It’s hard not to toy with the lyrics of Laura Nyro’s song “And When I Die” when headlining a review of jazz pianist Billy Childs‘ new tribute to the inspiring singer/songwriter/feminist. “And when I die,” sang Nyro in the 1966 recording, “and when I’m gone / there’ll be one child born / and a world to carry on …”
Written in her mid-teens, the song showed Nyro’s prodigious talent with music and words, let alone her eerily prescient sense of mortality. Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a folkish version of the song early on, and in 1969, the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears made it into an Aaron Coplan-esque suite complete with cowboy clip-clops.
Other artists eagerly recorded Nyro’s songs from the get-go of her career, and many music listeners know only those covers—especially Barbra Streisand’s version of “Stoney End,” 3 Dog Night’s “Eli’s Comin’” and The 5th Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues“—rather than Nyro’s more potent, searing originals.
So is Childs, with his new CD Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro, just continuing this tradition of watering down, pop’ing up or otherwise smoothing out Nyro’s songs?
Hardly. In fact, for Nyro fans, his reimagination of her work is the latest and greatest effort to put Nyro on the pedestal of American musical culture where she belongs.
You’ve never heard of Laura Nyro? If you’re not from the Baby Boom generation, you’re not alone. Nyro’s heyday was in the late 1960s through mid-1970s, when she helped launch the women’s division of the singer-songwriter movement, along with Joni Mitchell. Influenced by a melange of musical genres—folk, R&B, doowop, opera, jazz, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building pop—Nyro managed to mix them all into a unique, highly emotive sound. “Everything seemed heightened in her songs,” said Bette Midler in her eloquent, teary-eyed induction of Nyro into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. “She could make a trip to the grocery store seem like a night at the Casbah.”
Back in the late 60s, The Bronx-born Nyro was as well known as Mitchell—and equally as popular with college women, who were among her most worshipful fans—but then she had a child and retreated from New York City to the Connecticut countryside. New generations of listeners didn’t catch on when she returned to the stage in the late 1980s, and missed out on the increasing feminism of her life and lyrics. Although she was nowhere near as intense in her singing and performance as she had been in her early 20s, Nyro explored a rich and soothing vein in her later albums, Mother’s Spiritual and Walk the Dog and Light the Light. She sang about motherhood, peace, women in the arts, the green environment and animal rights, among other subjects dear to her. She died in 1997, way too young at 49.
Not surprisingly, Childs—who was introduced to Nyro in his teens by his older sister—chose, with one exception, compositions from her first four albums* in putting together his CD, matching Nyro’s songs with some extraordinary women singers, including Lisa Fischer (featured in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom), opera’s Renee Fleming, Allison Krause, Ledisi and Shawn Colvin. He mixed in his rambunctious piano with such masterful soloists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, dobroist Jerry Douglass, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Chris Botti.
The results are often stunning. Although Childs and the singers don’t venture away from Nyro’s 40-something-year-old melodies, the arrangements and production (thank you, Larry Klein!) seem completely 21st century. They maintain Nyro’s drive and softness, but reconstruct the songs through Childs’ heartfelt connection to them.
The album is a joy, but if you’re unfamiliar with Nyro, think of it as just an introduction. Make the acquaintance of the originals as well, from More Than a New Discovery to her posthumous album, Angel in the Dark.
But enough words—they don’t capture the music. Here, some Laura originals and Childs covers:
*Nyro’s first five albums:
More Than a New Discovery (on which appeared such songs as “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoney End,” and “And When I Die”)
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (a brilliant “concept” album that included “Eli’s Comin'” and “Stoned Soul Picnic”)
New York Tendaberry (arguably her masterpiece, a haunting vision of her city)
Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (more soul, rock and balladry, including a cover version of Carole King’s “Up on the Roof”)
Gonna Take a Miracle (her much-loved album of R&B covers, performed with the group Labelle)
Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She’s also the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro.