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Obituary: Laura Nyro

Some performers have a hard time dealing with the limelight and find a circuitous route to success. The American singer-singwriter Laura Nyro was a perfect example of that syndrome. Afflicted by chronic stage- fright, she never found more than a cult audience with her solo career; but when covered by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Three Dog Night or Blood, Sweat and Tears, her songs effortlessly reached the American Top Ten in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Somehow, those reinterpretations brought her material closer to the audience's preoccupations.

Born Laura Nigro in 1947, she grew up in the New York borough of the Bronx. Her jazz-fan father tuned pianos and played trumpet and this precocious, unusual child soon sat at the keyboard and made up tunes to amuse herself. "I always sang, from the time I could make a noise," she told Life magazine in a 1970 interview. "And I always wrote. I wrote little poems and at about 8 or 9, I started writing little songs."

Laura also read poetry and sang doo-wop with friends on street corners while attending the New York High School of the Performing Arts. This rather unexpected blend of styles and Italian-Jewish backgrounds soon blossomed into a most remarkable talent.

In 1966, Nyro signed with the Verve label and recorded More Than A New Discovery, a debut album whose title would eventually prove more than prophetic. Ignored at the time of its release, the record contained an amazing selection of personal songs. By the end of 1969, the West Coast vocal group Fifth Dimension had taken "Wedding Bell Blues" to the top of the US singles charts while Blood, Sweat and Tears reached No 2 with the immortal "When I Die". The following year Barbra Streisand recorded Nyro's "Stoney End" and reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic.

This success as a songwriter put Nyro in Carole King's league but, unlike the composer of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?", she never cut an album of Tapestry's calibre. Nyro's shyness and reluctance as a performer may have been the result of a harrowing LSD trip she underwent as a teenager. Or it may have been a consequence of her disastrously received performance at the Monterey Festival in 1967. Opting for a soulful, Vegas-style performance (complete with a trio of backing vocalists), hair down to her thighs and purple- lipsticked, Nyro failed where Janis Joplin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix made their mark and reputation.

Still, the New York talent-booker David Geffen was so impressed by a tape of the Monterey show that he gave up his job to become Nyro's manager (he would later oversee the careers of Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young, Jackson Browne and The Eagles before setting up his own record label). In Joe Smith's Off the Record collection of interviews he admitted that she "was a very strange girl. But she was among the most talented people I've ever seen in my life."

Geffen quickly brought her to the attention of Clive Davis, who was then president of Columbia Records. The label was trying to get hip and Nyro soon joined a roster including Bob Dylan, Santana, Spirit, Leonard Cohen and The Byrds. Her 1968 album, Eli and The 13th Confession, reflected her unconventional upbringing. It was well received and provided further hits for The Fifth Dimension ("Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness") and Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming").

The following year, New York Tendaberry (she was fond of making up words), a brilliant collection fusing jazz and rock with her incredible voice and piano-playing made the Top Forty. A major commercial breakthrough seemed inevitable but Nyro wasn't prepared to make creative compromises and clashed with both Davis and Geffen (who'd sold her publishing to Columbia). After 1970's Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (an early showcase for the production talents of Arif Mardin, who would later polish the Bee Gees white soul stylings), Nyro collaborated with Labelle and released Gonna Take a Miracle, her tribute to the Sixties, which featured impeccable covers of "Dancing in the Streets" (originally by Martha and the Vandellas), "Da Doo Ron Ron" (The Crystals), and "You Really Got a Hold Of Me" (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles).

This unexpected move closed the chapter on the early part of her career and Nyro retired from the music business. As she declared in a rare interview to Musician magazine, "When I was very young, everything happened so quickly for me. I hadn't really contemplated being famous. I was writing music, I was just involved in the art of it at that young age. Then, when it all happened, I didn't know how to handle it."

She moved to New England, married, had a child. And, when the fancy took her, she still made records. Nineteen seventy-five's ironically-titled Smile reflected on the break-up of her marriage and her disillusion with the music industry. Three years later, Nested saw her muse soar again; "American Dreamer" and "My Innocence" proved she hadn't lost her sense of wonder. In 1984, she cut Mother's Spiritual and in 1989, released Live At The Bottom Line, a concert recording which contained some of her classics and new songs with an ecological message ("The Wild World"). "When I write my music, I see all the rivers flowing - sensual, spiritual, religious, animal, intellectual," she said. Following 1993's Walk The Dog And Light The Light, Nyro played concerts in London two years ago. Her spellbinding three-octave range was still intact and the influence she'd had on the likes of Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Kate Bush and Suzanne Vega was as obvious as ever.

Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro, a 34-song retrospective, was issued a few weeks ago on Columbia's Legacy label and earned the singer plaudits the world over. A tribute album for Profile Records was already in the works when her death from ovarian cancer was announced.

A line from "And When I Die" forms a fitting epitaph: "I swear there is no heaven and I pray there is no hell." Laura Nyro had become a pantheist and believed in the power of nature.

Laura Nigro (Laura Nyro), singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist: born New York 18 October 1947; married (marriage dissolved, one son); died Danbury, Connecticut 9 April 1997.