NEW YORK — If I asked you to name New York-born Jewish woman who melded professional Brill Building-style songcraft with rhythm and blues to become as one of the great singer-songwriters of the 1960s and ’70s, you might say Carole King. And Carole King is great, don’t get me wrong. (When theaters open up again you should check out “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”) But Laura Nyro, whose work is similar in many ways but still entirely her own, is an under-appreciated genius with a cache of brilliant work ready for you to explore.
Nyro, born Laura Nigro, died at age 49 in 1997. By this point in her life she recorded rarely, performed live only now-and-again, and declined to appear on television. She was beloved by other musicians, but was doubtlessly remembered by most as someone who wrote great songs for other people.
And you definitely know a few of her songs. “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and “Sweet Blindness” are classics from The 5th Dimension’s repertoire. “And When I Die” was recorded by Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary. Barbra Streisand had some of her funkier hits with “Stoney End” and “Flim Flam Man.”
Music business historians know Nyro as the first client of future music mogul David Geffen. (Surely this is the only example of a manager being more famous than the talent). Some might also know her as being an early paramour of Jackson Browne’s.
But let’s stop talking about other people and talk about her! Nyro was a musical omnivore who mixed the snap of showtunes with complex arrangements and unorthodox phrasing. Her roots were singing doo-wop but she admired avant-garde jazz pioneers like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. (Miles even visited her while she was recording her “New York Tendaberry” album).
When everyone else was wearing day-glow psychedelic colors in the late 1960s, she stuck with flowing black dresses, a bohemian with a gloriously zaftig witchy vibe. She later became an animal rights activist and spent the last 17 years of her life living with her partner, painter Maria Desiderio.
‘Eli and the Thirteenth Confession’ (1968)
Laura Nyro was 20 years old when she went into the studio to record and co-produce her second album. Brian Wilson was a relative Methuselah at 23-24 when he made “Pet Sounds.”
Okay, it isn’t a competition, but these two masterpieces of baroque late-’60s pop are, in my opinion, of equal caliber (and I won’t come out and give the reason why Wilson is a household name and Nyro isn’t, but let’s just say it rhymes with “drexism.”)
“Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” is a sprawling, thick novel of gorgeous melodies and rich orchestration. One minute it’s Nyro alone at her piano, the next there’s a full horn section in the middle of a funky groove. She mixes Latin jazz, orchestral strings and her singing ranges from gruff rhythms to operatic high notes. Sometimes in the same song. It’s simply impossible to categorize this album. Folkies liked it and musical theater people liked it. It’s a one of a kind that’s never really been repeated.
‘Gonna Take A Miracle,’ with Labelle (1971)
Nyro’s two post-“Eli” albums form something of a thematic trilogy, and a lot of the songs are real emotional workouts. Afterwards (and just before she split the music biz for a stretch at the age of 24) she decided to give herself a break and record a collection of songs she loved singing as a kid. With the Patti LaBelle’s group Labelle backing her up and the “Philly Soul” producers of Gamble and Huff recording, she sinks her teeth into R&B treasures by Smoky Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Holland-Dozier-Holland and more.
What’s key here is that Nyro is singing music made popular by African American singers, but she’s neither mimicking anyone’s style or bending the songs to meet her range. She’s just doing them her way, and it’s pure joy.
‘Season of Lights, Laura Nyro in Concert’ (1977)
Three years before Joni Mitchell released her very successful live jazz fusion-y album “Shadows and Light,” Nyro put out the very similarly named live jazz fusion-y album “Season of Lights.” (Coincidence? We’ll never know!)
The post-“Gonna Take A Miracle” side of Nyro’s career is rarely discussed. But this collection eases you into it, cherrypicking songs from her recent “Smile” album and pulling from her early work. The familiar tunes, however, are reimagined with a very specifically late 70s clavinet-conga-electric guitar groove that makes this a true gem.
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