Between 1968 and 1970 a number of artists had significant hits with her songs: The 5th Dimension with "Blowing Away", "Wedding Bell Blues", "Stoned Soul Picnic", "Sweet Blindness", "Save The Country" and "Black Patch"; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with "And When I Die"; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with "Eli's Coming"; and Streisand with "Stoney End", "Time and Love", and "Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man)". Nyro's best-selling single was her recording of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Up on the Roof."
On December 7, 2011, it was announced that Laura Nyro would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the April 14, 2012 induction ceremony.
Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Gilda Mirsky Nigro, a bookkeeper, and Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. Laura has a brother, Jan Nigro. Laura was of Russian Jewish and Italian ancestry. As a child, she taught herself piano, read poetry, and listened to her mother's records by Leontyne Price, Billie Holiday and classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy. She composed her first songs at the age of eight. With her family, she spent summers in the Catskill Mountains, where her father played the trumpet at resorts. She credited the Sunday school at the New York Society for Ethical Culture with providing the basis of her education; she also attended Manhattan's High School of Music and Art.
Nyro was very close to her aunt and uncle, the artists Theresa Bernstein and William Meyerowitz, who helped to support her education and early career.
While in high school, she sang with a group of friends in subway stations and on street corners. She said: "I would go out singing, as a teenager, to a party or out on the street, because there were harmony groups there, and that was one of the joys of my youth." Among her favorite musicians were John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Curtis Mayfield, Van Morrison, and girl groups such as The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Shirelles. She also commented: "I was always interested in the social consciousness of certain songs. My mother and grandfather were progressive thinkers, so I felt at home in the peace movement and the women's movement, and that has influenced my music."
Her father’s work brought him into contact with record company executive Artie Mogull (1927–2004), who auditioned Laura in 1966 and became her first manager. However, Louis Nigro claims that he "not even once" mentioned Laura to any of his clients, adding "they would have laughed at me if I did." As a teenager she experimented with using different names, and Nyro (NEAR-oh) was the one she was using at the time. She sold her song "And When I Die" to Peter, Paul and Mary for $5,000, and made her first extended professional appearance, at age 18, singing at the "hungry i" coffeehouse in San Francisco. Mogull negotiated her a recording contract, and she recorded her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, for the Verve Folkways label. The album provided material for other artists, notably the 5th Dimension.
In 1967, Nyro made only her second major live appearance, at the Monterey Pop Festival. Although some accounts described her performance as a fiasco that culminated in her being booed off the stage, recordings later made public contradict this view.
Soon afterwards, David Geffen approached Mogull about taking over as her agent. Nyro successfully sued to void her management and recording contracts on the grounds that she had entered into them while still a minor. Geffen became her manager, and the two established a publishing company, Tuna Fish Music, under which the proceeds from her future compositions would be divided equally between them. Geffen also arranged Nyro’s new recording contract with Clive Davis at Columbia Records, and purchased the publishing rights to her early compositions. In his memoir Clive: Inside the Record Business, Davis recalled Nyro's audition for him: she'd invited him to her New York apartment, turned off every light except that of a television set next to her piano, and played him the material that would become Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Around this time Nyro considered becoming lead singer for Blood, Sweat & Tears, after the departure of founder Al Kooper, but was dissuaded by Geffen. However, BS&T would go on to have a hit with a cover of "And When I Die."
The new contract allowed Nyro more artistic freedom and control. In 1968 Columbia released her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. This received high critical praise for the depth and sophistication of the performance and arrangements, merging pop structure with inspired imagery, rich vocals and avant-garde jazz, and is widely considered to be one of her best works. It was followed in 1969 by New York Tendaberry, another highly acclaimed work which cemented Nyro’s artistic credibility. The record's "Time and Love" and "Save the Country" emerged as two of her most well-regarded and popular songs in the hands of other artists. Her own recordings sold mostly to a cult audience. This prompted Clive Davis, in his memoir, to note that her recordings, as solid as they were, came to resemble demonstrations for other performers.
Her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, was issued at the end of 1970. The set contained such well-known songs as "Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp" and "When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag". It featured Muscle Shoals musicians including Duane Allman. The following year’s Gonna Take a Miracle was an album of her favourite "teenage heartbeat songs", recorded with vocal group Labelle (Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) and the production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. With the exception of her attribution of the song "Désiree" (originally "Deserie" by The Charts), this was Nyro's sole album of wholly non-original material, featuring such songs as "Jimmy Mack", "Nowhere to Run", and "Spanish Harlem".
By this time (1971) Nyro was married. She was also reportedly uncomfortable with attempts to market her as a celebrity and she announced her retirement from the music business at the age of 24.
In 1973, her Verve debut album was acquired and reissued by Columbia as The First Songs.
By 1976, her marriage had ended, and she returned with an album of new material, Smile. She then embarked on a four-month tour with a full band, which resulted in the 1977 live album Season of Lights.
After the 1978 album Nested, recorded when she was pregnant with her only child, she again took a break from recording, this time until 1984's Mother's Spiritual. She began touring with a band in 1988, her first concert appearances in 10 years. The tour was dedicated to the animal rights movement. The shows led to her 1989 release, Laura: Live at the Bottom Line, which included six new compositions.
Her final album of predominantly original material was Walk the Dog and Light the Light (1993), her last album for Columbia, which was co-produced by Gary Katz, best known for his work with Steely Dan. This sparked reappraisal of her place in popular music, and new commercial offers began to appear. She turned down lucrative film-composing offers, although she contributed a rare protest song to the Academy Award-winning documentary "Broken Rainbow", about the unjust relocation of the Navajo people.
Nyro appeared at the 1989 Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and performed in the 1980s and 1990s with female musicians. Among them was Nydia "Liberty" Mata, a popular drummer well known in the lesbian-feminist women's music subculture. On October 27, 1997, a large-scale tribute concert was produced by women at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Performers included Sandra Bernhard, Toshi Reagon, and Phoebe Snow.
Both The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman staffs heavily pursued Nyro for a TV appearance during this period, yet she turned them down as well, citing her discomfort with appearing on television (she made only a handful of early TV appearances and one fleeting moment on VH-1 performing the title song from “Broken Rainbow” on Earth Day in 1990). She never released an official video, although there was talk of filming some Bottom Line appearances in the 1990s. On the Fourth of July, 1991, she opened for Bob Dylan at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.
In the early 1980s, Laura began living with painter Maria Desiderio (1954–1999), a relationship that lasted 17 years, the rest of Laura's life.
Nyro was briefly married to carpenter David Bianchini in 1971. Previously she had a relationship with singer/songwriter Jackson Browne in late 1970 to early 1971.
In 1996 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After the diagnosis, Columbia Records prepared a double-disc CD retrospective of material from her years at the label. The company involved Nyro herself, who selected the tracks and approved the final project. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro (1997), and was reportedly pleased with the outcome.
Nyro died of ovarian cancer in Danbury, Connecticut, on April 8, 1997, at the age of 49; the same disease had claimed the life of her mother at the same age.
Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro by Michele Kort
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (May 14, 2003)
Amazon: Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro
Laura Nyro was a beloved and pioneering singer-songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s, whose songs were covered with great success by the Fifth Dimension; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Three Dog Night; and Barbra Streisand. This first biography uncovers previously never revealed details, including a love affair with Jackson Browne, and her relationship with painter Maria Desiderio.
Unappreciated in her time, Nyro’s legacy is currently experiencing a revival. With her groundbreakingly honest and passionate lyrics, her unusual and innovative rhythms and melody, Nyro’s influence is still felt by singers and songwriters today.
Time and Love: The Art and Soul of Laura Nyro by Laura Nyro
Paperback: 104 pages
Publisher: Cherry Lane Music (August 1, 2002)
Amazon: Time and Love: The Art and Soul of Laura Nyro
Much more than a songbook, this collection is a glimpse into the psyche of late, great folk artist and songwriter Laura Nyro. It features an interview with Laura, excerpts from her personal music journals, creative notes, family photos and her own never-before-seen paintings, among other treasures. Includes P/V/G arrangements of 17 songs: And When I Die * Blackpatch * Captain Saint Lucifer * Eli's Comin' * Emmie * Save the Country * Stoned Soul Picnic * Stoney End * Sweet Blindness * Time and Love * To a Child * Wedding Bell Blues * and more. As an added bonus, the accompanying CD contains three previously unreleased Nyro tunes: "A Woman of the World" and "Dedicated to the One I Love" recorded live in Japan, plus a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Creepin'."
The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood by Thomas R. King
Paperback: 688 pages
Publisher: Broadway; 1 Reprint edition (June 12, 2001)
Amazon: The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood
“A crazy American epic” –Newsweek
Complex, contentious, and blessed with the perfect-pitch ability to find the next big talent, David Geffen has shaped American popular culture and transformed the way Hollywood does business. His dazzling career has included the roles of power agent, record-industry mogul, Broadway producer, and billionaire Hollywood studio founder–but from the beginning his accomplishments have been shadowed by the ruthlessness with which he has pursued fame, money, and power. With The Operator, Tom King–who interviewed Geffen for the book and had unimpeded access to his circle of intimates–presents a mesmerizing chronicle of Geffen’s meteoric rise from the mailroom at William Morris, as well as a captivating tour of thirty sizzling years of Hollywood history. Drawing on the recollections of celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Yoko Ono, Warren Beatty, Courtney Love, Paul Simon, and even Cher (whom Geffen nearly married), The Operator transports readers to a world that is as ruthless as it is dazzling, revealing a great American story about success and the bargains made for it.
“A detailed portrait of Hollywood’s premier manipulator…The Operator is as much a composite portrait of the ‘New Hollywood’ as it is of the fifty-seven-year-old partner in DreamWorks SKG.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Illuminating...[The Operator] shows how raging ambition and chutzpah are as much valued as talent–or more so–in determining success.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
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