Singer-songwriter Laura Nyro is surely one of the most famous unknowns in rock-and-roll history. At the height of her career (the late ’60s and ’70s), a long string of top-ten hits by artists covering her songs made her millions in songwriters’ royalties. Her own records, which featured the cream-of-the-crop producers and session musicians of the day, sold well, or at least respectably. She has been claimed as an important influence by musicians of at least three generations, from Todd Rundgren to Suzanne Vega. But any mention of her name today, even among sophisticated musos, usually brings no more than a look of vague recognition.
People tend to feel passionately one way or the other about Nyro’s music—a highly idiosyncratic blend of rock-and-roll, R & B, blues, and jazz. Fans have always seen her as nothing less than a goddess, someone almost from another universe, too pure for this world. To others, particularly kids trying to take in her deeply personal and intricately woven records in one quick gulp thirty years after the fact she’s always been somewhat of an acquired taste. While she’s far from forgotten today—the outpouring of tribute articles that appeared after her untimely death in 1997 generally acknowledged her brilliance, and importance—she still barely registers as a blip on most pop fans’ radar. That may now change, thanks to a handful of reissues of her best LPs (newly remastered, and with previously unreleased bonus material) by Columbia Records. Also recently released is The Loom’s Desire, a collection of never-before-heard live recordings made at the Bottom Line in the early ’90s. And, in a case of happy synchronicity, the first biography of Nyro ever published, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, by journalist Michele Kort, has also just appeared.
Even (or especially) for fans who’ve been following Nyro’s career for years, Kort’s book is a godsend. Nyro’s life has always been shrouded in mystery to a great extent, and 35 years after the release of her first LP, there simply isn’t a whole lot known about, say, her family history or the recording of her records. The gaps do not result from conscious attempts on Nyro’s part to construct an aura around herself, but rather from her lack of interest in her “career” or the music business. She did interviews rarely, kept a low profile professionally, and strenuously resisted all efforts by record company execs to make her music more digestible for mainstream op audiences. Through extensive interviews with Nyro’s family and friends, as well as the producers, arrangers, and musicians she worked with over three decades, Kort has gone a long way toward lifting the veil, giving us a long-overdue view into Nyro’s life and work.
Laura Nyro was an archetypal child of a New York that’s now almost forgotten. Born in the Bronx into half-Jewish, half-Italian, working-class family, she grew up listening to the sounds of doo-wop and girl-group music then filling the streets and subway stations. (She later paid tribute to this era with her 1971 all-covers LP, Gonna Take a Miracle.) But she also steeped herself in the music of female vocal legends Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and Joan Baez, and modern-jazz pioneers Miles Davis and John Coltrane (whose harmonic experiments she would cite as an influence on her own unconventional song structures). Music was also a big part of Nyro’s family life: her father was a trumpeter and a piano teacher, and as a child Laura spent many summers as an eager participant in singalongs at camp in the Catskills. She seemed confident that music was her calling early on, filing notebooks with her poetry and song lyrics, sometimes arranged in imaginary LP sides. Her precociousness was remarkable: no one who heard her earliest records, with their frank and surprisingly mature treatment of sex, love and longing, drugs, and street life, could suspect that she was barely out of her teens at the time.
Nyro’s unswerving, almost religious belief in the purity of her artistic vision led her to be unbelievably cheeky toward some of the power brokers she dealt with early in her career. When Bobby Darin made the insulting request that she try to write something along the lines of the standard “What Kind of Fool Am I?” she instead sang “What Kind of Fool Are YOU?” A very early demo tape also shows her standing her ground firmly as Artie Mogull (Bob Dylan’s publisher!) tries to persuade her to play other people’s songs instead of her own compositions. This was a patter that would repeat itself continually throughout her career, with Nyro always steadfastly refusing to change a note in the face of tremendous pressure from producers and label management. There was nothing egotistical or “political” about these fits of stubbornness; Nyro simply wanted the recordings of her songs to remain true to her original vision. As she later said, regretful that she’d allowed the producer of her first record, More than a New Discovery, to water the arrangements down: "I mean, I work months and hours and years and a lifetime on my songs.” That record, incidentally—recorded when she was only 19, and containing songs that were written years earlier—included no fewer than three future hits for other artists (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “And When I Die,” and “Stoney End”). Her second LP would contain another three.
In any event, Nyro’s music would never be diluted again. The ensuing LPs displayed her talent in full flower, supported by elaborate orchestration and some of the finest session players money could buy. The music on these records defies classification: It’s soul, gospel, jazz, pop, blues, and what would later become known as “women’s music” in almost equal measure. It’s often maddeningly complicated, with frequent stops and starts, tempo shifts, meter changes, and the wild falsetto vocal-leaps Nyro would become known for. Though eminently listenable, it can be “challenging,” and considering that she was never more than a middling money-maker as a recording artist (her fortune was made mainly from songwriting royalties), it’s hard to believe that Columbia Records was so willing to coddle her. But, as Kort’s book reveals, coddle her they did, often with Sergeant Pepper-like marathon recording sessions and a highly elastic budget. The reason, in large part, was that her presence on the label was seen as a source of prestige, and Columbia execs proudly dropped her name to the more commercial artists they were trying to lure.
Unlike the records of many bigger-selling artists of the time, however, Nyro’s have mostly dated well. This isn’t surprising considering not only the care taken to arrange and record them, but the fact that they were never “of their time” to begin with. Virtually nothing on the brilliant Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, for example, indicates that it was recorded in 1968, when Hendrix, Joplin, the Doors, and Jefferson Airplane ruled the earth. As demonstrated by her legendary appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where she flummoxed the hippie audience with her black gown and cocktail-dress-clad backing singers, Nyro simply seemed indifferent to the trends of the day. Years later, when her popularity had waned, she was unconcerned, and felt no compulsion to make adjustments to her music for the sake of higher sales. If anything, she moved in a less commercial direction later in her career, as her interest in such “unpopular” issues as animal rights, spirituality, environmentalism, and motherhood began to inform her lyrics. The drastically lowered public profile and relaxed recording schedule she kept from the late ’70s on cause people to speculate that she had become a “recluse,” but she had merely lost interest in the rock-and-roll life and business. She spent more time with friends and at home with her partner and young son, and she gave concerts occasionally, when she felt like it, for what she called her “tribe”—the smaller but still extremely devoted following she maintained until her death from breast cancer at age 49.
Soul Prince is the biography Laura Nyro fans deserve: an informed and well-researched history of her life and work by someone who cares, with reminiscence from most of the people she knew and worked with, virtually all of whom have only the fondest memories of this utterly unique and influential artist.
DAVE MANDL was the Rail's former music editor. He is a freelance writer/journalist.