Whatever role Laura Nyro chose to play – earth mother, soul sister, angel of the Bronx subways – she committed to it. With a soaring, open-hearted voice and ingeniously crafted compositions, Nyro transformed a range of influences into her own kind of art song. She made vertiginous shifts from hushed reveries to ecstatic gospel-driven shout-ups with an intensity and a courage that, as Elton John would point out, left its mark on many contemporaries who achieved greater commercial success.
As the music of the 1960s reached a climax, no one else merged the new songwriting freedoms pioneered by Bob Dylan with the pop sensibility of the Brill Building tunesmiths to such intriguing effect. As a teenager, she wrote And When I Die and Stoney End, songs that became hits for other artists. Her own enigmatically titled albums – Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat – showed a precociously sophisticated sensibility.
Later, rejecting commercial pressures, she would help push the boundaries of popular music by writing songs celebrating motherhood, female sexuality and her menstrual cycle. In the hearts of admirers, she kindled a loyalty fierce enough to withstand the semi-obscurity into which she had fallen by the time of her death from ovarian cancer in 1997, at 49. But a new generation will this month get to hear Nyro’s music, as American Dreamer, a box set containing her first seven albums and an eighth disc of rarities and live tracks, is released.
The dimming of her fame had been gradual and, to an extent, self-actuated. If her early songs seemed to give listeners the thrill of overhearing her innermost thoughts, she lived her adult life edging towards the spotlight before withdrawing to cope with personal upheavals, then re-emerging years later with songs that confounded expectations by explicitly affirming new commitments to radical feminism, animal rights and environmental activism.
She made her anticipated UK debut at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1971, with her then-boyfriend, Jackson Browne, as the support act. Her final visit, 23 years later, was to the Union Chapel in Islington, a more intimate affair, where she performed as if to family or friends, bathed in an outpouring of warmth. She had become the property of true believers, a following that expanded again as new generations discovered her inspiring originality.
Early admirers had included not only female counterparts such as Rickie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega but also Todd Rundgren (“I stopped writing songs like the Who and started writing songs like Laura Nyro”) and Elton John (“I idolised her. The soul, the passion, the out-and-out audacity … like nothing I’d ever heard before”). But to the music industry, there was the enduring problem of who, or what, she really was and where she belonged.
In the late 1960s, helped by a partnership with the ambitious young agent David Geffen, who became her manager, she was one of a handful of rising singer-songwriters. But Laurel Canyon hippy chic was never her costume. She had not emerged from the folk or rock traditions. She was a New Yorker, with Broadway and the Brill Building in her soul. Even when Browne was her boyfriend, part of her belonged to a different, pre-Beatles world.
That dissonance was apparent in her much-discussed appearance alongside the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane at the 1967 Monterey pop festival, a landmark event for the emerging counterculture. Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar and the Who destroyed their stage equipment, with career-defining impact in both cases. The mohair-suited Otis Redding, seemingly out of place, captivated what he called “the love crowd”. Janis Joplin so impressed Clive Davis, the president of Columbia Records, that she and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, were signed on the spot.
Nyro had made an effort. She took the stage in a sleeveless black gown, clutching the microphone with pale fingers that ended in long red-painted nails. She brought with her two female backing singers in matching dresses and a well-rehearsed band consisting of top Hollywood session men. The decision not to accompany herself on the piano robbed her of a certain credibility with this audience, and her songs sometimes seemed to be addressed elsewhere. “Kisses and love won’t carry me / ‘Til you marry me, Bill” – from Wedding Bell Blues – was a take on romance the audience associated with their parents’ generation.
Although some found her performance overwrought and uncomfortable, she was not booed off as legend has it. Footage shot by the documentary film-maker DA Pennebaker shows that she was being listened to as she drew out the a cappella delivery of Poverty Train’s climax for maximum effect: “Getting off on sweet cocaine / It feels so good …” But the underlying vibe was wrong, and she was spooked.
It didn’t help that when other people had hits with her songs, they were the wrong people. The Fifth Dimension (Wedding Bell Blues) were a supper-club soul act of the highest class. Barbra Streisand (Stoney End) was Broadway royalty. Blood, Sweat & Tears had shaken off all traces of their Greenwich Village origins by the time they recorded And When I Die. In the public mind, their superficial showbiz gloss transferred to the writer. Nevertheless, shortly after Monterey, Clive Davis also signed her following a private audition in which he was impressed by her conviction.
The songs she wrote for her Columbia albums continued to mine deeper feelings. She cast a golden glow on female friendship in the exquisite Emmie and stripped away all ornamentation to sing about addiction in Been on a Train. Sometimes she luxuriated in the exotic: “Where is your woman? Gone to Spanish Harlem, gone to buy you pastels, gone to buy you books.” In 1971, the year of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, she sang: “I love my country as it dies / In war and pain before my eyes.” Great musicians contributing to her albums included the harpist Alice Coltrane, the saxophonist Zoot Sims and the bassist Richard Davis, who had played on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
“Where did it come from?” Bette Midler would ask, wiping away real tears while inducting Nyro into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 15 years after her death. Her Italian-Ukrainian father, Lou Nigro, was a trumpeter in big bands; an uncle on her mother’s side was a cantor; on the record player at home there would be jazz, Broadway musicals, opera, folk songs and symphonies.
As she grew, she listened to the doo-wop groups whose songs she and her school friends practised in the subways. Miles Davis and John Coltrane were among her musical heroes. From 14 to 17, she attended the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, studying classical singing and counterpoint while looking, in the words of a friend quoted in Michele Kort’s excellent 2002 biography, Soul Picnic, “very much like a beatnik”. Her graduation ceremony, in the summer of 1965, was held at Carnegie Hall, on a stage from which she would one day give concerts under the name she adopted (and pronounced “Nero”) as soon as she started writing and performing professionally.
But in 1971, without a hit of her own from four albums of original songs, she decided to make an album of covers reflecting her roots, sourced from Motown, doo-wop and uptown soul, with harmonies supplied by her friends Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, collectively known as Labelle. Two years before David Bowie’s Pin-Ups and Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things, Nyro’s exhilarating Gonna Take a Miracle proved to be ahead of its time.
Dismayed by its commercial failure and the acrimonious end of her close relationship with Geffen, she took initial comfort from a marriage to David Bianchini, a handsome young college drop-out who had served in Vietnam and worked sporadically as a carpenter. They moved to a house in Danbury, Connecticut and she disappeared from view.
By the time she re-emerged in 1975, promoting a new album titled Smile, the marriage was over. Three years later another album, Nested, coincided with the birth of a son, Gil, to whom she gave her ex-husband’s surname even though the child was conceived during a brief relationship with another man. Her albums – the next, in 1984, was called Mother’s Spiritual – reflected new concerns. A 17-year relationship with Maria Desiderio, a Danbury bookseller, was celebrated in songs that brought her a new audience.
“I was a foolish girl but now I’m a woman of the world,” she sang in 1993 on a track from Walk the Dog and Light the Light, the last studio album released during her lifetime. The contours of her new songs were less startling and there were fewer verbal starbursts. But on tour, usually with two or three other women providing harmonies, she mixed the songs of her youth with those of her maturity in a way that left no doubt who this extraordinary artist really was.
A beginner’s guide to Laura Nyro
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968)
After a somewhat conservative debut album, her second effort – abetted by arranger and co-producer Charlie Calello – was an unstoppable display of musical and verbal fireworks, exploring the emotional extremes.
New York Tendaberry (1969)
To the hardcore fan, her masterpiece. The mood is darker, the arrangements more minimalist, highlighting the sense of desperation fuelling a soul-baring urban song-cycle. The finest distillation of her allure.
Gonna Take a Miracle (1971)
After four albums of original material, she and Labelle settled into Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound to record a joyful series of cover versions. Just hear how they turn the Originals’ The Bells into a soaring aria.
Walk the Dog and Light the Light (1993)
More measured in its maturity but still filled with spirit and urgency, the last studio album released during her lifetime reflects her new range of feminist and ecological concerns.
The Loom’s Desire (2002)
Recorded in front of adoring audiences at New York’s Bitter End in 1993-94, with a harmony trio providing support, this double set captures the warmth and intimacy of her final performances.
• American Dreamer is released by Madfish on 30 July
This article was amended on 27 July 2021 because an earlier version referred to Danbury, Massachusetts, whereas it is in Connecticut.