Laura Nyro

 

Laura Nyro /ˈnɪər/ NEAR-oh (October 18, 1947 – April 8, 1997) was an American songwriter, singer, and pianist. She achieved critical acclaim with her own recordings, particularly the albums Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry, and had commercial success with artists such as Barbra Streisand and The 5th Dimension recording her songs. Her style was a hybrid of Brill Building-style New York pop, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, show tunes, rock and soul.[1]

Between 1968 and 1970, a number of artists had hits with her songs: The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues“, “Stoned Soul Picnic“, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save The Country” and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die“; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with “Eli’s Coming”; and Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love”, and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man)”. Nyro’s best-selling single was her recording of Carole King and Gerry Goffin‘s “Up on the Roof.”[1]

On April 14, 2012, Laura Nyro was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. [2][3]

Early life

Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Gilda Mirsky Nigro, a bookkeeper, and Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. Laura had a younger brother, Jan Nigro. Laura was of Russian Jewish and Italian ancestry.[4] As a child, she taught herself piano, read poetry, and listened to her mother’s records by Leontyne Price, Billie Holiday and classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy. She composed her first songs at age eight. With her family, she spent summers in the Catskill Mountains, where her father played the trumpet at resorts. She credited the Sunday school at the New York Society for Ethical Culture with providing the basis of her education; she also attended Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art.[5]

Nyro was very close to her aunt and uncle, the artists Theresa Bernstein and William Meyerowitz, who helped to support her education and early career.

While in high school, she sang with a group of friends in subway stations and on street corners. She said, “I would go out singing, as a teenager, to a party or out on the street, because there were harmony groups there, and that was one of the joys of my youth.”[6] Among her favorite musicians were John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Curtis Mayfield, Van Morrison, and girl groups such as The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Shirelles. She also commented: “I was always interested in the social consciousness of certain songs. My mother and grandfather were progressive thinkers, so I felt at home in the peace movement and the women’s movement, and that has influenced my music.”[6]

Early career

Her father’s work brought him into contact with record company executive Artie Mogull (1927–2004),[7] who auditioned Laura in 1966 and became her first manager. However, Louis Nigro claims that he “not even once” mentioned Laura to any of his clients, adding “they would have laughed at me if I did.”[4] As a teenager she experimented with using different names, and Nyro (NEAR-oh) was the one she was using at the time. She sold her song “And When I Die” to Peter, Paul and Mary for $5,000, and made her first extended professional appearance, at age 18, singing at the “hungry i” coffeehouse in San Francisco. Mogull negotiated her a recording contract, and she recorded her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, for the Verve Folkways label. The album provided material for other artists, notably the 5th Dimension.

In 1967, Nyro made only her second major live appearance, at the Monterey Pop Festival. Although some accounts described her performance as a fiasco that culminated in her being booed off the stage,[8] recordings later made public contradict this view.[5]

Soon afterwards, David Geffen approached Mogull about taking over as her agent. Nyro successfully sued to void her management and recording contracts on the grounds that she had entered into them while still a minor. Geffen became her manager, and the two established a publishing company, Tuna Fish Music, under which the proceeds from her future compositions would be divided equally between them. Geffen also arranged Nyro’s new recording contract with Clive Davis at Columbia Records, and purchased the publishing rights to her early compositions. In his memoir Clive: Inside the Record Business, Davis recalled Nyro’s audition for him: she’d invited him to her New York apartment, turned off every light except that of a television set next to her piano, and played him the material that would become Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Around this time, Nyro considered becoming lead singer for Blood, Sweat & Tears, after the departure of founder Al Kooper, but was dissuaded by Geffen. However, BS&T would go on to have a hit with a cover of “And When I Die.”

The new contract allowed Nyro more artistic freedom and control. In 1968, Columbia released Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, her second album. This received high critical praise for the depth and sophistication of the performance and arrangements, which merged pop structure with inspired imagery, rich vocals and avant-garde jazz, and is widely considered to be one of her best works. It was followed in 1969 by New York Tendaberry, another highly acclaimed work which cemented Nyro’s artistic credibility. The record’s “Time and Love” and “Save the Country” emerged as two of her most well-regarded and popular songs in the hands of other artists. Her own recordings sold mostly to a cult audience. This prompted Clive Davis, in his memoir, to note that her recordings, as solid as they were, came to resemble demonstrations for other performers.

Her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, was issued at the end of 1970. The set contained the songs “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp” and “When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag”. It featured Duane Allman and other Muscle Shoals musicians. The following year’s Gonna Take a Miracle was an album of her favorite “teenage heartbeat songs”, recorded with vocal group Labelle (Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) and the production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. With the exception of her attribution of the song “Désiree” (originally “Deserie” by The Charts), this was Nyro’s sole album of wholly non-original material, featuring such songs as “Jimmy Mack“, “Nowhere to Run“, and “Spanish Harlem“.

By this time (1971) Nyro was married, to carpenter David Bianchini. She was also reportedly uncomfortable with attempts to market her as a celebrity and she announced her retirement from the music business at the age of 24.

In 1973, her Verve debut album was acquired and reissued by Columbia as The First Songs.

Later career

By 1976, her marriage had ended, and she returned with an album of new material, Smile. She then embarked on a four-month tour with a full band, which resulted in the 1977 live album Season of Lights.

After the 1978 album Nested, recorded when she was pregnant with her only child, she again took a break from recording, this time until 1984’s Mother’s Spiritual. She began touring with a band in 1988, her first concert appearances in 10 years. The tour was dedicated to the animal rights movement. The shows led to her 1989 release, Laura: Live at the Bottom Line, which included six new compositions.

Her final album of predominantly original material was Walk the Dog and Light the Light (1993), her last album for Columbia, which was co-produced by Gary Katz, best known for his work with Steely Dan. This sparked reappraisal of her place in popular music, and new commercial offers began to appear. She turned down lucrative film-composing offers, although she contributed a rare protest song to the Academy Award-winning documentary “Broken Rainbow“, about the unjust relocation of the Navajo people.

Nyro appeared at the 1989 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and performed in the 1980s and 1990s with female musicians. Among them was Nydia “Liberty” Mata, a popular drummer well known in the lesbian-feminist women’s music subculture. On October 27, 1997, a large-scale tribute concert was produced by women at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Performers included Sandra Bernhard, Toshi Reagon, and Phoebe Snow.

Both The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman staffs heavily pursued Nyro for a TV appearance during this period, yet she turned them down as well, citing her discomfort with appearing on television (she made only a handful of early TV appearances and one fleeting moment on VH-1 performing the title song from “Broken Rainbow” on Earth Day in 1990). She never released an official video, although there was talk of filming some Bottom Line appearances in the 1990s. On July 4, 1991, she opened for Bob Dylan at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.[9]

Personal life

She had a relationship with singer/songwriter Jackson Browne in late 1970 to early 1971.

Nyro married Vietnam War veteran David Bianchini in 1972 after a whirlwind romance and spent the next three years living with him in a small town in Massachusetts. The marriage ended after three years, during which time she grew accustomed to the country life as opposed to the city life where she had recorded her first five records.

She had one son, Gil Bianchini, also known as musician Gil-T, from a short-lived relationship with an Indian man named Harindra Singh, but gave him the surname of her ex-husband.

In 1975, Nyro split from Bianchini and also suffered the trauma of the death of her mother Gilda to ovarian cancer at the age of 49; Laura herself died from the same disease at the same age two decades later. She consoled herself largely by recording a new album, enlisting Charlie Calello, with whom she had collaborated on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.

In the early 1980s, Laura began living with painter Maria Desiderio (1954–1999),[10] a relationship that lasted 17 years, the rest of Laura’s life.

Death

In 1996, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After the diagnosis, Columbia Records prepared a double-disc CD retrospective of material from her years at the label. The company involved Nyro herself, who selected the tracks and approved the final project. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro (1997), and was reportedly pleased with the outcome.

Nyro died of ovarian cancer in Danbury, Connecticut, on April 8, 1997, at 49, the age at which the same disease had claimed the life of her mother.

Nyro’s influence on popular musicians has also been acknowledged by such artists as Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Elton John, Cyndi Lauper, Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, and Melissa Manchester. Todd Rundgren stated that, once he heard her, he “stopped writing songs like The Who and started writing songs like Laura”.[11] Cyndi Lauper acknowledged that her rendition of song Walk on By, on her Grammy Award-nominated 2003 cover album At Last, was inspired by Nyro.[12] Elton John and Elvis Costello discussed Laura’s influence on both of them during the premiere episode of Costello’s interview show Spectacle on the Sundance channel. When asked by the host if he could name three great performer/songwriters who have largely been ignored, he cited Nyro as one of his choices. John also addressed Nyro’s influence on his 1970 song “Burn Down the Mission“, from Tumbleweed Connection, in particular. “I idolized her,” he concluded. “The soul, the passion, just the out and out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came was like nothing I’ve heard before.” [13]

 

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