Streamed live though the aegis of 92nd Street Y
Before Louis Rosen beings his lecture on Laura Nyro (born Laura Nigro 1947-1997), he plays “And When I Die.” The preternaturally mature song was written by tonight’s subject when she was 16. “I don’t often relate to songs written by 16 year-olds, but this speaks to a very different kind of artist. You’d have to explain her as an old soul.”
In Rosen’s opinion, Nyro was a genius. He quotes author Jan Swofford: “For me genius is something that lies on the other side of talent. It adds a freshness and wildness of imagination…a depth and breadth of thought and spirit, an ability to astonish not only your audience, but yourself…” “The later 18th century’s idea was that genius was something you possessed,” Rosen tells us, “the Romantic conception was that genius was something you were, which potentially turns a “genius” into something akin to a demigod.”
Bronx born Laura Nigro was the daughter of a bookkeeper and a piano tuner. She taught herself piano and started writing songs at eight. Attending The High School of Music and Art, Nigro was “cool”- aware of beat generation artists, a poetry fan, street smart, socially conscious, inevitably dressed all in black. (I was there.) She busked doo-wop with a group of friends.
One day, her father was asked to do a job for manager/song publisher Artie Mogull in the iconic Brill Building (a hit factory). Louis Nigro pitched his daughter’s talent and got her an audition. She sang “When I Die,” “Stoney End,” and “Wedding Bell Blues.”
Despite lack of performance presence, Mogull and his partner Paul Barry signed the girl to Verve Folkways. She was 18 and would now go by the name Laura Nyro. From the get-go, her songs were not conventionally written. Rosen tells us producers tried to get her to “round off the edges” of her songs and curb the signature style of radically changing tempo several times in the course of music. If she compromised, we can’t hear it. When the artist eventually gained creative control, she pushed that envelope further and further.
Nyro’s first album, More Than a New Discovery, was a challenge to Verve’s public relations department. In what genre could they sell this anomaly? Though it never took off, songs from the collection would be recorded by Barbra Streisand, The Fifth Dimension, and Blood, Sweat and Tears. “And When I Die” was sold to Peter, Paul, and Mary for $5000. She appeared at the hungry i coffee house in San Francisco, Clay Cole’s Diskoteck, and the television show Where the Action Is. There were followers, but they hardly generated profit.
A year later, Nyro showed up for The Monterey Pop Festival wearing all black and red nail polish, accompanied by three back-up singers. Rosen compares what was presented to a cabaret act, clearly off model for the environment. Representation decided she wasn’t good enough to play, so even control of the groove was out of her hands. On top of a terrible stage experience, her manager informed Laura she’d humiliated him. The album got next to no airplay.
Here’s where luck comes in. Young David Geffen, then employed by the William Morris mailroom, was visiting a friend in Los Angeles who played him Discovery. Geffen had a eureka moment. He talked his way into Nyro’s New York apartment and convinced her to let him become her manager. She successfully sued to end existing management and recording contracts on grounds of having been a minor. Geffen quit his job and secured her a contract with Columbia Records through Clive Davis. One can only imagine the promoter’s charisma.
Davis wrote about Nyro’s audition in his memoir: She’d invited him to her apartment, turned off every light except that of a television set next to her piano, and played him the material that would become Eli and The Thirteenth Confession. “Eli was a coming of age album taking her from girl to woman,” Rosen notes. Geffen came up with the idea to establish a 50/50 publishing company with his then only client. It was called Tuna Fish Music and gave him more impetus to push her songs no matter reception to the records.
“The album (Eli) didn’t sell well, but hit after hit started to come out with other people doing her songs, many with more middle of the road treatment. She and Jimmy Webb were the two hottest songwriters not performing their own music. Let’s listen to a few songs from Eli.” We hear “Stoned Soul Picnic” many of us watching Rosen pulse to the infectious rhythm. “She was capable of true joy…and had a great sense of vocal harmony. Just about everyone who covered her songs used her arrangements.”
Next Rosen plays the tender “Emmie.” Gospel and Motown influences are apparent. Iconoclastic orchestration is very unusual for pop or rock. “She could also be terrifically intense,” Rosen says cuing up “The Confession.” Our host is so taken by this one, he resembles a bobblehead on screen. Nyro’s voice sails like a kite in the wind, snaps back, whips and rises. “That was recorded when she was 20! It took a long while till anyone reviewed it, but people now knew her as a songwriter. Wise, fierce, and poetic, she really spoke to young women. Lyrics have strong resonance and meaning.”
At that point in time, riteof passage included an appearance at West Hollywood’s The Troubadour. Every singer Rosen will talk about in this series played there at the pivotal beginning of their careers. The next album, New York Tendaberry, garnered critical praise and yielded two more hits, “Time and Love” and “Save the Country.”
Rosen runs rare video of the singer/songwriter at the piano performing the latter on a variety special hosted by Bobby Darin. Nyro is raw, sound essential, not at all the produced version to which we’re accustomed. She wears all black, long hair cascading over one closed eye a la Veronica Lake.
“Then she sets off on the album that will be released in 1970, Christmas and The Beads of Sweat (a title she couldn’t be talked out of), featuring Diane Allman and other Muscle Shoals musicians. Nyro was not easy to work with. She knew what she wanted, but not how to get it.”
Apparently a synthesist (a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second one), the artist often described preferences in terms of sounds and color. She’d say “I’d like it to sound like that chair,” Rosen relates. “Do you mean brown? = lower range?” “Yes.” The chair was Shaker in design. “Uncomplicated?” “Yes.” It took a certain kind of producer to understand her metaphors.
Nyro brought in Felix Cavaliere to co-produce (because of his work with The Rascals) and Arif Mardin, whose clients included The Rascals, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield. Rosen shares Mardin’s recollected example of the artist’s color allusions. In a studio full of old time musicians who chomped cigars and read racing forms, she asked for a “shimmering sound” only to be met by uncomprehending faces. At last, a violist piped up – Rosen sounds gruff, “She wants ponticello!” (The term is instruction to play with the bow as close as possible to the instrument’s bridge.)
Over a three month period, they recorded an album our host divides into 1. rhythmic, playful sassy and 2. darker, with Asian influences. “There’s a real tone difference between sides one and two, but the total feels quite whole. This was post Woodstock, Altamont, and Kent State. It would be the last album she’d make with her own songs for six years.” The cover drawing was a backstage gift from a fan.
We then listen to the album Blackpatch, which sounds part Motown, part calypso. “Been on a Train” is an example of New York roots, yet might be narrative opera. “Up on the Roof” (Gerry Goffin/Carole King) is what Nyro called one of her “heartstring” songs, the only one on the album not written by her. It’s terrific, in Rosen’s opinion, better than Carole King’s own version.
Side two is more freeform. Subject matter gets darker and more socially conscious: I love my country as it dies/In war and pain before my eyes/I walk the streets where disrespect has been/The sins of politics, the politics of sin… The “decidedly uncommercial” recording ran 14 weeks on the charts, peaking at #51. “She never thought of what she was doing as a career. It was making music…I don’t necessarily think it’s her best album, but one of those that warrants a complete listening. The lyrics are completely original, not at all tapping into the larger well of pop music.”
When Nyro’s contract was up, Geffen offered to sell Tuna Fish Music to Davis plus her next 60 songs and five more albums in exchange for stock. Columbia would pay no advance royalties. The pair would’ve received around three million dollars. Backed by Atlantic, Geffen was starting his own label, Asylum Music. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell considered coming on board because of the way he secured artist protection for Nyro with whom, not incidentally, he made his first million dollars.
Unfortunately, Geffen neglected to ask her on top of which he released the sale’s dollar amount to press. His artist was embarrassed. She decided to stay at Columbia happy with the deference with which she was treated. Additional considerations were that Nyro would no longer be Geffen’s main focus and she was never comfortable in Los Angeles. “Geffen treated her refusal as a great betrayal. He went out of his way to trash her in a self-produced documentary. It was reprehensible.”
At 24, Laura Nyro got married and moved to the woods. When her marriage dissolved, she came back to the business mellower. “You can’t live on the edge for that long without falling over…Lately with what’s going on in the streets, I’m struck by how relevant this work is. We’re still fighting the same fights.”
All uncredited quotes are Louis Rosen
Tune in next Wednesday June 10 at 7:15 for a different singer/songwriter