Nyro's closest collaborators tell the true story of a revolutionary singer-songwriter
There is an abiding image of Laura Nyro as the black sheep at the crowning of the counterculture. On June 17, 1967, the 19-year-old played Monterey. According to cousin and confidant Alan Merrill, the moment producer Lou Adler called and asked Nyro to play, “Her lips went blue from the shock.” Once she recovered, she started sketching costumes. Her outfit was a black dress that hung off one shoulder, forming a batwing beneath the other arm. A decade later, Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks would take this look mainstream. In ’67, Nyro came off as an earnest East Coaster in a field of flower children.
Onstage at Monterey, Nyro would have preferred to perform at the piano, but there was little precedent for a young female artist playing her own songs, and the house band struggled with her complex charts. Certain she had heard the crowd booing, Nyro demanded that DA Pennebaker omit her performance from his documentary. When he reviewed the footage in 1997, he discovered these were cries of “beautiful!” and invited her to see for herself, but Nyro died from ovarian cancer before she could resolve her fear. The film shows the Russian Jewish/Italian Catholic girl from the Bronx to be the greatest white female soul singer until Amy Winehouse emerged four decades later. “Wedding Bell Blues” sparkles with festive harmonies, while on “Poverty Train”, Nyro searches the sky as she details a bad trip. She’s vulnerable and dramatic, and appears daunted by her own power.
Contrast this tentative performance with a solo appearance at LA’s Troubadour in 1969. In attendance was Jackson Browne, songwriter, admirer and aspiring artist. (Joni Mitchell was also allegedly there, taking notes. “She was the only female singer-songwriter at the time that I knew,” she would tell PBS.) “She had brought in a grand piano,” Browne recalls. “Her fans were so crazy about her that, in between each song, she’d walk out to the edge of the stage and pace the front to rolling applause. Then she’d compose herself, and go into another song. I’d never seen anything like it. She wore a red velvet dress – she was not like the freaks, the hippies she was playing to. Her audience was just wilding for her. But she was a diva; she took this in her stride.” Browne laughs. “There was no false modesty in Laura! Never any, ‘Oh, you’re too kind’, she just expected it.”
“From the moment that I met her, she had a presumption of her own power,” says friend Ellen Sander, who met Nyro in the office of her first manager, Artie Mogull. “She sensed that what she was doing was important and should be popular.” Alan Merrill, who played on Nyro’s teenage demos, says her confidence was inbuilt. “Nobody could touch her in terms of musical strength, at least as a writer,” he says. “She was inimitable. She knew it. She was a musical force of nature, more than a talent.”
Contrary to the image of Nyro as a fragile failure, 50 years since the release of her debut, More Than A New Discovery, it’s apparent that Nyro was a confident, gentle visionary who thrived when she got to create her own terms. She upset the archetypes for female musicians, fashioning new aesthetic moulds and poetic expressiveness, and made a case for authorship as autonomy. She inspired Joni Mitchell to take up piano, and Carole King’s push to be taken seriously as an artist. With her natural producer’s touch, Nyro co-pioneered the LP’s transition from pop vending machine to studio-crafted statement, and found on the streets of New York analogues for the cyclical violence of war, poverty, and injustice plaguing the US at the end of the ’60s: “The Bronx Brontë”, as one writer described her. “She was inexorably the way she was,” says Browne. “A person who could focus her feeling, and summoned the song in a way that was real every time. That was a great example of how to conduct yourself as a performer. Someone who’s gonna get up there to represent their work.”