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.
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.
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.
from Gonna Take a Miracle, 1971
Nyro’s fifth studio project was a change in approach, 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?