The pioneering singer-songwriter brought poetic inspiration to pop
Laura Nyro’s legacy of passion
When young talent agent David Geffen sent Laura Nyro to audition for Columbia Records’ Clive Davis in a Beverly Hills hotel room in 1968, the 20-year-old artist was so timid she made him turn off the lights. Beneath that shyness, however, lay a raging ambition: She wanted to be as big a star as Barbra Streisand.
That never happened, largely because the singer-songwriter refused to make concessions to tailor her songs for release as singles. Still, over the years, Streisand (”Stoney End”), the Fifth Dimension (”Stoned Soul Picnic,” ”Wedding Bell Blues”), Three Dog Night (”Eli’s Comin”’), and Blood, Sweat & Tears (”And When I Die”) turned her material into hits, and when Nyro (pronounced ”Nero”) died of ovarian cancer April 8 at age 49, she left behind a rabid cult following and a stunning legacy as one of pop’s most influential American songwriters.
”She was a brilliant composer, way ahead of her time,” recalls Davis.
Her startling 1968 breakthrough album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, traced the emotional passage from adolescence to maturity, mixing poetic, searingly intense imagery of death, sex, and God with soaring jazz-soul-gospel melodies, complex harmonies, and unexpected tempo changes. It established her as pop’s high priestess, and its confessional songs, which she delivered in an uninhibited, three-octave wail of enormous feeling, paved the way for generations of female singer-songwriters.
”I was obsessed with her,” says Suzanne Vega, ”her phrasing, the way she used words. You can hear her influence in Rickie Lee Jones and Tori Amos; women who write from a strong inner world.”
Born Laura Nigro, the Bronx native was an eccentric who favored long black dresses and Christmas ornaments as earrings and once demanded that fragrance be pressed into an LP. ”She spoke in colors,” says Janis Ian. ”She’d tell the musicians, ‘More purple, more like that chair.”’
Nyro was pathologically private, and only her closest friends knew she was bisexual, even though Eli‘s ”Emmie” was pop’s first lesbian love song. (At her death, she left behind companion Maria Desiderio and 18-year-old son Gill Bianchini.) Nyro was given to episodes of seclusion (one such retreat came during her brief marriage in the early ’70s); to experimentation with LSD, cocaine, and heroin; and to industry disillusionment. In the ’80s, her themes migrated from romantic love to feminism, pantheism, animal rights, and ecology. Still, her infrequent concerts bordered on religiosity, with Nyro bathed in purple lights and surrounded by roses. She spent her last days consulting on Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro, a forthcoming tribute album featuring Vega, Rosanne Cash, and the Roches, among others.
The singer hoped her music healed. ”If you look at the world, there’s so much separation, polarities,” she once said. ”I think in music there’s a oneness…a sweetness. That was the best thing in life.”