Laura Nyro was famous for serving guests tuna fish sandwiches, her culinary repertoire being slim. I returned the favour: because I knew she’d named her publishing company Tuna Fish Music, I brought her a tuna fish sandwich backstage at the Troubadour in1969.
Yes, I was an embarrassingly diehard fan of the singer-songwriter, one of those young college women (along with more than a handful of men) who mooned over her and her music. She was so passionate, so soulful, so womanly. We were girls still; she seemed to have already unlocked secrets of grownup life and love, even though she was only a couple of years older. She had something to teach us and we were eager to learn.
It didn’t matter if we could understand her elusive lyrics; we felt them. Sassafras and moonshine? That felt to me like being high on liquor and a spice-filled sky. Buckles off shingles / off a cockleshell on Norway basin. That felt exotic and old-fashioned, all at once. Laura led us through a sensory wonderland and we followed, enchanted.
And her music: it burned, it soared, it shuffled, it vibrated. She whispered, she belted, she screamed at times. And we adored every measure.
So, it seemed, did many of the musicians of her time. Everyone wanted to record a Laura Nyro song, from Peter, Paul & Mary to the 5th Dimension, from jazz instrumentalists to all the other artists in this collection. Laura’s songs were gold – even if her own recordings never made a big commercial splash.
And scores of other musical artists who didn’t record Laura’s songs were extraordinarily influenced by her. As singer-songwriter Wendy Waldman told me, Laura liberated musicians to employ all their influences in crafting a pop song – just as she had combined jazz, folk, classical, 60s soul, the Beatles, Dylan and Tin Pan Alley. “All of the great songwriters have combined certain elements, maybe three at a time,” said Waldman, “but [Laura] would combine ten of them. It was so ahead of its time that it’s still ahead of its time.”
Those of us who loved her music worshipped her transcendent performances as well as her brilliant recordings. I was lucky enough to see her more than a dozen times, sometimes sitting just steps away from her as she pounded out her syncopated piano rhythms in a small club. She was like a shaman holding court in the early days of her career; in later years she was a wise and welcoming earth mother, enveloping us with her resonant vocals.
On a hot August night this summer, Laura came back to her hometown,New York City, even though she’s been gone from us since her death in 1997. But Lincoln Center brought her back to life by sponsoring an outdoor tribute concert, featuring artists who variously knew, loved and worked with Laura. Her brother Jan Nigro sang ‘And When I Die’ – the precocious composition Laura wrote in her teens – while her son Gil Bianchini performed a rap to ‘Eli’s Comin’’. Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, who produced one of Laura’s albums, sang the summer-ready ‘Blowin’ Away’, while Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash – two-thirds of Labelle – performed several songs off their classic Nyro collaboration “Gonna Take A Miracle”. Melissa Manchester introduced ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ by reminding us that Laura had asked a question no one had heard before: “Can you surry?”
I was a teenage fan again in the muggy New York twilight, a wide smile stuck to my face. How perfect to hear that music in the city that shaped it – the city that Laura showed us to be, as Bette Midler put it when she inducted her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this past spring, “an extraordinary place to be young, alive and in love”.
But I was also that grown up woman now; I had even written a biography of Laura Nyro ten years earlier. Nonetheless, when someone’s music touches you so deeply, is engraved forever on your young heart, you can easily return to the age you were when you heard it the first time.
I suggest that New York City hold a Laura Nyro night every summer from now on. I’ll be there, ready to surry on soul. And if I wasn’t a vegetarian, I’d be eating a tuna fish sandwich while the music played.
By Michele Kort
(Michele Kort is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s Press in 2002)