Forty years ago, Dan Morgenstern, then Editor-in-Chief of Down Beat magazine, asked me to write a cover story on Laura Nyro. I was happy to accept the assignment, because I had already developed an appreciation for her music and made her acquaintance at Columbia studios,where we both worked—she on a new album, I on the Bessie Smith reissues. I found Laura to be an interesting person who easily appeared to be in a world of her own, yet—one soon discovered—never to the detriment of her work. She wore full-length dresses and smoked pot rolled in lilac colored paper, and she was quaintly old-fashioned in her mannerisms. A friend of mine who was a Nyro fan dropped by the studio one night, so I took him upstairs where Laura was working. She was most gracious, stretching out her hand for my friend to kiss, not what one expects from a young Bronx lady.
|Laura's apartment at night|
She and her dog, a German Shepherd, lived in a small penthouse apartment on West 79th Street, a block from the Hayden Planetarium and the Museum of Natural History. It was a small, comfortably furnished rooftop place with a piano and a terrace. I had heard that she turned down interviews from major magazines, including Time, so I wondered why she agreed to see me. "I like Down Beat," she told me, "because it doesn't care whether or not I had a blueberry muffin for breakfast."
Down Beat - April 2, 1970
IT IS A WELL-KNOWN fact that although Columbia Records released numerous albums by Aretha Franklin while she was under contract to them in the early '60s, none of them scored as big a success as did her subsequent efforts on the Atlantic label. “It’s very simple, man,” explains Atlantic’s chief a&r man, Jerry Wexler, “we put her back in church—that’s all.”
Columbia is big enough to absorb such mistakes, but the Franklin case is still a sore subject. “Atlantic Records,” notes Wexler, “has been a specialist in rhythm and blues since 1948, and we had recorded people like Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter and Ruth Brown. So, in a sense, we had been preparing for Aretha. At Columbia, she made beautiful records, but they were more in a pop bag. I don’t want to sound critical of Columbia—it’s a great company—but perhaps they hadn’t gone through this special orientation which would have enabled them to treat Aretha with this particular sympathy.”
Sympathy is the key, and Columbia is avoiding a repetition of past mistakes, Laura Nyro being a case in point. The now phenomenally successful singer-pianist-songwriter did not really make it until she left the Verve/Forecast label—which was not tuned in on her wavelength—and placed herself in the sympathetic hands of Columbia.
While neither case reflects on any general policy of the three labels—all have histories of thoroughly satisfied and successful artists—they illustrate the importance of presenting an artist in the proper setting. Columbia’s mistake was not as grave as Verve’s, since casting Miss Franklin in a role that did not fully tap her potential nevertheless resulted in some very worthwhile albums. Verve, on the other hand, cast Miss Nyro in a role that was eminently uncharacteristic of her and then compounded the mistake by treating her music without much consideration.
“I was miscast,” Miss Nyro notes in recalling her Verve experience. “They projected me as being the ‘Teenybopper Queen’, because I was 18 at the time. I remember my first publicity pictures. I weighed 180 pounds at that time—my weight is always up and down. I was really fat that week, and they wanted to push my song called Wedding Bell Blues, so they stuffed me into this wedding dress, put a veil on my head, and flowers in my hand. I looked so uptight, the most uptight bride you’ve ever seen. And then this picture was splashed all over the industry. The next song they wanted to become a hit was Goodbye Joe and they ran big ads that said something like ‘Well, the Wedding Bell Blues gal has lost another man, but gained another hit’ . . . And then I read this article about myself that said something like ‘Life is a seesaw of joys and sorrows,’ which is a quote from Khalil Gibran, ‘but it only hurts when she laughs and you must keep an eye on her . . . Laura Nyro enjoys a good game of darts . . . ‘I mean, things like that—it really enraged me. They didn’t know what to say about me, so they said these silly things—I guess they tried to put some humor into it, or something. It was really terrible, it really was.”
Miss Nyro, hails from New York City and still lives there, in a small, comfortable penthouse apartment on the upper West Side. Many of her songs reflect her attachment to the city (“Sidewalk and pigeon—you look like a city, but you feel like religion”) and she has been writing them since she was a little girl. Now 22, her craving for freedom and individuality, the major cause of her unhappiness at Verve, goes back to her school days.
|Photo by Nancy Levine|
“I really hated school,” she confesses, “because it was so full of restrictions and it was obvious to me that school did not prepare you for life and that things I was interested in were not being taught there. I can understand school expanding your mind, but it was just wrong for me, so most of the time I just didn’t go. I got into trouble . . . but I was the type of hooky player who played hooky without guilt. Others, if they cut a class, would feel guilty, but not me—I was very brazen about the whole thing."
Before her 18th birthday, Laura left New York’s High School of Music and Art. “All I could do was write songs,” she recalls, “so I decided to make some money and I took a few jobs as a domestic, mostly taking care of diapering babies. I’d pick up something like $50 a week for taking care of these children—taking them to the park, playing with them and helping their mothers make supper—but the jobs never lasted. I couldn’t keep the children very clean, you know, but I used to sing songs to them, and so I’d bring them something else—not what they bargained for, but something else.”
During that same period, she tried to stir up some professional interest in her songs. “I wasn’t interested in singing my music,” she says, “but I thought maybe I wanted other people to do it. I didn’t see very daring people . . . they counted me out because my material was different—that’s silly. One man told me to go home and write What Kind of Fool Am I? If anybody could be miscast, it’s me—that’s been my problem, because, if you put my music in the wrong place, it becomes a freak. I don’t fall into categories and people constantly want to put me in categories, but I refuse. I don’t like organized religion. I believe in universal love and brotherhood. People must be themselves and they must develop individually. They must do what’s right for them—find their own religion and find God for themselves.”
The Verve/Forecast album (originally entitled More Than a New Discovery but later renamed The First Songs ... is not wholly bad, but Miss Nyro likes to ignore it by referring to her initial Columbia effort as her first. “They (Verve) picked the arranger and producer for me,” she complains, “they picked them and said ‘This is whom you must record with.’ And so my arranger (Herb Bernstein) went home and wrote about six arrangements in three hours. I mean, I work months and hours and years and a lifetime on my songs, and if something was a bit difficult, he’d just chop it right out . . . like if one of my changes was a bit difficult. They really kind of brought down my music. There was no balance at the beginning of me . . . there was no peace, there was no comfort, there was certainly no joy, there was no understanding and there was no sensitivity. Just incredible fights, and I was always crying—I mean, that’s the way all those old people really know me.”
While under contract to Verve, she performed at the now-defunct Hungry i in San Francisco, an experience so disastrous that she decided never to do club work again. “Shelly Berman was the headlining act,” she recalls, “and my thing was ahead of its time; it should never have been on that bill. They didn’t give me any publicity, so all the people who came were like, you know, truck salesmen and cat salesmen and drinkers and coughers and they wanted to laugh. Well, I was about 18 years old, and this was my first time away from home, my first gig and in a strange place. So, I used to sing And When I Die and I used to smile. It was like my own little vengeance thing, you know; it wasn’t just the audience—it was me. I can’t play in a club where people drink; I just can’t ... they talk and clunk things. My music is listening music . . . I have to do concerts now.”
That same year, 1967, she appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival with a hastily assembled and not too understanding band of local musicians—another disaster. “It (the audience) was not ready for me,” she sighs. “It was just before I broke up with those people (Verve) and this was like the storm before . . . a storm that just happened to take place on stage with 50,000 people watching. It was like walking to my death and I put this cloud inside my head, like a cushion around me. Then I just walked to my death, and I dressed the part and everything. That was almost like the end of a chapter which will never come back again, and the audience was just flabbergasted by me.”
Since those words were spoken about a year ago, Miss Nyro’s fame has spread to the point where there now exists a Laura Nyro cult. She made a triumphant return to club work last Memorial Day weekend, when she packed an enthusiastic crowd into Los Angeles’ Troubadour, and an even more spectacular demonstration of her popularity occurred last November when she appeared solo at New York’s Carnegie Hall. All the tickets were sold out in one day. This prompted the producers to hastily arrange for a second midnight concert and it, too, sold out within 24 hours.
Strangely enough, Miss Nyro has yet to receive a gold record, although many of her songs have won this honor for other performers. But she has become a very big star indeed, and the devotion of her idolatrous followers borders on religion. Wrote Rex Reed of a Laura Nyro concert in the February issue of Stereo Review: “It took forever for everybody to get inside and sit down, because people kept going downstairs to the gym to give her flowers . . . Then she was there, in the deafening roar of applause from her worshippers, a baby-skinned zaftig beauty with a penchant for thrift-shop attire . . .”
Perhaps part of the Nyro magic lies in the fact that she shuns non-performing. public appearances. She rarely grants interviews and has no use for TV small talk. Her appearance on the Kraft Music Hall last year did not include a single shot with host Bobby Darin. “It really annoyed me,” she recalls, “those technicians are so concerned over whether your eyes are going to show up the right color, they don’t give a damn about the sound, balance, and so on.”
Such unfortunate experiences may be one reason why Miss Nyro refuses to play the show-biz game, but I suspect the main reason is that she simply has no time for the superficialities that taint the industry. She is less critical of other performers’ versions of her songs than she is of her own.
“It’s always interesting to me how other people interpret my songs,” she said. “It’s like an ice cream soda and I love anybody who records my music . . . I’m very flattered.” Her enthusiasm is of course not hard to understand, considering that such Nyro songs as Stoned Soul Picnic, Sweet Blindness, And When I Die, Wedding Bell Blues and Eli's Comin’ have all made the charts in recordings by Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Fifth Dimension, and Three Dog Night, while numerous other recordings of these songs have cumulatively sold millions of records.
In recent months, it has been rumored around New York that Laura Nyro and Miles Davis might make an appearance together. That is not as farfetched as it might seem, for Miles is more than flirting with neo-rock and Miss Nyro has a definite affinity for jazz.
“When I was 15 years old,” she recalls, “I used to drink bottles of cough medicine and I used to lie down with my jazz records . . . put them on, drink cough medicine and dig people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane all night. They’d take me up and they’d bring me down, sweep me up. It was something that I couldn’t even put into words, because it’s hard to even talk about jazz. Jazz is not an obvious thing . . . it rushes the senses. I don’t know anything technical about music, I only know what I feel, and jazz is so beautiful because it’s so free and it’s so expressive. Like, when I listen to Miles Davis, words are not necessary . . . there are no lyrics there, but the music communicates life to me, you know, the pain of life ... it’s very painful music, but it’s not a harsh pain at all, it’s like a little flower, or something.”
Miss Nyro's liking for jazz has manifested itself in her employment of jazz musicians for her two Columbia albums. On the first of these, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Zoot Sims plays on a track called Lonely Women.
“I remember the day that he came in,” she says. “We played the tape for him—it was a rainy afternoon and the studio looked grey, this great big studio—it was just me and Charlie (Calello, the arranger) and our engineer. Zoot Sims walked in with his head down to the floor, looking so down and everything. Then he did a thing with his sax where you just hear the air coming out and, like, it’s all scratchy and broken and he communicates his loneliness into the song. Charlie and I sat there, crying . . . It was so beautiful and it was so great because it was all in the air . . . this older man in this great big studio on this rainy day . . . he was so quiet, it was great. Then Joe Farrell played flute on Poverty Train and he kind of turned it into Alice in Wonderland, almost . . . he came into my world, and he really enhanced it.”
A Laura Nyro record date could easily be a producer’s nightmare, except that she now produces her own albums (with the valuable assistance of engineer Roy Halee).
It goes something like this: Miss Nyro spends hours at the piano in a darkened studio, recording fragment after fragment of her songs. Fragments, because she is composing on the spot or she realizes that she isn’t feeling a particular song and therefore simply goes on to the next, often in mid-chorus. The tape is not stopped until it is dangerously close to the end, and sometimes it even runs out before she is finished.
The initial result is a great deal of tape with unidentified out-of-sequence bits of Laura Nyro songs which only she can assemble. Once that is done, the pieced-together fragments, which now form songs in their entirety, are played for an arranger of Miss Nyro’s choosing.
In the case of New York Tendaberry, her latest album, the arranger was Jimmy Haskell. Initially, she had wanted Gil Evans for the job, but he never replied to her letter. Just before Haskell arrived in New York to work on this album, she told me: “We’ll sit and talk until he knows as much as he can possibly know of what I feel and where this album has to be. I know that he’s there already, because on Bobbie Gentry’s album (Billie Joe) he creates the delta, and it’s syrupy, and you can almost hear the crickets and bugs. And on Old Friends (Simon and Garfunkel) he really captured the right mood . . . he can do that. I don’t want him to write like Gil Evans, I’m not going to ask him to give me a Gil Evans sound or anything like that ... all I want him to give me is this tendaberry.”
And tendaberry she got. There are those who argue that the latest album does not live up to the standard set by her previous one, but certainly one must agree that Haskell’s arrangements are sensitive and tasteful. In any case, Laura Nyro’s music is not always immediately ear-catching. It has to grow on you—and it generally does. The new album contains at least two memorable songs, Tom Cat Goodbye and Save the Country. Thelma Houston has recorded a soul version of the latter, and it seems destined for the charts.
Of the new album, Miss Nyro herself says, “It is not an obvious one . . . not one that you really even listen to, because it really goes past your ears and it’s very sensory and it’s all feel . . . it goes inside, like at the back of your neck, or something. It’s abstract, it’s unobvious and yet I feel that it’s very true. I feel that it’s life, what life is to me anyway. Tendaberry is my own word, it’s an essence, it’s not death . . . it’s birth and it’s very tender, very fragile, very strong, very true . . . it’s a berry, a tendaberry.”
|Photo by Richard Bunkley|
Miss Nyro never learned to write music. “I hold the music in my head and I write the lyrics down, usually,” she explains. Generally, she will write the lyrics first, as was the case with the title song of her new album, a song she was working on in January of 1968. At that time, she told me, “I want music that’s going to go with my lyric; you know, let the words compliment the music. I want to marry my lyrics and this is a tough one, because I don’t have it finished, yet. The lyrics are finished, but, musically, I have been resculpturing and resculpturing, because it’s just not where I want it to be, yet. I know where I want it to be and I keep working on it to get it there.
“I think of my albums as a lifeline. Eight months will go by and I’ve written ten songs and, for some reason, those ten songs form a circle and it’s a very natural process. That’s what’s happened with this album (New York Tendaberry). Since my first album (Eli and the Thirteenth Confession), I wrote these songs, and, when I sit down to write, there ain’t nothin’ but me and the piano. I know that there are a lot of people who write for a market. I can’t do that . . . that’s out. When I sit down at the piano, I don’t think about other people—will they think this or be that?—I sit down and the communication comes from my heart and on to the paper and the piano . . . that’s where it is and, if it communicates from there—beautiful.”
That it does communicate from there is now a matter of record, and chances are that Laura Nyro will go on communicating in her own very special way for some time. “I know that soon I”m going to be older,” she says when asked about her future, “and in a certain sense, I am looking forward to getting on in years, to being 30 or 35 and getting a certain maturity, because I have a lot of respect for maturity and I know that I am happier with each year of my life. I also feel that with this maturity will come a certain grace, because I’m a little bit reckless. I want to do my own television special because I know what can be done and it isn’t being done—I have such wonderful ideas for a special—all little, precious things.”
About today’s pop music, Miss Nyro feels that it is “going through a renaissance and that it has gone through decadence . . . like innocence and ignorance.” And, she adds, “The pop music of the ‘50s communicated those times ... these times are smashing and a lot of truth is being sought out, because you can’t live without truth . . . you can’t live, you can only survive, and I feel that there is a renaissance about it all now.
“The world is going through a moral revolution and, sometimes I feel like a mirror in a storm—a mirror that’s smashed against the earth. I don’t read newspapers, but I know what’s going on.”
Obviously, Columbia has learned what’s going on, and they are giving Miss Nyro the creative freedom previously denied her. “I started at the bottom of the barrel, in the gutter,” she observes, “and it’s just a whole different feeling now, I feel protected.”
It is that feeling that created her two latest albums and propelled her to stardom. There are those who think of Laura Nyro as somewhat of an enigma, but the truth is that she is simply a very creative artist who takes her craft seriously, knows what she wants, fights to get it, and does not allow herself to get marooned in the shallows of show business.
Laura Nyro died April 8, 1997, at age 49.