Primer: can you hear that dark soul of Laura Nyro?

Nick Triani ponders the mystery of Laura Nyro with an introduction to her music as well as an extensive playlist.

Nick Triani ponders the mystery of Laura Nyro with an introduction to her music as well as an extensive playlist.

Laura Nyro collage by Tytti Roto

Tytti Roto

“New York tendaberry
Blue berry
Rugs and drapes and drugs
And capes
Sweet kids in hunger slums
Firecrackers break
And they cross
And they dust
And they skate
And the night comes”

I can’t remember when or where I first heard of Laura Nyro. It might have been an old 1970’s NME that I picked up from a car-boot sale in the 1980s – amongst those pages the late and great Ian MacDonald was raving about Laura Nyro and I decided to check her music out. That was probably it. But those bitter-sweet confessional stories of Laura’s, combined with the tempo-changes and sometimes raw, mysterious emotion drew me in and has never let go. You don’t read too much about Laura Nyro in 2016, but in my world her songs and voice chime with the best music has to offer. She was certainly influential, arguably as important as Joni Mitchell, easily as intense as Neil Young on his famous doom trilogy, and certainly as original as Bob Dylan in his first electric phase.

You don’t read too much about Laura Nyro in 2016. She was certainly influential, arguably as important as Joni Mitchell, easily as intense as Neil Young on his famous doom trilogy, and certainly as original as Bob Dylan in his first electric phase.

By the end of the 1960s, her protégé manager David Geffen made both himself and Nyro millionaires with a huge publishing advance. From 1966 till the end of the decade Nyro had accrued so many hits on the Billboard 200 that her songs were the definition of radio candy. Widely covered by the likes of Peter, Paul & John, Barbra Streisand, The 5th Dimension and Blood Sweat & Tears to name a few, these covers brought Nyro unprecedented success at a very young age. Interestingly, this also gave Nyro the space to develop her own albums without having to adhere to such commercial considerations.

What made Nyro such an intriguing artist in the mid-1960s was a rarely heard intensity, especially present on a trilogy of albums that represent the deepest and loneliest confessions of the period. You could state that Nyro was the Lucifer baiting New York songstress of the Brill Building sect, shunning the limelight for truer pursuits. Her debut album, More Than A New Discovery (1967), is where the bulk of the hits that made her fortune reside. It’s a fine album, but Nyro got real with what came next.
Eli And The Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969) and Christmas And The Beads of Sweat (1970) are the trilogy of albums which would define Nyro the artist. Across these records you could find a dark, sparse, personal and super intense journey, doused in the musical dictionary of soul, jazz, doo-wop, Brill Building songcraft, sexual fulfillment and personal experiments. These albums offered a close inspection of New York’s underbelly, as real and twisted as Lou Reed‘s more celebrated world view – combined with a personal narrative amid tales of Nyro’s own drug dependency. It’s a long way from the sunny disposition of The 5th Dimension or Barbra Streisand. New York Tendaberry especially deals with an intimacy that’s very stark even for those times.

These albums offered a close inspection of New York’s underbelly, as real and twisted as Lou Reed‘s more celebrated world view – combined with a personal narrative amid tales of Nyro’s own drug dependency.

Gonna Take A Miracle (1971) lets the light back in and is just as worthy as the famed trilogy. It’s a covers album where Nyro pays tribute to the music she heard on the New York streets she grew up in – this is a freer, more joyous Nyro. After Gonna Take A Miracle, it feels like the intensity has gone. Nyro became increasingly political – and arguably less personal– singing songs about feminism, animal rights and the environment. It’s like the voice shifts, from heartache to earnest. There’s many gems scattered across those few albums (she only released four more studio albums in her lifetime after 1971), but nothing compares to her late-1960s heyday. Nyro passed away in 1996 from ovarian cancer at the age of 49. A posthumous album, Angel In The Dark was released in 2001. It’s worth tracking down, as some songs reignite the original spark.

As I mentioned earlier, Nyro retains her mystery in the wider world, she’s not been afforded the critical rediscovery of others – although she was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. Michele Kort wrote a frustrating Nyro biography. Uncut magazine has flown the flag on occasion, and my original inspiration for Nyro, Ian MacDonald wrote some fine pieces for that magazine back in the late 1990s. MacDonald’s own last book, the excellent The People’s Music (2003) has a great chapter on Nyro, which is probably as good as anything you can find written about her. In the book McDonald states “… Nyro’s music, which happens to be the most original, resourceful and powerful composed by any woman in the field of popular music over the last 50 years….her idiom is nonetheless utterly her own, resembling no one else’s.” McDonald’s gendered slant on Nyro is dated, but you get the point. Just in case you don’t trust my love for Laura, I’ll leave the last words here for that other wizard and true star Todd Rundgren, who commented after hearing Nyro’s music “I stopped writing songs like The Who and started writing songs like Laura.”

I’ll leave the last words here for that other wizard and true star Todd Rundgren, who commented after hearing Nyro’s music “I stopped writing songs like The Who and started writing songs like Laura.”

Notes for the Playlist:
This playlist focuses on Laura Nyro’s studio albums and is compiled in chronological order from release date. Many a live record has been released, but that could be a whole new experience for another day.

Article was written by

  • nick

    Editor in chief at OQM. I’m also a co-founder, writer and handle some management too. I’m owner and head A+R at the record label Soliti.

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