Many performers from the 1960s and 1970s have inspired tributes in the form of cover bands, the recording of new interpretations of their material and even Broadway shows. Of course, there are hundreds, probably thousands of tributes to the Beatles. But it is certainly not limited to the Fab Four. Led Zeppelin, Carole King, the late David Bowie and the Eagles (featuring the also recently departed Glenn Frey) immediately come to mind.
Then there’s the case of Laura Nyro. Unlike the other acts mentioned, Laura Nyro is not a household name. I suspect that many music fans who were around during the ’60s and ’70s probably never even heard of her. But those who come to know Nyro’s music are a devoted lot who remain fans for life.
Born in the Bronx in 1947, Nyro (originally known as Laura Nigro) grew up in a musical household with a father who was a jazz trumpeter who supported himself by tuning pianos. It was in this environment that she taught herself how to play piano and began composing songs at the age of eight. Nyro was equally influenced by Debussy and doo-wop. During her teenaged years, she would spend her evenings harmonizing in the neighborhood with other teenagers bitten by the rock ’n’ roll bug.
By the time Nyro was 21, she had recorded three albums, More Than a New Discovery (later re-released as The First Songs), Eli & The Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry. While critically acclaimed, these albums were not commercially successful. But they would get the attention of other artists. Groups as diverse as Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Coming”), The Fifth Dimension (“Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”) and Blood, Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”) would each have hits with Nyro’s songs. Ironically, Nyro nearly succeeded Al Kooper as lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears, but was dissuaded by her then manager David Geffen from joining the group. Ultimately, it would be David Clayton-Thomas who would sing Nyro’s words on “And When I Die.” While Nyro made her reputation on her songwriting, she would return to her love of doo-wop and record an album of ’50s & ’60s covers in 1971 called Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle serving as her backup singers.
By the time Nyro was 24, she effectively withdrew from the music business. Uninterested in performing live after she had a less than pleasant experience at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (even though the reception of her performance was almost universally positive) and even more uninterested in being a public figure, Nyro moved from New York to Danbury, Connecticut, to live a simpler life. She would marry, divorce, and give birth to a son. It would be five years before she recorded another album. Over the next 15 years, Nyro would occasionally perform, record three more studio albums and two live albums, but was content to remain out of the limelight and raise her son. Sadly, Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49, the same disease that claimed her mother at the very same age.
My own discovery of Nyro’s music came in a roundabout way. The eponymous Blood, Sweat & Tears album is one of the first albums to which I ever listened. I began listening to Three Dog Night as a teenager and The Fifth Dimension in early adulthood. It was only then that I made the connection between the three bands and Nyro’s contributions to their hit making success that I began to seek out the source that made those hits possible.
In the years since her death, Nyro’s work has received sufficient appraisal to warrant her induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Her music has also inspired two very different tributes both of which I had the pleasure of recently attending — Kate Ferber’s One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro and Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro.
Although co-written by Kate Ferber and Louis Greenstein and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, One Child Born is Ferber’s baby. Ferber, a singer-songwriter-pianist and stage actress who as of this writing is appearing in a production of Little Shop of Horrors in Cleveland, has been a devotee of Nyro since she first heard Eli and The Thirteenth Confession in early adolescence and saw fit to quote Nyro in her high school yearbook. Last month, Ferber was featured in a two-week engagement of One Child Born at the Oberon (an affiliate of the American Repertory Theater) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While Ferber is the sole performer in a showcase that lasts just over an hour, she takes on many voices. Ferber bases One Child Born not only on her connection with Nyro’s music but on connections of her fans whom Ferber has encountered over the years and describes as Nyrotics. Some of these Nyrotics attended Nyro’s concerts, another learned English through Nyro’s music, one lucky fan met her on the street and was invited back to Nyro’s apartment in the East Village, ate tuna fish and talked late into the night while another young woman interviewed Nyro for her high school paper for a “Where are they now?” piece. Nyro told the aspiring reporter, “I haven’t retired. I just moved to the country.”
I was absolutely delighted when Ferber opened One Child Born with “The Confession.” I must confess it has become my favorite Nyro song, especially when it reaches its climax, “Love my love thing/Love is surely gospel.” Not surprisingly, a significant portion of Ferber’s tribute centered around the songs on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. In fact, a Laura Nyro songbook featuring the Eli album cover sat prominently on her piano. In addition to “The Confession,” some of the other cuts Ferber played from Eli included “Luckie,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Stoned Soul Picnic” (during which the audience sang along), “Emmie” (which represented her encore) and, of course, “Eli’s Comin’.” Ferber also contributes one original song titled “One Child Born,” which naturally segues into “And When I Die.”
After the show, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Ferber. She was kind enough to autograph my CD cover of Eli & The Thirteenth Confession,placing her signature right next to the lyrics of “Timer” which she told me was her favorite song on the album. I told Ferber how I had come to listen to Nyro’s music through Three Dog Night, the Fifth Dimension, and Blood, Sweat & Tears and asked her if she had a favorite cover version. While Ferber indicated that she appreciated the musicianship of Three Dog Night on “Eli’s Comin’,” she told me that she was a “purist” when it came to the music of Laura Nyro.
Billy Childs is also a pianist who became a Laura Nyro aficionado in early adolescence. But that is where the similarities end. If Ferber is a Laura Nyro purist, Childs takes as much license with it as he can with Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. Originally recorded in 2014, Map to the Treasure would earn Childs a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Arrangement, Instrument & Vocals for “New York Tendaberry,” which featured cellist Yo-Yo Ma and opera soprano Renée Fleming. The album also featured the likes of Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Rickie Lee Jones, Alison Krauss, Chris Botti, Dianne Reeves, and Shawn Colvin.If Ferber takes her inspiration from Eli and The Thirteenth Confession, Childs takes his from New York Tendaberry and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. While Ferber needed only her voice and a piano to realize her vision of Nyro’s music, Childs led a dozen musicians on stage at the Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre (which is named neither for the Kentucky colonel nor the Vermont socialist) this past weekend to help him paint his canvass of harmony. Childs will soon be performing Map to the Treasure in New York, Detroit, St. Louis, and Denver.
The musicians accompanying Childs included two vocalists, Becca Stevens and Alicia Olatuja, and for this performance the Boston-based string ensemble Parker Quartet. The evening would fittingly begin with “New York Tendaberry,” sung by Olatuja with prominent solos by drummer Billy Kilson and Ben Williams on bass. Other members of Childs’ collective also had their opportunity to shine as was the case with Bob Sheppard on both saxophone and clarinet on “Gibsom Street” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp,” respectively while guitarist Peter Sprague found the key to “Map to the Treasure” and the Parker String Quartet brought out the melancholy of the lyrics on “Been on a Train.”
The only song in my view that wasn’t done justice was “The Confession.” As mentioned earlier, it is my favorite Nyro song. It is intended to be a short song that builds to an abrupt and powerful conclusion. Unfortunately, Stevens’ vocals weren’t quite up to the task while the arrangement was too long and drawn out with an anti-climatic ending. There are instances when one musician can be more powerful than a dozen and this was the case with Ferber’s performance of “The Confession” when contrasted with Childs and his collaborators.
Fortunately, Childs’ experimentation was far more successful on “Save the Country” and “And When I Die.” Stevens sang in a far more compelling manner on “Save the Country.” While Nyro’s recording is a clarion call to action, Childs’ arrangement takes on the form of a lament and he admitted as much. He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, but everybody knew that was who he was taking about. When Stevens sang, “Save the country…now,” it was as a plea. While Nyro’s recording of “And When I Die” on her debut album was surely gospel, Childs saw a video of Nyro performing the song on a keyboard on YouTube with a more bluesy arrangement and could not resist this interpretation. Another interesting choice was “To a Child,” as it was the only song performed in either tribute that was recorded after 1980.
If there was one area of common ground between Kate Ferber’s purity and Billy Childs’ re-imagination, it was on “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Both sets of the audiences sang along. Actually there was another. Following the show, I waited in line to speak with Childs as well as Stevens (who would sign my CD cover of Eli alongside Ferber). While I was waiting a man struck up a conversation with me. His name is Bill and he was in his late 40s or his early 50s. He did not have much in the way of formal education and said he didn’t think any of his friends would be interested in Laura Nyro’s music. But when he heard about the tribute there was no other place he wanted to be.
I told Bill about the Ferber tribute and he was disappointed he hadn’t been aware of it. It is a shame because he shared a story that would have been worthy of inclusion in One Child Born. Bill told me he was first drawn to Nyro’s music through his two older sisters who owned several of her albums. However, he was not allowed to listen to them. But he would get home from school about an hour before they did. During which time, he would pick a Nyro record (usually Eli) and play it, then carefully clear the record of his fingerprints and put it back. When Bill got older, he played guitar in a band with some neighborhood buddies and somehow convinced them to play “Poverty Train” at high school dances even though they thought the lyrics were weird. Needless to say, Bill now owns the records his two sisters once forbid him from playing. He told me that before the show he e-mailed them to thank them for turning him on to Laura Nyro’s music.
Laura Nyro did not have millions of fans. But the fans she still has nearly 20 years after her death and the new fans she has gained since all have a story to tell. Both Kate Ferber and Billy Childs have done well in bringing these stories to life. The manner in which they deliver their stories is different, but their love for Laura Nyro’s music is all the same.