Laura Nyro made her mark writing hit songs, not performing them

Her voice is considered an "acquired" taste, but Laura Nyro's compositions gained universal appeal at the hands of Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand, The 5th Dimension and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Author:
Publish date:

By Tony Sclafani

Out of all the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 2012, the one most likely to cause head-scratching is Laura Nyro, the semi-obscure, Bronx-born singer-songwriter-pianist. Nyro, who died at age 49 in 1997 from ovarian cancer, is best known for the songs she wrote that became hits for others, like “Wedding Bell Blues,” “And When I Die” and “Stoney End.”As an artist, Nyro had one lone pop chart hit in the Top 100 — and that only made it to No. 92. She only had one Top 40 album, “New York Tendaberry,” which rose as high as No. 32.

Already, there’s talk whether the Rock Hall should have chosen her for inclusion. On a recent “Howard Stern Show,” Gary “Babba Booey” Dell’Abate sneered when he read her name as an inductee (though Stern and Robin Quivers quickly leapt to her defense).

In the Washington Times, Hampton Stevens seemed to find Nyro’s inclusion outright offensive.

Laura Nyro

“There is no more egregious example of Hall voters’ arrogance and pedantry than this year’s selection of Laura Nyro,” he wrote. “Electing Nyro is a gesture of withering arrogance and disdain, one meant to instruct the rock audience on what music it ‘should’ listen to, instead of the stuff people actually like.”

Some rock fans might not be familiar with Nyro herself, but most don’t need to be instructed to like her songs, because they knew them when they were cut by an array of other artists.

When a 19-year-old Laura Nyro emerged on the rock scene in 1967 with her debut album “More Than a New Discovery,” she changed the preconceptions of what any singer-songwriter — much less a female one — could do. In her wake, Todd Rundgren abruptly changed his style and left his band Nazz to release solo albums inspired by Nyro (one song, “Baby, Let’s Swing” is even about her).

Carole King was so impressed with Nyro’s artistic boldness that King finally got up the gumption to pursue a solo career seriously — one that featured her sitting Nyro-style, behind a piano.

“I think Laura Nyro does not exist without Carole King the songwriter, but Carole King the singer-songwriter does not exist without Laura Nyro the performer,” says Michele Kort, author of the 2002 Nyro biography “Soul Picnic.” “It was Laura, along with Joni Mitchell, who started the whole singer-songwriter movement Carole King was able to become part of.”

Other performers who have cited Nyro as an inspiration range from Suzanne Vega to Elton John to Stevie Wonder, whose “If You Really Love Me” is said to be inspired by Nyro’s style. That style attracted a hard-core following of fans who made her a cult figure.

The rest of the world didn’t always get it, though. As Patricia Romanowski put it in “Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock,” “Whether Nyro’s music offered a seductive challenge or a grating nuisance was the listener’s call.”

But it was Nyro’s willingness to challenge listeners with unpleasant ideas and difficult music that placed her in the tradition of great rock and roll, not bland pop music, even if her music was often based around piano and voice.

Nyro’s first album seems a relatively conventional collection of songs now. But at the time, it was the type of musical stew no one else was cooking up. A mélange of pop, rock, Broadway, jazz and folk, Nyro’s tunes could be angry, sexy, desperate, confrontational and confessional — sometimes all at once. (Collectors’ note: For the best listening experience of Nyro’s debut, Nyro collector Dennis R. Weston recommends finding an original mono pressing on the Verve Folkways label and avoiding the repackaged album “The First Songs,” which alters the running order and adds reverb to the mix.)

“Laura was not someone who copied people,” says veteran arranger and producer Charles Calello, who co-produced Nyro’s second album, “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” — a commercial but outré record that makes for a good starting point for Nyro neophytes. “She was original in every sense of the word. She set the stage for numerous songwriters to develop their craft because of the freedom she displayed in her music.

“Her song structure did not conform to the normal verse/chorus kind of song,” he continues. “She had her own style of playing chords. Her style of chords was copied by Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, even Elton John.”

That “freedom” was what bewildered a lot of listeners who bought albums like “Eli” thinking they were going to get conventional folk-pop, but instead got complex music with changes in tempo and mood.

Laura Nyro Stoned Soul Picnic Columbia promo

Nyro’s career reached an apex of sorts with her third album, “New York Tendaberry,” from 1969, her lone Top 40 album. It’s an adventurous, uncompromising, emotionally intense work. The scorned-woman epic “Tom Cat Goodbye” blows through a multitude of musical sections (none of which is repeated) before Nyro unleashes banshee wails that could send death-metal fans running for cover. “Captain for Dark Mornings” seems to be sung from the point of view of a prostitute, while “Captain St. Lucifer” is a love song that’s as audacious as it is catchy. “Tendaberry,” along with “Eli,” is arguably Nyro’s best work and is among the great albums of the 1960s.

But a funny thing happened around the time Nyro started alternately seducing and scaring listeners. Producers and artists started riffling through her song catalog, and Nyro became the hot composer to cover.

The 5th Dimension took “Stoned Soul Picnic” to No. 3, “Sweet Blindness” to No. 13 and then “Wedding Bell Blues” to No. 1.

Blood, Sweat & Tears took the first song Nyro ever wrote, “And When I Die” to No. 2 (its founder, Al Kooper, also purportedly asked Nyro to front the ensemble).
Three Dog Night got to No. 10 with “Eli’s Coming,” and Barbra Streisand got to No. 6 with “Stoney End” (for which she named an album) and had minor hits with “Save the Country” and “Flim Flam Man.”

There are so many covers of Nyro songs, in fact, that members of the Laura Nyro Facebook group regularly surprise even her most ardent fans with newly-discovered renditions of her songs.

Yet the question remains as to why Nyro never hit with her own songs. Her only Top 100 entry came with a cover of the Gerry Goffin-Carole King tune “Up on the Roof.” Her own rendition of “Wedding Bell Blues” charted highly on some West Coast stations’ playlists, but it stalled on the Bubbling Under chart.

“I think it was her voice,” Kort says. “It was either a taste you had or a taste you didn’t. So instead, people went for the blandness of the 5th Dimension or any of those other artists.”

Calello agrees: “Although she sang brilliantly, most of the critics did not like the sound that she as a female made, singing in that high falsetto range.”

Calello also believes Nyro didn’t tour enough, and when she did, her solo piano performances weren’t the kind of extroverted affairs needed to get her beyond cult status.
“Later on I got to understand that Laura was afraid to perform,” he says. “She was a very introverted kind of performer — very soft spoken.”

Nyro kept a lower profile after “Tendaberry,” but the artistic quality of her albums remained high. “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” pioneered the kind of art songs for which Kate Bush and Tori Amos later became famous. “Gonna Take a Miracle,” cut with a pre-fame Labelle, is possibly the first multi-artist covers album cut by a major artist.

Laura Nyro Live The Loom's Desire on Universal

Laura Nyro's voice was considered an acquired taste, but her music found mass appeal at the hands of artists including Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night and The 5th Dimension.. Universal/David Bianchi.

Nyro retired for a while, then returned in 1976 with the jazzy “Smile.” Her profile was so low key by this point that few people heard her next two records, the underrated “Nested” and “Mother’s Spiritual.” The final album released in Nyro’s lifetime, 1993’s “Walk the Dog and Light the Light,” showed she could still write a classic (“A Woman of the World” ranks among her best songs) and also found her growing more political.

After Nyro’s death, it was discovered she’d spent the last two decades of her life with a female lover, which makes her one of a handful of gay or bisexual performers to be inducted into the Rock Hall.

“Laura never came out — she was ‘outed’ posthumously in her obit,” explains Kort. “I think it’s fair to call her bisexual, because she certainly had relationships with men (including Jackson Browne), and then she had a long-term relationship with a woman.”

Interest in Nyro’s music also grew after her death. Kort’s biography helped to spread the word. The Internet made it easier to find her music, and several theatrical productions showcasing her songs were produced. Kort believes it was Elton John’s championing of Nyro on a 2008 episode of the Sundance Channel show “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…” that really revived interest in Nyro.

“I think her getting an imprimatur from a male artist who is rock royalty was the turning point,” Kort says.

Nyro’s influence on female artists cannot be overstated, she adds.

“She just really inspired young women artists to go for it. She came from a background with all these different influences, and people didn’t think you could put all those things in your music,” Kort says. “But Laura did, so other artists would say ‘I don’t have to hold back I can put it all in there.’ ”