October 18, 1947 - April 8, 1997
Born in the Bronx, New York City, the soulful singer-songwriter was born Laura Nigro (pronounced NIGH-gro). She was named after the popular title theme to the 1944 Otto Preminger film Laura. Her stage surname, Nyro, rhymes with hero.
A self-taught pianist, she grew up playing classical music on the piano and listening to a range of genres, from jazz to doo-wop, that informed her unique style. "My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing," she told Bruce Pollock
. "Throw in all the poetry I'd read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that's what made my songs complex and emotionally rich."
From the time she released her debut album, More Than A New Discovery
, in 1966, 18-year-old Nyro established herself as a writer of hit songs: The 5th Dimension took "Wedding Bell Blues
" to #1, Blood, Sweat & Tears hit #2 with "And When I Die
," and Barbra Streisand notched a #6 entry with "Stoney End
." Nyro's own versions, with wildly varying tempos and complex melodies and harmonies, were too eclectic for the Hot 100, keeping her off the charts but always on the critics' radar.
Nyro was discovered thanks to her father's persistence. Lou Nigro was a trumpeter and piano tuner and was working on a piano for A&R exec Artie Mogull when he just couldn't keep quiet about his daughter's songwriting talents. Exasperated, Mogull finally told Lou to bring Laura by sometime. "Next day, this little, short, unattractive girl comes up," Mogull recalled, "and the first three songs she plays are 'Wedding Bell Blues,' 'Stoney End,' and then 'When I Die.' I almost fainted. I went crazy."
It's unlikely she just happened to play what would become her first three big hits, and in reality, Mogull wasn't totally sold. He wanted to make sure Nyro was a good commercial investment and tried - and failed - to get her to sing a few Irving Berlin numbers. Nyro did, however, land a contract with Verve Folkways and released her debut.
With future record mogul David Geffen as her new manager, she left Verve for Columbia Records and released her critically acclaimed followups, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
(featuring the hits "Eli's Coming
," "Sweet Blindness
," and "Stoned Soul Picnic
"), New York Tendaberry
, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat
. In 1970, she released Gonna Take A Miracle
, a collection of R&B standards with Labelle as her backing group, before retiring (temporarily) from the music business at age 24.
After a few years of living out of the spotlight with her carpenter husband David Bianchini, whom she divorced in 1975, she returned with the jazz-pop album Smile.
She was pregnant with her first and only child, Gil Bianchini, when she recorded her 1978 album, Nested. After giving birth, she retreated from the spotlight again to focus on motherhood.
She was sorta related to Alan Merrill of The Arrows; her uncle was married to his aunt for a time, so Merrill grew up regarding her as a cousin. "I watched Laura Nyro write all of her first songs," he recalled in a Songfacts interview
. "All of them. I sat in the room and she would run them by me. I'd go, 'You can't speed up like that, you'll never have a hit. You can't slow down, speed up, slow down, speed up.' And she just smiled at me, like, 'I know what I'm doing.' [laughing] I said, 'Listen to the Byrds and the Beatles, they don't slow down and speed up.' A year or two later I was looking at the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 songs on the Billboard charts and Laura had written them all!"
An oft-repeated myth about Nyro's "disastrous" performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (which was perpetuated by the media and the singer, herself) was shattered when footage from the event was released on the 2002 concert DVD. The historic concert introduced counterculture icons Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, and featured Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire. Nyro - out of place with her long black dress, Motown-inspired backing singers, and soul-styled tunes - was allegedly booed off the stage. In reality, the hippie crowd wasn't overly impressed by Nyro, but offered a smattering of applause and occasional exclamations - not of boo! but of beautiful!.
Nyro was 49 when she died of ovarian cancer, the same disease that killed her mother at the same age. At the time, Nyro was living with her longtime girlfriend, painter Maria Desiderio. Maria died the following year, also from ovarian cancer.
A range of performers count Nyro as a defining influence, from Carole King and Joni Mitchell to Elton John and Alice Cooper. Cooper, who dubbed Nyro "the female Burt Bacharach," called her one of his favorite songwriters of all time.