The song ‘Stoney End’ was my entry point to the sweet sound of Laura Nyro. How and where I heard it is lost in the fog of distant times, but its impact was immediate. Her strong vocal performance teamed with the Soul/Jazz/Gospel blend of music, caught my ear at the time when I was investigating other performers on a similar tip, names like Mary McCready and Joni Mitchell. So Laura fitted in very nicely.
There was a lot going on in her music and I was not surprised to read in an interview a few years later, her say ‘when I was about 14 or 15, I guess, John Coltrane and Miles Davis were happening. The music was just so great. Doo-wop and soul music. And even folk music was really happening. There was such a great cross-section of music that you could tune into. You didn’t have to find this special station for it. It was all over the place.’
She was certainly soaking it up.
She was born Laura Nigro in October 1947 in the Bronx, daughter of father Louis a jazz trumpeter and piano tuner when things were a little quiet on the gig front, and mother Gilda, who worked as a bookkeeper. The family were of Russian/Polish Jewish stock with Italian in the mix going further back.
Schooling seems to have been a hit and miss for Laura and most of her education came from time spent at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. She was quite solitary, but appeared ok with that
‘I created my own little world, a world of music, since I was five years old. I was never a bright and happy child.’
Needs must meant she taught herself to read and write poetry and to play the piano from the age of 8. She also consumed the music from her mother’s record collection and from hearing her dad play jazz at gigs in the Catskill resorts. She composed her first musical output around the same age and then attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan.
She sang ‘Doo Wop’ on street corners, enjoying the harmonies created and she was also socially aware. She became very involved in the peace campaigns of that era, along with the emerging women’s movement.
In 1967 Artie Mogull and his partner Paul Barry became her first managers, and it was around this time she began to adopt the surname Nyro (pronounced Nero). She signed to the label Verve Folkway and set about recording her first album, ‘More Than a New Discovery’. Recorded in July 1966, it did no real business sales wise, but contained songs such as ‘Stoney End’ and ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ which were very quickly covered, successfully, by the likes of Blood Sweat & Tears, Barbara Streisand & The 5th Dimension. Her name was on the musical map.
She went on the road aged 19 in the same year and though suffering from crippling stage fright, she performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in the June of that year. David Geffen became her new manager and he signed her up to a new record deal with Colombia Records.
‘She was a very strange girl. But she was among the most talented people I’ve ever seen in my life.’ he said later
In 1968, she released her second album ‘Eli and The Thirteenth Confession’ using her new deal with Clive Davis at Columbia to stretch out artistically. It was orchestrated by old studio sweat, Charlie Calello, a New York studio pro who had helped make countless pop hits. He later said ‘I thought the record would make history because it came from a special place. I knew it was the best music I had ever done.’
Next up was ‘New York Tendaberry’ from 1969 with tunes such as ‘Save the Country’ and ‘Time and Love’ again, proving to be very popular with other artists. That same year, Laura preformed at Carnegie Hall.
1970 saw the release of ‘Christmas and the Beads of Sweat ‘, which featured musicians from the celebrated Muscle Shoals studio, and produced by Arif Mardin. A covers album, ‘Gonna Take a Miracle’ was next, seen as a tribute to the music she grew up with, under the production skills of Gamble and Huff and recorded with the group LaBelle.
Laura married Vietnam vet David Bianchini in 1971 and moved to rural Massachusetts (her bi-sexuality then only known to a select few). Quickly becoming uncomfortable with her perceived celebrity status, she turned her back on the music business at just 24.
‘When I was very young, everything happened so quickly for me. I hadn’t really contemplated being famous. I was writing music, I was just involved in the art of it at that young age. Then, when it all happened, I didn’t know how to handle it.’
Her marriage ended in 1976, and now a few years on, she was back with new material for the album ‘Smile’. She also got back on the road. She released ‘Nested’ in 1978, and then became pregnant with her son Gil. She took a break again until 1984, when she came back once again with ‘Mothers Spiritual.’
‘I may bring a certain feminist perspective to my song writing, because that’s how I see life.’
Her final album was ‘Walk the Dog and Light the Light’ in 1993 and she appeared at the Union Chapel in Islington in London in 1994.
In 1996, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and sadly died aged just 49 in April 1997, with her mother succumbing to the very same disease at the very same age.
Gone then, but not forgotten as her legion of fans, such as Todd Rundgren, Jackson Browne, Bette Midler, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello and Elton John, who said ‘I idolised her. 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.’
If you haven’t heard the work of Laura Nyro, I urge you to change that as soon as you can. You can thank me later.
The Mumper of SE5
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