A Little Magic, a Little Kindness
By Cristofer GrossGrammy®-winning Billy Childs and three leading vocalists launch the 2014–15 Jazz Series with the music of Laura Nyro
Many of Laura Nyro's biggest fans may not even realize it: The singer-songwriter's extraordinary run of 1960s and '70s hits remain radio and karaoke staples today.
It wasn't her versions of her songs that we know, however. The enduring Top 10 hits were by the biggest groups of the era. "Stoney End" is one of Barbra Streisand's most popular songs, as is "And When I Die" for Blood, Sweat & Tears, "Eli's Comin' " for Three Dog Night, and a half-dozen Fifth Dimension hits including "Stone Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Blowing Away" and "Save the Country."
Jazz pianist and arranger Billy Childs always knew the woman behind the music, and this year the three-time Grammy Award winner has put together an album and tour of fresh interpretations of a dozen tracks from the Nyro songbook. His Map to the Treasure tour will kick off the 2014–15 Jazz Series on October 17 in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Three of the singers featured on the Sony Masterworks recording will be along to deliver Nyro's extraordinary lyrics. They include Lisa Fischer, one of the stars of this year's Oscar®-winning documentary, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Becca Stevens, "one of the most musically adventurous vocal artists of her generation," according to jazz critic Don Heckman; and renowned singer-composer Moira Smiley.
Childs grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s. The house in the Washington and Fairfax district was filled with music. Usually his two older sisters controlled the playlists, stacking the family record player with their selections.
"Joy played soul and jazz, and Kirsten was into the white singer-songwriters," he told All About Jazz last year. "That's how I heard Nyro, who introduced me to the dramatic possibilities of music."
Born Laura Nigro in the Bronx in 1947, she was the daughter of Louis, a jazz trumpeter of Italian descent, and Gilda, a Jewish bookkeeper who opened her to the richness of art, culture, politics and poetry. Nyro attended Sunday school at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where she got her grounding in education, and continued at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art. At home, she played the family piano and wrote songs beginning at age 8. By 14, she was listening to a wide range of influences, including Ravel and Debussy, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, folk music, doo-wop and soul. She also played around with her problematic name until she hit on a variation of Roman emperor Nero.
She wrote her first serious song at 16, and with the help of an agent secured by her father, it sold to Peter, Paul and Mary—at that time the biggest folk act in the world—for $5,000. The agent got her local gigs and her first major appearance, at San Francisco's hungry i. A first album, More Than a New Discovery, was released on Verve's Roadways label in early 1967. Within months she was sharing the bill with the biggest names in rock at the Monterey Pop Festival. Meanwhile, rising music business legend David Geffen had heard New Discovery and tracked her down. "I was stunned at all the insight that she had," he told an interviewer in 1969. "And she was at the time only 19 years old. It was overwhelming. It was more of an experience than I'd ever had listening to an artist."
He would replace her agent, move her to Columbia Records, and make sure the recording sessions gave her what she wanted. Her next releases, Eli and the 13th Confession and New York Tendaberry, permanently placed her alongside Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Her next album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, included "Map to the Treasure."
Nyro, however, was an artist and not a hustler, and with changes in the business coming in the 1970s, she quit at 24, married briefly and had a son. She returned briefly, but withdrew again to a home in Danbury, Connecticut, she shared with her soul mate and life partner, Maria Desiderio.
She continued to write songs and release albums, but she gave her heart to supporting causes. Among her last recordings was a mid-nineties guest appearance on Manhattan Transfer's Tonin' album and the title track she composed for Maria Flores' award-winning documentary Broken Rainbow, about the underhanded grabbing of mineral rights on Navajo and Hopi land.
In 1995, she spoke into Desiderio's handheld camera.
"It was a beautiful life," she said calmly and prophetically. "It was very joyful. I was very lucky when I was a kid. We used to go out every night and sing. You could just sing on the street corners and in the hallways or down in the train station. It was a very happy time."
She died two years later of ovarian cancer, sparking emotional tributes and grateful memorial concerts. She would be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
Among the ongoing refreshing of the Laura Nyro songbook, Childs' jazz interpretations, aided by the singers and musicians on this tour, promise to open a rich new chapter in her legend.
Cristofer Gross is a frequent contributor to Center publications.
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