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Laura Nyro

Although never garnering the same recognition and respect as her singer-songwriter peers CAROLE KING, JONI MITCHELL, CARLY SIMON and JANIS IAN, Laura’s wealth lay in the depth and dexterity of her many hits recorded by other artists; BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS, The 5th Dimension and THREE DOG NIGHT have a lot to thank the lady.
Born Laura Nigro, October 18, 1947, The Bronx, New York City, NY, she was the daughter of a jazz trumpeter, Louis Nigro. Laura began songwriting at the tender age of 8; later attending Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, where she underwent a bad LSD trip. An aversion to hallucinogens was not the only thing separating Laura from the burgeoning hippie movement: the crowd at 1967’s Monterey Festival not initially warming to her soul revue-style performance. Only her second ever experience in front a live audience, this allegedly unfortunate incident resulted in prolonged stage fright during the early part of her career.
Nevertheless, the singer/songwriter’s concurrent debut album, MORE THAN A NEW DISCOVERY {*8} – while doing little to trouble the charts when released that January – contained a wealth of material which would later be successfully interpreted by other artists; close harmony popsters The 5th Dimension took `Wedding Bell Blues’ to No.1 in 1969 (and later `Blowin’ Away’ to #21), while BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS almost managed a similar feat with `And When I Die’; Barbra Streisand duly carried the gospel-ish `Stoney End’ into the Top 10. Among the cream of NYRO’s work, these tracks managed to marry her wayward poetic flights of confessional fancy with killer hooks and a melodic verve in a way which she’d find hard to sustain over the course of her career.
In the meantime, a young David Geffen was impressed enough to drop everything and offer the pianist/composer his services as manager; the future record mogul soon secured her a deal at Columbia Records. The resulting follow-up set, ELI AND THE THIRTEENTH CONFESSION (1968) {*8}, found NYRO honing her unique take on white jazz/soul/gospel/R&B; the singer’s lamenting/rapturous testimonials delivered with characteristically idiosyncratic phrasing atop unconventional arrangements and time changes. Despite her quirky style, there was enough hit potential in the material to provide yet more high-end chart success for aforesaid beneficiaries The 5th Dimension (`Stoned Soul Picnic’ and `Sweet Blindness’), while THREE DOG NIGHT went Top 10 with a cover of `Eli’s Coming’.
NYRO herself eventually enjoyed a bit of belated Top 40 chart action with 1969’s NEW YORK TENDABERRY {*8}, an even more oblique set of unadorned piano/vocal expressionism. Her heart and soul offered up on a plate, producer Ray Halee toned down the orchestral accompaniment, instead letting it punctuate her passionate vocals and piano intermittently to let the lady simply sing. `Time And Love’ was commandeered by Streisand for a minor hit a few years on, but this time around the intricate complexity of `Save The Country’ (another flop 45 for Laura), `You Don’t Love Me When I Cry’ and the upbeat `Captain Saint Lucifer’, were worth sticking around for.
Not exactly full of festive fervour, 1970’s CHRISTMAS AND THE BEADS OF SWEAT {*7} was a near Top 50 album of two halves: the first side featuring the Arif Mardin-produced Swampers from Muscle Shoals (i.e. musicians Eddie Hinton, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett and Jack Jennings) and the second side showcasing Felix Cavaliere squad Dino Danelli, Chuck Rainey, Ralph McDonald, Duane Allman, Cornell Dupree and Alice Coltrane). An autumnal reading of GOFFIN & KING’s `Up On The Roof’ had been chosen as the preview single, her only ever home-soil hit at #92, while the set itself (reining in the upbeat `When I Was A Freeport And You Were The Main Drag’, the fragile 8-minute `Map To The Treasure’ and the most heart-breaking Xmas track of all time, `Christmas In Your Soul’), was never the commercial commodity some might have put in their Santa wish-list.
Side-stepping her usual bleak outlook, GONNA TAKE A MIRACLE (1971) {*8}, stands as perhaps NYRO’s most enjoyable outing; a Gamble/Huff-produced tribute to the pop/soul sounds of the 60s, which saw the singer hooking up with LABELLE (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) and covering such standards as `I Met Him On A Sunday’, `Jimmy Mack’, `Spanish Harlem’, `You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’, `Nowhere To Run’ and the medley of `Monkey Time’ and `Dancing In The Street’.
Having just married David Bianchini, and taking time out to live in rural New England, it didn’t quite blossom as she planned. After five years away from the music world, she divorced and re-established her ties with Columbia for “comeback” set, SMILE (1976) {*7}; the record meeting with largely favourable reviews but achieving only minor (#60) chart success. Opening with a cover of The MOMENTS’ `Sexy Mama’, NYRO’s soft-rock/light-jazz appeal was unfairly compared to JONI MITCHELL, who’d just released her “Summer Lawns” set. Underlining the prowess of the Brecker Brothers (Randy and Michael), plus Hugh McCracken and Rick Marotta, tracks such as `I Am The Blues’, `Stormy Love’, `Midnite Blue’ and the concluding title track, fitted in well with her positively laid-back mood swings.
She seemed to have lost her momentum and subsequent albums, SEASON OF LIGHTS… LAURA NYRO IN CONCERT (1977) {*7} – her “Miles Of Aisles” some would say – and
NESTED (1978) {*6}, met with diminishing critical and commercial returns. While it would be almost impossible to top her “best of” live turns, there was at least contentment singing about impending childbirth a la `The Nest’, `Child In A Universe’ and `Crazy Love’, while a more serious side concerning wayward publishing royalties (allegedly procured by her former manager), `American Dreamer’ expressed that she wasn’t going to take this lying down.
Over the ensuing decade, the reclusive/reluctant singer released only one further studio album, MOTHER’S SPIRITUAL (1984) {*5}; here NYRO further embraced an eco-conscious, Earth-Mother philosophy as she entered middle age. Despite her low-profile approach, sporadic live performances were not uncommon, and a rare NYC concert set, LAURA: LAURA NYRO LIVE AT THE BOTTOM LINE {*7}, was unfettered by Cypress Records in 1989. Growing with confidence over the years, it proved she could match up some of her own golden oldies with that of ones by others (including `High Heel Sneakers’ and a finale medley of `La La Means I Love You’, `Trees Of The Ages’ and the aforementioned `Up On The Roof’.
Modern-day female singer/songwriter, SHAWN COLVIN, acknowledged the debt her generation owed to NYRO’s innovations, when she teamed up the following year with the cult singer on a one-off US-only single, `Let It Be Me’. NYRO, meanwhile, proved that she was still actually capable of producing the goods when she felt like it; 1993’s WALK THE DOG & LIGHT THE LIGHT {*6} garnered a fair amount of critical acclaim. Bookended by inspirational covers from her teenage years, `Oh Yeah Maybe Baby (The Heebie Jeebies)’ and `I’m So Proud’ – `Dedicated To The One I Love’, she was more or less becoming the female equivalent to a romantic-mood TODD RUNDGREN.
Sadly, Laura was to die of ovarian cancer on April 8, 1997, at her home in Danbury, Connecticut. She left behind a legacy of graceful grooves and one posthumous studio set (recorded summer ’95), ANGEL IN THE DARK (2001) {*7}. It featured a handful of covers (from GOFFIN & KING’s `Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, Rodgers & Hart’s `He Was Too Good To Me’, and BACHARACH & DAVID’s `Be Aware’ and `Walk On By’, to Gilbert Becaud’s `Let It Be Me’, the Gershwins’ `Embraceable You’, The MIRACLES’ `Ooo Baby Baby’ and The DELFONICS’ `La La Means I Love You’. A fitting way to end what should’ve been a glittering career; that said, she was still a star in the eyes and ears of many critics and music buffs.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2016

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