By Michael Sutter
The chaotic melodies and tempo changes hit me like nothing I had ever heard before. As she soared from a morose ballad into a frantic and desperate declaration of passion, I wondered how I had never heard of her.
Laura Nyro was a product of the singer-songwriter movement of the late 1960s. Though her songs became hits when covered by other artists, her own recordings were not commercial successes.
She recorded her first album, More than a New Discovery, in 1966 at the age of 18. “And When I Die,” “Stoney End” and “Wedding Bell Blues” became hits when recorded by Blood, Sweat, & Tears, Barbra Streisand and the 5th Dimension respectively.
Her next album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, was recorded two years later. The songs traverse a wide range of genres, from infectious pop and rock to blue-eyed soul and gospel. Eli was Nyro’s first opportunity to present her uncompromising artistic vision to the general public. The 5th Dimension later released “Sweet Blindness” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” as singles and Three Dog Night covered “Eli’s Comin’.”
Eli was followed by New York Tendaberry, an album that many Nyro aficionados consider her best. Unlike her first two albums, the somber Tendaberry is largely focused on Nyro’s voice and piano alone. This album yielded two hit singles for other artists: “Time and Love” for Barbra Streisand and “Save the Country” for the 5th Dimension.
Her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, bridges the stylistic gap between Eli and Tendaberry. It was just as brilliant as her first three albums. Unlike her first three albums, Christmas yielded no hits for other artists, but it featured Nyro’s lone chart hit single in the form of a cover of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Up on the Roof.” It peaked at a modest No. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100.
After releasing a beautiful but relatively conservative collaboration with Labelle in 1971, she took a five-year hiatus from the music industry due to a lack of commercial success compared to her peers. (Carole King’s Tapestry was on its way to winning four Grammy Awards and Joni Mitchell had won a Grammy two years prior for Clouds.)
When Nyro returned, her music had taken on a new aesthetic. She married a carpenter and moved to rural Massachusetts in 1972 and got divorced three years later. Her mother died of ovarian cancer the same year. In response, her music mellowed out, culminating in her 1976 album Smile. She was still as creative and passionate as her early years, but the years had calmed her fiery spirit.
The followup album, 1978’s Nested, featured more traditional melodies and strong themes of womanhood and motherhood as she recorded the album while pregnant with her only child. It was a commercial flop, and she did not record a new album for another six years.
Mother’s Spiritual, released in 1984, is essentially a sequel to Nested. At this point in her life, she had begun living with artist Maria Desiderio whom would be her partner until Nyro’s death in 1997. She released one last album in 1993, titled Walk the Dog and Light the Light. It is undoubtedly her most political album featuring songs about feminism, animal rights and Native American rights. She began recording a new album in 1994, but died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49. The unfinished recordings were released on the 2001 album Angel in the Dark.
Nyro is one of the strongest feminist icons of the last 50 years. Her music and beliefs should be more relevant than ever before, yet she remains just as obscure as she ever was — apparently consigned to the memories of the myriad artists she influenced. Along with the aforementioned Mitchell and King, her influence has been cited by Bette Midler, Elton John, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Alice Cooper, Elvis Costello and even former Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer.
Nyro never won a Grammy Award. None of her records were ever certified Gold. While she wrote hit songs, they were only hits in the hands of other artists. Her lone accolade is her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 after four years on the ballot. There is no clear reason why popularity evades her, but perhaps the mystery is appropriate for an artist whose work was always delightfully unpredictable. She is Burt Bacharach with 10 times the eccentricity, Paul Simon with double the fearlessness and Carly Simon with a fraction of the pettiness. Obfuscated by later artists and passed over by today’s listeners, she is the buried treasure of 20th century pop music.