Laura Nyro - Biography
By J Poet
Laura Nyro’s innovative hybrid of R&B, folk, pop, blues and jazz made her on of the iconic figures of the 60s, and while her songs found more commercial success with other artists, her unique performing style marked her as a true original. She had an uncomfortable relationship with fame, but when she was on stage she gave transcendent performances. She recorded infrequently, but her nine studio albums are all classics. The naked emotional approach she brought to her singing and songwriting paved the way for generations of female singers and songwriters.
Nyro was born as Laura Nigro in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. She taught herself to play piano before she was in high school and loved poetry, classical music, opera and the blues, in particular the singing of Billie Holiday. She wrote her first songs when she was eight and attended the High School of Music and Art, the school later featured in the film Fame.
As a teenager in the early 60s, she sang do wop on New York street corners with her friends and soaked up the sounds of John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Curtis Mayfield, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Shirelles. Her father knew Artie Mogull, who became Nyro’s first manager. (She changed her name in high school.) When she was 17, she wrote her first hit “And When I Die,” and sold it to Peter, Paul and Mary for $5,000. Although she disliked performing, she let Mogull book her into San Francisco’s hungy i for a two month residency. He also negotiated the record deal that led to More Than a New Discovery (1967 Verve Forecast, 1969 Columbia.) The album included soon to be classics like “And When I Die,” “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Blowing Away.” Nyro made her second major live appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and blew people away. Soon after, she fired Mogull to sign with David Geffen, who was just starting in the music business. He helped her start a publishing company, Tuna Fish Music, and took 50% of everything she wrote thereafter. Geffen signed her to Columbia and after she turned down an offer to front Blood, Sweat & Tears she made Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968 Columbia.) The album was immediately hailed as a classic and tunes like “Sweet Blindness,” “Eli's Coming,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and “Emmie” ruled the FM radio dial. The 5th Dimension quickly covered “Sweet Blindness” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” which climbed the pop charts and sold a million copies helping to insure Nyro’s success.
New York Tendaberry (1969 Columbia) was darker and more introspective and while there were no obvious hits, it draw further critical rages for its gospel tinged soulfulness. That same year Blood, Sweat & Tears had a gold record with “And When I Die” and Three Dog Night scored a hit with “Eli’s Coming.” Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970 Columbia) was not a Christmas album, but another exploration of love and its discontents. It included a cover of “Up on the Roof,” which became Nyro’s biggest pop hit and the concert faves “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp” and “When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag.” Guest players on the set included Duane Allman and Alice Coltrane. Nyro shifted gears a bit for Gonna Take a Miracle (1971 Columbia), a covers album that featured the backing vocals of LaBelle and production by the superstar team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. It was another artistic high point and showed off her impressive soulful vocals to excellent advantage.
Her contract up, Nyro announced she was retiring from the stage to focus on her husband and family, but after her divorce she resigned with Columbia for Smile (1976 Columbia), a lighter, jazzier collection that featured session heavies Will Lee on bass, Randy and Michael Brecker, Hugh McCracken on guitar, and drummer Rick Marotta. Her tour to support the album is captured on the dazzling set Season of Lights...Laura Nyro in Concert (1977 Columbia.) She made Nested (1978 Columbia), a return to her confession songwriting style while she was pregnant with her son. After its completion, she started living with painter Maria Desiderio and retired again to raise her child.
Mother's Spiritual (1984 Columbia) dealt with the joys and concerns of raising a child and contained political songs championing women’s rights and sustainable living long before ecology was on the minds of most people. She launched her first tour in 10 years to support the album and dedicated her performances to the animal rights movement. Laura - Live At The Bottom Line (1989 Cypress/A & M, 1989) documented the tour. In 1985 she wrote “Broken Rainbow” for the Academy Award winning documentary of the same name, a look at the history of the Navajo people.
It took a year and a half of studio work with producer Gary Katz to make Walk the Dog & Light the Light (1993 Columbia) a meditative album that she called songs of healing and harmony. A few years later she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, She helped Columbia put together the two disc set Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro (1997 Columbia) and died shortly thereafter at the age of 49.
After Nyro passed on, Rounder released Angel In The Dark (2001 Rounder), 16 songs she was working on at the time of her death and Live! The Loom’s Desire (2002 Rounder) a date from The Bottom Line recorded with just Nyro at the piano and a trio of female backing vocalists.