Laura Nyro Surries on Down

Ten years ago, at the conclusion of my biography of the extraordinarily influential singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, I wrote,

Unfortunately, Nyro … continues to be overlooked in places where she should be part of the canon. She’s neither a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nor the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 2010, the Songwriters Hall righted that omission. And tomorrow night, 15 years after her passing, Laura Nyro will be inducted into the mostly boys club that is the Rock Hall.

Hallelujah!

You say you don’t know who Laura Nyro is? Well, the name might not ring a bell, but surely her songs will. Especially the one with the bells in it: “Wedding Bell Blues,” which was a #1 hit for The 5th Dimension in 1969 and has since made its way into the lexicon as the title of a number of TV show episodes involving marriage, as well as being played or sung on several, including an episode of Glee.

That was just one of several Nyro songs that hit the Top Ten charts in other singers’ voices, including “Eli’s Comin’” by Three Dog Night, “And When I Die” by Blood Sweat & Tears, “Stoney End” by Barbara Streisand and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” again by The 5th Dimension. And there were many more–artists with guts and taste are still covering Nyro, including this version of the rangy “Tom Cat Goodbye” by Audra MacDonald.

But the covers shouldn’t obscure the writer–nor the singer who did the originals. Back in her heyday–the late 1960s/early 1970s–Laura Nyro was a star on her own. A cult favorite, to be sure, but when I was attending UCLA in those years the students voted her above Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin in popularity. Many of us angsty young college women had Nyro’s first five albums–More Than a New Discovery, Eli and the 13th Confession, New York Tendaberry, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat and Gonna Take a Miracle (the latter a collaboration with the group Labelle)–playing over and over on our tinny dorm record players.   

Laura’s voice felt like it was coming from our own hearts–a young woman seeking a passionate engagement with life, both personally and politically. In a song such as “Tom Cat” she was railing about an unfaithful lover; in another (see Nyro below in one of her rare TV performances) she was shouting “Save the Country” after the horrific wave of assassinations in 1968.  Her songs were sexy, soulful and New York sophisticated, melding all the influences she’d grown up with: opera, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, folk, 50s doowop and 60s soul music.

Her feminism was implicit at first–she was fearless in singing her own confessional tales, not being a mouthpiece for other songwriters as most women singers had been in the early ’60s. She was strong, even when overcome by the throes of love. She made up words if they suited her lyrically–in “Stoned Soul Picnic” she invited us to “surry on down,” even if surry was her own invented verb for a sort of soft sway. We got her gist. She didn’t follow popular musical rules; she made up her own, changing tempo wildly and at will. We followed her, enthralled.

By the 1980s–after taking long breaks to lead a quieter life and then raise her child–her feminism became explicit. She even sang in one song about having a “radical feminist bent,” but mostly she wrote and performed her ecofeminism, expressing the same reverence for animals and trees as for humanity. Prejudice against animals, to Nyro, was like prejudice based on gender or skin color. And that was unacceptable.

Even if Nyro’s own recordings weren’t played on the radio nearly enough, her significance far transcended her personal air time. She gave permission to a generation of young female (and male) musicians to break the mold and write songs they wanted to sing; she was a guiding light for the confessional singer-songwriter movement. Those from subsequent generations may not have known about Nyro directly, but they followed the trail she carved, inspired by those directly inspired by Nyro. Even Elton John and Elvis Costello recently raved about her, and I can’t help but believe that their imprimatur helped tip her into the Rock Hall. Check this out:

More importantly, check out Laura Nyro’s music; it’s all still available. If you need some additional hors d’oeuvres, listen here, here and here.

Tomorrow night, Bette Midler will induct Laura Nyro into the testosterone-crowded Hall–the only woman among the major inductees this year. I’ll be there. Justice for at least one woman musician, and such a stellar one, will be served.

Photo of Nyro on book cover by Stephen Paley.

Comments

  1. JL Serkes says:

    Your tellin me. We are all so lucky to have passed through that worm hole with Laura as our guide. She really transformed me as a 13 year old half woman half kid. Now she is just warmth, love, and patriotism.

  2. Kay Crow says:

    Laura Nyro is and always will be a part of Rock and Roll history! This honor is long overdue. To be recognized publicly by your fans and peers is the best tribute one can ask for. Rock on Laura…your contribution to music will live on forever.
    Kay Crow

  3. Artamus says:

    Michele, thank you so much for the “Soul Picnic” book, it made me smile, and cry, and it helped me to understand the Life and adventures of the Lady who has taken over as my favorite Female Musical Artist of all time. I heard Laura for the very first time this past September, and I can honestly say, I’ve never before been so completely mesmerized by an Artist’s Music. She blew my tiny little mind into a zillion pieces, and I am in Ecstasy every time I hear her! Her recordings are so fresh sounding and filled with vitality, like she just thought the songs up minutes ago, and is performing them for us in a personal concert. I believe a talent like that can’t just disappear, I know in my Heart that now she’s the Beautiful Angel in the Dark flying through the serious playgrounds that exist in each of those wonderful Musical Worlds she created. And we can visit her any time we like, all we have to do is listen.

    Congratulations on your well deserved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction Laura, your Tribe loves you forever! =)

  4. This is bittersweet. We have great artists, alive today, influenced by Laura Nyro. Sadly, their light won’t shine nearly as bright as it should in the collective listening audience.
    What can we do about it? I think we’re living in the answer. Use these new technological wonders called the Internet and Social Networking to balance the industry. You can always pass along something wonderful, including Laura Nyro.

  5. Nice job with “Soul Picnic”, Michelle.

    I am a big Laura Nyro fan, but knew little about her because she was so mysterious and private. Thank you for filling in the gaps.

    Now, what about that Maria Florio documentary film that has been in the works? I would love to see more footage of Laura besides the NBC Kraft special. The Rock Hall ceremony showed a clip of Laura lip synching “Wedding Bell Blues” from (I think) Dick Clark’s “Where The Action Is”. I know that she reportedly did a BBC-TV appearance in the early 1970s, and there is that songwriters’ documentary film that she appeared in the in early 90s, I believe. Plus, I know that she did “Broken Rainbow” on VH-1 in 1990 which was on a private Laura tribute site, but the site is now gone.

    Anyway, thank you Michelle for keeping the memory of this outstanding artist alive.

  6. Muslim Delgado says:

    I remember when my mom bought a cassette of Eli and the 13th confession when I was 8 or 10 years old and I stood at the cover forever wondering who is this lady. My mom told me a couple years ago that she was really into her music in college and that album especially. I think Laura and Minnie Riperton are two of the greatest voices to ever walk the earth. We’re lucky to have been blessed with them. Thanks Michelle for the book and bringing her music to new generations.

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