Though Laura Nyro’s songs are familiar to millions of people–through hit versions by Three Dog Night, the 5th Dimension and others–she herself remained in the shadows during her remarkable career as a singer, songwriter, arranger and muse. An elusive and mysterious figure, she continues to touch new generations with her music. Speaking with those who knew and worked with her, including Al Kooper, Felix Cavaliere, Steve Katz and John Simon, and those influenced by her, like Carol Lipnik and Syd Straw, John Kruth captures the essence of Laura Nyro for PKM. We offer this in honor of her on the anniversary of her death on April 8, 1997.
“She’s been below the radar long enough,” former Rascals’ singer/ keyboardist Felix Cavaliere declared. “Her music was so friggin’ good. People should know her! Laura was the purest, most natural musician I’ve ever met. I’ve never known anyone who was as real to her craft as Laura.”
Although her songs were enormous hits for the 5th Dimension (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness”) Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Coming”) and Barbara Streisand (Stoney End”), the biggest smash of her career came, ironically, with her breathtaking cover of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s classic portrait of New York City life, ‘Up On the Roof,’ from her 1970 album, Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat, produced by Cavaliere and Arif Mardin [Mardin arranged and produced hit records for a number of women singers, including Dusty Springfield, Chaka Khan and Norah Jones.]
“Stoned Soul Picnic”-Laura Nyro:
A precocious piano-playing teenager from the Bronx, Nyro wrote her first song in 1964, at age 17. Originally recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary, “And When I Die” exploded for the David Clayton Thomas era Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Laura Nigro (yes, she changed her name) never let a good education get in the way of her brilliance. The daughter of an Italian trumpet player and piano tuner and a Jewish accountant, she enrolled at Manhattan’s prestigious High School of Music and Art. But her passion blossomed when she discovered Nina Simone and Billie Holiday while rummaging through her parents’ record collection. Laura also found inspiration in French Impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel, influences that later appeared in her gorgeous atmospheric chords.
Many wondered how a teenage girl came to write such astute lyrics as “All I ask from living is to have no chains on me.”
She was one of the most talented people I knew, as well as one of the sweetest, a magical person with a positively ghostly presence. Laura was Goth before Goth was cool.”
“I think that teenagers are in touch with a very primal truth in life,” Laura told interviewer Scott Simon in 1989. “Sometimes someone will say ‘you were so young to write a song like that’, yet I think that there is a folk wisdom in the song that a lot of teenagers have.”
Raised in a household passionate about Civil Rights and the anti-war movement, Laura soaked up plenty of “folk wisdom” in Pete Seeger’s songs. While politically aware, her true passion was poetry and singing doo-wop, which later led her to recording Gonna Take A Miracle in 1971, with soul sirens, Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendrix and Sarah Dash).
“Gonna Take a Miracle”-Laura Nyro and Labelle:
Combining sensuality and intellect, Laura’s intuition was uncanny when it came to her art, fearlessly mixing musical styles, from folk to gospel, to girl group, soul and rock, to tunes that sounded like they came from a lost Broadway musical.
“Laura was/is a fucking great writer,” said John Simon [songwriter/ pianist/producer of The Band’s first two classic albums, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ debut album, Leonard Cohen and Big Brother’s Cheap Thrills]. “She was touched by genius. Hers’ was a brilliant talent we lost too soon. ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ floored me when I heard it. She wasn’t writing in any cliched form. No AABA or [traditional] verse/chorus stuff. No 32 bars. No I, IV, V chords. And then ‘Eli’s Comin’’… The drive of the rhythm and the words together… Man, that album [Eli And the Thirteenth Confession] was something special!”
“Laura came from jazz and doo-wop, a rare combo that no one had ever encountered before, that was totally original,” Super Session keyboard man Al Kooper pointed out. “Before her, there was jazz and doo-wop, but they had never been combined. Without her, there would have been no Rickie Lee Jones, no Joni Mitchell, or Fiona Apple.”
Or New York’s downtown chanteuse, Carol Lipnik, who was 13 years old and desperately longing “for something different” when she first heard Laura Nyro’s “lusty, unparalleled goosebump-inducing falsetto wail. I fell completely in love and awe. I knew in that moment that my life would never be the same.”
A “sweet-eyed blind” fan from that day forth, Lipnik still adores Nyro for “her unabashed, unapologetic emotional individuality. She is an all-weather fearsome earth mother goddess, possessing a natural, wild unleashed eccentricity. Her voice is a multi-octave emotional pallet of endless, cathartic possibility. Laura’s songs are more poetical suites than pop, with roots in R&B, gospel, Leonard Bernstein, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Tin Pan Alley. Her odd chord inversions, her tempos changing on a dime to match her emotional tone, her multi-tracked harmonies all perfectly captured the gritty melting pot of New York City, especially at night.”
Laura Nyro-title track from the New York Tendaberry album:
“Many of her songs reflected an urban feel,” singer/songwriter/ guitarist with Blood, Sweat & Tears Steve Katz concurred. While songs by Lou Reed and the Ramones exposed the dark side of New York life, no female poet/singer/songwriter with the exception of the punk priestess, Patti Smith, has so thoroughly embodied Manhattan bohemia as Laura Nyro [who titled her 1969 album, New York Tendaberry].
Signed to Verve/Folkways for her first album in 1967, Nyro had previously played only a few coffeehouse gigs before making her debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Monterey made legends of and secured lucrative record deals for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, thanks to D.A. Pennebaker’s subsequent documentary film Monterey Pop (from which her performance was cut).
While Monterey signified the first major “coming together of the tribes,” many of the musicians and producers involved comprised a California clique that had little appreciation for the music coming from New York (with the exception of the breezy Simon & Garfunkel, who also played the festival).
Although some maintain Nyro’s performance was marred due to her “battling the flu,” looking back at the footage years later reveals it was hardly the disaster it was rumored to be.
“The reason she ‘bombed’ is there was never a precedent for what she was doing before that night in rock ‘n’ roll,” Al Kooper pointed out. “The closest was Billie Holiday and that audience had no idea who Billie Holiday was.”
“You would have to be made of steel not to absorb that kind of unwarranted and public criticism,” Steve Katz claimed. “And Laura was not made of steel. She was one of the most talented people I knew, as well as one of the sweetest, a magical person with a positively ghostly presence. Laura was Goth before Goth was cool.”
“Her look?” Carol Lipnik wondered aloud… “Gypsy Madonna in long Spanish flamenco widow skirts, with press-on nails and black hair way down past her voluptuous exotic waist… head thrown back in emotional ecstasy at her piano.”
She sat down at the piano and held her hands just above the keys, took a long deep breath and played me the entire album from start to finish. When she was done, I had tears in my eyes.
Writer/musician Brian Cullman recalled briefly meeting a more vulnerable Nyro at a gig at Brown University in 1973: “I was helping with something that probably didn’t require much exertion [like] stacking programs or dusting the piano, when Ms. Nyro’s tour manager approached me and asked if there was any place she could go and rehearse a few songs on piano. I tried to explain where the practice rooms were… just past the library, take a right at Hegeman, but he looked confused.
‘Could you just take us there?’
He walked me outside to where a long black limo was parked and opened the door. Laura Nyro was sitting in the back. It looked like she’d put on a really tight black lace dress and then eaten 85 or 90 pancakes. It was not a good look. She was holding a small wooden rosary and a bouquet of dying flowers and was sweating profusely. Maybe it was maple syrup. I sat down next to her and held out my hand.
‘Hi,’ I said. She looked me in the eyes and started shaking. She seemed nervous and looked pleadingly at her tour manager.
‘Hi,’ I said again. ‘Out!’ he said. I was puzzled. ‘Out!’ he repeated.
A moment later Brian found himself “dumped unceremoniously outside the limo as they drove away. Her concert that night was beautiful, and she looked radiant,” Cullman added. “But it made me wonder a little about show business.”
Nyro’s eccentricity still remain the stuff of great stories: “Laura was so uniquely different,” Felix Cavaliere said. “She had a whole different way of looking at the world. I didn’t know what planet she was from! Laura had a different outlook on spirituality. She was an earth-mother type. I don’t want to use the word ‘druid,’ but Laura was all about nature. At the time I had been studying with [Integral Yoga founder] Swami Satchidananda. She was interested in meeting this guru. Alice Coltrane also had a lot to do with Laura wanting to meet the Swami. She really respected Alice, and her harp playing. They became great friends. At the time the Swami had a place in Harriman, New York. So, I made an appointment to bring her in. It was a semi-formal thing. He comes in, in his orange robe and she breaks out into tears, crying so much I had to leave the room so they could communicate. Later she told me she’d never seen anything ‘so clean and so pure,’ while he said that ‘she was from another century. Born a hundred years too late.’ Later, she bought his house in Connecticut. It had a little pond and she fell in love with it.
“She would call me up in the middle of the night to discuss her lyrics. Unless you knew what she was thinking there was no way you could decipher what she was talking about. Everything she ever wrote was about a personal situation in her life. She wrote in a code that women could understand and relate to. I’d say, ‘Hey, that’s great! Can I go back to sleep now?’” Cavaliere laughed.
“Her voice is a multi-octave emotional pallet of endless, cathartic possibility.”
“I was living in the West Village, on Jane Street at the time, and she was somewhere up on Riverside Drive, in this funky little penthouse apartment,” Steve Katz said recalling a quirky phone conversation he had with Nyro after getting home at 7 a.m. from making his nightly rounds of New York’s “least elegant rock clubs”:
“Steve. It’s Laura.”
“I’m in bed.”
“There’s a leak in my roof and it’s raining on me, in bed.”
“Well, here’s what I think you should do. I think you should get out of bed.”
Later that evening, Laura hired a limo and picked up Katz to take him out for dinner at her favorite White Castle.
“After Al Kooper left Blood Sweat &Tears, we wanted to see if Laura might fit in as his replacement,” Katz recalled. “We rehearsed one afternoon at the Cafe au Go Go [in Greenwich Village] and saw immediately that it wasn’t going to work. Laura had too strong a personality to fit in with what we foolishly thought was our little ‘democracy.’ But Laura and I got to be good friends, and she eventually became [Jim Fielder] our bass player’s girlfriend.”
Fielder recalled meeting Nyro “when she was rehearsing with us as a possible replacement for Al Kooper as lead singer. David Geffen, her manager, persuaded her not to do it, and it probably worked out best for all of us,” Jim told Goldmine in 2010.
It was David Geffen who first introduced Felix Cavaliere to the moody chanteuse: “He wanted me to produce her next album. David said she was ‘the most impossible person you’ll ever meet in your life.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Just remember my words.’ With an intro like that, Laura and I became fast friends.”
“Beads of Sweat”-Laura Nyro, produced by Felix Cavaliere:
Laura Nyro’s music has always been hard to peg as it constantly morphed, changed styles and shifted tempos. Although she worked with the best arrangers and producers in the business, her songs were often best stripped down, naked, like the first time Charlie Calello heard her.
Calello began working at Columbia Records in 1966 but was unhappy with the gig, finding their studio sound quality “mediocre.” When he complained to Clive Davis, Davis told him that Laura Nyro’s manager, David Geffen, was looking for somebody to produce her new record.
A member of the Four Seasons, Calello produced everyone from Sinatra to Springsteen, was the man behind Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” as well as classic novelty hits “The Mouse” by Soupy Sales and Shirley Ellis’ “The Name Game.”
She is an all-weather fearsome earth mother goddess, possessing a natural, wild unleashed eccentricity.
Calello recalled first walking into Nyro’s 52nd Street apartment: “Laura was living in a tiny studio with a spinet piano and her cat. She was wearing a long black dress. There were candles burning everywhere. She sat down at the piano and held her hands just above the keys, took a long deep breath and played me the entire album from start to finish. When she was done, I had tears in my eyes. She was brilliant just by herself on the piano. To Laura, just adding a bass was enough, where bringing in drums was ‘overproducing’ the record as far as she was concerned. She scrutinized everything. Eventually I convinced her the arrangements would be as good as the songs.”
“Eli was recorded on a four-track machine,” Calello continued. “Everything was performed live. We had four or five horns, a rhythm section, bass and drums, all in a 15 x 20 room. When she began to sing everybody turned around to look at her, to get the feel.”
Nyro’s sidemen were simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by her unexpected tempo changes as they struggled to follow her idiosyncratic inner clock that swelled and receded on the tide of her emotions.
“Some have cited her debt to jazz,” John Simon ruminated. “But she didn’t have the flashy right-hand common among competent jazz players. That level of technique requires hours of practice, which I don’t imagine was something she was aiming for or, in fact, was capable of. Her appreciation of gospel piano patterns was evident in songs like ‘Brown Earth’ and ‘Blackpatch.’ Although, as in all her songs, her wayward peregrinations through unexpected chord sequences transcended both the gospel and jazz foundations that were on the surface. When she was unaccompanied, she cast any respect for a steady beat aside and rushed her playing as the emotion took hold of her. In fact, in so many of her songs, she intentionally would ritard the tempo for dramatic effect. However, when there was a drummer on the recording, she was held to a steady tempo. Her intentional disregard for a steady tempo from downbeat to coda was one of the things that marked her as unique in an era which still, as now, held the steady backbeat on the 2 and 4 as, excuse the pun, ‘gospel.’”
“We had $20,000 to make the record [Eli]. We spent $40,000 and Columbia cut us off,” Calello laughed. “David Geffen came to me and said, ‘What do you have to do to finish the record?’ I said, ‘Get her out of here!’
“She was very opinionated,” Felix added with a knowing laugh. “She had these ideas, and that’s the way it’s gonna be.”
Not surprisingly the suits at Columbia Records didn’t get it, considering her flakey when she requested a perfumed lyric sheet be included inside each album sleeve to Eli.
“She was shy but determined. She knew exactly what she wanted, said Alan Pepper, proprietor of New York’s legendary club, the Bottom Line. “Instead of playing the piano sideways, across the stage where everyone could see her, she pointed the nose of the piano towards the audience. I said ‘Laura, no one in the first couple of rows will be able to see you. They’ll all be sitting under the piano.’ She walked out into the club, looked at the stage and came back and said, ‘How many seats will this affect?’ I told her, ‘I don’t know maybe, fifty.’ She said, ‘Okay, let’s give out fifty CD’s to those people.’ I was aghast. But that’s where she wanted to be. That’s where she felt most comfortable. The most amazing thing is that no one complained… no one. She knew her audience and they felt she could do no wrong. When she played it was like being in church.”
“People started treating Laura like a superstar,” Calello commented. “She needed to be treated like a flower.”
“At the time, she was surrounded by a lot of people who were abusing the privilege of her friendship, using her phone, eating her food,” Felix added. “She was an earth-mother type and had an open house for all these people that were ripping her off. I was protective of her and cleaned them all the hell out so we could get to work. Some of those stray dogs deserved to be in the pound.”
Beyond her remarkable trilogy of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry and Christmas and the Beads Of Sweat, Nyro cut the delicious doo wop/soul tribute Gonna Take a Miracle in 1971. Then came a series of life changes… marriage, divorce, her mother’s death, moving to the country, the birth of her son (rapper Gil-T)… as well as a few more albums.
In 1983 violinist Julie Lyonn Lieberman was delighted to receive a call to record some tracks for Nyro’s new album, Mother’s Spiritual. Laura originally had a famous Russian violinist in mind when she became enchanted by the meditative quality of Lieberman’s recording “Empathic Connections.” Julie soon drove up to the Danbury, Conn., home that Laura had purchased from Swami Satchidananda. Nyro had built a recording studio that hung within the frame of the house, so that vibrations from passing airplanes couldn’t be heard. The triple-plated glass in the isolation booth enabled her to sit at her piano and look out over a pond with flowers and a small cabin where she slept on the floor at night.
Laura Nyro-title track from Mother’s Spiritual album:
The recording engineer Roscoe Harring, Laura’s longtime friend, took Julie aside. explaining that Laura “didn’t know anything about music theory and wrote everything by ear, without notating any ideas on paper. So, I avoided asking questions like ‘What key is this in?’” Julie recalled.
While Lieberman layered multiple violin tracks for each song, Laura made a couple surprising suggestions, more poetic than technical in nature: “Can you make that sound a little more green?” she asked.
“I said ‘yes’ to her every request even though I had no idea what she meant,” Julie recalled. “We didn’t have enough time to record all the tracks on that first day and the only other day I had available was July 16th, my birthday. Laura showed her appreciation by throwing me a little luncheon birthday party and gave me a white candle in the shape of a dove. I still have that candle all these years later,” Julie said.
“When the album came out, I found she had handpicked notes from each of the layers I made to create what I call ‘a Zen violin presence.’ She must have spent weeks combing through the multitude of tracks to finalize the sound.”
“I used to do a couple of Laura Nyro songs when I was 18 years old, working in comedy clubs in New York City,” the lady with a voice like pink velour, Syd Straw recalled. “I would whip out ‘I Never Meant to Hurt You,’ or ‘Billy‘s Blues’ between sets by Robin Williams, Larry David and Andy Kaufman. The comedians were so funny, and of course the songs were so sad, and beautiful, which led to bigger laughs for the comics. And once in a while, I was rewarded for my drama with a candy bar or maybe tepid sex.
“About ten years after Laura died, I opened an old crate of business papers from my haphazard career and learned that Laura had asked for me personally to open for her on what became her last tour. But my manager never mentioned the offer to me, as he didn’t think the money was attractive enough. Bloody heck! I would have paid Laura Nyro a million imaginary dollars to let me sing with or for her.”