“Amber was the color
Summer was a flame-ride
Cookin’ up the noon roads
Walkin’ on God’s good side
I was walkin’ on God’s good side…”
-Laura Nyro, “Lu”
For thirty years, Laura Nyro believed she had been booed off the stage after her performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. At just 20 years old, it was only her second live performance ever, and her brand of New York City soul contrasted sharply with the west coast-dominated lineup of pop and rock bands. Footage of Laura performing was not included in the Monterey Pop film, reinforcing the idea that she hadn’t gone over well with the audience. The story of this perceived failure followed her throughout her career, tempering her confidence, until the producers of the film unearthed forgotten footage of the festival in 1997. Their discovery was shocking: no one had booed before, during, or after Laura’s set. Instead, there were shouts of “Beautiful!” and “We love you!” The producers immediately phoned to tell Laura the news, reaching her just weeks before she died of ovarian cancer at age 49.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine failure of any kind for a singer and songwriter as brilliant as Laura Nyro. Her songs, with their dynamic shifts in tempo and mood, incorporated elements of jazz, soul, Broadway, and pop; her vocals were soulful and rich. Staunchly feminist in her vision, her lyrics questioned commonly held views about gender, race, religion, and politics. She boldly confessed her desires and asked for no judgment in return. As a result, her songs dwelled at the top of the charts, but only in versions recorded by other artists. After laboring in obscurity despite releasing five classic albums, she announced her retirement from the music business at age 24.
Born in the Bronx, Laura grew up knowing that she would do something creative. After teaching herself to play piano, at age eight she began to compose songs, and her future profession was chosen. By age 17, she had written most of the songs on her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, including “And When I Die”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, and “Stoney End”. These songs would go on to become massive hits for Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Fifth Dimension, and Barbra Streisand, respectively. The album was released in 1966, and led to Laura’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Despite the high quality of the songs on her debut, it was Laura’s next three albums that would cement her reputation as one of the most exciting (and most overlooked) performers in rock music. Eli and the Thirteenth Confession marked a step up from her debut, with lush arrangements, wildly inventive lyrics, and more hit songs (Three Dog Night successfully covered “Eli’s Comin’”, and “Stoned Soul Picnic” returned The Fifth Dimension to the pop charts). The album visits characters throughout the urban landscape, culminating with “The Confession”, a song with lyrics that, in the 1960s, were positively shocking for a woman to sing.
Laura continued her vision with her next album, the gritty, mysterious New York Tendaberry. A love letter to her beloved NYC, the album’s title renders Laura’s invented word, “tenderberry”, in a way that evokes her Bronx accent. More stripped-down than her previous records, the album is mostly Laura at her piano, with occasional blasts of horns that feel like gusts of blazing-hot wind on a steamy city street. The painterly lyrics evoke the city at its dirty best. Her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, included a “Seasons Suite”, wherein each song represented one of the four seasons.
After experiencing her biggest chart success with a cover of “Up on the Roof”, Laura decided to record an entire album of covers. Enlisting her friends LaBelle to sing with her, she recorded Gonna Take a Miracle. She chose what she called her “teenage heartbeat songs”, and brilliantly reinterpreted each of them. After the release of this album, Laura announced her retirement from the music business. Although she would eventually return and record a few more albums before her death, they did not match the simultaneous power and vulnerability evinced by her first five.
Today, Laura is remembered for the hits other bands had with her songs, and the influence she had on other, more popular artists. Her devotees include Jenny Lewis, Elton John, Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne, Todd Rundgren, and, most famously, Joni Mitchell, who admitted that hearing Laura’s early albums inspired her to take up playing the piano again after a hiatus (resulting in all those lovely, piano-driven ballads on Ladies of the Canyon and Blue). Despite her lack of commercial success, one listen to a Laura Nyro album removes any doubt of her maverick genius.