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.
The July 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our exclusive interview with Roger Waters on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Evan Dando, Jason Isbell, Steve Van Zandt and Kevin Morby and we look at shoegazing and the Scottish folk revival. We review The Beatles, Fleet Foxes, U2, Van Morrison and Dan Auerbach. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Can, Richard Dawson, Saint Etienne, Ride, The Unthanks, Songhoy Blues and more.