Laura Nyro

Born 1947, died 1997 from cancer - she didn't quite make it to 50.

There's something about Laura. Her voice is unique - delicate yet strong - and her piano playing can be tender or raucous. The production on her earlier albums is haunting and at other times sounds like Motown.

In looking for some video to include with this post I've been inspired to go through all the CD booklets for her albums - I searched far and wide for most of these at the time, although they're all now widely available. There are names like Roy Halee (known for working with Simon & Garfunkel), Arif Mardin, Duane Allman (credited on her 1970 release just a year before his death) and a host of other familiar names. Laura was in good company it seems. The Stoned Soul Picnic compilation (released before her death) includes clearer credits along with an interview with Laura.

More Than A New Discovery (1966) was meant to capitalise on Laura's talent but I think she was (at about 17 when signed) swept up by 'commercialism'. Several of the songs here were made popular by other artists, including Barbra Streisand, who did "Stoney End". She wasn't even allowed to play piano on this album, explaining why, in a slightly strange TV appearance (mimed) she doesn't touch the piano next to her while performing the song from this album, although she turns to it for a song from a later album.

David Geffen managed to extract Laura from her previous contract and gave her more artistic freedom, and is credited on a few albums as 'manager and friend'.

The first result of Geffen's arrival was Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968). This is possibly her best album and is highly energetic. Strings and brass adorn the album - seemingly no expense was spared. "Eli's Coming" was picked up by Three Dog Night and "Stoned Soul Picnic" went to The 5th Dimension. Slightly less energetic are songs like "Lonely Women" (although it bursts into life in the middle) and "Poverty Train", which is the only decent live performance video I was able to find on YouTube.

New York Tendaberry (1969) is more of the same. Piano-driven, heavy reverb with a little orchestration thrown in here and there. It's very atmospheric. "Save The Country" is featured twice here - the original piano-only album version, plus a bonus single version that's more upbeat with a full arrangement. "Time and Love" on this album was also picked up by Streisand.

On Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat (1970) songs range from just Laura's voice and her piano, to fully 'brassed' upbeat tracks where she provides her own backing vocals. There's a version of "Up On The Roof" (Goffin/King) here which stands well alongside better-known versions, with its tasteful string arrangement.

After making an album of Motown covers with vocal group Labelle on 1971's Gonna Take A Miracle (which is surprisingly good), Nyro got married and retired from music.

However, she divorced and came back in 1976 with the amazing Smile. I'd personally only got hold of Gonna Take A Miracle before buying this (trip to London's Oxford Street HMV!) so this was my first exposure to her songwriting. The album starts with a non-original - "Sexy Mama" - but the rest is original songs and I love it from start to finish. Highlights are "Money", "Stormy Love", "Midnite Blue" (covered by Melissa Manchester) and the amazing "I Am The Blues", which is one of those songs that starts slowly but builds up to a crescendo. It's in 3/4 and has a very jazzy sound.

It's hard to follow such a great album, but Nested (1978) does a reasonable job. I don't think it was a great success and I originally only had this on vinyl (purchased secondhand in a Nashville record store) before it was reissued on CD after her death. There's some similarity to Smile but in the main it sounds to me like earlier albums, which is fine and dandy. She was pregnant with her son during its recording and subsequent promotion.

After Nested, Laura retired again for a few years (understandable as she was a single parent) before coming back in 1984 with Mother's Spiritual. This album is very mature and laid back, opening with "To A Child", which sounds like a love song to her son as they grow together. Maybe that experience is what mellowed her, and a song like "The Right To Vote" comes across calmly despite the tone of the lyrics. Whether she's singing about feminist themes or simple love, her delivery is relaxed on this album. The album is generally upbeat and quite funky without trying too hard. Todd Rundgren (a long-time admirer of Nyro's, who paid homage to her in "Baby Let's Swing" on Runt, his 1970 solo debut album) had some involvement in trying to produce the music but working styles clashed and the collaboration was short-lived, although he played on the final album.

After a few more quiet years, Laura returned in 1993 with Walk The Dog & Light The Light, an album produced by Gary Katz and Laura. Katz is known as producer for Steely Dan, and brings the same polish and laid-back sound that he helped them generate. "The Descent of Luna Rose" is the only song I know (offhand) about menstruation. The album is pretty much perfect end-to-end. Included is a remake of "To A Child" and the album ends with medley-cover "I'm So Proud/Dedicated to the One I Love".

Angel in the Dark (2001), while posthumous, seems a good epitaph for Laura. The songs were studio recordings made in 1994 and 1995, which the CD notes clarify as material intended for three albums. The sound is not dissimilar to Walk The Dog (such as the title track) but some arrangements are lighter and there are more covers here (intended for a separate album), which she executes tremendously well with her unique style: "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", "Let It Be Me", "Ooh Baby, Baby", "La La Means I Love You", "Walk On By".

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