I first heard Laura Nyro’s songs the way many of us who weren’t quite in our teens did in 1968. The 5th Dimension scored a hit in June of that year with “Stoned Soul Picnic,” a song Nyro had written for her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, which Columbia Records had released in March. The 5th Dimension weren’t really hip, and the single stuck out on AM radio as something your parents would like. A year later, they dented the charts again with “Wedding Bell Blues,” a song from Nyro’s 1967 debut album, More Than a New Discovery.
Other artists -- Barbara Streisand, Three Dog Night, and Blood, Sweat & Tears -- also scored hits with Laura Nyro songs, in covers that charted higher than her own singles. Between 1968 and 1970, a remarkable number of her songs were in the top 40. In addition to “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” The 5th Dimension enjoyed success with “Blowing Away,” “Save the Country,” and “Sweet Blindness.” BS&T got to No.2 on the charts with “And When I Die,” and Three Dog Night hit number 10 with “Eli’s Coming.” Barbara Streisand charted with a version of “Stoney End” that became the title track of her next album, which included two more Nyro songs.
What’s most notable about those covers is how bland most of them are, compared to Nyro’s original recordings. The 5th Dimension and Three Dog Night softened the songs’ edges, which made them more palatable to AM listeners. By far the worst cover of any of her songs was done by Blood, Sweat & Tears. The band’s arrangement of “And When I Die” lacks any subtlety or emotional understanding of the song, and David Clayton Thomas’s ham-handed vocal confirms his standing as one of the worst singers ever to stand behind a mike.
Songs that sounded slickly commercial in those hit versions are so much more than that in Nyro’s own, more personal performances. A mezzo-soprano with an impressive three-octave range, she wrote songs with harmonically rich and complex chord changes. Her pianistic skills were formidable, and were the basis for the arrangements on her recordings. Nyro embraced older pop-music traditions that were already going out of fashion in the late 1960s, and it was those qualities that allowed her songs, in watered-down form, to be made into AM radio hits.
Laura Nyro was born to Gilda and Lou Nigro in 1947, and grew up in the Bronx. Her mother was a bookkeeper and music lover, especially of opera and classical music, and her father was a piano tuner and trumpet player. There was a piano in her parents’ apartment, and Laura taught herself to play. She attended Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art, and listened to a dizzying variety of music that included everything from Leontyne Price, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis to Motown, Bacharach and David, and Bob Dylan to Debussy and Ravel.
Nyro began composing songs when she was eight years old, and in high school sang in subway stations and on street corners with friends. In 1966, she auditioned for record executives Artie Mogull and Paul Barry, and Mogull got her signed to Verve Folkways. By that time, she was using Nyro as her surname, after trying a few others, and it stayed. She recorded her debut for the label in 1966, and Verve released More Than a New Discovery in February 1967. Nyro was just 19. By the time of the album’s appearance, Peter, Paul & Mary had recorded one of its songs, “And When I Die.”
More Than a New Discovery was the work of a songwriter who had already absorbed Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, early-’60s soul, and gospel. Nyro’s chord changes were often close to what was more typical of jazz composition, and her lyrics showed a mature understanding of life. Producer Milt Okun hired Herb Bernstein to write the arrangements, and Bernstein brought in a number of New York’s best session players to accompany Nyro, including guitarist Jay Berliner (who would play on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in 1968).
When Columbia reissued More Than a New Discovery in 1973 as The First Songs, it closed the album with “And When I Die,” originally the third song on side 1. It does make for a stronger ending than the original final cut, “California Shoeshine Boys,” especially as it follows 11 songs that were unusually mature and sophisticated for a 19-year-old. Nyro had written “And When I Die” two years earlier; it begins with her slowly singing the chorus, accompanied by organ and horns:
And when I die
and when I’m dead and gone
there’ll be one child born
and a world to carry on
Nyro sings the first three words calmly in the almost funereal opening, then hits die with more volume and emphasis, sustaining word and note. She continues by then stressing dead, but diminuendos on dead and gone to lead into the next, hopeful line, while the next line is sung and played at a much faster tempo. Nyro’s piano sets the pace with flavors of gospel, show tunes, and Tin Pan Alley, and as she moves into the verses, Nyro sings emphatically and confidently:
I’m not scared of dyin’
and I don’t really care
if it’s peace you find in dyin’
Well then let the time be near
if it’s peace you find in dyin’
When dying time is here
just bundle up my coffin
cause it’s cold way down there
I hear that it’s cold way down there
yeah crazy cold way down there
The first time she sings “cold way down there” she adds a vocal shiver. It feels neither contrived nor silly, and she continues the verse as firm statement of fact. “And When I Die” takes in the complexities of life (“My troubles are many / they’re deep as a well”), the unknowns of the life beyond (“I swear there ain’t no heaven / and I pray there ain’t no hell”), and hope in the circle of life, as expressed in the chorus. This song is the work of a young artist reaching far beyond her years to express something wise and philosophical.
“And When I Die” is also a good example of how Nyro’s songs are more sublime and meaningful when she sings them herself, while sounding merely well crafted when performed by others. The arrangement of The 5th Dimension’s cover of “Wedding Bell Blues,” also from this album, is more ornate but not radically different from Herb Bernstein’s for Nyro, and lead singer Marilyn McCoo hits the right notes. But Nyro’s piano has more gospel swing, Bernstein’s well-crafted chart cradles her voice, and she gives herself to the song fully. The lyrics convey feelings of romantic longing and frustration and, more than any other song on the album, this one relies on old-fashioned musical values of melody and structure. But as well stated as these sentiments are, Nyro lifts this performance above them.
Other songs on the album are lyrically deeper and more daring than “Wedding Bell Blues,” but each one is sold by Nyro’s emotional directness and the intensity of her singing. Despite modest sales, More Than a New Discovery firmly established her, and Mogull arranged for her to begin making live performances shortly after its release, including a one-month stint at San Francisco’s Hungry i and a few TV appearances.
In June 1967, Nyro appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival. Early on, rumors spread that her performance there was a failure that earned her boos. But Nyro sounds terrific in the 2002 DVD release of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Monterey Pop, and she commands the stage in a segment of “Wedding Bell Blues” and a full performance of “Poverty Train.” No one boos, but somehow Nyro was convinced she’d flopped.
Shortly afterward, David Geffen took over Nyro’s management and signed her to Columbia Records, and in January 1968, in New York, she began recording her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. She co-produced the album with Charlie Calello, who wrote the arrangements and, to play them, brought in such session players as guitarist Hugh McCracken, bassist Chuck Rainey, and saxophonists Zoot Sims and Joe Farrell. The songs took in matters of life and death, good and evil, wine and other mind-altering substances, feminism and sex -- at Nyro’s request, a perfumed lyric sheet was included.
The first track, “Luckie,” begins with Nyro smoothly hitting high notes as she sings, “Yes I’m ready.” Tempos and moods change quickly, Nyro’s voice easily negotiating the equally fast shifts between falsetto and full voice. “Luckie” tells the story of a struggle with the Devil (“Well there’s an avenue / of Devil who / believe in stone”), who’s going to be vanquished by Luckie, who could be a person or a state of mind:
Oh Luckie’s takin over
and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
cause Luckie’s taking over
and what Luckie says
“Luckie” travels through moments of defiance, passion -- in the closing lines, Nyro sounds as if she eagerly awaits meeting Luckie, her lover -- swagger, and more. In precisely three minutes a story unfolds, its meanings brought forth in the song’s sudden but emotionally logical transitions and in the unique qualities of Nyro’s singing.
A distorted guitar note introduces “Poverty Train,” Nyro immediately intoning “last call for the poverty train.” The first verse picks up tempo, and the richness of imagery is matched by evocative shifts in the arrangement. Nyro balances rocking, gospel-driven verses with quieter sections to capture the downsides of urban poverty -- squalor, despair, drug use -- in a few vivid lines:
It looks good and dirty
on Shiny light strip
and if you don’t get beat
you got yourself a trip
You can see the walls roar
see your brains on the floor
why was I born
The Devil reappears, an embodiment of the evil that leads to the darkness Nyro describes. Drugs are one escape, as Nyro sings in lines that sound sad and defeated, Joe Farrell’s haunting flute adding to their power:
I swear there’s somethin better than
gettin off on sweet cocaine
it feels so good
it feels so good
getting off the poverty train
Nyro’s poetic voice on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is stronger, but often less direct and more impressionistic, than on her debut. Here she takes as her subjects romantic longing (“Lonely Women,” “Woman’s Blues”), sensuality and love (“The Confession”), and letting the moment carry her away, helped by a little wine (“Sweet Blindness,” “Stoned Soul Picnic”). A single song can traverse a series of feelings: “Eli’s Comin’” goes from fear to anticipation to a complex resignation. While Nyro believes in the power of love -- the album’s closing line is “Love is surely gospel” -- there’s a strong feminist undercurrent in the lyrics, and in the headlong bravery with which Nyro tackles these songs.
Nyro spent nearly a year, September 1968 to July 1969, recording her third album, New York Tendaberry, this time coproducing with Roy Halee, who produced and engineered albums by Simon and Garfunkel. Though Nyro is credited with the album’s arrangements, Jimmie Haskell wrote the string and horn charts. This album is quieter than its predecessors. In some of the strongest tracks Nyro is accompanied by only her piano, but the fuller arrangements on many others, such as “Captain for dark mornings,” leave her piano and voice to do the work. According to David Fricke’s liner notes for a 2002 reissue, Halee wanted “to record just Laura and the piano. Because she was a great piano player . . .”
Most of “Save the Country” is arranged for just Nyro’s voice and piano, but other instruments, especially brasses, come in later to fill out the arrangement. This is Nyro at her most overtly gospel, and the song is an attempt to heal a country reeling from two assassinations and much unrest in 1968. The Devil makes another appearance, but “gonna lay the devil down.” The other songs on New York Tendaberry are Nyro’s love letter to the city that embodied so many of her themes: love and romance, beauty and ugliness, light and dark, the struggle between good and evil.
Nyro handed over the production of her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970), to Felix Cavaliere, of the Rascals, and Arif Mardin, but again had a strong hand in the arrangements. She recorded half the album with New York session musicians, joined by the Rascals’ Dino Danelli on drums. For the other half of the record, the producers brought in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Duane Allman. Not surprisingly, the sessions with the Muscle Shoals group emphasize Nyro’s soul-music influences. The eight songs she wrote for this album, and a cover of Goffin-King’s “Up On the Roof,” show her inspiration and talent undiminished.
For her fifth album, Gonna Take a Miracle (1971), Nyro covered ten soul and R&B songs from the 1950s and ’60s, with backing vocals by Labelle, a trio comprising Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff produced, and Nyro recorded it at Sigma Sound, in Philadelphia. Nyro not only demonstrated how much such songs as “Spanish Harlem,” “The Bells,” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” influenced her, she made them her own.
Nyro didn’t record again for five years, returning in 1976 with Smile, on which she seemed to be trying to sound like Joni Mitchell. Nyro sounds herself again on Nested (1978), which is centered on themes of motherhood, romance, and the mixed fortunes of the music business. After another long gap, Nyro returned with Mother’s Spiritual (1984), this time focusing on politics and environmental issues. Nine years later came Walk the Dog & Light the Light (1993), which added animal rights to her concerns.
What those albums lack is the sense of bravery and adventure that marked Nyro’s first five. When Elton John appeared on Elvis Costello’s television interview show, Spectacle, in 2008, both spoke of their love for Nyro. “I idolized her,” John said; “the soul, the passion -- just the out-and-out audacity . . . was like nothing I’d heard before.” The albums Laura Nyro recorded after 1971 were well crafted, with good melodies and pleasing chord changes; each has moments that make it worth hearing, mainly because her singing and writing voices remained strong and clear. But they lacked that audacity.
Roy Halee caught that sense of the unexpected when, in the liner note to a reissue of New York Tendaberry, he described working with Nyro: “there was no straight time,” he said. “It was all rubato. She would slow down and speed up, totally by feel.” In 1995, when she recorded her final album, Angel in the Dark (released in 2001), Nyro seemed to have regained the ability to let her music flow easily. The album is intimate, the predominant instrument is her piano, and she lets her voice go where it takes her. In 1996, Nyro helped oversee Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro, a two-CD compilation of her work released by Columbia in February 1997. On April 8, 1997, Laura Nyro died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49. Her mother, Gilda, had died of the same disease in 1975, also at 49.
Over the years, many musicians have spoken of their admiration for Laura Nyro and her influence on them. Todd Rundgren was so impressed by her songwriting that he left his first group, Nazz -- her work had moved him to change his own approach, and his first solo album, Runt (1970), included a tribute to Nyro. Joni Mitchell, in a 1998 interview for Mojo, said, “Laura Nyro you can lump me in with, because Laura exerted an influence on me. I looked to her and took some direction from her.” Rickie Lee Jones shows an especially strong Nyro streak on her Pirates (1981) and The Magazine (1984). Musicians as diverse as Exene Cervenka, Bette Midler, and Suzanne Vega have expressed their affection for Nyro’s work.
Todd Rundgren, who eventually played synths and assisted in the production of Mother’s Spiritual, told one interviewer, “But beyond the elements of her composition, I always thought it was the way she played her own material that really sold it. Nobody ever did a cover version of a Laura Nyro song that was as good as her original version.” When The 5th Dimension sings “red yellow honey / Sassafras and moonshine,” in “Stoned Soul Picnic,” it sounds clever and upbeat. When Nyro sings it, she evokes the glories of nature, a sense that something grand and wondrous lurks in ordinary moments.
It can take time to fully appreciate Laura Nyro. I was in my 20s when a friend gave me a copy of New York Tendaberry. I already owned copies of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat and liked them both, but somehow, hearing New York Tendaberry at that moment in my life, and going back to listen again to those other two albums, led me to the realization that her music was transcendent. As with the best singer-songwriters of her time -- e.g., Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan -- Nyro’s songs, in Nyro’s voice and hands, carry meanings beyond what’s in the melodies and lyrics.
Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro is a good place to start, but really, every one of her first four albums is essential. Depending on my mood, I may favor one or another, but I think Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is her finest moment, with New York Tendaberry very close behind. In some ways, More Than a New Discovery and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat feel like attempts to impose some order on the occasional anarchic strains of her genius, but she ends up triumphing, and that tension creates its own magic. And Gonna Take a Miracle completes the first five, glorious years of her recording career.
Laura Nyro’s music sounds best on vinyl. Even the 2002 CD reissues are a bit edgy on top, though overall they sound pretty good. The First Songs, Columbia’s reissue of More Than a New Discovery, adds some reverb, so try to track down the original. Several CD compilations are available, but Stoned Soul Picnic presents a 34-track overview of her entire career.
These days when I listen to Laura Nyro, the experience can be bittersweet, perhaps because she died young. That tragedy is overshadowed by the brilliance and boldness of her music. As I finished this piece, I pulled my copy of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession from the record shelf. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think I can still smell a hint of perfume on the lyric sheet.
. . . Joseph Taylor