Passion & Soul – Laura Nyro (1947 – 1997)

20 years after her untimely death & in the year she would’ve turned 70, Laura Nyro may be gone, but it seems sadly like she’s also been largely forgotten by the general public – which is a shame because if only more people new about this criminally underrated songwriter, they’d fall in love with her immediately…

She composed her first songs at age eight & while in high school, she sang with groups of friends in subway stations and on street corners. She was a child prodigy & when still a teenager, she sold a song to Peter, Paul & Mary. At the age of 20, she was managed by business magnate, producer, film studio executive, and philanthropist David Geffen & auditioned for Clive Davis, who at the time was president of Columbia Records. The story of that audition is recounted in Davis’ memoir: He turned up to her New York apartment, pitch black save for a flickering light emanating from the television screen. In that eerie light, she played him the songs that would eventually feature on her second studio album – Eli & The Thirteenth Confession. Davis couldn’t believe his ears. And as an aside – Eli & The Thirteenth Confession is an album I heartily recommend. Themes of love, romance, death & drugs delivered in Nyro’s distinctive brash, belting vocals. Multi-layered & opulent with sophisticated arrangements, a dizzying blend of Brill building-style New York pop, jazz, gospel, rhythm & blues, soul & show tunes – it’s a stunning record…

The late 60’s were a prosperous time for Nyro. Off the back of a critically acclaimed album, she was performing live at Carnegie Hall & her songs were being covered by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat & Tears & The 5th Dimension. But she was always uncomfortable with attempts to market her as a celebrity & rejected publicity of any kind. In 1971, she married a carpenter, moved to rural Massachusetts & announced her retirement from the music industry at the age of 24. However, just two years later, following a divorce, she was back with a new album & a tour. But, once again, there were no chat show appearances & no promotional videos.

Over the years, her songwriting became more political. Nyro was a feminist & was involved in the women’s movement & the peace movement. It could be argued that Nyro didn’t write as many great albums as she potentially could’ve done & that she inexplicably turned a few strange corners when she was seemingly on a roll. But over the years, many artists have been profoundly influenced by her – from Jackson Browne & Joni Mitchell, to Carole King & Tori Amos. Elton John once said about her: “just the out-and-out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came was like nothing I’d heard before”, while Bette Midler said: “She could make a trip to the grocery store seem like a night at the opera.”

There isn’t a lot of footage of Nyro that exists, and what does is of rather poor quality. But this is too good not to share – Laura Nyro performing Poverty Train at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Bizarrely, it was cut from the final film…

 

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