Laura Nyro – An American Singer, Songwriter, and Pianist

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Laura Nyro (/ˈnɪəroʊ/ NEER-oh; born Laura Nigro, 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 (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), 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, jazzrhythm and bluesshow tunes, rock, and soul. She was praised for her strong emotive vocal style and 3-octave mezzo-soprano vocal range.

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,” and “Save the Country;” Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul and Mary, with “And When I Die;” Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson, with “Eli’s Comin;” and Barbra 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‘s and Gerry Goffin‘s “Up on the Roof

Nyro was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010, and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

Early life

Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, the daughter of Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter, and Gilda (née Mirsky) Nigro, a bookkeeper. Laura had a younger brother, Jan Nigro, who has become a well-known children’s musician. Laura was of Russian Jewish and Polish Jewish descent, with Italian ancestry from her paternal grandfather.

“I’ve created my own little world, a world of music since I was five years old,” Nyro told Billboard magazine in 1970, adding that music provided, for her, a means of coping with a difficult childhood: “I was never a bright and happy child.”  As a child, Nyro taught herself piano, read poetry, and listened to her mother’s records by Leontyne PriceNina SimoneJudy GarlandBillie Holiday, and classical composers such as Debussy and Ravel. She composed her first songs at age eight. With her family, she spent summers in the Catskills, where her father played 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 & Art.

Nyro was close to her aunt and uncle, artists Theresa Bernstein and William Meyerowitz, who helped 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. Nyro 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.

Early career

Louis Nigro’s work brought him into contact with record company executive Artie Mogull and his partner Paul Barry, who auditioned Laura in 1966 and became her first manager. However, Nigro later said he did “not even once” mention Laura to any of his clients, adding “they would have laughed at me if I did.

As a teenager, Laura went by various surnames. She just happened to be using “Nyro” at the time she was discovered, and it stuck.

Mogull had negotiated her a recording and management contract, and she recorded her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, for the Verve Folkways label (later re-named Verve Forecast). Later, other songs from the album became hits for The 5th Dimension, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Barbra Streisand.

On July 13, 1966, Laura Nyro recorded “Stoney End” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, as well as an early version of “Time and Love”, as part of More Than A New Discovery at Bell Sounds Studios, 237 West 54th Street, Manhattan. About a month later, she sold “And When I Die” to Peter, Paul, and Mary for $5,000. On September 17, 1966, Laura Nyro and Verve-Folkways released “Wedding Bell Blues”/”Stoney End” as a single. “Wedding Bell Blues” became a minor hit, especially on the west coast. She completed More Than A New Discovery in New York on November 29, 1966, and, starting on January 16, 1967, Laura Nyro made her first extended professional appearance at age 19, performing nightly for about a month at the “hungry i” coffeehouse in San Francisco. In February 1967, Verve Folkways released More Than A New Discovery. On March 4, 1967, Laura Nyro appeared on Clay Cole’s Diskoteck, Episode 7.23, along with Dion and the Belmonts and others, but unfortunately, the recording of that episode is lost. On March 21, 1967, she appeared on TV Show Where the Action Is, Episode 3.140 with videos of “Wedding Bell Blues” (partially extant), “Blowin’ Away” (lost), and “Goodbye Joe” (lost).

On June 17, 1967, Nyro appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival. Although some accounts described her performance as a fiasco that culminated in her being booed off the stage, recordings later made publicly available contradict this version of events.

Soon afterward, David Geffen approached Mogull about taking over as Nyro’s 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 the lead singer for Blood, Sweat & Tears, after the departure of founder Al Kooper, but was dissuaded by Geffen. Blood, Sweat & Tears would go on to have a hit with a cover of Nyro’s “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, which received high critical praise for the depth and sophistication of its 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. Eli was followed in 1969 by New York Tendaberry, another highly acclaimed work which cemented Nyro’s artistic credibility. “Time and Love” and “Save the Country” emerged as two of her most well-regarded and popular songs in the hands of other artists. During the weekend after Thanksgiving in November 1969, she gave two concerts at Carnegie Hall. Her own recordings sold mostly to a faithful cadre of followers. This prompted Clive Davis, in his memoir, to note that her recordings, as solid as they were, came to resemble demonstrations for other performers.

In 1969 Verve re-issued Nyro’s debut album as The First Songs. The same year Geffen and Nyro sold Tuna Fish Music to CBS for $4.5 million. Under the terms of his partnership with Nyro, Geffen received half of the proceeds of the sale, making them both millionaires.

Nyro’s fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat was released at the end of 1970. The set contained “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp” and “When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag” and featured Duane Allman and other Muscle Shoals, musicians. The following year’s Gonna Take a Miracle was a collection of Nyro’s favorite “teenage heartbeat songs”, recorded with vocal group Labelle (Patti LabelleNona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash) and the production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. With the exception of her attribution of “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“.

In 1971, David Geffen worked to establish his own recording label, Asylum Records, in part because of the difficulties he had encountered in trying to secure a recording contract for another of his clients, Jackson Browne (with whom Nyro was in a relationship at the time). Geffen invited Nyro to join the new label and announced that she would be Asylum’s first signing, but shortly before the official signing was due to take place, Geffen discovered that Nyro had changed her mind and re-signed with Columbia instead, without giving him prior notice of her decision. When interviewed about the matter for a 2012 PBS documentary on his life, Geffen, who considered Nyro his best friend, described Nyro’s rejection as the biggest betrayal of his life up until that point, noting that he “cried for days” afterward.

By the end of 1971, Nyro was married to carpenter David Bianchini. She was 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 reissued as The First Songs by Columbia Records.

Later career – 

By 1976, her marriage had ended, and she released 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, Walk the Dog and Light the Light (1993), her last album for Columbia, was co-produced by Gary Katz, best known for his work with Steely Dan. The release sparked reappraisal of her place in popular music, and new commercial offers began appearing. 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 performed increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s with female musicians, including her friend Nydia “Liberty” Mata, a drummer, and several others from the lesbian-feminist women’s music subculture, such as members of the band Isis. During this period, Nyro made appearances at such venues as the 1989 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the 1989 Newport Folk Festival, of which a CD containing portions of her performance was released. On July 4, 1991, she opened for Bob Dylan at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Among her last performances were at Union Chapel, Islington, London, England in November 1994; The New York Bottom Line Christmas Eve Show in 1994; and at McCabe’s in Los Angeles on February 11 and 12, 1995.

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). According to producer Gary Katz, she also turned down a request to be the musical guest on the 1993 season opener of Saturday Night Live. She never released an official video, although there was talk of filming some The Bottom Line appearances in the 1990s.

Personal life – 

Nyro was bisexual, though this fact was only known to her closest friends. She had a relationship with singer/songwriter Jackson Browne in late 1970 to early 1971. Browne was Nyro’s opening act at the time.

Nyro married Vietnam War veteran David Bianchini in October 1971 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 had grown accustomed to rural life, as opposed to the life in the city, where she had recorded her first five records.

After Nyro split from Bianchini in 1975, she suffered the trauma of the death of her mother Gilda to ovarian cancer at the age of 49. She consoled herself largely by recording a new album, enlisting Charlie Calello, with whom she had collaborated on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.

In 1978, a short-lived relationship with Harindra Singh produced a son, Gil Bianchini (also known as musician Gil-T), who she gave the surname of her ex-husband.

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

Nyro was a feminist and openly discussed it on a number of occasions, once saying, “I may bring a certain feminist perspective to my songwriting because that’s how I see life.

By the late 1980s, Nyro had become an animal rights activist and vegetarian and began to offer literature on the subject at her concerts.

Death – 

In late 1996, Nyro, like her mother, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After the diagnosis, Columbia Records, with Nyro’s involvement, prepared a two-CD retrospective of material from her years at the label. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro in 1997.

She died of ovarian cancer in Danbury, Connecticut, on April 8, 1997, at 49, the same age at which her mother died. Her ashes were scattered beneath a maple tree on the grounds of her house in Danbury.

Legacy

Posthumous releases – 

Nyro’s posthumous releases include Angel In The Dark (2001), which includes her final studio recordings made in 1994 and 1995, and The Loom’s Desire (2002), a set of live recordings with solo piano and harmony singers from The Bottom Line Christmas shows of 1993 and 1994.

Influence – 

Nyro’s influence on popular musicians has also been acknowledged by such artists as Joni MitchellCarole KingTori AmosPatti SmithKate BushDiamanda GalasBette Midler, Rickie Lee JonesElton John, Jackson BrowneAlice Cooper,  Elvis CostelloCyndi Lauper, Todd RundgrenSteely Dan, Sarah CracknellMelissa ManchesterLisa Germano, and Rosanne Cash.

Todd Rundgren stated that once he heard her, he “stopped writing songs like The Who and started writing songs like Laura.

Cyndi Lauper acknowledged that her rendition of the song “Walk On By“, on her Grammy Award-nominated 2003 cover album, At Last, was inspired by Nyro.

Elton John and Elvis Costello discussed Nyro’s influence on both of them during the premiere episode of Costello’s interview show Spectacle. When asked by the host if he could name three great performers/songwriters who have largely been ignored, he cited Nyro as one of his choices. Elton 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.

Bruce Arnold, leader of the pioneering soft rock group Orpheus was a fan of Nyro’s music and like her, worked with legendary studio drummer Bernard Purdie. While recording with Purdie, Arnold mentioned his love of Nyro’s music; the drummer responded with a story about Nyro: At Nyro’s home one night in the late 1970s, Purdie mentioned that he had been the uncredited drummer for Orpheus. Nyro got excited and brought him into a room where she kept her record collection. She pulled out well-worn copies of every Orpheus LP, as well as copies sealed for posterity.

Diane Paulus and Bruce Buschel co-created Eli’s Comin’, a musical revue of the songs of Nyro, which, among others, starred Anika Noni Rose.

Louis Greenstein and Kate Ferber wrote “One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro,” a one-woman show featuring Ferber and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt. “One Child Born” was developed at CAP21 in New York City and has sold out Joe’s Pub and the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York, World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, and other venues.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the National Ballet of Canada have also included her music in their performances; notably, “Been On A Train” from Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, in which a woman describes watching her lover die from a drug overdose, comprises the second movement of Ailey’s 1971 solo for Judith Jamison, Cry.

On October 2, 2007, three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn released her new album Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro. The album, which debuted as a concert to a sold-out house at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series in January 2007, includes several of Nyro’s biggest hits (“Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Stoney End”) as well as some of her lesser-known gems.

In 1992, the English shoegaze/Britpop band Lush released a song about Laura Nyro (“Laura”) on their first full-length album Spooky. Several of the band’s songs (specifically those written by Emma Anderson) have echoed Nyro’s music in their titles – “When I Die”, “Single Girl”. More recently, in 2012, Anderson has referred to Laura Nyro as “wondrous” on her Twitter account.

On her 2006 album Build a Bridge, the operatic/Broadway soprano Audra McDonald included covers of Nyro’s songs “To a Child” and “Tom Cat Goodbye”.

The musical theater composer Stephen Schwartz credits Nyro as a major influence on his work.

Alice Cooper has mentioned on his syndicated radio show that Laura Nyro is one of his favorite songwriters.

Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, when promoting her 2006 solo album Rabbit Fur Coat repeatedly cited Nyro’s 1971 album Gonna Take a Miracle as a big influence on her music. Lewis performed the first track on that album “I Met Him on a Sunday” on the Rabbit Fur Coat tour.

In the 2004 drama film A Home at the End of the World can be heard Nyro’s recordings of “Désiree” and “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle”, both songs from the album Gonna Take a Miracle.

Paul Shaffer, the bandleader for the CBS Orchestra and sidekick on the Late Show with David Letterman, stated that his desert island album would be Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.

Paul Stanley of Kiss has mentioned on several occasions that he is a big admirer of Nyro’s music.

Exene Cervenka of the punk rock band X listed Nyro as one of her favorite songwriters.

Biographies, analyses, and tributes – 

On October 27, 1997, a large-scale tribute concert was produced by women at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Performers included Rickie Lee JonesSandra BernhardToshi Reagon, and Phoebe Snow

And a World to Carry On, an original tribute show celebrating the music and life of Laura Nyro, written by Barry Silber and Carole Coppinger, was first performed in 2008 (2nd performance late August 2015) at Carrollwood Players Theatre in Tampa, Fla.

To Carry On, an original tribute show celebrating the music and life of Laura Nyro, starring Mimi Cohen, is in its second return engagement as of January 19, 2011, at Cherry Lane Theatre in Manhattan.

A biography of Nyro, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, written by Michele Kort, was published in 2002 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

An analysis of Nyro’s music by music theorist Ari Shagal was written at the University of Chicago in 2003, linking Nyro’s work to the Great American Songbook by demonstrating the similarities between her chordal language and those of Harold ArlenHarry Warren, and George Shearing.

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.

Janis Ian, who attended the High School of Music and Art in New York at the same time as Nyro, discussed her friendship with Nyro during the late 1960s in her autobiography, Society’s Child. Ian described her as looking like a “Morticia Addams” caricature with her long, dark hair, and called her a “brilliant songwriter” but “oddly inarticulate” in terms of musical terminology. Ian was a fan of Nyro’s work with producer Charlie Calello and chose him as the producer of her 1969 album Who Really Cares on the basis of his work with Nyro.

Comedian, writer and singer Sandra Bernhard has spoken extensively of Laura Nyro as an ongoing inspiration. She dedicated a song, “The Woman I Could’ve Been” on Excuses for Bad Behavior (Part One), to her. She also sang Nyro’s “I Never Meant to Hurt You” in her film Without You I’m Nothing.

Rickie Lee Jones‘s album Pirates and songs such as “We Belong Together” and “Living It Up” are reminiscent of early Laura Nyro’s songs, and Jones acknowledged Nyro’s influence.

Todd Rundgren has also acknowledged the strong influence of Nyro’s 1960s music on his own songwriting. While a member of the pop group Nazz, his great admiration for Nyro led him to arrange a meeting with her (which took place shortly after she had recorded the Eli and the Thirteenth Confession LP). Nyro invited Rundgren to become the musical director of her backing group, but his commitments to Nazz obliged him to decline. Rundgren’s debut solo album Runt (1970) includes the strongly Nyro-influenced “Baby Let’s Swing” which was written about her and mentions her by name. Rundgren and Nyro remained friends for much of her professional career and he subsequently assisted her with the recording of her album Mother’s Spiritual.

On April 14, 2012, Laura Nyro was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The induction speech was delivered by singer Bette Midler and the award was accepted by her son, Gil Bianchini. The song “Stoney End” was performed by singer Sara Bareilles at the induction ceremony.

hybrid daylily named for Laura Nyro was introduced in 2000.

The Scottish band Cosmic Rough Riders released a touching tribute song, “Laura Nyro,” on their 2001 album Pure Escapism.

The song “Mean Streets” by the band Tennis is a tribute to Nyro.

On July 22, 2014, composer/arranger Billy Childs released Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. The album features ten Laura Nyro songs performed by a long list of stars including Rickie Lee JonesShawn ColvinAlison KraussDianne Reeves, and Wayne Shorter. The album was nominated for three Grammys, with the “New York Tendaberry” track featuring Renee Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma winning for Best Arrangement, Instrumental, and Vocals.

In 2015, The Christine Spero Group released “Spero Plays Nyro”, the Music of Laura Nyro along with a highly acclaimed live tour. The album features eleven of Nyro’s songs and an original song, “Laura and John” by Christine Spero, a tribute to Laura Nyro and John Coltrane, whom Nyro admired.

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