Laura Nyro: Five Best Songs

Despite writing hit songs in the late 1960s and her induction into the rock and roll hall of fame, Laura Nyro is a niche figure compared to contemporaries like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. But the piano playing singer-songwriter from the Bronx made some stunning records. She was a couple of years ahead of the curve with her confessional, impressionist songs – other songwriters who followed in Nyro’s wake, like Mitchell, Elton John, and Todd Rundgren have admitted her influence on their own style.

While Nyro’s filed under pop singer-songwriter, her work took on influence from the other sounds around her growing up in New York, like soul and Broadway. Nyro’s music was also marked by untamed tempo changes and crescendos driven by her powerful voice. Her free-spirited music resulted in some great records that have flown a little under the radar.

Here are my favourite songs from each of Nyro’s first five studio albums. This burst of initial creativity between 1967 and 1971 is Nyro’s most acclaimed and prolific period. In 1971 she married and retired from music, and her recording career was sparser thereafter. Even after she returned to music following her divorce, she only made another four studio albums before her premature death from ovarian cancer at the age of 49.

Stoney End

from More Than A New Discovery, 1967
Nyro’s first album was released while she was still a teenager, and Nyro didn’t play piano or arrange her songs, resulting in an album of straightforward pop. But it puts the spotlight on Nyro’s excellent songs, and these songs later became hits in the hands of Barbra Streisand, The 5th Dimension, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. ‘Stoney End’ was taken to US#6 by Streisand in 1971. Nyro’s original juxtaposes a gospel-tinged sound with lyrics that question religion.

Eli’s Coming

from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, 1968
Nyro had much more creative input into her second album. This allowed her to inject more of her musical personality into these songs. Nyro’s piano underpins her version of ‘Eli’s Coming’, later a top ten hit for Three Dog Night. I’m bemused as to why Nyro’s version wasn’t the hit – her take features her rich, multi-layered vocal arrangements, and a drum and bass outro groove that wasn’t retained on the cover.

Captain for Dark Mornings

from New York Tendaberry, 1969
1969’s New York Tendaberry is Nyro’s most untamed record, with Nyro’s free flowing piano and vocals punctuated by orchestral interjections. The songs are dramatic, and feature little rock instrumentation. ‘Captain for Dark Mornings’ is a good example of Nyro’s approach, with the simpering verses building into huge vocal crescendos and rousing orchestral sections. I have no idea what it’s about (“I’ve been sold by sailors, I’ve been worn by tailors, soldiers wound me”) but I love it anyway.

Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp

from Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, 1970
Nyro’s fourth album is a like a halfway point between Eli and Tendaberry – the first side features straightforward songs, including a cover of Carole King’s ‘Up On The Roof’, while the second side is more free-flowing and mystical. ‘Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp’ is from the second side, and it’s built around a gorgeous piano line from Nyro.

The Bells

from Gonna Take a Miracle, 1971
Nyro’s fifth studio project was a change in approach from her free flowing original songs. Gonna Take a Miracle was a collaboration with vocal group Labelle, utilising the Philly soul sound with production from Gamble and Huff, and comprising of covers from the late 1950s and early 1960s. ‘The Bells’ was actually a relatively recent song, written by Marvin Gaye for The Originals in 1970, and its intricate melody showcases Nyro and Labelle’s vocal abilities.

Do you have a favourite Laura Nyro song or album?

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  1. I love Laura Nyro so much — I would go so far as to say she is in my top 5 artists (at least)! Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is probably my favourite album (the beautiful ‘December’s Boudoir’ and ‘Emmie’, plus the title track…), but some of the songs from her first collection — like ‘Stoney End’ and ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ — are really perfect pop songs too.

    • Great that someone in the blogosphere is a big fan. Eli is my favourite from her too, although New York Tendaberry pushes it close.
      I would have liked it if she’d gone back and re-recorded the first album later in her career. Feels like her artistic vision wasn’t realised, even though the songs are good.

  2. An artist i need to explore more- I loved Eli and The Thirteenth Confession. I recently bought Gonna Take A Miracle but haven’t played it yet. Thanks for the guide to her music.

  3. I have been listening to Eli for 50 years. For me it is one of the greatest albums ever made. I feel the same about New York Tendaberry. Christmas and the beads of sweat is nearly equal. Gonna take a miracle and the first songs are also near the top.They make up 5 phenomenal albums. They have been with me all of my life. Some people like Smile but it did not hit me as much. One song from a later album really moves me, The title song for Mothers Spiritual. I can listen to it over and over and never get enough. Oddly the Japanese restaurant song is really great. The later albums are good but not as great for me but I know that some people really like them. Each of these albums have great songs. A recent song to have surfaced – The moon song – would have really been great for the first album. Too bad we don’t have a produced version of it only a demo. This woman had the talent of Gershwin and it should be recognized as such.

    • Thanks for writing in! I’ve been enjoying revisiting Nyro over the last couple of weeks – I’ve owned the first three for 10 or 15 years (I wasn’t even alive 50 years ago), but Christmas and Miracle are newer to me.
      I have been listening to Smile a little – it sounds like Nyro, but I’m not sure if the songs are quite there like they were before. She is quite sophisticated for a pop composer who placed a bunch of songs on the charts – I don’t know enough Gershwin to make the connection.

  4. Top Laura Nyro songs
    You don’t love me when I cry
    Mercy on Broadway
    Captain Saint Lucifer
    Buy and sell
    Blowing away
    Lazy Susan
    Spanish Harlem
    Up on the Roof
    Wedding Bell Blues
    Stoney End
    I never meant to hurt you

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