Laura Nyro (reimagined)

September 6, 2014 • 5:13 pm

If you listened to National Public Radio (NPR) this morning, you heard a piece on Laura Nyro, who happens to be one of my favorite popular singers of all time, and someone who, I imagine, is almost completely unknown to anyone born after 1970.  She died young: at 49, and from ovarian cancer, the same disease that killed her mother at the same age. But before that she produced a panoply of songs that have no equal among those by female singer/songwriters (or any modern singer songwriters) except, perhaps, Joni Mitchell.

You should hear the interview, and you can get to it by clicking on the screenshot below.
Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 6.51.20 PMThe occasion of this piece was the issuing of a new album of her song, “Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro“, with people like Yo-Yo Ma, Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss, and Renee Fleming doing versions of Nyro’s compositions.  It’s a  great group of singers, to be sure, but none of the clips moved me nearly as much as the original versions by Nyro (Krauss’s version of “When I Die,” sung with dobro accompaniment, is promising, though.)

Two bits from the NPR transcription, with host Scott Simon interviewing composer Billy Childs, who organized the new album:

CHILDS: The song [“And When I Die“], as Laura does it, and I think as Blood, Sweat and Tears did it, kind of juxtaposed the heaviness of the lyrics – because they’re really deep lyrics, you know, talking about death and finality – with kind of a celebratory musical accompaniment. And written, I think, when she was like, a teenager like, I think it’s the first song she wrote.

SIMON: Yeah. She was a real prodigy, we should remember.

CHILDS: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And then I saw a YouTube clip of her playing it by herself on a keyboard. And it had a really decidedly blues vibe to it. So I wanted to kind of explore that. And it turned into like, somewhere between jazz and bluegrass, you know, with Jerry Douglas, you know, including this incredible dobro solo. And I thought if it’s in that direction, Alison Krauss would be a perfect voice to render that.

Here’s the clip Childs is talking about. The video is awful; the music divine. What boggles the mind is that Nyro wrote this song when she was about 18. This video was recorded at a concert in Pittsburgh on June 11, 1994, when she was 46 (the complete show is here).

You owe it to yourself to hear the original recorded version, here, issued when she was twenty. I still can’t hear it without a chill up the spine. How can someone only 18 write something like that?

And here’s Childs’s assessment of her work, with which I completely agree:

SIMON: Maybe it’s just because we were, you know, yoots, when we first heard her music. So what do you do about people who say, Laura who?

CHILDS: (Laughter) I don’t really chastise people for not knowing Laura Nyro. But I really make it incumbent upon them to find out about her because I think she’s one of the most important songwriters, in the mold of Gershwin and Simon and McCartney and Lennon. She’s on that level of songwriters and composers. And actually, when I meet another Laura Nyro fan, it’s almost like a club. It’s almost like, oh, wow you’re in this with me. You feel like you’re in something together because all of her music seems like it’s part of one long interconnected opera. And all of these songs are different scenes from it or acts in it. And when you meet another person who sees that, who has visited that world, you feel connected to them.

Join the club.





19 thoughts on “Laura Nyro (reimagined)

  1. Another wonderful artist but without the “panoply of songs” of either Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro is Janis Ian: “Society’s Child” at age 13 and “At Seventeen” 11 years later.

  2. Many thanks for bringing Laura Nyro to the attention of people who may have never heard of her before.

    Caught the same NPR story this morning and totally agree with Billy Childs that she was one of the most influential songwriters of her generation.

    I discovered her and became a member of the “club” in the early 80s and have loved her music ever since. Living in Australia, her (vinyl) albums were not available (and likely never released locally), so I had to order them as “imports” at the only store in Sydney at the time which provided this service.

    I absolutely cannot wait for this new album to be released. Songwriters intend for other artist to interpret their music and “re imagine” it. Eva Cassidy is an example of someone who was able “re-imagine” other writers songs and make them uniquely her own. Her cover of the Sting song “Fields of Gold” is a classic example of her ability.

    From what I have heard of this new album so far, I think the range of talented artists curated by Billy Childs will more than do justice to the unique talents of Laura Nyro.

    1. Me, too. Saw her live in Berkeley in ’71 or ’72. Fantastic performer! I’ve kept her two first albums on vinyl.

  3. Dang! I loved Laura Nyro as a kid, but this is the very first I knew that she had passed away. I just thought she had retired or something.

    I certainly agree with Jerry that Joni Mitchell is simply the best of the female songwriters (and I share his love of Sarah MacLachlan), but I haven’t listened to Laura N in a very long time, so I don’t really have a sense of how I feel about her one way or the other outside of very fond but dim memories. So I’ll have to go back and explore her music now.

    (I seem to like all the music that Jerry C likes, but I seem to like a few that he doesn’t most notably Leonard Cohen, and I suspect he’s not a fan of the very mystical Loreena McKenitt or Donovan either, but I could be wrong.)

    (This reminds me I still haven’t watched the 90 minute documentary on Joni M that JC posted a few months ago.)

  4. A wonderful artist, not only for the bouncy, popular songs covered by better-known artists, but also for her more “serious” songs (e.g., “Gibsom Street,” “New York Tendaberry”). What terrific range she had, not only vocally but also emotionally.

  5. RE: “When I Die,” the original. My enjoyment of it was somewhat reduced by the extreme left-and-right panning (brasses on the left). This was very popular in the late 60s and early 70s when stereo was young and people listened mostly on speakers rather than headphones. But it kind of sucks on headphones. Classic albums like this should be (and could be) remastered to reflect today’s listening standards. But thanks to Prof. CC for calling my attention to this fabulous artist!!!

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