When I was a kid in high school growing up in New York City, I listened to so many phenomenal artists in a wide variety of genres—Ella Fitzgerald, Motown, Led Zeppelin, Sarah Vaughan, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Bonnie Raitt... opera, musicals, symphonies...the list goes on. And perhaps one of my biggest influences was Laura Nyro. I listened to Laura Nyro a LOT. LP Records in my bedroom, played at full blast. I sang along with her, full throttle...after awhile it drove my mother nuts. And my mother was a supportive parent and a musician herself! I was listening mainly to Nyro's 1968 genius opus, the concept album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. (I recognize her influence in my own singing to this day.) Turns out this album was originally conceived as a musical. Laura Nyro died in 1997 from ovarian cancer, and her musical opened on Broadway this week in 2001, exactly twenty years ago. She was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010, and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012
If you weren't around in the 70s you probably don't remember Laura Nyro. Professionally she is held in the same regard as Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, and other dominant female singer-songwriters of her day, but as a performer she never reached that level of acclaim. She was a prolific songwriter and penned hits for several acts including Barbra Striesand ("Stony End"), Three Dog Night's #1 hit with "Eli's Comin'," several for The Fifth Dimension ("Bill," "Stoned Soul Picnic"), Blood, Sweat and Tears ("And When I Die"), even Peter, Paul and Mary. Laura Nyro was ahead of her time, infusing jazz, R&B, soul, and musical theater-style songs into her hit pop songs. Ultimately she signed a record deal with Clive Davis at Columbia Records, having been managed by David Geffen. Both of these men are iconic pillars of the music industry.
While listening today the arrangements might sound somewhat dated, but in the late 1960s and 1970s they were brilliant and fresh. She retired early in her career to upstate New York and raised a family, though gigging off and on during those years. She returned for a new two-album release in 1994 and went on tour. I had the good fortune to see her live at The Bottom Line, which was like a spiritual awakening. Back when I was a very little kid, my elder brother, then a live sound engineer, let me see Laura Nyro at a favorite venue in New York where he was mixing her show. I still can see her iconic long, black flowing hair, seated at a black grand piano, solo on a black stage, with a very white face highlighted in the spotlight. She was mesmerizing.
Check out this seven minute story about Laura Nyro from 2001 on the CBS News Sunday Morning Program.
So why am I telling you about Laura Nyro here, in this singers series? Well, for starters since she was such a huge influence on me musically, I want you to know about her, too. Second, you need to know about her. If there had not been a Laura Nyro, the music we hear today wouldn't be the same. Third, some of her songs may interest you to learn to sing. They're so creative and the poetry is great. Fourth, check out what she does with her voice! And the harmonies! Yes.... Brilliant.
Here's the song that drove my mum crazy, which I still blast out at the top of my lungs (along with the other songs on the album): "Eli's Coming."