The Art of Laura Nyro:
Sony has recently released digitally remastered CDs of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry and Gonna Take a Miracle, three of Laura Nyro's most acclaimed albums. In celebration of that event, I offer a brief consideration of the performing and recording career of this most singular artist.
Born Laura Nigro in the Bronx in 1947, Laura Nyro was a quintessentially New York artist. She grew up in a musical household; her father was a trumpet player and piano tuner, her mother a classical music lover, especially of opera and impressionistic composers. But her talent and performance style germinated and flourished in the city's fertile musical compost of soul, blues, jazz, R&B, Brill Building pop and folk music. A musically precocious teenager, Laura and might be playing a school event one night and singing street-corner doo-wop the next.
At 17, Nyro made her first album, More Than a New Discovery, for Verve/Folkways. In 1968, her first Columbia record, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, launched a four-year burst of inspired productivity. Following Eli came New York Tendaberry (1969), Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970) and Gonna Take a Miracle (1971). Those records, together with her reissued debut album, now titled The First Songs (1973), still define Nyro as an artist for most critics and listeners. All of them showcase her songwriting -- except for Miracle. On that inspired collaboration with the vocal group Labelle, produced by "Philadelphia Sound" impresarios Gamble & Huff, Laura affectionately honored the soul music that so influenced her own work. Miracle was the only Nyro album to make the Top 40, reaching No. 30 on the album chart.
As a performer she attracted a relatively small, but passionate and loyal following. But many of Nyro’s songs became big hits for others, among them "And When I Die" first for Peter, Paul & Mary and then Blood, Sweat & Tears; "Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Blowin' Away," "Sweet Blindness" and "Save the Country" for The Fifth Dimension; "Eli's Comin'" for Three Dog Night; "Stoney End" for Barbra Streisand. Dozens of artists, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Chet Atkins to Maynard Ferguson to Rosanne Cash, have recorded her songs. Laura Nyro was the most prolific and original songwriter of the early 1970's.
The very qualities that made Nyro so singular an artist also worked against her reaching greater commercial success as a performer. Although her records were well produced, she became notorious for her uncompromising insistence on doing things her way. She followed always her personal vision, disdaining the notion of doing anything with an eye to mass appeal.
There is an anecdote that testifies both to the uniqueness and power of Nyro's art and the respect with which other musicians regarded her work. While making New York Tendaberry, Nyro asked Miles Davis to sit in on some songs. Davis came to the studio and sat quietly, listening intently as Laura played and sang the songs she had written for the album. At the end of the session, Miles and in from told her, "I can't play on this album, because you've already done it."
Taking off from her assertively rhythmic piano, Nyro's vocals are as unique today as thirty years ago. Her aesthetic has little to do with charm or seductiveness, although she can be ravishingly intimate in quieter songs such as "Emmie." She is urgent, exuberant, even brassy -- veering from joyousness to heartbreak, taking her vocals where few dare go -- emotion and expressiveness at any cost, and damn the commercial torpedoes.
Nyro's take-no-prisoners approach to her music doesn't work for everyone. What a fan calls urgency and emotional directness can sound mannered, even strident to the less enchanted. Especially in conjunction with her frequently complicated, sometimes obscurely poetic lyrics, Laura's singing can seem overwhelming. Although I admire her greatly, I am not likely to just slap on one of her albums on the spur of the moment. Laura Nyro is not easy listening.
Following those shooting-star early years, Nyro seemed to bank her creative fire. She performed much less frequently, and did not record again until Smile (1976), which was generally described as uninspired compared to her earlier, more volatile work. It does present a more mature and reserved, less audacious writer and performer than the young Laura, but it is a fine, underrated album. Nyro followed Smile in 1977 with Season of Lights, compiled from a tour, and Nested (1978), which again received lukewarm reviews. According to contemporary comments [I have never managed to hear the album], Nested shows Nyro becoming more overtly political.
There is an oft-repeated story -- sometimes by Nyro herself -- that she was booed off the stage by the stoner audience at the legendary 1972 Monterey Pop Festival. Some have speculated that the trauma of that experience hastened her withdrawal from her career. But documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker claims to have evidence on film that the booing never happened. He says that although she was frustrated by a bad backup band, Nyro played her full set without incident and was warmly applauded.
According to close friends, Nyro withdrew for two reasons. She had married and had a son, and she wanted to be a mother to him. But she was also offended and dismayed by the crassness and venality of the music business. She had always valued her personal privacy, and that preference grew stronger in her later years, when she began a lesbian partnership that lasted until her death. Within that extrovert performer, it seems, dwelled always a still fragile sensibility.
Mother's Spiritual (1984) is quite ideological, reflecting Nyro's passion for women's and animal rights issues. Those concerns are further expressed on Walk the Dog and Light the Light (1993). Walk also contains her studio version of the protest song "Broken Rainbow," written for an Oscar-winning documentary on the forced relocation of the Navajo people. Nyro had first recorded the song on the 1989 Laura Live at the Bottom Line, on the Cypress label.
Walk was Nyro's final original album for Columbia, and it is a lovely piece of work. It shares with all of her recordings beginning with Smile a more relaxed and intimate performance style than in her early work. Moreover, her voice grew progressively deeper and warmer as a she grew older. In 2000, Rounder Records issued a final collection of studio tracks entitled Angel in the Dark. This combination of affectionate covers and eight last original songs is well worth hearing, and essential for Nyro fans.
Nyro's Columbia albums are all available on CD, except for Nested. Season of Lights and Mother's Spiritual are obtainable only on pricey imports. Typically for early digital transfers, the first-generation Columbia CDs sound rather glassy and thin compared to the original LPs -- which are hard to find in good condition these days. The newly remastered Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry and Gonna Take a Miracle sound notably warmer, with much better low-end presence, than their digital predecessors. These new issues also offer the bonus of previously unpublished live and demo tracks, and are definitely the ones to get for those titles.
For someone newly approaching Laura Nyro, there are good alternatives to the original albums. Sony/Columbia has released two collections: Time and Love: The Essential Masters offers 16 remastered songs, concentrating on Nyro's best-known early work. More balanced and comprehensive is Stoned Soul Picnic, a 2-CD "Best of" selected by Laura herself and covering the full span of her career.
To complement the studio recordings, I highly recommend two additional live recordings: Live from Mountain Stage (Blue Plate Music), a short (30 minute) but very touching set recorded for public radio; and Laura Nyro Live: The Loom's Desire (Rounder, 2002), a 2-CD set documenting her final two concerts, in New York on the Christmas Eves of 1993 and 1994. These intimate, inspiring performances are especially poignant when we realize that shortly thereafter Laura would be diagnosed with the ovarian cancer that took her life in 1997.
Laura Nyro deserves our admiration, not only for her incandescent talent but also for her respect for her audience and passionate artistic integrity. More than anyone -- save perhaps Joni Mitchell -- she established the female singer/songwriter genre. She is the spiritual mother of Rickie Lee Jones, Sarah McLachlan Suzanne Vega, et al., and her own music blazes as brightly as ever in today's murky miasma of pop "product."