This is the second and final part of my tribute to the great singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, who had she lived would have been 70 years old in October 2017. Part one featured some of the many cover versions of Nyro songs. This post focuses on her artistry as a performer as well as songwriter. I’ve avoided the better known songs, such as And When I Die, Time and Love, and Stoned Soul Picnic, in favour of some of Laura’s lesser known, but equally brilliant, compositions – one from each of her solo studio albums, plus a bonus rare TV appearance.
He’s a Runner (1967)
This song from Nyro’s first album, More Than a New Discovery, features a simple but beautiful melody and a vocal performance of exceptional conviction and maturity by its teenage singer. Not for the last time, she is warning about a bad guy. Unlike the “Flim Flam Man” on the same album, who at least had “daily charm”, this one is really bad news. She knows this from personal experience: “Why oh why did you leave me and run off with tomorrow? Now I’m in chains till I die.”
The lament is given added poignancy by the chromatic harmonica work of Toots Thielmann, one of many leading jazz musicians to grace Laura’s albums; others included Alice Coltrane, the Brecker brothers, Joe Farrell, Zoot Sims and Lew Soloff. (Jazz players found it easier, perhaps, to handle her complex chord structures and frequent time changes.) The superb guitar and haunting oboe complete this perfect track.
There are excellent covers of this song by, among others, Mama Cass Elliott and Blood, Sweat & Tears but Laura’s remains the definitive version. Later in this post you can see her performing it, along with Save the Country, on one of her rare TV appearances.
December’s Boudoir (1968)
Aspiring lyricists should sleep with this song under their pillow every night. The first verse runs:
Kisses from you in the flames of December’s boudoir,
They fill me like melons,
Touch me with chivalry,
Truly I know, truly I know who you are.
December will bear our affair,
Running on streets of delight and Decemberry ice.
Nyro’s imagery, however unorthodox, always sounds just right – “trains of trust, trains of gold and dust”; “red yellow honey, sassafras and moonshine”, “tassels in the morning sky” – and if the word or phrase didn’t exist, she’d simply invent one: Decemberry, surry, Tendaberry, blackpatch. As for those December kisses, she sings of “love coloured soul, love coloured soul kissing spice”; then with a daring switch of tempo characteristic of Nyro the song speeds up, before a final paradoxical, intoxicating image: “mainstream marzipan sweet, baking out in December heat”.
The penultimate track on the album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, December’s Boudoir is complemented by the final song, The Confession, which takes those kisses to a logical conclusion in an astonishing (especially for its time) expression of female sexuality. “Love my love thing, love is surely gospel” was not, I can assure you, the kind of thing we were used to hearing on Shindig! or Top of the Pops.
Charlie Calello, who arranged and produced the album, said: “You look at a great painting and say, ‘Ah, this is Monet, this is Renoir.’ Well, when you heard a Laura Nyro song, you knew it was Laura Nyro.”
Captain for Dark Mornings (1969)
What a great title. And the song hasn’t even started yet. When it does, we are once again brought face to face with feelings of almost overwhelming intimacy and intensity. And there’s an apparent paradox: Laura may be a strong, independent woman, but her love for this man makes her “soft and silly”; she would “lay me down and die for my captain”. The fadeout, as she whispers “Captain, say Yes” over descending chords, is the musical equivalent of the last page of Joyce’s Ulysses.
New York Tendaberry, Laura’s masterpiece, is full of special moments like this. From the opening bars of the stunning You Don’t Love Me When I Cry to the final whispered “New York Tendaberry” of the closing title track, it’s a hymn to the ambiguous appeal of her beloved New York City, to its dangers (“the devil is hungry”) and delights (“the devil is sweet”).
The New York theme continues on this track from the next album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Blackpatch is another vivid evocation of the city, where “tugboats paint the river” and “clothes spin on washropes, window to window tie”. Such vivid imagery enhances an upbeat song in which the typical Nyro shuffle beat really gets into its groove.
Columbia, her record company, generally allowed Laura almost complete artistic freedom but tried to persuade her to change the title of the album because people might think it was a Christmas record, and the stores would only stock it in the holiday season! She refused. Christmas in My Soul, the strongly political closing track, is not exactly Frosty the Snowman. The album, co-produced by Rascal Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin, features some amazing musicians including Alice Coltrane on harp, Duane Allman on guitar and the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section.
Stormy Love (1976)
After Gonna Take a Miracle (1971), in which Laura and backing singers Labelle superbly reimagined her favourite soul songs, such as You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me and Nowhere to Run, she did not release an album for five years. When Smile appeared in 1976, her life had changed drastically: she had married and divorced, and moved from New York to a rural idyll in Connecticut. Stormy Love deals with the former: “I’ll pack my boots and pearls, baby it’s a stormy world, and you were my everything.” But she is defiant – “I might spread my wings, gotta do so many things” – and the mood of the album, captured in the achingly beautiful title track, is positive.
The Sweet Sky (1978)
Spoiler alert: if you don’t know this song, prepare yourself for nearly a minute and a half of pure bliss after the key change at around 2:15 as a multi-tracked Nyro repeats the refrain “sweeter than the sweet sky”. If that suggests a mellower Laura than on some of her earlier work, the album, Nested, was recorded in her home studio in Danbury, Connecticut, when she was pregnant with her son Gil. Pregnancy seems to have agreed with her: “Brown shiny nest, up in a tree, maple and warm, like the nest in me” she sings in The Nest, and when she toured the album, heavily pregnant, she told the audience: “We’re both really happy to be here.”
To a Child (1984)
With a gorgeous melody that somehow sounds as if it was always there and Laura just plucked it from the sky, the first track on the 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual is dedicated to Gil, her “elf on speed”. It’s a deeply touching song about parenthood that is both honest (“I’m so tired, you’re so wired”) and uplifting: “I smile as you reach above the climbin’ bars, to see the stars, you are my love, child my love.” This song meant a lot to Nyro as she rerecorded it for her next album, nine years later, and continued to perform it live for the rest of her life. Overall, the album exudes a calm and peace as Laura comes to terms with motherhood, her relationship with her lover, Maria Desiderio, and issues that had become increasingly important to her such as feminism, animal rights and the natural world.
A Woman of the World (1993)
From the excellent Walk the Dog and Light the Light, the last studio album released in Laura’s lifetime. “I was a foolish girl, now I’m a woman of the world, wisdom be mine” she sings above a lilting melody and chord structure that might have been composed in heaven. Broken Rainbow, another song from the album, contains as pure a vocal performance as any in Nyro’s career.
The point about these later songs, which some (usually male) critics compared unfavourably with the passion and intensity of Nyro’s earlier work, is that throughout her career she took us on a journey, mirroring the kind of life events that happen to us all. Her songs invite us into the most intimate places at every point of her life in a way that is rare in a pop artist. Love won, lost, lasting; friendship, joy and sorrow; birth, death and bereavement – she takes us into all these places and when you listen to her, it’s like a conversation with a close friend (or in my case – I’m six years younger than Laura – a big sister).
Triple Goddess Twilight (2001)
On this lovely song from the posthumously released album Angel of the Dark, Laura sings movingly about her late mother, Gilda Nigro:
Mother, you died young and left me
Your twilight colours
Rose, ah, burgundy, coral mist
What are the shades of loneliness.
Triple Goddess Twilight
Late sky violet and pink
All roads lead to Venus
I’ll meet you there
In your dream of progress.
Save the Country (1969)
There are lots of live albums of Laura’s concerts, the best of which are Season of Lights (1977) – the complete version, not the badly edited one that appeared on vinyl – and Live at the Bottom Line (1989). You can find tantalising snippets of live performance on video but Nyro refused to appear on television. Although she made a lot of money from songwriting royalties, she wasn’t particularly interested in money and she certainly wasn’t interested in fame or playing the game.
It seems barely credible that her highest chart positions were No 32 for the New York Tendaberry album and No 92 for Up on the Roof (a single which, though charming, was not one of her songs). This is someone who at one time was managed by David Geffen, who could have made her into a different kind of star if she had wanted it.
But if she was disappointed that her records did not sell more, it was because she wanted people to hear her music, not turn her into a superstar. “If musical talent was the sole criterion by which pop musicians were judged, Laura Nyro would be up there with The Beatles and Frank Sinatra,” wrote the distinguished British critic, Robert Sandall. “Innovation and originality on the scale she preferred do not always get their just rewards.”
Anyway, to finish where we started, here is a rare treat: introduced by Bobby Darin, TV performances of He’s a Runner and her gospel anthem, Save the Country.
No one else would have written the line “Babes in the blinkin’ sun sang ‘we shall overcome’ … ” Twenty years after her death, Laura still speaks to those of us whose lives have been touched by her genius, and inspires us to believe that we can indeed “build the dream with love”.
With thanks to Michele Kort’s biography, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro (Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002).
Last modified: November 13, 2017