Laura Nyro (1947-97) was a unique talent who blazed a trail for all the female singer-songwriters who came after her. And plenty of male ones too. “I idolised her,” says Elton John in this interview. “She influenced more successful songwriters than probably anyone else.”
Named Laura after the haunting eponymous theme of Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir, Nyro drew inspiration from a variety of music sources – jazz, blues, soul, folk, pop, gospel, Broadway – to create a style of her own that, musically and lyrically, combined moments of fierce passion with those of heart-melting intimacy, often in the same song.
Even if you’ve never heard of her, you have heard someone who was influenced by her. (Or someone who was influenced by someone who was influenced by her.) Joni Mitchell said: “I looked to her.” Suzanne Vega said: “When she sang she made us beautiful.” Rickie Lee Jones called her “America’s greatest songwriter”. Stephen Sondheim, Alice Cooper and Prince were all Nyro fans.
You’ve probably heard some of her songs. When Laura played Carnegie Hall in New York for Thanksgiving in November 1969, no fewer than three of her compositions graced the US Top 10. She was 22 years old. You can hear all three below, along with a selection of other interesting cover versions. Although the best way to experience Laura’s songs is by listening to her performing them, I’m saving that treat for the second part of this tribute. Today, let’s experience Laura the way most people did – through the interpretations of other artists who knew her songs were something special.
The 5th Dimension: Wedding Bell Blues (1969)
The video may be cheesy but Marilyn McCoo’s superb vocal and Laura Nyro’s songwriting craft – “in your voice I hear a choir of carousels” – turn this into an ageless pop classic. It got to No 3 in the US charts. The 5th Dimension (initially The Versatiles) were a fine sunshine pop quintet, produced by the king of that genre, Bones Howe, and they were excellent interpreters of Nyro songs, returning to her regularly for material. Their version of Blackpatch, for example, is superb. You can also see and hear them performing Laura’s Sweet Blindness here – with Frank Sinatra, who looks about as comfortable as a nudist climbing a barbed-wire fence.
Three Dog Night: Eli’s Coming (1969)
Three Dog Night were originally Redwood; the name change was based on the idea that Indigenous Australians sleep with three dingos on cold nights in the outback. Their success was based on three good lead singers and, like The 5th Dimension, choosing good songs – which is where Laura Nyro came in. Eli’s Coming (they added the G), her second Top 10 song in the same week, got to No 10. The lines “I walked to Apollo and the bay” are “a seven-word condensation of the story of Daphne and Apollo” according to Stacking the Wax: the structure of Laura Nyro’s studio albums, an essay by Patricia Spence Rudden.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: And When I Die (1970)
Here’s a live version of the third November 1969 Nyro hit (it reached No 2 in the US, No 1 in Canada and New Zealand). B, S & T have been unfashionable for so long that it’s really about time people gave them another listen. Some fine harmonica from Steve Katz and excellent blue-eyed soul vocals by David Clayton-Thomas feature here. The song is a remarkably mature composition by the teenage Laura, in which she is “not scared of dying” because, when she’s dead and gone, there’ll be “one child born … to carry on”.
The United States Army Band: Laura Nyro Suite (1970)
This is a real curio: I was expecting a patriotic Sousa-esque marching band style, but in fact these guys turn out to have real jazz chops and this medley of Eli’s Comin’, Woman’s Blues, He’s a Runner and Once It Was Alright Now (Farmer Joe) is an unexpected treat. As the US Army was up to its neck in Vietnam at the time, there’s something slyly subversive about performing the work of a woman who wrote (in Save the Country) about how she would “ride that dove … in my mind I can’t study war no more”.
Barbra Streisand: I Never Meant to Hurt You (1971)
When Streisand decided to trade in her gown and Broadway tunes for jeans and a more contemporary style, it was Laura Nyro who helped her become cool, contributing the title track and two others to the diva’s excellent Stoney End album and this stunning ballad to its follow-up (also in 1971), Barbra Joan Streisand. I Never Meant to Hurt You, like so much of Nyro’s early work, is remarkably assured and mature; like And When I Die, it’s from her first album, recorded when she was just 19.
Jane Siberry: When I Think of Laura Nyro (1997)
This beautifully arranged medley of Stoned Soul Picnic, Wedding Bell Blues, Eli’s Comin’ and And When I Die was the Canadian’s contribution to the tribute album Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro.
Swing Out Sister: Stoned Soul Picnic (2012)
Andy Connell and Corinne Drewery first covered this Nyro classic on their 1997 album Shapes and Patterns, and Corinne channels her inner Laura on this fine live version. The band, incidentally, named themselves after the 1945 comedy film Swing Out, Sister (“a hep-capade of fun … in a serenade of joy!”).
Sara Bareilles: Stoney End (2012)
In 2012, Laura Nyro was (not before time) inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. This stunning performance – by an artist who was not even born until 10 years after the song was written – was, for me, the highlight of the ceremony.
Becca Stevens and Billy Childs: The Confession (2014)
Jazz pianist Billy Childs, a longstanding Nyro champion and admirer of the complex harmonics in her work, released the album Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro in 2014. It features excellent performances by, among others, Alison Krauss, Dianne Reeves, Wayne Shorter and Yo-Yo Ma. Laura did not have happy memories of Monterey, where she appeared at the 1967 Pop Festival, backed (after just one rehearsal) by the famous Wrecking Crew, who did not really get her; she believed, wrongly, that the audience were booing her, so there is perhaps something satisfying for Nyro fans to hear the Monterey Jazz Festival giving such a great reception to these exciting new interpretations of her timeless songs.
Coming soon in part two: Laura Nyro performs some of her greatest songs (and some less well-known ones): one from each of her albums.
Last modified: November 13, 2017