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.”
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.