Laura Nyro remembered: “A musical force of nature”

Nyro's closest collaborators tell the true story of a revolutionary singer-songwriter

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With the announcement of a new boxset featuring rare demos and live recordings, Uncut salutes the genius of Laura Nyro – “The Bronx Brontë”! Laura Snapes tracks down Nyro’s closest collaborators to uncover the true story of a revolutionary singer-songwriter and her own thwarted career. “She was too soulful for radio,” laments Todd Rundgren. “Other artists had success with the material by essentially turning down the soul.” Originally published in Uncut’s May 2017 issue.

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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.

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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.”

Born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, she took her education from her mother, Gilda’s, blues albums and her father Louis’ jazz LPs. Later, she and Ellen Sander would see Miles Davis live in San Francisco. “At one intense part of the concert, she let out this big moan,” says Sander. “She turned to me and said, ‘He is working with the physical aspect of the trumpet itself! He is making the trumpet do things it never thought it could do, you could see it in his body!’”

Nyro had been writing since her early teens. Age 15, she persuaded Alan Merrill to help her record a three-song demo in a tiny studio – he recalls a hard task-master. Nyro was also singing with doo-wop groups in Bronx subway stations, though Merrill claims this was a fabrication by second manager David Geffen, “so she wasn’t perceived as a wealthy songwriter. She didn’t like the rough kids and would have been too shy to approach them.”

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The family name was pronounced “nigh-gro”, to avoid accidental injury. But age 18, with her eye on success, Laura changed her name to Nyro (“near-oh”). Her timing was neat. Artie Mogull hired her father, Louis, to tune his piano. On the job, he raved about his daughter until Mogull relented and invited her for a session. She played him “Stoney End”, “And When I Die” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, and he signed her on the spot for management, recording and publishing. She scored a deal with Verve Folkways, who paired her with producer Herb Bernstein for her debut. The pair clashed: Nyro had little control over the sessions, and felt that her work was being over-polished.

Released in January 1967, More Than A New Discovery was jauntier than Nyro’s naturally dark inclinations. It’s not just Bernstein – she could write froth, even though, as she later told The New York Times, she “always knew that ‘Moon/June’ was not what love was about.” The album didn’t chart. Coupled with the Monterey fiasco, Nyro felt misunderstood and desperate to escape. Then 24 and at the start of his career, David Geffen hadn’t seen her live, but was “mesmerised” by More Than A New Discovery. “Her music was very different to anything I’d ever heard before, and I loved everything she was saying,” he said in PBS’ American Masters. He fell deeper once they started working together, extricating her from Mogull’s contract and buying back her publishing, according to Michele Kort’s Nyro biography, Soul Picnic. By this point, Peter Paul And Mary had covered “And When I Die”, and there was a sense that Nyro’s catalogue might become profitable. Geffen took Nyro to Columbia, where she performed for new president Clive Davis by the light of a TV screen. When she signed in early 1968, she won full creative control and formed her own publishing company, Tuna Fish Music. Nyro was Geffen’s first big project. She brought out a soft side of this “irascible gossip”, as Ellen Sander describes him. Which made it all the more galling when Nyro broke off the relationship in 1972. “I loved Laura and her music, but I do not want to talk about her now or ever,” was Geffen’s response to Uncut’s interview request.

Herb Bernstein had already started recording Nyro’s second album, but Geffen wanted a fresh start. Producer Charles Calello worked in-house at Columbia, but felt underused. He complained to Davis, who offered him the Nyro job. In late 1967, she invited him to her one-bedroom apartment at 888 East Avenue and played him her new songs on a spinet piano. “She lit half a dozen candles and dimmed the lights,” says Calello. “It felt like history in the making. I was going through a period of frustration, and all of a sudden, someone gave me the key to the cookie jar.”

Until now, Calello had mostly worked on production-line pop. “What Laura played me was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Songs that change tempo, emanating deep emotion.” His challenge was to bring her songs to life in Columbia’s studio without destroying their integrity. He assembled a looser band than the usual studio staples: “It was more important that the musicians understood the songs than what was written on paper.” Rather than set up in individual booths, the players assembled around Nyro (who sang at the piano and overdubbed her vocals later). “It was a thrill,” says drummer Artie Schroeck, even though he found Nyro “very strange”. A devout stoner, she smoked in the studio and led the other musicians astray.

Nyro mints her unique vocabulary on Eli And The Thirteenth Confession, from the recurring “captain” and made-up words like “surry”, to her antic, driving tempos and vocal physicality. The sessions took two months. The players were enjoying the romance, and Calello was maximising the possibilities of the studio’s new eight-track. Columbia was unimpressed. “I got a call from the legal department when they found out I had spent $28,000 and I still wasn’t finished,” says Calello. “The head of business affairs said, ‘You’re over budget. What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘We’re not making music, we’re making art.’ And he said to me, ‘We don’t make art here. We make money.’” He collected his pink slip.

Prior to Calello’s sacking, the ensemble had attempted to start Nyro’s third LP. She only had two completed songs, “New York Tendaberry” and “Captain Saint Lucifer”, and according to Schroeck, insisted on transporting her own piano to the studio, despite the Steinways on offer. “She was trying to write during the day, record at night, and the frustration was enormous,” says Calello. “After the first session, I told David I didn’t want to continue. I saw that it was going to be a fiasco.”

Eli barely made a dent on arrival in March 1968 – though its innovative lilac-tinged lyrics sheet left a scent. (“Anything she wanted, I would get for her,” Geffen told PBS.) Although The New York Times was calling her “the hippest thing in music” by October, it was clear Nyro wouldn’t be the face of her success. By autumn, LA R&B group The 5th Dimension had taken “Stoned Soul Picnic” to No 3 on the pop charts, and No 1 on the R&B charts. This was a reversal in fortunes – they had been marketed as a pop act, failing to succeed in their natural niche. They would cover Nyro seven times. In 1968, she released the rapturous gospel polemic “Save The Country” following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Two years on, The 5th Dimension repurposed it to oppose the Vietnam war. “We weren’t known as a protest group, just a group of singers who tried to make happy music, so it was perfect,” says the band’s Billy Davis Jr.

Despite Charlie Calello’s suspicion that Nyro’s third album was half-baked, she had a firm vision for 1969’s New York Tendaberry, her name for “the warm, tender core she perceives deep inside the city’s grating exterior”, observed New York Times reporter William Kloman. “I deal in essences,” she told him. “I can’t do things my girlfriend can do, like drive a car or cook a dinner, but I have the ability to see what is at the centre of things.”

In late 1968, Roy Halee was busy working with Simon & Garfunkel. But as a Nyro fan, he couldn’t refuse Geffen’s offer to work on her new record. “She’s the best I’ve ever been involved with,” says Halee. “She’s George Gershwin, phenomenal in a classical sense, as well as a pop sense.” Alone at the piano, Nyro played Halee the entire album. He decided to record her that way to capture her “essence”. The other instruments were overdubbed later. “It was a terrific gamble.”

These early sessions were just Halee and Nyro, who rode a horse and cart to Columbia’s studio. She dressed in ballgowns, lit candles and laid on opulent meals. The pair relished the slow process. “Listening to her perform every night was like a concert, it was a joy,” says Halee, whose only bugbear was Nyro’s pot habit, which made her sloppy. This time around, there was no pressure from Columbia.

Once Halee brought in arranger Jimmie Haskell, Nyro started giving his ensemble impressionistic directions. “I think of music in terms of colours, and shapes, and textures, and sensory things, and abstractions,” she told Life in 1970. “But once I have the instruments to work with, I can do a lot of things. You can take a string, and strings can be brazen, or they can be so sweet, they can be pale.” For “Gibsom Street”, she instructed her horn section to play like “Indians on the warpath”. “Her producing chops were great!” says Halee. “She was hard to please in a nice way. She knew what she was talking about.”

Released in September 1969, New York Tendaberry was a sophisticated paring back. Most of the songs start with just Nyro at the piano, her vocals flying from tender meditation to indignant rhapsody as she explored what she perceived as the city’s struggle “between health and sickness, god and the devil.”

“You want to dig the vibrations I’ve been getting?” she asked the NYT. “The real United States Of America is about to be born. That’s what’s coming out of the revolution.” Certainly, things were starting to happen for Nyro. She did her first proper tour, including the Troubadour show that Jackson Browne witnessed. Newsweek profiled Nyro, Joni Mitchell and the new wave of “female troubadours, who not only sing, but write their own songs”. That Thanksgiving, she had three Top 10 singles thanks to The 5th Dimension, Blood Sweat And Tears and Three Dog Night. “She was too soulful for radio,” laments noted fan Todd Rundgren. “Other artists had success with the material by essentially turning down the soul.”

Although Nyro was breaking from pop tradition, she maintained a mainstream release schedule. Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat arrived in 1970, her fourth album in four years. According to Michele Kort’s biography, David Geffen told producer Felix Cavaliere, “I’m going to introduce you to the most difficult person you’ve ever met in your life.” But the pair got on famously, sharing interests in soul and Nina Simone. Cavaliere took Nyro on a Sri Lankan yoga retreat where she met Alice Coltrane. She played harp on Christmas’ second half, alongside a New York rhythm section. Duane Allman added guitar licks, praising this “real outtasight chick”.

Co-producer Arif Mardin hired Muscle Shoals’ Swampers band to back Christmas’ first half. The Southern group found gothic Nyro very strange. “We were charmed by her!” says bassist David Hood. “She came off almost like a bag lady on a street corner.” Nyro’s pot supply softened the culture shock. “She had some good weed!” (The scrupulously professional Swampers usually avoided “indulging”, but Nyro corrupted Hood and guitarist Eddie Hinton.)

As on Eli, the group set up around Nyro’s piano at Columbia’s studios, and attempted to follow her arrangements. Pianist Barry Beckett found himself out of a job, as (ever since her debut) Nyro had accompanied herself, so he wrote charts. “On one very complicated song, Barry laughed and said, ‘Boys, I wanna see you do this!’” says Hood. “And that’s one of the ones we did on the first take! We were used to working with guys that were difficult, and we liked the challenge.”

Having played with the greats, the Swampers didn’t consider Christmas soul. But compared to Nyro’s previous records, it was a forlorn prayer, her soft soprano intermingling defeat and hope. When she told the NYT about the USA’s imminent birth, she envisaged a battle between “those who love life and those who are on the side of death”. Now, she was trying to find goodness in a city that seemed firmly on the side of death in 1970. Violent crime had exploded, Nixon was president, and in 1969, police assaulted the LBGT community (which Nyro would later join) at Stonewall. “The world is going through a moral revolution and I feel like a mirror in a storm, a mirror that’s smashed against the earth,” Nyro told a reporter in 1970. But she saw politicisation as a sign of maturity. “At a certain age you become aware of your country,” she said in 1971. “With my first LP all I thought about was my songs… I believe there is a world inside and outside each person. The more together you are inside, the more you can reach out with wisdom.” By 1994, her philosophy had developed. “If you have a vision of peace, it’s strange to live in a world of war. If you’re a woman who honours her roots, it’s strange to be in a male-dominated business.” Music helped transcend that disparity. “You get beyond the suffering. You focus on the sweetness of your vision.”

Christmas won raves from Melody Maker, “Stoney End” turned Barbra Streisand from showgirl to pop star, and Nyro’s hero Miles Davis supported her at San Francisco’s Fillmore East. With Tuna Fish Music at No 23 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Publishers of 1970, Nyro’s valuable catalogue bought her time to pursue a passion project. She was a lifelong fan of Labelle, who covered “Time And Love” for their 1971 debut.

That year, Nyro and Patti LaBelle met, bonded, and decided to make an LP of classic soul covers. Tapping into the same crossover potential seen by The 5th Dimension, Gonna Take A Miracle was made with Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia, and was an instant success, peaking at No 46.

In the new year, Nyro’s winning streak ended. Her Columbia contract was up, and Geffen was negotiating a new deal. Michele Kort’s biography recounts the details. Geffen thought that Nyro had peaked, and wanted to sell Tuna Fish Music to Columbia. To create hype, Geffen started talking to the press, and Nyro read that she would be leaving Columbia to join his new LA label, Asylum. Feeling exploited, she fled to Alan Merrill in Tokyo, and chose Columbia for publishing and recording. “Her exact words were, ‘You’re a great manager but I’m not sure you can run a label,’” Merrill recalls. “‘Why don’t you start the label with Jackson [Browne] and see how it goes?’ Geffen insisted she be his first artist. Laura wanted to stay on the same label as Dylan. It ended their relationship and broke her heart.”

Newly wed, the 24-year-old Nyro retreated to Connecticut, where she raised her newborn son alone after the marriage broke down. “She was disgusted with the whole music business,” says Merrill. “She had enough money to flip the industry off and live her life without scrutiny.” (In 1979, Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone that she envied Nyro’s vanishing act.) She wouldn’t reappear until 1975, when she made Smile with Charlie Calello. It was a severe move, but it was in keeping with Nyro’s fierce protection of her vision. Despite the lack of an explicit political viewpoint in her lyrics, she stood for liberation, both from social oppression and creative control. She’d made that clear on “And When I Die”, written in her teens: “Give me my freedom,” she sang. “All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.”

“She was always very private, very reclusive, even in the middle of all her success and audiences that adored her,” says Jackson Browne. “Maybe it was exactly what she wanted all along.”

“I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth,” Nyro said of this period in 1984. So, as ever, she simply set a new one.

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