operating and is found at: www.LauraNyro.com
In 1997 a tribute album, Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro, was released. Suzanne Vega contributed her version of “Buy and Sell.” Suzanne also wrote a lovely essay on Laura Nyro in April 2012 as part of Nyro’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: http://rockhall.com/story-of-rock/features/all-featured/7589_reflections-on-laura-nyro/
Elton John makes as articulate a case for the songwriting genius of Nyro as well as anyone I’ve heard. It comes about during his appearance on Elvis Costello’s program “Spectacle:” http://youtu.be/WLY0XaSNF0A
Alice Cooper, also a fan, spoke about Laura Nyro in this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame interview: http://youtu.be/dc7bMc_6B2k