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.
The 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.