New York’s Laura Nyro wrote a batch of hit songs in in the late 1960s, and is an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her confessional songs foreshadowed the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s, and she was cited as an inspiration by Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, and Todd Rundgren. Todd Rundgren stated that when he heard Nyro’s music, he “stopped writing songs like The Who and started writing songs like Laura.”
But for all of her achievements, Nyro was effectively a cult artist. She was never quite in tune with the times – she peaked before the singer-songwriter fad of the early 1970s, when her music would have been fashionable. Her debut album, More Than A New Discovery, is full of strong songs, but the straightforward arrangements didn’t belong in 1967, dominated by psychedelic rock.
Nyro was from the Bronx, and her father was a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. She was inspired by a melting pot of New York sounds – R&B, gospel, Broadway, and pop are all in her musical DNA. At the age of 17 Nyro recorded a demo of ‘And When I Die’, which was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. After an excellent series of albums between 1967 and 1971, she quit the music business, married a Vietnam war veteran and moved to the country. She would later return to the music business after her divorce, but only recorded four further albums before her death from ovarian cancer at the age of 49.
Nyro’s best records are adventurous, with tempo and rhythm changes. Her voice is rich and powerful, but perhaps an acquired taste. While Nyro’s songs sometimes go in unexpected directions, her personal lyrics and pop hooks give listeners plenty to hold onto. Nyro’s music is deep and fascinating, and she’s a pioneer of expressive, impressionist music in pop music. I’ve covered most of her albums, but not the last few.
Laura Nyro Album Reviews
More Than A New Discovery | Eli and the Thirteenth Confession | New York Tendaberry | Christmas and the Beads of Sweat | Gonna Take A Miracle | Smile | Nested | Mother’s Spiritual | Walk the Dog and Light the Light
Favourite Album: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
Overlooked Gem: Christmas and the Beads of Sweat
More Than A New Discovery
Laura Nyro was still a teenager when she released her debut album. It was recorded with Verve Records, who didn’t allow Nyro to play piano or to arrange her material, instead using session professionals. The result is a very strait-laced album that nevertheless showcases Nyro’s song-writing and vocal talents. These songs are more linear than Nyro’s subsequent albums, and a bunch of them ended up as hits for other artists – Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The 5th Dimension, and Barbra Streisand all subsequently scored top ten singles from this pool of songs.
While it’s not as immersive and impressionistic as what was to come from Nyro, these songs are strong enough to withstand the routine arrangements. ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ was later a number one hit for The 5th Dimension, but the arrangement here is very similar, but failed to crack the top 100. Despite the straightforward nature of the record, ‘Stoney End’ and ‘And When I Die’ are subversive with pokes at Christianity, while using a gospel palette. Uptempo pieces like ‘California Shoeshine Boys’ and ‘Flim Flam Man’ are fun, while the mellow ‘He’s A Runner’ is beautiful.
Nyro would become more interesting when she had more control over he arrangements, but there’s an impressive core of songs on More Than A New Discovery.
More Than A New Discovery was re-released in 1973 as The First Songs with a rearranged track order, and it’s this version that I’m familiar with.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
Nyro released her second album through Columbia, and was given creative control, playing piano, producing alongside Charlie Calello, and even including a perfumed lyric sheet. The songs aren’t markedly different from the straightforward pop songs of More Than A New Discovery, but Nyro is allowed to inject them with more panache. Opener ‘Luckie’ begins with a dramatic fanfare launching immediately into Nyro’s vocal, while Nyro’s allowed to utilise the tempo changes and dramatic crescendos characteristic of her music.
I enjoy Nyro’s trick of combining two song titles to make the album title – she used it again with Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. The most memorable songs were again turned into hits by other artists – ‘Eli’s Coming’ was later a hit for Three Dog Night, but it’s less interesting than Nyro’s, lacking her complex vocal arrangement and the memorable outro with Nyro’s mantra like vocals over drums and bass. ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ has a strange charm, with Nyro’s alliteration (surry, sassafras) and dreamy groove. ‘Emmie’ is presumably the first lesbian love song in pop music. Most of the songs on the record are upbeat and driven by Nyro’s piano, but the moody, dramatic ‘December’s Boudoir’ is more like the material to come on New York Tendaberry.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is a terrific pop album that’s been largely overlooked by the 1960s canon.
New York Tendaberry
Producer Roy Halee built the arrangements around for New York Tendaberry around Nyro’s unique approach. “There was no straight time,” Halee stated in the album’s liner notes. “It was all rubato. She would slow down and speed up, totally by feel – which is what I wanted. Later, however, bringing in musicians for overdubs was tough. We had the best New York cats come in. But I remember afterwards, one of them said to me, ‘Man, don’t ever do this to me again.'”
The resulting album is often sparse, spotlighting Nyro’s piano and dramatic vocals – often orchestration adds splashes of cover, but there’s little rock instrumentation. This approach brings out the emotion of Nyro’s music – New York Tendaberry is romantic, spiritual, and filled with emotion.
The upbeat ‘Time and Love’ is an anomaly in the track-list – with its fast tempo and positive chorus, it’s a welcome change of pace. A bonus track, an earlier single version of ‘Save The Country’, with a fast and full arrangement is an interesting pointer at the direction than Nyro was considering, but the slower, statelier version on the album proper is more satisfying, and accelerates into a rousing crescendo.
My favourite song though is the haunting ‘Captain for Dark Mornings’, which builds from simpering verse into heart-wrenching screams in the climactic chorus. There’s also the pretty, low key material like ‘Gibsom Street’ and the title track, which demands attention. Nyro’s idiosyncratic take on soul is spot-lighted on ‘The Man Who Sends Me Home’ and ‘Sweet Lovin’ Baby’.
New York Tendaberry is often astonishing, a 21 year old maverick songwriter at the height of her daring.
Christmas and the Beads of Sweat
Nyro’s fourth album can be thought of as the concluding part of a trilogy – the three albums of originals she made in her early twenties for CBS Records. It’s pitched between its two predecessors, with two distinct halves. The first half follows the pop approach of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, albeit a little more mature and subdued, utilising the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. The second side is more esoteric and mystical, like New York Tendaberry, with slow tempos and focused on Nyro’s piano.
Despite the generalisation about each side’s tone, there is an exception from each half. ‘Been on a Train’ from side one is an intense solo piece with just Nyro and her piano, covering the travails of drug use. It’s nestled on the track-list next to Nyro’s only hit song as a performer, a chilled take on Carole King’s ‘Up On The Roof’. Despite the lengthy title, ‘When I Was A Freeport And You Were The Main Drag’ is a tuneful and succinct song that could have been a hit.
On the second side, the sexy ‘Beads of Sweat’ opens in stately, sensual fashion, but gains pace with Chuck Rainey’s bass, and climaxes with Duane Allman’s lead guitar. But the tone of the second half is mostly sparse and elegant, like the pretty ‘Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp’, driven by a pretty piano motif, and ‘Map to the Treasure’, which showcases Alice Coltrane’s harp.
It’s not as vibrant as Eli or Tendaberry, but Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is a very strong record in its own right, capturing a more mature and thoughtful Nyro.
Gonna Take a Miracle
Nyro first met Patti LaBelle in 1970, at an interview. Patti LaBelle’s vocal trio, LaBelle, collaborated with Nyro on her next project, an album of songs from Nyro’s youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. R&B had always been part of Nyro’s musical vocabulary on her early albums, but it’s centre-stage here.
Gonna Take a Miracle draws from a range of 1960s US songwriters – it’s heavy on Motown, but there’s also Brill Building pop. The songs are re-contextualised, recorded in the more liberated early 1970s, by grown women. They’re stretched out to longer running times, and all of this amplifies their meanings.
The album starts with the doo wop, mostly a capella ‘Met Him On A Monday’, where all four of vocalists pass around the lines. There’s upbeat material, like the medley of ‘Monkey Time’, which takes in ‘Dancing in the Streets’. My favourite songs are the delicate reading of Marvin Gaye’s ‘The Bells’, and Nyro’s sensual take on ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’.
I’m more inclined to enjoy Nyro’s personal and introspective earlier albums, but Gonna Take a Miracle is an excellent covers record, with beautiful vocals infusing well-known songs with new meaning.
Nyro took a four year hiatus in the early 1970s, marrying a Vietnam War veteran and moving to small town Massachusetts. After losing her mother to ovarian cancer and divorcing, she returned to music. Smile is softer and tamer than her previous records, but it’s adventurous compared to most soft-rock. Her voice is still rich and unpredictable. Nyro explores Japanese textures on the title track, while opening the record with a cover of ‘Sexy Mama’ is a provocative move.
Unusually for Nyro, ‘Stormy Love’ is based around acoustic guitar – referencing her divorce, it’s the emotional centrepiece of the record. The use of kotos in the outro gives the the title track an exploratory feel, while ‘Money’ ventures into R&B. ‘Children of the Junks’ wouldn’t be acceptable now – “Children of the Junks/Slant-eyed” is a problematic opening couplet. There’s a Japanese version of Smile with three extra demos at the end – none of these songs made it onto the final record. Stripped back and centred around Nyro’s piano, they both recall her earlier work and make the album feel more substantial.
Older and calmer, Nyro is still tuneful and creative, and Smile is a worthy comeback.
Settled in Danbury, Connecticut, a pregnant Nyro recorded Nested in her home studio. Not surprisingly given the circumstances, it’s her calmest set of songs yet. Nested failed to make the US Top 200, but it’s tuneful enough to be enjoyable. The cast of musicians is much smaller than the previous record, but the core band includes Will Lee, Andy Newmark, and future Kiss guitarist Vinnie Cusano. Guests include Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere on keyboards, John Sebastian on harmonica, and Tony Levin.
The more mellow material is often the strongest, but not as distinctly Nyro as usual – the smooth jazz of ‘American Dreamer’ recalls mid-1970s Joni Mitchell, while the pretty ‘Child In A Universe’ dips into hippie sentiments. The opener ‘Mr Blue (Song of Communication)’ is the most memorable song in an album of pretty but unmemorable tunes, but it’s bogged down by its monologues.
Nested is serviceable, but it’s lacking in inspiration compared to Nyro’s best work.
Ten Favourite Laura Nyro Songs
Captain for Dark Mornings
Stoned Soul Picnic
Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp
Beads of Sweat
When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag
New York Tendaberry
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