When I am old and frail and my memory seems patchy, there is a question that I expect to always be able to answer: What was the name of Laura Nyro's first music publishing company? The answer: Tuna Fish Music. I'm not sure why it is so deeply imprinted in my mind, except that was the time when my primary interest was writing song lyrics, and I was aware of the potency of music publishing. There were business and emotional complications with her manager, David Geffen, who owned half of Nyro's music publishing, and who wanted to launch his Asylum label with her. The sale of Tuna Fish Music gave him money to do it: estimates say Nyro and Geffen split as much as $4.5 million when they sold it to CBS circa 1969. It may have been Geffen's first two million. (An SEC report online shows Geffen selling shares worth a little bit less than that in 1971.)
The money gave Nyro the freedom to control her own artistic destiny, to the point of frequently dropping out altogether.
Nyro was a cult artist whose songs had huge impact on the mainstream pop of the 1960s. She first stirred attention in 1967 with the Verve Folkways album, More Than a New Discovery, which included "And When I Die," a minor hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary. The album was over-orchestrated and didn't capture Nyro's essence. The material was reissued by Columbia in 1973 as The First Songs.
Her own gorgeous singing and dramatic piano playing made her an excellent interpreter of her own material. Her first trio of Columbia albums: Eli & the Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970), made her a critical sensation. The Bronx-born singer-songwriter became Queen of the New York streets, our own saint of the subways. The albums never sold well: Joel Whitburn's Billboard Top Pop Albums show the inescapable (among my cohort) Eli peaking at No. 181; Tendaberry at 32 (her highest charting album!) and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat at No. 51. Even her much loved covers album with Labelle, Gonna Take a Miracle peaked at No. 46. I have no explanation for any of this: Her own recordings should have made the artist Laura Nyro spoken in the same breath as Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
Walk the Dog & Light the Light, her final studio album, about which Nyro and I spoke in 1993, never even cracked the Billboard top 200. There are a handful of nearly forgotten songs here, including "A Woman of the World," and "The Descent of Luna Rose," that could easy pickings for a classic r&b singer, if such a person still existed.
A few years later, Nyro was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died in 1997, age 49. Nyro's mother died at the same age from the same disease.
It's possible that Nyro sang her material too well: Exposed to both opera star Leontyne Price and Billie Holiday by her parents, Nyro's singing found the implausible middle ground between the two. Every song she sang was a dramatic tour de force that may have been too explosive for radio. Her phrasing was extremely beautiful; her diction was beautifully extreme.
But for a few years in the late 1960s, radio loved Laura Nyro's songs recorded by others. The Fifth Dimension's career seemed suspended by two beautiful air balloons: the songs of Jimmy Webb (their breakthrough "Up, Up and Away," 1967), and Nyro, including "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," in 1968, and "Wedding Bell Blues," number one for three weeks in 1969. Blood, Sweat & Tears had a gold single with "And When I Die." (After Al Kooper left BS&T, it is said that Nyro was asked to join the band. She demurred.) Three Dog Night finally realized the top ten potential of "Eli's Coming" in 1969.
In 1971, when Barbara Streisand stretched out and released an acclaimed and successful "contemporary" pop album produced by Richard Perry, the hit title song was Nyro's "Stoney End." Streisand recorded two more Nyro songs on the album, "Time and Love" and "Flim Flam Man," both released as singles. Other writers on the record included Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Gordon Lightfoot.
It had been more than nine years between studio albums for Laura Nyro when I caught up with her on the phone in 1993. Walk the Dog & Light the Light was short (36 minutes), but excellent. It was co-produced by Nyro and Gary Katz, keeping busy while his primary studio clients, Steely Dan, were on their long hiatus. The album featured some Steely Dan regulars such as drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Elliot Randall, horn player Randy Brecker, and flute on almost every song, played by the multi-instrumentalist Lou "Blue Lou" Marini. I think the purpose of the interview was to promote both the album and her solo concerts that weekend at the Bottom Line club in Manhattan. The title song is about the feelings of leaving a son at home while mom performed on Saturday night. She was no absentee road warrior.
She was living in New Fairfield (Danbury), CT, on Candlewood Lake. She was shy and perhaps reclusive. With the exception of benefit shows for favored concerns such as women's rights, children's care, animal rights, the environment, and Native American recognition, she turned down a lot of work in the 1980s, declined to make videos or do self-promotional TV appearances. She was a mother with a 15-year-old son, and very in touch with the "earth mother" sensibility we had divined from her songs back in the 1960s. When I asked what it was like living in then-rural New Fairfield, she said, "it's all trees to me, it's all like mother earth, so in that sense, it's all one."
WHY NINE YEARS BETWEEN ALBUMS?
A few years ago, there was a live album I really liked, but it didn't get too much attention. I have to acknowledge it because it was an important piece of work ["Live at the Bottom Line, 1989, released as a one-off on A&M's Cypress label]. I guess it was like five years before that, was a studio recording, Mother's Spiritual. (1984)
HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING SONGS MUCH?
In the last five years, I've definitely been into the art of singing. But writing, I feel like writing is always on the back burner, waiting to get to the front burner. Sometimes there's so much going on. When I was younger, I didn't have that many other things on my mind. Other responsibilities. That's one of of the main problems getting to write now. I feel so ready to write. I think about writing, and I smile. It's like, I can't wait, I'm so excited about it, but I have no time! (She giggles.) My lifestyle right now, with just taking care of business . . . It's the first week of school [for her son, Gil Bianchini, born in 1978], and these things come up. So once I get these things out of the way, I really want to get on a serious writing schedule. It will get to the front burner soon.
Some of the songs from the 1993 album had already been heard in Nyro's repertory. "Broken Rainbow" was the title song of a 1985 Academy Award-winning documentary about the forced relocation of thousands of Navajo Native Americans from Black Mesa, Arizona, at the behest of mining interests at the whim of President Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary James Watt. Martin Sheen narrated the film, which was directed and produced by Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd.
WR: THE ALBUM IS BOOKENDED BY COVER SONGS. I HAD NEVER HEARD THE OPENING SONG, "OH NO, MAYBE BABY," A PHIL SPECTOR CO-WRITE.
Laura: The Crystals did it. I always thought it was dark and sensual. I heard the original, and it's ten times faster than I do it. I didn't realize it, but I did learn it when I was a teenager. It's fun.
THERE IS ALSO A SEAMLESS MEDLEY ENDING THE ALBUM, WITH THE IMPRESSIONS' "I'M SO PROUD," AND THE SHIRELLES' "DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE."
Laura: It just happened, it's a nice introduction to "Dedicated," and it felt poetic to me.
YOU'VE HAD A HISTORY OF WORKING AND THEN LEAVING THE MUSIC BUSINESS FOR LONG STRETCHES. WHY?
Well, let's see. I don't know, I've had a long life! Different things take a different amount of time? I did tour all through my pregnancy, and I sang until a few weeks before I had the baby. After that, I know I just wanted a change in lifestyle. That just happened naturally. The music has always been in my life, but it goes from the front burner to the back burner, depending on what else is happening in my life. Also, not everybody likes dealing with the music business, certain aspects of the music business. Some talented people can't cut it in the music business, because it's not appealing to them, and nurturing to them. I find it very natural and healthy to not always be dealing with the music business.
It wasn't until listening to it again recently that I realized "Louise’s Church" was a tribute to the sculptor Louise Nevelson, and to fellow feminist artists and influences Billie Holiday and Frida Kahlo. Without a lyric sheet, the words are hard to grasp. It begins "Sappho was a poet/ Billie was a real musician/Frida drew the moon/I'm going by Louise's church/She built in the city." I always listened to Nyro for her phrasing, the way she bent notes, stretched lines, found nuance in every syllable. On this song, Nyro knows when to bite like an alto, soar like a soprano. Sometimes, her voice sounds like a wood flute. (In addition to Marani's flute).
WR: AMONG THE NEW SONGS, "LOUISE'S CHURCH" COULD HAVE BEEN ON "ELI" OR ANTOHER OLDER ALBUM, OF THAT BRONX MYSTIC ON THE FIRE ESCAPE AT A MOMENT OF TRANSCENDENCE.
Laura: I think that "Louise's Church" has that sweet old time feel a little bit to it. That's why it can almost remind you of your youth. It's a style of music that's got a sway, and a certain melodic thing that hasn't been in fashion for a while, so to hear it again almost brings you back to your youth.
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I meant “The First Songs”. Do you know the weird surreal black and white film I’m talking about?
Wayne, I think you glossed over her first album, “Early Years.” It wasn’t as on-target artistically as “Eli”, but it had many of best and most beloved songs on it. Did you ever see the very strange film she made on a boat? I was obsessed with her and saw her perform at Carnegie Hall and at The Troubadour.