Music Memories: Laura Nyro

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Portrait of Laura Nyro from her album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession

Laura Nyro was born on October 18, 1947. Nyro was a singer-songwriter whose critically acclaimed records never found a large public audience, but whose songs became hits when recorded by others.

As a child, Nyro taught herself to play piano and immersed herself in her parents’ record collection. She wrote her first songs when she was eight and was singing with friends in New York’s subway stations when she was in high school. Her father was a professional musician, and Nyro met her first managers through him.

She was performing in nightclubs at 18, and sold her song “And When I Die” to Peter, Paul & Mary, who recorded it in 1966. She signed a recording contract with Verve Records, who released her first album in 1967; it includes her own version of “And When I Die.” That album was originally called More Than Just a New Discovery, and it was a commercial disappointment; after Nyro’s later success, the album was re-issued as The First Songs, with the songs in a slightly different order. That later version is what’s linked to here.

David Geffen heard the album and convinced Nyro that he should take over as her new agent. She sued her managers, and Verve, to void her contracts on the grounds that she had signed them while still a minor. She then signed new contracts with Geffen and with Columbia Records.

In 1968, while Nyro was working on her first album for Columbia, she was offered the job of lead singer for the band Blood, Sweat & Tears. She gave the offer serious consideration, but Geffen persuaded her to turn it down. A year later, Blood, Sweat & Tears would reach #2 on the charts with their own version of “And When I Die.”

Nyro released three albums of her own songs for Columbia between 1968 and 1970. Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat were loved by the critics, and sold moderately well. But radio was not interested in Nyro as a recording artist. She only made it to the charts with one single, and that wasn’t even one of her own songs; her cover of “Up on the Roof” peaked at #92 in 1970.

3 album covers by Laura Nyro

Other artists, though, had great success with Nyro’s songs. In addition to Blood, Sweat & Tears, Barbra Streisand (“Stoney End”) and Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Comin’”) made it to the top ten with Nyro songs. And The 5th Dimension put five Nyro songs into the top 40 in two years— “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Blowing Away,” and “Save the Country.” They’re all included in The Essential 5th Dimension greatest hits collection.

Nyro’s 1971 album Gonna Take a Miracle was a departure, for which she did none of the songwriting. It was a collection of 50s and 60s R&B standards, produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the team who went on to create the “Philly soul” sound of the 1970s. The vocal trio Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash), who had recently been on the same tour with Nyro, provided backing vocals; their contribution was such an important part of the album’s sound that it was credited to “Laura Nyro and Labelle.”

Later that year, after marrying, Nyro announced her retirement. The marriage lasted for three years, and Nyro returned to recording, releasing Smile in 1976. Her sound had changed; the new album had a mellower, jazzier feel, and reflected Nyro’s interest in Chinese music. She toured for four months to support the album, producing a live album in the process. The 1978 album Nested focuses on themes of motherhood; Nyro was pregnant during the recording. It was her least commercially successful album.

Nyro took another long hiatus as she raised her son, and released only two more studio albums, Mother’s Spiritual in 1984 and Walk the Dog and Light the Light in 1993. Both were quieter, more laidback albums, and there was a new focus on social and environmental issues.

Nyro made a short tour in 1988 and gave occasional concerts throughout the 1990s. The interest in her as a performer never vanished. During the Jay Leno/David Letterman late-night talk show wars, both hosts tried to get her as a guest, and she was invited to appear on Saturday Night Live. Nyro, who had never felt comfortable with celebrity in general, or with appearing on television in particular, declined all of the invitations.

In late 1996, Nyro was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She worked with Columbia records to prepare Stoned Soul Picnic, a 2-CD overview of her career, which was released shortly before her death on April 8, 1997. She was 49, the same age her mother had been when she died, also of ovarian cancer.

Nyro’s final studio recordings, made in 1994 and 1995, were released in 2001 as Angel in the Dark. Several tribute albums have been recorded—Broadway singer Judy Kuhn’s Serious Playground; jazz pianist Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure, featuring several different singers; and the multi-artist collection Time and Love.

Nyro was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010, and into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. The Nyro biography Soul Picnic is written by Michele Kort.