Laura Nyro: Finally Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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'In a world of imitators, she was an original.'

Laura Nyro was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Cleveland last week.

Bette Midler choked up as she sang the praises of Nyro, who died 15 years ago this month of complications from ovarian cancer.

“In a world of imitators . . . she was a complete original,” Midler said. “She was an ornament on the Earth.”

Nyro’s son, Gil Bianchini, accepted on her behalf.

“I know it would mean a lot to her,” Bianchini said. “The powerful music she created inspires me and all her fans.”

Donovan, one of this year’s inductees, told “Rolling Stone” magazine, “ A very touching part of this, for me, is the inclusion of the lovely Laura Nyro, who left us too soon, of course. When I was younger, I followed her rise and her extraordinary work. It will be great to see her honored too.” Read more of the interview at Rolling Stone.

Laura Nyro (1947-97) was only 17 years old when she wrote, And When I Die. She sold the song to Peter, Paul and Mary. The folk group recorded it. So did Blood Sweat and Tears and it rose to number two on the pop charts.

Nyro told Paul Zollo about the song’s lyrics:”I think that the song has a certain folk wisdom that teenagers have—under it all. I was reading poetry from the time I was really young. So by the time I started writing songs, I was in a poetic frame of mind about songwriting. I’m not going to say I haven’t gone through my frustrations with writing because I definitely have. Coming from the arts you might identify with someone like Gauguin or any of the painters who really got going with their prime vision when they were in their forties and fifties…In writing I am a free woman. I can do whatever the hell I want and that’s just so appealing.”

Nyro’s appealing songs were heard everywhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Wedding Bell Blues, Stoned Soul Picnic, Sweet Blindness, Save the Country, Blowing Away (recorded by the Fifth Dimension); Eli’s Coming (Three Dog Night); Stony End and Time and Love (Barbara Streisand), to name just a few.

Album cover: More than a DiscoveryJon Pareles in The New York Times described Nyro  this way: “When she released her first album in 1966, Nyro was a nineteen year old who linked high flown poetry to the ecstatic emotions of soul music, and her singing mixed the pure tones of a soprano with the throbs and swoops of gospel and jazz.”

One prominent publication described her as a “blues soprano, a rich charcoal smudged alto, loaded with feeling that seems drawn in equal measure from some private inner cathedral and the doo-wop streets of her youth.” Some of the most moving songs from her albums include Smile, Emmie, Lu, the Confession, Billy’s Blues, and Beads of Sweat.

As a child, Nyro, who was three-quarters Russian Jewish and one-quarter Italian, 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 the age of eight. 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. 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."

Book cover: The Music and Passion of Laura NyroSoulful, expressive music moved her. John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, Dusty Springfield and girl groups such as The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Shirelles were among her favorites. So did songs with a strong message. She loved the protest music of Peter Seeger, Joan Baez, Dylan, the Beatles and Van Morrison.

"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,” she said.

John Soeder in the Plain Dealer recently wrote about Laura Nyro.

He wrote, “Music ‘ was a big part of our family's life,’ said Nyro's younger brother, Jan Nigro, a musician himself who is the director of the Vitamin L youth chorus.

"’Our father was a trumpet player by profession. In our household, we had a lot of music of all different genres being played -- our father's jazz records and our mother's opera records and show tunes. And we had our rock 'n' roll 45s. Those genres and more found their way into Laura's heart and into her writing, eventually.

“‘We took piano lessons. And she was a good singer, even as a little girl. She was a prodigy,’ Nigro said.

"’I think she was 17 when she wrote 'And When I Die.' She was writing songs that were not only crafted at a level that would be brilliant at any age, but also had philosophical depth.

"’I first heard some of these songs being written in our living room. They seemed lovely to me. I thought, 'Wow! These are good!' Eventually, the world thought so, too. They were beyond good."

Album cover: Eli and the Thirteenth ConfessionIn 1968, “she released her magnum opus, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, a freewheeling collection of soul-baring tunes steeped in a range of musical styles.

"It was one of the all-time seminal albums, without a doubt," friend and singer  Janis Ian said.

"’I would point you to the first track, 'Eli's Coming.' There's a transcendence to it. She starts out singing, 'Eli's coming. . . .' Then it pauses and Charlie Calello's orchestration sweeps in. It sets a panoramic stage that's difficult to do in music. It's much more like a painting.’"

Callelo told  Soder, "She lit candles and sat at the piano in a long black dress -- it was very Laura," recalled Calello, a former member of the 4 Seasons who also has worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Eric Carmen to Bruce Springsteen.

"’She played me the whole thing, from beginning to end,’ Calello said.

"’’I sat there on a little couch in utter amazement. . . . I was blown away with the concept and the emotion that she attached to it. And the songs were extraordinary. They weren't like the pop music that was happening at that point."

"’She pulled off some stuff lyrically and vocally that the rest of just can't do. "And she was breaking ground for women at a time when there weren't many of us doing that.’"

According to Soeder, Nyro briefly retired from show biz when she was 24.

"Any time I see a female singer-songwriter, especially sitting at a piano, it's hard for me not to feel that they're part of the chain that pretty much began with Laura, the chain of the female confessional singer-songwriter," Nigro said.

"Her music created a freedom for others to pursue. . . . Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Rosanne Cash and on and on, they've all expressed an indebtedness to Laura."

She inspired plenty of male admirers, too, including Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren. Nyro "was the most innovative artist I've ever worked with," Calello said. You can read the entire article at Cleveland.com.

Screenshot: Laura Nyro performing at the Monterrey Pop FestivalAt age 18, she started to perform in public. Her first gig was at the "hungry i" coffeehouse in San Francisco. In 1967, Nyro appeared in her second major live appearance, at the Monterey Pop Festival (screenshot from performance pictured at left). The legend is that she was booed off the stage, but that turned out to be false.

In 1968 Columbia released her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. This received critical praise for the depth and sophistication of the performance and arrangements, merging inspired imagery, soulful 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 acclaimed work.

It was around that time I saw her perform at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. She was wearing a long white dress, alone on stage at her piano. She did not chat with the audience. For 45 minutes, one soulful song after another filled the room. Then, without a word, she walked off the stage. For a moment, the audience was confused. Then, they realized the performance was over. There was a buzz of excitement and a little bit of awe. She took your breath away and she was gone.

Todd Rundgren of Nazz was a colleague of Nyro’s and admired her music. He told Puremusic.com: ‘ I know for a fact that her influences were the more sophisticated side of R & B, like Jerry Ragovoy and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Carole King. That is Laura Nyro's lineage. She was a source for that, in a sense, and she also had her own very original and very jazz-influenced way of seeing things. It was that extra layer that made her influential. 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.

“I met her right after Eli & The Thirteenth Confession. I actually had arranged a meeting, just because I was so infatuated with her and I wanted to meet the person who had produced all this music. We got along, and we were kind of friendly, and actually, after I met her the first time, she asked me if I wanted to be her band leader. But the Nazz had just signed a record contract and I couldn't skip out on the band, even though it was incredibly tempting.

“Years later, she was having trouble getting into the groove on an album called Mother Spiritual. She had worked with a lot of the old people like Roy Hallee who had helped her get Eli & The Thirteenth Confession recorded. She just wasn't making progress. She was stumped. And we had never worked in the studio together before, but for the purposes of getting her project completed, it worked. I managed to get her into the room and get all the songs recorded. After that, I couldn't really stick around for the mixing part. The pace at which she worked was so slow that I couldn't stick for the duration,” he said.

Album cover: Gonna Take a MiracleIn 1972, she recorded her fifth album, Gonna Take a Miracle, of her favorite soul tunes, recorded with vocal group Labelle (Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) and the production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This was Nyro's sole album of primarily non-original material, featuring such songs as "Jimmy Mack," "Nowhere to Run," "Spanish Harlem," "You Really Got a Hold on Me," and "I Met Him on a Sunday."  However, the world of celebrity made her uncomfortable and she retired from performing in public soon after at age 24. She kept on recording but her albums were not quite as widely  popular as in the past.

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.

Album cover: Stoned Soul Picnic, the best of LAura NyroIn 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, 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.

She wrote to those who enjoyed  the album.“Thank you to the listener for sharing---through music—a dream of heart and soul.”

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

Nyro's life and music were celebrated in a 2005 BBC Radio 2 documentary, "Shooting Star – Laura Nyro Remembered," which was narrated by her friend Bette Midler and included contributions from her one-time manager David Geffen, co-producers Arif Mardin and Gary Katz, and performers Suzanne Vega and Janis Ian. It was rebroadcast on April 4, 2006.

You can enjoy a clip of Laura Nyro from 1967 when she appeared on the Kraft Music Hall to sing "Save the Country."

 

Check out your local library for these resources:

Books

Soul Picnic: the Music and Passion of Laura Nyro
by Michele Kort, (2002).

Laura Nyro : Lyrics & Reminiscences
by Laura Nyro, (2004).

Recordings

1967 - More Than a New Discovery (later reissued as Laura Nyro, 1969, and as The First Songs, 1973)

1968 - Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (reissued and remastered with bonus tracks, 2002, Columbia)

1969 - New York Tendaberry (reissued and remastered with bonus tracks, 2002, Columbia)

1970 - Christmas and the Beads of Sweat March

1971 - Gonna Take a Miracle
with Patti Labelle. (reissued and remastered with bonus tracks, 2002, Columbia)

1976 - Smile

1978 - Nested
(reissued and remastered, 2008)

1984 - Mother's Spiritual

1989 - Laura: Live at the Bottom Line

1993 -Walk the Dog and Light the Light

2000 - Live at Mountain Stage (recorded 1990)

2001 - Angel in the Dark (posthumous album recorded 1994-1995) Live

2004 -Spread Your Wings and Fly: Live at the Fillmore East (May 30, 1971)

 

Online

LauraNyro.com

2010 Award Ceremony - Songwriters Hall of Fame

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