Laura Nyro was among the most gifted singer-songwriters of the Sixties and Seventies, 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 soulful soprano, a commanding touch on the piano, and an arsenal of songs that drew from R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, Brill Building pop and Broadway show tunes. Nyro was not easily pigeonholed and almost too unconventional for mainstream tastes. However, she had a fanatical cult following, and many of her songs became popular in the hands of others. Decades later, such radically original female artists as Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Suzanne Vega evinced some of Nyro’s trailblazing sorcery, while male performers, including Elton John and Todd Rundgren, have also credited Nyro as an influence.
Nyro was raised in New York City, where she heard and studied all kinds of music. She was only 19 when More Than a New Discovery, her debut album, was released in 1967. Later that year, aspiring manager David Geffen saw Nyro perform at the Monterey Pop Festival and got her signed to Columbia Records. She released a trio of classic albums in quick succession: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969) and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970). Many of Nyro's songs from this period became major hits for other artists, making her more successful as songwriter than as a recording artist. Labelle sang with Nyro on Gonna Take a Miracle (1971), a joyous set of covers that showed remarkable range and Nyro's deep knowledge of classic rock and roll songwriting, drawing from the girl groups, Motown, doo wop, Chicago soul and more. Sporadic releases - including Smile (1976), Nested (1978) and Mother’s Spiritual (1984) – followed thereafter. Her last studio album, Walk the Dog and Light the Light, appeared in 1993. Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.
Here, the Rock Hall suggests 10 essential Laura Nyro songs.
After a yearlong residency of sorts at the Hungry i coffeehouse in San Francisco, one radio station characterized Nyro's music as part of the "San Francisco sound." Recorded in 1966, her studio album debut, More Than a New Discovery, proved that assertion to be inaccurate, as Nyro invoked myriad sounds of her childhood – to wit, her jazz and soul/R&B leanings – to craft songs far more mature than her teenage years would suggest. Inspired by the doo-wop crooning of songs like Nolan Strong and the Diablos "The Wind," Nyro delivered a moving piece on hopeful love and frustration with a potential husband: I was the one came runnin' when you were lonely / I haven't lived one day not loving you only / But kisses and love won't carry me / Till you marry me Bill. The 5th Dimension had a hit in 1969 with their cover of "Wedding Bell Blues," taking the song to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100.
Written by Nyro when she was a teenager, "Stoney End" was a deceptively simple folk-pop cut that illustrated Nyro's gift for complex vocal harmonies and melody. The song, initially released on More Than a New Discovery by the Folkways imprint, featured Nyro's nuanced piano playing and lush production as the backdrop to a hard-worn, homespun narrative: I was born from love and my poor Mother worked the mines / I was raised on the good book Jesus / Till I read between the lines / Now I don't believe I wanna see the morning. A precocious Nyro had developed a fondness for poetry, which imbued much of her work with a literary quality that belied her age. Barbra Streisand named her 1971 studio album after "Stoney End," which included a cover of the title track that peaked at Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971.
With lyrics that included the lines When dyin' time is here / Just bundle up my coffin 'cause it's cold way down there … And when I die and when I'm gone / There'll be one child born and a world to carry on, one wouldn't guess the source to be a teenage Nyro, whose gospel-inspired, deeply soulful vocals opened the track before shifting into a rollicking country-tinged number. The song was first recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, to whom Nyro sold the song; Blood, Sweet and Tears would take the track to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.
After gaining the attention of David Geffen, Nyro moved to Columbia records where her first release was Eli and the Thirteenth Confession in 1968. Jon Landau noted that the album was "The work of a brilliant, young talent" in Rolling Stone, and "Eli's Comin'" captured that brilliance in a four-minute, moody piece that showcased Nyro's eclectic aural palette, from the haunting, minor-key intro to the upbeat shuffle of the verse and chorus to the soul-infused coda. Three Dog Night covered the song on their 1969 studio album, Suitable For Framing.
Included on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, a fittingly breezy groove punctuated with splashes of brass, funky guitar riffs and bass pops dominates "Stoned Soul Picnic," as Nyro's complementarily easy-going vocals recommend time to Surry down to a stoned soul picnic / There'll be lots of time and wine / Red-yellow honey, sassafras and moonshine. The low-key idealism found new life with another Nyro cover by the 5th Dimension, who charted at Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100 with their version in the summer of 1968.
Another song from the Nyro catalog that was recorded by the 5th Dimension (included on their 1970 album, Portrait), "Save The Country" was also featured on Nyro's New York Tendaberry album, released in 1969. Nyro once explained that she wasn't pleased with the song when she first wrote it, only when she began singing it in a lower register did it resonate with her. With its expressive gospel flourishes – including the uplifting coda – Nyro crafted a stunning American spiritual that in many ways reflected her reverence for Billie Holiday, who Nyro called "the great mother-musician-teacher of the art of phrasing."
As the title suggests, "Mercy on Broadway" found Nyro gravitating toward her love of the stage, crafting a two-minute micro-suite with a distinct theatrical quality. The track opens with Nyro on the piano then evolves with chorus-laden passages, horns, sound effects and hand claps in an idiosyncratic motif that included the songwriter's assertion: On Broadway, jive and pray / There ain't no mercy now on Broadway.
Nyro described the title track of her third studio album as having emerged during a "very wild time of exploration" to Paul Zollo in an interview with SongTalk, the quarterly publication of the National Academy of Songwriters. Accordingly, "New York Tendaberry" was a deeply emotive arrangement, with moments of absolute silence braced against a piano as the sole accompaniment to Nyro's soothing vocal harmonies that carried a lyrical portrait of city life: Sweet kids in hunger slums / Firecrackers break / And they cross / And they dust / And they skate / And the night comes.
A pop song penned by the songwriting duo of Teddy Randazzo and Bob Weinsten, along with Lou Stallman, and a 1965 R&B hit for the Royalettes, "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" was a highlight of Nyro's 1971 release, Gonna Take a Miracle. The album of soul and R&B covers pulled from Nyro's formative years in the New York City and was produced by the dynamic production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. With backing vocals by trio Labelle, "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" demonstrated the expressive power of Nyro's voice and her skillful, sympathetic handling of the material that had so inspired her.
After a five year break following the release of Gonna Take a Miracle, Nyro returned in 1976 with Smile. On "Midnite Blue," Nyro used a smokey, jazzy groove as the centerpiece of an arrangement where her vocals were simultaneoulsy tender and forceful. Lyrically, "Midnite Blue" offered some of Nyro's most vivid imagery: There's smoke in the kitchen, shrimps curled / The sun on black velvet and high stars / At the bottom of the world / Smile all you want / But you know that I'm fine in the warm hands of midnite blue.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum assistant curator Meredith Rutledge-Borger discusses the handwritten lyrics of Laura Nyro's "And When I Die."
Donovan shares his impressions of Laura Nyro and others.
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