Laura Nyro (1947-1997) never became as famous as her songs. In an all-too-short 49 years, Nyro provided major hits for a diverse array of artists from Three Dog Night and Blood, Sweat & Tears to Barbra Streisand and most famously, The Fifth Dimension. Yet her own albums never achieved mainstream success, with audiences largely preferring to hear her compositions performed by others. (In this respect, she could be compared to her contemporary Jimmy Webb.) Perhaps this was just as well for the woman who matter-of-factly stated she was “not interested in conventional limitations.” She pushed the boundaries of songwriting, incorporating elements of rock, folk, soul, jazz, doo-wop, Brill Building pop, theatre music and even gospel into her special, idiosyncratic brand of music.
Nyro influenced a disparate number of artists as well, with Todd Rundgren and Barry Manilow among her biggest fans. Rundgren musically described what made Nyro so special in an interview with puremusic.com: “I think there is that more sophisticated R&B thing or the Burt Bacharach side of pop music that involves not just chords that are richer, major and minor sevenths and suspensions and things like that, but the sort of melodic movement and the classical counterpoint elements–that’s one of the things that attracted me. But I know for a fact that her influences were the more sophisticated side of R&B, like Jerry Ragovoy and Mann & Weil and Carole King. That is Laura Nyro’s lineage. She was a source for that, in a sense, and she also had her own very original and very jazz-influenced way of seeing things. It was that extra layer that made her influential.”
Today’s Back Tracks celebrates the all-too-unknown solo albums of one of music’s true originals, Laura Nyro. For a look at the catalogue of this one-of-a-kind artist, hit the button and jump!
More Than a New Discovery/The First Songs (Verve, 1966 – reissued Columbia, 1973 and Rev-Ola, 2008)
While the title of Laura Nyro’s debut album More Than a New Discovery may sound hyperbolic, it was far from untrue. Nyro actually was a bit like a woman out of time. She anticipated the singer/songwriter movement by a few years, and didn’t fit into any of the era’s familiar molds. Her voice wasn’t big in the style of a Dusty Springfield or Barbra Streisand, but had a quiet power and distinctive timbre. Arranger/conductor Herb Bernstein and producer Milt Okun reportedly tried dissuading Nyro from her more outré ideas including an extended suite of songs; one that emerged from that “pop opera” would become a perennial when The Fifth Dimension recorded it: “Wedding Bell Blues.” This debut LP featured not only that song (maybe Nyro’s most straightforward pop song), but “And When I Die” (later a hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears), “Stoney End,” “Hands Off the Man” (retitled “Flim Flam Man”) and “I Never Meant to Hurt You” (all three popularized by Barbra Streisand) and “He’s a Runner” and “Blowin’ Away” (The Fifth Dimension, again.) Of course, Nyro’s recordings are jarring to those who only know the hit versions, with her “Wedding Bell Blues” a comparatively laconic reading with a breezy air emphasized by harmonica. Even from this first LP, it was clear that Nyro could combine Brill Building-style craft to unusual, sometimes-abstract lyrical motifs often drawing on spiritualism and nature. “Stoney End” is the perfect example, a song with far-from-literal lyrics but a story that makes complete sense nonetheless. Verve first reissued this LP as Laura Nyro, then in 1973, Columbia retitled it The First Songs, for so many memorable titles had followed it. Columbia also reshuffled the track order, which would become the standard for the album. Rev-Ola restored the original cover art in 2008 and supposedly the original order, kicking off with “Goodbye Joe,” not “Wedding Bell Blues.” The initial pressing, however, still retained The First Songs‘ lineup, much to the chagrin of those purchasing it! Later pressings have reportedly corrected the problem. The mono LP has still not been released on CD.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (Columbia, 1968 – reissued Columbia/Legacy 2002)
More Than a New Discovery had more than its share of fans. Among them was an up-and-coming manager named David Geffen. With the Asylum label still in his future, Geffen signed Nyro and gained her a Columbia recording contract. Around the same time, she shared the stage with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Who as an act at the Monterey Pop Festival. Nyro was flummoxed by the house band’s utter inability to play her complex music (with shifting time signatures and odd chords) and cut her set short. But this would be a footnote in Nyro’s career, and when footage of the festival was unearthed years later, it was clear that Nyro herself didn’t sound bad at all; with a stronger band or even performing a solo piano set, she might have become one of the hits of the festival. With Geffen and arranger/producer Charlie Calello (of Four Seasons fame) on board, the 21-year old artist embarked on the creation of what may remain her masterwork, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.
When Barry Manilow selected a list of his favorite music, this often-ravishing album was on top of the list: “…It rocked my world. Everything about it broke every rule I was taught. Tremendously original and edge-of-your-seat exciting.” Manilow’s description is apt. Calello enhanced the small combo sound of Nyro’s first LP with big brass and exciting backup voices, with the songs of course anchored by Nyro’s joyous piano. Her early signature sound is crystallized here, a piano-driven bounce, and the hits again were out in full-force…when later covered by other artists. Eli introduced “Sweet Blindness” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” both of which The Fifth Dimension made their own, and “Eli’s Comin’,” which was a smash for Three Dog Night. The sensual “Emmie” would be covered by Frankie Valli as “Emily.” It wasn’t easy to pigeonhole Eli, which may have accounted for its lack of chart success. “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness” married infectious melodies to earthy lyrics (both name-checking moonshine!) while religious imagery informed the raw “Poverty Train” and “Woman’s Blues.” The mini-suite approach was revived for “Once It Was Alright Now (Farmer Joe)” which abandoned traditional song structure, and Nyro pushed the lyrical envelope with the frank, open sexuality of “The Confession.” In short, Eli announced that a major, quirky talent was here to stay. Legacy’s 2002 reissue appended 3 demo tracks of the effervescent “Lu,” “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Emmie.” The rare mono LP has never appeared on CD.
New York Tendaberry (Columbia, 1969 – reissued Columbia/Legacy, 2002)
New York had been an integral part of the Bronx-born Nyro’s style, and the city’s influence – chaotic, bustling, diverse – was palpably felt on her third album. Roy Halee joined the team as producer and engineer largely because Nyro admired his work with fellow New Yorkers Simon and Garfunkel; Jimmie Haskell replaced Calello as arranger and conductor. But prior to the recording of Tendaberry, Nyro attempted to get a slice of the AM radio action for herself. In 1968, she joined The Fifth Dimension’s producer Bones Howe for a single of “Save the Country,” which that group would later tackle to No. 27 pop success. Nyro’s single version, with full Howe production, didn’t chart, though. The singer must have been disappointed that Eli only reached No. 181 on Billboard’s album chart despite The Fifth Dimension having two Top 20 singles derived from it.
So it was back to the drawing board with Tendaberry, featuring a longer, less overtly commercial take on the timely “Save the Country” (an early politically-minded Nyro song, albeit with typical earth-mother imagery: “Come on people, come on children/Come on down to the glory river”) and another Streisand-hit-to-be, the jaunty “Time and Love.” Other highlights include the wickedly vengeful kiss-off “Tom Cat Goodby” and two songs in which she pushes her own sonic boundaries, “Sweet Lovin’ Baby” and “Mercy on Broadway.” Both incorporate blues, soul, jazz, gospel and pure harmony pop but despite the stylistic shifts, still sound seamless. On the whole, though, Tendaberry was darker and more stark than its predecessor. It was deeply soulful and an impressionistic, sometimes moody; in short, a soundtrack to a city in flux. With songs like “The Man Who Sends Me Home,” Nyro typified the confessional singer/songwriter, before the term was in vogue. The passionate and beautiful Tendaberry reached No. 32 on the Billboard chart, Nyro’s only Top 40 album. Legacy’s 2002 reissue added two bonus tracks, the Howe-produced single of “Save the Country” in mono and “In the Country Way,” an unreleased song from 1971.
Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (Columbia, 1970)
Nyro’s fourth LP introduced her fourth creative team in as many LPs. Arif Mardin and Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals teamed as producers with each tackling one side of the album; Mardin recorded in Muscle Shoals and Cavaliere in New York. Perhaps because it did not generate any hits for other artists, this LP is much less well-known than its predecessors, but it still has much to offer. The haunting “Christmas in My Soul” finds Nyro much more political than usual, sadly and explicitly cataloguing “the sins of politics and the politics of sin,” referencing the Black Panthers, the Chicago Seven and the “homeless Indian of Manhattan island.” She concluded that “Now the time has come to fight…Laws in the book of love burn bright/People you must win for thee America, her dignity/For all the high court world to see on Christmas.” The other track giving the album its title, “Beads of Sweat,” was a dark yet funky lament with vivid imagery of the elements of wind, rain and snow. Other songs were more laid-back, such as the sinuous “Blackpatch” and clever, melodically-rollicking “When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag.” Ironically, Christmas gave Nyro her only charting single, a low-key and deeply-felt cover of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Up on the Roof.” This look back at her roots would directly foreshadow her next LP. Legacy has not yet given Christmas an expanded reissue.
Gonna Take a Miracle (Columbia, 1971 – reissued Columbia/Legacy, 2002)
In 1971, Philadelphia was the place to be. Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records empire was beginning to define a new, smooth soul sound for the 1970s, and so when Nyro befriended Patti LaBelle (then of the group LaBelle, with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash), it seemed natural that she decamp to LaBelle’s home base and record an album with the trio. Gonna Take a Miracle, despite the pensive photograph of Nyro on its cover, was a joyful recreation of the sounds that the four women loved: Motown, doo wop and soul. Recording at Sigma Sound Studios, producers Gamble and Huff brought along their very finest collaborators to arrange: Thom Bell, Lenny Pakula and Bobby Martin. Norman Harris, Vince Montana, Ronnie Baker and Roland Chambers joined them to play. Of course, Nyro still played piano, complementing Pakula’s organ. The title track looked forward to Bell’s slicker arrangement for Deniece Williams which would become a major hit years later, while “Jimmy Mack” and “Nowhere to Run” were among the ebullient Motown covers. The very first track clued in listeners that this was a different kind of Nyro album, with handclaps and street-corner a cappella singing. Legacy’s 2002 reissue added four bonus tracks, all cover versions from a 1971 Fillmore East stand. These four songs (“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Natural Woman,” “O-o-h Child” and “Up on the Roof”) all would have fit in nicely on Gonna Take a Miracle. Columbia would later release the May 30, 1971 concert as its own CD.
Smile (Columbia, 1976 – reissued Sony Japan, 2008)
After Gonna Take a Miracle, Nyro took a four-year hiatus from the music business, marrying (and divorcing) and coping with the death of her mother from ovarian cancer, the same disease that would take her own life two decades later. When she returned with Smile, she sounded to be in much more content territory. Charlie Calello returned as producer for the first time in almost a decade, and the prevailing sound was jazz-influenced, with the Brecker Brothers, Will Lee, Hugh McCracken and Rick Marotta among the players. But the result made Nyro sound a bit like Joni Mitchell to casual listeners, despite the fact that Nyro’s earliest pop/jazz forays predated the famous Canadian’s. It was impossible to hear album opener “Sexy Mama” and not hear a bit of Court and Spark. Smile performed mildly well, peaking at No. 60 on the albums chart, and led to a full-band tour which would be preserved on Season of Lights. A 2008 Japan-only reissue appended three unreleased songs in demo form: “Someone Loves You,” “Get Me My Cap” and “Coffee Morning.” All remain as-yet-unheard domestically.
Season of Lights (Columbia, 1977 – reissued Sony Japan, 2008 and Iconoclassic, 2008)
Nyro hit the road with a full band to promote Smile, and that tour is preserved on Columbia’s 1977 LP Season of Lights. In addition to performing many of the songs from Smile, she also adapts older compositions to her new, more expressly jazz-oriented style. The slowed-down “Sweet Blindness” is a sultry reinvention, and she skillfully reclaims “And When I Die” from Blood Sweat and Tears’ grand bombast. Many familiar songs aren’t heard at all, though, such as “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoney End.” One Nyro song, “The Morning News,” made its only appearance here. The original American issue of the Columbia LP only featured 10 tracks; 16 tracks would be released in Japan, where Nyro had a considerable fan base. Sony Japan’s 2008 CD reissue reinstated all 16 tracks plus alternate, unedited takes of “Emmie” and “Timer.” Iconoclassic impressively reissued the album the same year in the US, with Vic Anesini remastering. The U.S. version boasted the full 16 tracks plus the alternate “Timer” as a hidden track, dropping the alternate “Emmie.” While the Japanese issue has the advantage of the one extra track, Iconoclassic’s has Anesini’s remastering and an impressive booklet containing notes by Nyro biographer Michele Kort.
Nested (Columbia, 1978 – reissued Sony Japan, 2008 and Iconoclassic, 2008)
Nyro followed Smile with a similarly laid-back studio set, this time drawing on her impending motherhood and rocky love life for a sweet, sometimes self-deprecating, altogether accessible group of songs. A number of guests contributed to the album such as old cohort Felix Cavaliere, John Sebastian, and Vinnie Cusano, otherwise known as Vinnie Vincent of KISS. One track, “The Sweet Sky,” is practically a dead ringer for those classic 1960s hits, led by its loping piano. “Rhythm and Blues” has a similar feel and features Sebastian on his trademark harmonica. Despite being recorded in Nyro’s Connecticut home, Nested isn’t all pastoral; in “American Dreamer,” she unleashes a choice rant against music industry gangsters such as managers, lawyers and doctors. The largely-gentle, intimately-personal Nested is a lost gem in the Nyro catalogue, and was unavailable on CD until unearthed by Sony Japan and Iconoclassic, both in 2008. Like the other discs in Iconoclassic’s series, its U.S. issue contains Vic Anesini remastering and notes by Michele Kort. Only the Japan CD offers bonus tracks: live versions of “Nested” and “Emmie” in a medley.
A Mother’s Spiritual (Columbia, 1984 – reissued Sony Japan, 2008 and Iconoclassic, 2009)
After Nested, Nyro took another extended hiatus from the recording industry, raising her son in domestic tranquility. When she decided to make another musical statement (which would turn out to be her only studio work of the 1980s), it was only natural that the pioneering singer/songwriter’s new songs would reflect her current state of mind and concerns. As such, her child is directly on her mind on A Mother’s Spiritual. This LP shared some of the same qualities as its immediate predecessor, as the sound is smooth pop/jazz and the songs less anguished and intense than the artist’s earliest work. But that doesn’t mean that Nyro didn’t have anything substantive to say; as usual, she turned her keen eye for social commentary and predilection for impressionistic lyrics to a new set of issues. Eighties consumerism was confronted head-on in “A Free Thinker,” politics were revisited in “The Right to Vote” and Greenpeace made a lyrical appearance in “The Brighter Song.” Love songs were still present, of course, but Nyro was no longer certain whether it was Mr. or Ms. Right in her future. The delicate “To a Child” (which she would revisit on her next studio album) was another highlight. Nyro’s longtime fan Todd Rundgren musically contributed to finishing the album. (This writer can’t help but wonder what a full-blown Rundgren/Nyro collaboration would have been like, if Rundgren channeled his early, Runt-era self.) The song cycle was long absent from CD, but both Sony Japan and Iconoclassic have recently reissued the album. The 2008 Japanese reissue and 2009 American edition both feature the same bonus track, a live take on the album’s “Man in the Moon.” Iconoclassic’s typically-classy packaging includes another Kort essay and Anesini remastering.
Laura: Laura Nyro Live at the Bottom Line (Cypress/A&M, 1989)
By the end of the 1980s, Laura’s longtime label, Columbia, had hoped for another studio effort from the none-too-prolific artist. Nyro had other plans, though, and hoped to record a live album instead, which would feature some previously unheard songs. Columbia released her from her exclusive contract (she would return to the label with her next studio effort in 1993), and this album was born. The atmosphere and feel is altogether different from Season of Lights; with a small band and appreciative audience, Nyro holds court at the late, lamented New York venue like a returning princess. She is in terrific vocal form, the result of having recently quit smoking, and is upbeat throughout. Nyro’s joie de vivre imbues such classics as “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Emmie” with vibrant new life, and the six new songs hold their own. She also fearlessly performs the unexpected “High-Heeled Sneakers” and joins her own “Trees of the Ages” with “Up on the Roof” and “La-La Means I Love You” (composed by her old Philly cohort, Thom Bell) in a delicious medley. A new chapter for a reinvigorated Nyro had begun with this delightful, fun album, which has been out-of-print on CD for too long.
Walk the Dog and Light the Light (Columbia, 1993 – reissued Sony Japan, 2008)
1993’s Walk the Dog and Light the Light would turn out to be Laura Nyro’s final studio album released in her lifetime. Steely Dan collaborator Gary Katz joined Nyro to produce, and she was reteamed with many of the musicians who had supported her at the Bottom Line. The music has a similarly breezy flavor to the arrangements heard at that concert, with cover versions again sitting comfortably alongside more politically-minded originals. The album opens with Phil Spector and Hank Hunter’s “Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby (The Heebie Jeebies)” and closes with a medley of “I’m So Proud” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.” In between, Nyro tackles animal rights (“Lite a Flame”), influential sculptress Louise Nevelson (“Louise’s Church”), the plight of Native Americans (“Broken Rainbow”) and of course, her own womanhood and her relationship with feminism (conflicted, like Nevelson’s). The 2008 Sony Japan reissue appends three bonus tracks, live versions of Goffin and King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Let It Be Me/The Christmas Song” and a dramatic reworking of Rodgers and Hart’s 1930 standard “He Was Too Good to Me” as “You Were Too Good to Me.” This album has not yet seen an American reissue, expanded or otherwise. Perhaps it will emerge on Iconoclassic’s slate in the not-too-distant future.
Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro (Columbia/Legacy, 1997)
While fighting cancer, Laura Nyro took an active role in compiling this two-CD career overview for Columbia’s Legacy label. Its 34 tracks encompassed her entire career, and Paul Zollo contributed an essay/interview to place everything into historical context. This release marked the first CD appearance of the Bones Howe-produced “Save the Country” single (in stereo for this compilation) and scattered other rarities. It remains the only comprehensive look at Nyro’s ouevre; this writer would love to see an Essential Laura Nyro volume adding a disc of her songs as performed and popularized by other artists, similar to the treatment Legacy accorded Carole King (a writer much admired by Laura) for The Essential Carole King. With the Streisand, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Fifth Dimension tracks all under the Sony umbrella, perhaps this isn’t too much of a pipe dream.
Live from Mountain Stage (Blue Plate, 2000)
Laura Nyro died of ovarian cancer at her Connecticut home in 1997. A number of posthumous releases, though, have kept her radiant spirit alive. One of the first such releases, Live from Mountain Stage, preserves on CD a November 11, 1990 radio performance. She previews three tracks that would be officially released on Walk the Dog, two songs that had just appeared on Live at the Bottom Line, and four catalogue selections including “And When I Die.” Her seasonal medley of “Let It Be Me/The Christmas Song” rounds out the short 10-track set.
Time and Love: The Essential Masters (Columbia/Legacy, 2001 – reissued Audio Fidelity, 2010)
It is said that in 1996, Columbia initially approached Laura Nyro to curate a single-disc overview of her career. Nyro was adamant that all periods of her career be represented on any anthology, not just the early period which produced so many familiar songs. The label obliged, and the 1997 Stoned Soul Picnic was an all-encompassing two-disc set. For those who were seeking only those early records, 2001’s Time and Love fit the bill, a 16-track “greatest hits” of sorts, with only one track dating past 1971 (“Sexy Mama” from Smile). All of Nyro’s most-loved early songs are here. Time and Love was sparklingly remastered in 2010 by Steve Hoffman as a gold CD for the Audio Fidelity label.
Angel in the Dark (Rounder, 2001)
The final recordings of Laura Nyro, made circa 1995, were collected and compiled for Rounder Records’ Angel in the Dark. Perhaps understandably, Angel contains a greater number of covers than any of Nyro’s other studio albums, most slowed down to ballad tempo. Among the best of these is a rare version of Bacharach and David’s heartfelt “Be Aware,” written for Barbra Streisand and recorded by Dionne Warwick. Nyro also tackles the duo’s “Walk on By” and dips back into the Motown songbook for a luscious take on “Ooo, Baby Baby.” Rodgers and Hart (the reworked “He Was Too Good to Me”) and the Gershwins (“Embraceable You”) appeared alongside Thom Bell and William Hart (“La-La Means I Love You”). This can all be interpreted as a tribute to the writers who influenced Nyro’s style over the years, but her originals don’t disappoint. The title song could stand alongside her most soulful work of the 1960s, while “Sweet Dream Fade” is one of the more orchestrated tracks in a set largely dominated by stark, smoky vocals and quiet piano accompaniment. To many, Laura Nyro was indeed an angel in the dark, and this CD is a fitting coda to her impressive career. A now-difficult-to-find SACD was also briefly issued, adding three bonus tracks: alternate versions of “Ooo, Baby Baby,” “Don’t Hurt Child” and the title song.
Laura Nyro Live: The Loom’s Desire (Rounder, 2002)
This live release, one of many to be released after Nyro’s untimely death at 49, is culled from her shows at New York City’s Bottom Line in 1993 and 1994. The songs are largely familiar (although mostly recast in new arrangements, such as a wonderful medley of “Blowin’ Away” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” and “Trees of the Ages” paired with “Emmie”) but Nyro delivers many of them as if new. The first set features Nyro solo on piano with two harmony groups, while the second set employs a trio accompaniment. Both show a clearly comfortable Nyro brimming with conviction and tenderness, and are a wistful reminder of her rapport with a live audience.
An Evening with Laura Nyro: Live in Japan 1994 (Universal Japan, 2003/EMI (US), 2003)
This 2003 Japanese release features 21 tracks from a 1994 concert in Japan. It covers much of the same musical territory as other recent live releases such as Live from Mountain Stage and especially The Loom’s Desire. The only significant addition to the catalogue is a full version of Bacharach and David’s “Walk on By,” performed in a medley on Spread Your Wings and Fly (see below). The material is weighted towards Nyro’s later work, and the Japanese audience is generally staid in its response, unlike the more appreciative fans at home. (A notable exception is their clap-along response to “Wedding Bell Blues.”) The original Japanese import is unfortunately out-of-print and high-priced. A more affordable alternative is EMI Special Products’ domestic release, but that CD unfortunately whittled the 21 tracks down to 10, with four of them (by-now familiar) covers: “Ooo, Baby Baby,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Walk on By” and “Let It Be Me.” That disc is also out-of-print but easier to find second-hand. A reissue of the full album on American shores is overdue.
Spread Your Wings and Fly: Live from the Fillmore East May 30, 1971 (Columbia/Legacy, 2004)
In 2004, Columbia/Legacy finally released a disc-long version of the Fillmore East concert from which many past bonus tracks had been culled. Two songs, “American Dove” and “Mother Earth,” received their first official airing here, alongside the soul covers and more interesting medleys: “Walk on By” with “Dancing in the Street,” “Timer” with “O-o-h Child” and “Up on the Roof,” and “Lu” with “Flim Flam Man.” This date featured only Nyro and her piano, so the setting is a unique one for listeners. The tapes weren’t in pristine condition, but the sound is as good as could be expected, and this was a most welcome release by Legacy for fans still discovering the remarkable voice (both as a singer and a writer) of New York’s own Laura Nyro.