When a friend shared “Beads of Sweat” by Laura Nyro with Duane Allman on Youtube, I sat hypnotized by these geniuses who left us too soon.
Late into that night, I listened to Laura Nyro music; thought about her, remembered her and loved her.
Apart from Dylan, the 60s strongest singer-songwriters were Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. Twins in eminence and talent, they were different in every other way, (Using past tense here since Mitchell seems retired.)
Mitchell made a silvery sound, a spacious but shy voice plain as prairie rain. Nobody sounded or sang like her; like a lone violin, sighing in the doorway of an empty schoolhouse, far from everything on a moonlit plain. Her writing felt universal, touching every life; carried to the heart with a vivid, vulnerable delivery.
But if Mitchell was emphatically just one, Nyro was multitudes. Mitchell was a mirror, Nyro a movie screen. Mitchell ’s music hid its complexity in homespun folkie charm while Nyro flaunted her sophistication as a precocious genius of soul music, post-bop jazz and Broadway drama.
Nyro’s sound was juicy as red sauce, multi-colored as a shop selling dive bars’ bright neon signs. Her voice echoed among tall buildings, making fire escapes hum. She could whisper in soft desolation, or brass out defiance like a trumpet, her father’s instrument. She populated the streets of her big-city myths with characters in vivid film noirs with people and places animated by the power of stories.
She explains that atmosphere herself on the back cover of “Gonna Take a Miracle,” her 1971 album with LaBelle:
Nights in New York
Running down steps
Into the echoes of the train station
The only time I met her, one of a handful of times we were in the same room, I was too star-struck, too awed, to tell her how she and I go way back; how I saw her at Monterey in 1967, sent her a group fan-letter from Japan after a dream that came true in 1969, how we spent two hours on the phone once, decades later.
At Monterey, I couldn’t afford a $6 ticket, so I climbed a tree outside the fairgrounds arena where the first festival of pop music brought her to a stage full of stars.
For her very New York style, that very California context felt a bit wrong; but nobody boo’ed her there.
Now, I had no idea this enormous, epic thing was happening until I heard it through my barracks window miles away. I was a Russian student then at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio where the feed-back heavy sound of the Paupers boomed across the bay.
I wished later that I’d hurried over, immediately; but I only caught the Saturday evening show.
Saturday afternoon, I hitched to the fairgrounds, stopping first at the community college where a a band called Yashala played for free on a stage on the football field. Folks applauded louder for their announced claim to be from San Francisco than for their music, and they were right. I missed the afternoon show at the festival that opened with Canned Heat and closed with the Electric Flag.
But I was perched in a tall tree when the Saturday evening show started with Moby Grape – the best band I’d ever seen up to that epic night.
Hugh Masekela seemed to play too long, or we weren’t ready for South African jazz; and I don’t recall the Byrds at all. Then came Laura Nyro, with a band, in a short, strong set. After her, San Francisco favorites Jefferson Airplane got hometown raves; then Memphis grooves took over as Booker T. and the MGs warmed up the crowd for Otis Redding, then the reigning soul giant.
Nyro didn’t get the career boost of other Monterey acts because she’s doesn’t appear in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” movie. Her rambunctious “Wedding Bell Blues” and epic “Poverty Train” are among out-takes in “The Complete Monterey Pop Festival” three DVD set my family gave me for a birthday. They prove how great she was and that she didn’t get boo’ed as stubborn myth maintains.
After Monterey came more training in Texas, a flight to Istanbul and my first overseas duty station. I flew via London, where Cream drummer Ginger Baker drunkenly disembarked, and I saw other European capitols only from the air and their blank airports. Isolated on the Black Sea coast, I relied on albums my friend Alligator’s girlfriend sent him from New York to keep me connected to America, to myself.
Then, stationed in Kamiseya, Japan between Tokyo and Yokohama, Laura Nyro’s music came back to me in a dream; her face on an album cover.
At the Post Exchange on base the next day, I found her new “New York Tendaberry” album; the cover just like in my dream. I listened to nothing else for weeks, months.
Her voice ached with intimate longing in pain or rang proud with love; in musical frames ranging from just her piano to big orchestrations that rolled like parades. Her songs, cinematic and sympathetic, portrayed characters in their deepest hearts, as if listening through a keyhole to secrets that can’t be said but must be sung.
She was deepest and most compelling in darker moods. Any album that starts “You don’t love me when I cry” promises a rough ride, perfect for that time when missing my first lost love surrounded me like air. In “Captain* for Dark Mornings,” she pleads in a long fade, “Captain, say yes,” but the song doesn’t console falsely. She has nearly rebuilt herself in “Tom Cat Goodby,” a blithe retelling of Frankie and Johnny’s deadly tale of betrayal and revenge that reaches for refuge but instead finds desperation.
In the next two songs, her voice itself becomes orchestral. She stacks it high in layered choruses in “Mercy on Broadway,” sometimes with the tile-walled echo of subway singers. Then she strips off the years in “Save the Country,” leaving it bare in childlike, hopeful innocence, a call to renewal, to goodness, to salvation in togetherness.
“Gibsom Street” lets the heart catch its breath and start to climb out of isolation. It’s springtime.
Whenever I listened to the album, this and the next tune, ”Time and Love,” always brought me a sense of relief, words of hope riding hand in hand with a melody of pure uplift.
“The Man Who Sends Me Home” has a wistful serenity that deepens as the arrangement fades to leave behind everything but voice and piano and longing. When the sound rebuilds as drums, bass then a heaven of flutes join in “Sweet Lovin’ Baby,” the sun comes out.
Captain Saint Lucifer” has a brash, swaggering sound, horns and woodwinds and the album’s most emphatic beats, but it curls back to a solitary piano.
“New York Tendaberry” makes love to her town, going big and brassy, then whispering in reverent tenderness.
“In The Country Way” announces her retreat from the city to the next phase of her actual life.
That album so dominated the soundscape in the little cottage where I lived in Minami-Rinkan, Japan that my room-mates joined me in writing a group fan letter, responding almost song by song. Michael “Lew” Ayres hailed the emotional courage of her singing with “It takes a lot of nerve to sing like that.”
Her courage inspired mine, and the lingering heartache of a a breakup lifted like a fog. The sun was out, again.
I got every album she made and saw her play whenever I could. I rejoiced in her Tanglewood show with a full band; but I also lamented when time passed with no new music from her, no new albums to wash over me.
Her first hiatus came at just 24 right after “New York Tendaberry.” In the mid-70s, she kicked back again, to have a family, there in the country (Connecticut).
Then in 1984, Nyro made a come-back.
Famously reclusive even when actively making music, I knew she wouldn’t grant many interviews. But I desperately wanted her voice on my phone. So I called her publicist 22 times in less than a week and was finally, very grudgingly, promised 20 minutes by phone. Her publicist then was Barbara Cobb, gratefully named here because she endured my maniacal persistence.
Then, the day before the interview, Cobb phoned, demanding “copy approval” – to see and approve my story before publication.The interview I’d craved and chased so relentlessly might just go away, but I refused. Then Cobb called back: it was back on.
I’d been promised 20 minutes, but we talked for almost two hours because I had really done my homework and was ready. She told me a lot, but wouldn’t acknowledge that “Captain Saint Lucifer” on “New York Tendaberry” was Miles Davis, as I guessed.
She had a thing for captains: In ”Luckie,” first song on her breakthrough album “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” she sings, “You can meet the captain at the dead end zone” while two songs on “New York Tendaberry” sing of “Captain for Dark Mornings” and “Captain Saint Lucifer.” But I digress.
Looking back over my hand-scrawled interview notes, I recalled how lovingly she said New York City radio opened windows into the music that inspired her, especially jazz masters Miles Davis and John Coltrane and soul groups whose harmonies took her into subway stations to sing in their echoes. “It just came pouring out of the radio,” she said. “My favorite times in music were the girl groups, heavy, melodic, gorgeous R&B. And there was the best jazz in the world, ever, earlier than the Beatles, five years before the Beatles.”
Coming back from hiatus happened, she exulted, because “I’m blossoming, the art is blossoming.” She yearned to play live with “New York City musicians who listened to everything” – her beloved girl groups, R&B and jazz. She was looking for a band then, to make a sound with “real simplicity, a strong pulse and a certain finesse.” Her next album would be a live set,
She said her own best songs “demanded to be written,” that writing them felt like “a meeting with this spirit.” She said, “I never thought about it; I just did it. I had a radical energy, with wild and wooly ideas.”
She also presciently noted, “Society doesn’t listen to women; if it did listen, they’d hear about the deeper realities,” the realities her songs carry.
She said, “People conform so much; they stay and live in little boxes that can’t contain life, but outside the boxes is a bright world of light and shadow. I could hear that world in music.” She said, “Women represent that progression the strongest, that’s why feminism appealed to me.” Nyro lamented, “It’s very hard to live with this amount of violence in the world. Women are peace, the female principle.”
She said, “I see music in color images,” but complained “MTV takes too much away from the hearer by giving away too much.” And she linked sight with sound when I asked her about “New York Tendaberry.” She said, “That was a wild exploration in time. I was painting pictures of the city then.”
By contrast, the album that brought her back into the public eye, “Mother’s Spiritual,” looked at life in the country and as a mother, a sonic sigh of newfound contentment.
The only interviews she gave then were with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and me at the Gazette.
When I told my musician brother Jim I was going to see Nyro at the Berkshire Performing Arts Center near Tanglewood some years later, he sent me a cassette with his arrangements of her songs. He arranged, produced and played everything himself.
Nyro played solo that night, in a cozy small theater.
When the theater manager surprised me by taking me backstage to meet Laura, I was determined to deliver Jim’s cassette. He and I hoped it would enthrall her into hiring him to produce a fantastic album or five.
Starstruck, I forgot to tell her I’d seen her at Monterey – and nobody booed her – that I’d seen her “New York Tendaberry” album cover in a dream that actually came true, that we’d talked on the phone once for two hours – and wouldn’t she confirm now that “Captain Saint Lucifer” was Miles Davis?
We talked for a few minutes; as she left the dressing room, she pushed against me in the doorway. Warm, almost intimate, it certainly felt closer than I ever expected to be with her. As she passed, I slipped Jim’s cassette into her bag. If she listened to it, she never called him.
I only ever saw her sing once more, at The Egg on April 13*, 1990; North country troubadour Michael Jerling opened and held his own. Then she sang into the reverent hush her songs always earn.
“It takes a lot of nerve to sing like that” – like Nyro; but her songs were first heard in others’ voices. Her breakthrough album “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” (1968) and the deeper, darker “New York Tendaberry” (1969) were her twin peaks as both singer and songwriter. When she moved to the country, away from the neon New York streets and echoing train stations that inspired her songs and sound, her writing turned inward, like Joni Mitchell’s. Thereafter, the live recordings that dominated the last years of her career made perfect sense. She could sing songs from any time and place. And she medleyed songs together as if impatient to cram as many as she could into her show, including the soul classics of her subway harmony nights.
Nyro’s cover versions of others’ songs generally worked better than other singers’ covers of hers. She convincingly sang both hits and lesser-known songs by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Shirelles, the Royalettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Delfonics, the Crystals, the Moments, the Drifters, Dionne Warwick, the Miracles and others.
Of many versions of her songs in other voices, the furthest from her classy, elegant artistry was David Clayton-Thomas’s “And When I Die” with Blood Sweat and Tears – worst over-singing this side of Meat Loaf. Peter, Paul and Mary’s version was much better, one of 31 covers of a tune Nyro wrote at 17. (I always wondered how Nyro and the similarly precocious fellow New Yorker Frankie Lymon would have sounded, singing together in a train station. He co-wrote “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” at 14.) Some 32 artists covered her “Stoned Soul Picnic,” 22 recorded “Eli’s Comin’,” and 18 did “Time and Love.”
Jazz pianist and arranger Billy Childs made an entire album of Nyro songs, “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro,” in 2014. An all-star tribute, it features singers Lisa Fischer, Dianne Reeves, Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss, Renee Fleming, Esperanza Spalding and Dan Tyminski and ace players Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter, Jerry Douglas, Jay Bellerose, Brian Blade, Chris Botti, Scott Colley, Chris Potter and more. The players on Nyro’s albums are mostly un-credited, apart from Duane Allman on “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” (1970), LaBelle on “Gonna Take a Miracle” (1971); and players on her early albums.
Later she mostly performed solo at the keyboard, and Hudson Valley jazz singer Christine Spero has recently played entire live shows of Nyro songs.
Performing Nyro’s songs may be the finest tribute to her memory (and sampling them, as hip-hop artists started doing decades ago), but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 honored her in fine fashion.
Bette Midler inducted Nyro, praising “that haunting imagery, that beautiful music, that beautiful sexy little girl voice – sexy mama voice that had soul in its DNA, her inimitable piano sound…”
Midler said Nyro was “the essence of New York City” – a place of “rapture, dread and desire.” Her music portrayed the New York where every artist wanted to live.
Midler said Nyro’s Carnegie Hall debut was “like a deity had come down from on high to sing the truth.” Midler said Nyro’s truth included support for peace and feminism.
By then, Laura Nyro had been gone for 15 years.
She was just 19 when she played Monterey, 24 when she made “New York Tendaberry,” her best album, and retired from music for the first time. Laura Nyro was just 49 when she left us.
LAURA NYRO ON THE SHELF
Laura Nyro’s vinyl albums occupy two and half inches on my shelves including two copies each of “New York Tendaberry” and “Mother’s Spiritual” albums as Ellie and I combined lives and records. Nyro’s CDs fill four inches of shelf including the two-disc compilation “Stoned Soul Picnic,” also “Spread Your Wings and Fly: Laura Nyro at the Fillmore East May 30, 1971.”
Albany musician and producer Al Quaglieri brought that live set to us in 2004 on Legacy Records, a SONY Columbia reissue label. Quaglieri wrote in the CD booklet of the technical challenges of salvaging this music, concluding, “I’m simply thankful it still exists, and happy to be able to share it with the world.”
Quaglieri said by email that he reissued all her Columbia albums, the later ones only for the Japanese market. “I always approached reissues doing my best to respect any artist’s work, leaving things they left in the can in the vault where they should remain.” He added, “While Laura, as a perfectionist, might have found the handful of unreleased things I used as ‘bonus’ tracks unworthy, they were all solid, emotionally sound, and well-performed.”
He said, “Laura was infamous for insisting her producers completely erase tracks she didn’t like, and she would sit and watch while they did so. In her session logs, I found quite a few references to songs that were tracked, but for which there remains no extant tape.” Quaglieri speculated “…the Fillmore tapes were made just for her own performance evaluation.” He also cited some demos. “She demo’d the entire ‘ELI’ album on the piano, by herself…an amazing insight into her mind and her creative process, but I swear she would come back from the dead and hunt me down if I ever put them out.”
When Legacy sent a copy of the “Spread Your Wings and Fly” album to Nyro’s father, Louis Nigro, Quaglieri sent a note “telling him what an honor it was to be touching Laura’s work.” Nigro thanked Quaglieri in a note “which I totally cherish,” said Quaglieri, a note in which Louis Nigro also wrote, “Laura was a very special person and brought a lot of joy to many people.”
Spring of 1990 when Laura Nyro last played here was filled to bursting with shows I got to see and photograph. We won’t see a run of shows like this again:
Richard Thompson at the Iron Horse Feb. 22
David Bromberg at The Egg Feb. 27
Asleep at the Wheel at Tiger’s March 16
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Techtronic at the Clifton Park Arena March 17
The Grateful Dead at the Knickerbocker Arena March 24
Randy Travis, and Ricky Van Shelton at the Knickerbocker Arena March 30
Motley Crue, and Faster Pussycat at the Knickerbocker Arena Apr. 11
Laura Nyro, and Michael Jerling at The Egg Apr. 13
Melissa Etheridge, and the Havalinas at the Palace May 2
The Kinks at the Palace May 4
Cher at the Knickerbocker Arena May 9
Laurie Anderson at Proctors May 12
Rush at the Knickerbocker Arena AND the Spanic Boys at Pauly’s Hotel June 2; yeah, the same night
Richie Havens at the first-ever Alive at Five June 15