The Soul Of Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro in 1988 AP

Commentary by CBS News Sunday Morning Contributor Bill Flanagan of VH1.
I want to talk for a minute about Laura Nyro.

There was a moment in the late 1960s when Laura Nyro was one of the most important figures in pop music. She was a wildly talented girl from New York City who sat at the piano and let songs pour out of her. She was both a white soul sister and the female Bob Dylan. Laura seemed to embody the pure spirit of music.

In 1967, she signed a multi-million-dollar deal with Columbia Records, and the songs she wrote started becoming big hits for other singers. Blood Sweat & Tears sang Laura’s "And When I Die," Barbra Streisand did "Stoney End," Three Dog Night had a No. 1 with "Eli’s Coming," the Fifth Dimension had big hits with "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues."

Everybody had hits with Laura Nyro songs except Laura Nyro. But Laura made beautiful albums on which she opened her soul and let everything out.

Laura had a hard time with the expectations of the marketplace. In the summer of 1967, she played the Monterey Pop Festival -- the same show where Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Who became stars. Laura came out in front of the hippie audience dressed in a black gown with a soul band. I think she wanted to be like Aretha Franklin or one of the Motown acts. But the hippies thought she looked like something out of Las Vegas and booed her off the stage.

At least, that's the story that got repeated for 30 years. Apparently, Laura believed it, too. It's always written that Monterey shattered her confidence.

The thing is, it wasn’t true. The audience at Monterey didn’t hate her at all. When she died, I went to see D.A. Pennebaker, who filmed the festival. Mr. Pennebaker showed me the footage of Laura’s performance; it had never been seen. From what we could tell, most of the audience liked her. People were clapping and cheering. Maybe a few jerks booed or yelled insults, but it was blown all out of proportion by the people who wrote about it later -- and by Laura.

Laura Nyro retired from the music business in the early '70s. She moved up to New England and had a child and raised him away from the spotlight. Once in a while, though, she'd come back and work. She recorded and toured a couple of times in the mid-'70s, very low-key and homemade.

She vanished again, then, for over a decade and came back in the early '90s to make two albums and play nightclubs. Her shows felt like old friends getting together around the piano in Laura’s living room.

And then, in 1997, she died. Ovarian cancer. A very sad ending to a very unusual life.

But the spirit she sent out keeps touching down in unusual places. There’s an off- Broadway musical called "Eli's Coming," made up of Laura's songs. On stage, four women take the audience on the same journey Laura's music took from wide-eyed romantic innocence to heartbreak, obsession and finally a kind of serenwisdom.

I sure never expected to hear any new Laura Nyro music, so I was very surprised when a new CD showed up recently. It turns out that the whole time she was battling cancer, Laura was writing and recording new songs.

They're beautiful.

I guess when she found out she had cancer, Laura poured everything she had into making a last great musical statement, and she pulled it off. But after she died, it took her friends four years to find a record company that wanted to put it out.

That’s hard to get a handle on. A great recording artist summoned the talent and courage to make music this beautiful in the face of death, and when she died, it took years to find a label to release it.

The living proof. There was no one else like Laura Nyro.
"Eli's Coming" is running at the Vineyard Theatre through July 14. For tickets, contact the Vineyard Theatre at (212)353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org.

"Angel in the Dark" is available on Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, Mass., 02140
Telephone: (617) 354-0700
Web site: www.rounder.com

Laura Nyro’s back catalogue is available through Columbia/Legacy www.legacyrecordings.com.

Laura Nyro on the VH1 Web site.



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