For many people weaned on the music of the ’60s/’70s, Laura Nyro was one of those ungraspable artists — someone they knew of but didn’t follow or know much about. She was idolized by David Geffen, who signed her as his first big client, but he couldn’t elevate her to commercial stardom as a solo artist. To this day there are debates about her set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, when she was still in her teens: Was she booed off the stage or embraced as a revelation?
But even if Nyro remained a mystery to the masses, she was a savior to a number of artists who rode her songs to chart-topping success, including Blood, Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”), Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Comin’”), Barbra Streisand (“Stoney End”) and, especially, the Fifth Dimension (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stone Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Save the Country’).
Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation” could very well have included Nyro, who died in 1997, since she influenced all those self-empowered singer-songwriters who exhibited an equal facility for rich, confessional storytelling.
Jazz pianist Billy Childs, whose tribute album “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro” was recently released on Sony Masterworks, calls her “not just a singer-songwriter, but a serious composer.” And one just need listen to a track like “Timer,” from Nyro’s landmark “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” to hear how she pushed the envelope: a mini-suite with changing tempos, sliding scales and overlapping vocals.
At a Grammy Museum event celebrating the album, and Nyro’s music, on Tuesday night, Childs said he thinks of Nyro’s work as “an opera about a girl in New York City,” and Rickie Lee Jones, one of the vocalists on hand who appears on the album, even summoned the spirit of “West Side Story” in her recollection. “I was always dreaming and it was clear she was dreaming,” said Jones. “I was always on fire escapes and she was writing fiction to me.”
It was clear Nyro served as a unique inspiration to the talent on hand, including singers Shawn Colvin and Becca Stevens, because they viewed her as a kindred spirit. Jones, who discovered Nyro in the early ’70s, recalls that “at the time, Janis Joplin was the main girl and I just could not sing anything like her; I have no roughness in my voice. But Laura had this softness about her. She was a teacher but also someone like me.”
The tribute album, a term that Child eschews, attracted an astounding level of talent, all drawn to the heart, heartbreak and complexity of Nyro’s music, including Alison Krauss, Dianne Reeves, Renee Fleming, Esperanza Spalding, Yo-Yo Ma, Alison Krauss Wayne Shorter and many others.
Colvin, also present at the Grammy Museum, was under the impression that Nyro hadn’t been celebrated in a similar fashion prior, which she thought was “weird.” But in fact, the album, “Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro” was released in 1997 (Astor Place) and included many of the alternative artists, all female, of the day, including Phoebe Snow, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry and Jill Sobule. Although that prior recording is a tad too twee at times, Roseanne Cash’s version of “Save the Country” might be worth the purchase alone.
Like Cash, Childs and Colvin’s version of the song is more elegaic than the original, upbeat recordings by Nyro and the Fifth Dimension, reflecting, in Childs’ words, the tumult of the time when the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King left the country shaken, and the Vietnam war raged on, creating a violent schism of ideologies.
Of her take on the song in “Map to the Treasure,” Colvin confided: “I think we nailed the quiet desperation.”