Laura was born on October 18, 1947. Her love of music began early and she had a huge range of music she enjoyed; John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Curtis Mayfield, Dusty Springfield, '50s and '60s girl groups and even Dionne Warwick's interpretations of the work of Bacharach & David are all cited as influences evident in her own music. Her mom exposed her to works by impressionist classical composers, and (as a very complete artist) Nyro spent a lot of time reading poetry. Small wonder, then, that the liner notes to her anthology, Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best Of Laura Nyro, describe her as drawing from soul, jazz, R&B, blues, folk and modern classical in her own compositions (I'd add gospel to the list). The liner notes go on to list an impressive array of artists who have covered her work, which completely adds to her reputation as a genre-bending songwriter; besides those already mentioned, her work has been recorded by Suzanne Vega, Phoebe Snow, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Chet Atkins, Roseane Cash, Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt, The Roches, Maynard Ferguson, George Duke... The list stretches on and on, resulting in an amazing legacy of respect from her own peers.
In regards to her own recorded output, she bears at least one similarity to Leonard Cohen in that her legacy of brilliance is built on a relatively small recorded output; from 1967 until 1993, she released only nine albums of studio work, and in 2001 there was a posthumous release of an album she recorded in '94 and '95. Considering this was an era when, say, The Beatles knocked out some eighteen albums in just seven years, you have to figure that what was released had to be pretty spectacular for here to be as revered as she is.
Her first album in 1967, More Than A Discovery, was released on Verve Records (it was reissued twice after she signed to Columbia Records), and though it's perhaps not her most recognized work, it certainly shows the talent and vision she possessed. Once she signed to Columbia, her next four releases have to be filed in the "as good as it gets" category - Eli And The Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat (1970) and Gonna Take A Miracle (1971) are crucial to every aspiring songwriter's library. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that these four releases wrote a huge chunk of the foundation for very independent and very soulful female songwriters. Personally, I kind of came aboard a little late; my first exposure to her was her 1976 release, Smile. I sort of knew that she had written some songs for other people, but I wasn't really familiar with anything she had recorded. The cover of Smile is kind of innocuous; there's really no way you could look at that album cover and even take a hint at the power, expression and compassion this woman exhibited. I was completely blown away, and when I mentioned that to a friend who was a longtime fan of Nyro's, she suggested I listen to the previous four albums. "Just set an evening aside, and listen to them right through," I was advised. "Oh... and be ready for your life to change."
Truer words have rarely been spoken to me in regards to music. I have to admit, all these years later, that I wasn't able to sit and make it through all four at one sitting. There was too much depth, too much intensity of emotion, too much absolute heart and soul and sweat for me to not go back and re-listen so I could better understand and appreciate the records. Nyro fans all have their favorites, of course, but for whatever reason, New York Tendaberry is the one that hits me the hardest; it took me a couple of good, serious nights to move beyond that one, and to this day is the Nyro album I listen to most often. Laura was heavily involved in the brilliant anthology of her work (though I'd plead with you to just go get the catalog in chronological order!), and I felt something of a kinship with her when I read in the liner notes her saying, "When I was working on this anthology and listening back to that music, I thought 'Oh my God - what a madcap energy. I don't know if I can deal with this.' But it's funny because soon I started to get into it and it was very energizing and a lot of fun. I cried when I heard New York Tendaberry."
When I see any criticism of her work at all, I most often read that she was a little "too feminist" for some people's taste. I can't even begin to understand that. By her own admission, she brought "a certain feminist perspective" to her songwriting... but we're dealing with a strong, fiery, intelligent woman. Considering many of her influences and fctoring in her interest with the folk/protest movement of the sixties (and causes she remained activist about for the duration of her life), I would have been disappointed if she HADN'T lent a feminist perspective to her work. She was a brilliant songwriter first and foremost because of the honesty that shone through all her music. I wouldn't ask Woody Guthrie to abandon his crusades for the downtrodden of the world in his songwriting, and neither would I want anything less than complete honesty from Laura Nyro... and I want it to be her honesty..
In late 1996, Nyro was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the same disease that claimed her mother's life. She died on April 8, 1997 at the age of 49. Of all the astounding songwriters in history who we lost at a relatively young age, Laura Nyro would be among the talents I most would have wanted to hear for another thirty years. There's so much more; on the one hand, It feels like it takes so little time to summarize her career, but that's an injustice to her. She was a deep and fascinating human being, and once you begin to know her music, I'd bet most people will scour the web to learn more about the person behind the music. When you listen to her work and it hits "that place" inside you, you realize that even through the small-by-comnparison amount of work she left behind, you will have a friend and companion forever through that music.
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The quote you see in the second picture of Laura that accompanies this post is from an excellent interview I found with her. It's from a blog call Stomp Off, which is a consistently good read (http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/). I believe the man who runs the blog is named Chris Andersen, though it's actually kind of hard to find his name anywhere on the blog! Most of the blog is jazz oriented, and he seems to be doing for jazz what I'm trying to do with classic rock - using his obvious extensive knowledge and career experience to share a very golden era of music that means a lot to him.