My interest in the singer-songwriter movement of the late 1960s and 1970s had brought me into contact with the name Laura Nyro. I was aware that she was considered influential, that her songs had been covered by a wide diversity of artists, and that she had sadly died in 1997. However, until very recently I had not delved into her own musical body of work, and doing this has proved a revelation to say the least.
Before, I had browsed cursorily through a couple of greatest hits compilations, and I had developed a fondness for a few of her best-known songs, in particular "Wedding Bell Blues". I imagined that her solo recordings from the early days would be something of a "songbook", with perfunctory versions of the songs covered by various luminaries. How ignorant and mistaken I was! I had greatly under-estimated the sheer beauty of Laura's music, and the quality of her voice. It also turns out that some of her most famous compositions are not necessarily representative of her catalogue overall. Those first three or four albums in particular are all credible and coherent works by themselves.
The first album, later re-issued as "The First Songs", offers a rich harvest of melodies and memorable and affecting songs. The most astounding thing about that debut is just how fresh and timeless it sounds, well over four decades since it was recorded. Let's face, much of the music from that era has not aged very well, but these songs of Laura's sound as if they could have been recorded yesterday. I was also struck by the richness of the chord changes, and the all-around crispness.
Among many highlights on the first LP is "Goodbye Joe", a song which for me embodies everything which makes great pop music so wonderful. Effortlessly melodic, evocative but immediate lyrics and a jauntiness, vibrancy and energy which are like honey to the ears. Contrast this number with the haunting "Billy's Blues", "I Never Meant to Hurt You" and "Buy and Sell"...
Another thing which I was previously unaware of was the purity and versatility of Laura's voice. Sometimes such angelic voices can appear anodyne at times, but hers managed to combine all of this with expressiveness and individuality. Spontanetity, variety and inventiveness of phrasing were also hallmarks.
Not content to rest on her laurels, later albums were more experimental and ambitious. Certainly "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession" is less commercial and instantly "likeable" than its predecessor, and contains more hard-edged material. That said, it contains many memorable compositions, and it can be argued that the lyrical subject matter is more varied and interesting. "Christmas and the Beads of Sweat" in some respects represents a return to the feel of, and the territory explored by, the debut, at least melodically and sonically, although the songs were longer and more complex.
Listening to those early albums in particular, one can hear a multiplicity of influences, including jazz, Motown and soul, but the finished article is never less than original and cleverly and sympathetically produced. I have heard Laura described as the "missing link" between Brill Building pop and the then nascent singer-songwriter movement. There may be an element of truth in this, although it is likely an over-simplification.
Although's Laura Nyro's own records did not sell in the multi-millions, it is clear how influential her work has been, especially for female artists, and how much respect she commanded amongst her peers. I have also been heartened to discover that the music still has many devoted fans. These songs and recordings deserve an ever wider audience. I am endeavouring to spread the word here in England!
I defy anyone who enjoys good music not to be enthused and touched by that first album, and what followed....