Laura Nyro Biography
Laura Nyro (born Laura Nigro) (October 18, 1947 – April 8, 1997) was an American songwriter and singer, one of the most influential musicians to emerge in the 1960s.
She blazed the trail for – and directly influenced – future female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Phoebe Snow, and Rickie Lee Jones, among many others. Nyro’s style was a distinctive hybrid of Brill Building-style New York pop, mixed with elements of jazz, folk, rhythm and blues, and rock. Her lyrics were sophisticated, first as a reflection of youth angst in her initial period (1966-1971) with later works concentrating on animal-rights issues, motherhood, and a growing concern for the human condition. She possessed a voice which could register tenderness, rage, and playfulness with equal ability and had an instinctive sense of song arrangement and vocal arrangement skills. This revealed itself not only in her own material, but in her recordings of, as she called them, “the teenage heartbeat songs of my youth” and the occasional pop standard. These songs were interpreted by Nyro with her distinctive chord changes and vocal arrangements (she generally multi-tracked her own harmonies in the studio and later added live harmony singers in concert).
Born in the The Bronx, New York, of Italian-American and Jewish-American parents, Nyro was best known by the general public – and had the most commercial success – as a songwriter rather than a performer. Her best-known songs include "And When I Die" (made a hit by Blood, Sweat & Tears), "Stoney End" (covered by Barbra Streisand), "Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," "Save the Country" (all covered by the Fifth Dimension), and "Eli's Coming" (a hit for Three Dog Night). Ironically, Nyro's own best-selling single was a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Up on the Roof."
After her fairly straightforward debut album More Than a New Discovery in 1967 on Verve Folkways (later Forecast), a new contract with Columbia Records was initiated, which allowed Nyro more freedom and control. Her first Columbia effort, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession in 1968, was released to wild critical praise for the depth and sophistication of the performance and arrangements. The album’s merger of pop structure with inspired imagery, rich, multi-tracked Nyro vocals and an avant-garde set of jazz flavorings, remains one of the most important breakthrough works of the era.
Follow-up albums, New York Tendaberry (1969), and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970) cemented Nyro’s credibility as an important artist and sparked a following of devoted fans, especially among fellow musicians who were often seen in the audience and backstage at her performances.
In 1971, she released an album – Gonna Take a Miracle – of her favorite "teenage heartbeat songs" with Labelle (Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash) providing vocal harmonies.
Nyro was reportedly uncomfortable with attempts to mass-market her as a celebrity and, frustrated with a record industry becoming increasingly driven by commerce, Nyro announced her retirement from the music business at the age of 24. Five years later in 1976, however, she returned with an album of new material called "Smile". Nyro’s re-emergence work revealed a more mature artist of less intensity, but of deeper, more subtle and complex shadings. By this time, the experience of a failed marriage and motherhood – and an eventual, personal relationship with a female partner – provided additional life experiences which impacted her personally, and is reflected in her work. While this and many of her later releases lack much of the commercial accessibility of her earlier work, they maintain her high standard as a writer and arranger, and her undiminished ability as a superb vocalist.
Her low profile of this period was raised somewhat in 1989, with the release of Laura: Live at the Bottom Line, a recent, live recording which marked the beginning of a renewed series of live appearances. On this recording, Nyro sounds fresh and revitalized, performing a variety of old and new material with an excellent set of musicians. Her next release was Walk the Dog and Light the Light (1993), her first studio album in years, and her last for Columbia, co-produced by Gary Katz of Steely Dan production fame. A solid piece of work, it sparked further reappraisal of her place in popular music, and new commercial offers began to appear.
Always protective of her integrity, she reportedly turned down some lucrative film-composing offers, although she did contribute a song to the modest Academy Award winning documentary "Broken Rainbow", a film about forced relocation of Native Americans. Also according to sources, both The Tonight Show and The David Letterman Show staff 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 only made 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). She never released an official video, although there was talk of filming some Bottom Line appearances in the 1990s.
Nyro died of ovarian cancer in Danbury, Connecticut on April 8, 1997 at the age of 49. This was the same disease that claimed the life of her own mother, Gilda Nigro, who also was 49 at the time of her death.
Her life partner had been Maria Desiderio. She is survived by her son Gil, her father and her brother.
After diagnosis, in the months before her death, her old label Columbia Records – now owned by Sony – was planning a double-disc CD retrospective of material from her years at the label. To their credit, they involved Nyro herself, who selected the tracks and approved the final project. She lived to see the release Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro (1997), and was reportedly pleased with the outcome.
Posthumous releases include Angel in the Dark (2001), which include her impressive, last studio recordings made in 1994 and 1995, and The Loom’s Desire, a highly enjoyable set of live recordings with solo piano and harmony singers from The Bottom Line Christmas shows of 1993 and 1994.
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.
Her 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