There is a clip on YouTube, just under four minutes long, that shows the American singer-songwriter Laura Nyro giving a special performance of her song Broken Rainbow, in honour of Earth Day 1990. In it, Nyro sits behind a keyboard in a pink dress, long dark hair around her pale face. “At the edge where I live,” she sings, “home sweet home, America…” It’s a video of a video, and while the voice is strong, the image ladders and blinks as if it is beamed from both far away and long ago. Together, the effect is disconcerting: the closeness of the song, the distance of the singer.
There isn’t a great deal of Nyro footage in circulation – “Sorry for the poor quality,” runs the caption beneath the Earth Day clip, “but when you get something so rare, you take what you can get.” In part this is because there is simply very little in existence and perhaps, too, because there has been a lack of demand. For while Nyro was one of the most important songwriters of the 60s and 70s, one who has exerted a profound influence on artists from Elton John to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell to Carole King and Tori Amos, she also sidestepped celebrity, turned down offers to increase both sales and fame, and for much of her career put the song before the songwriter – allowing others to record the definitive versions of her own compositions. By the time Nyro died, 20 years ago this month, aged 49, her relationship with the music industry had grown somewhat tangential, and her name, though not forgotten, never acquired the widespread reverence it deserved.
The songs themselves, however, always stood undimmed. Nyro spent her life rejoicing in music itself: she wrote her first song at the age of eight and in her teens delighted in heading out singing – to parties or subway stations or simply joining harmony groups near her home in the Bronx. She was still a teenager when she sold her song And When I Die to Peter, Paul and Mary, and by the time she was 20 she was managed by David Geffen and auditioning for Clive Davis, the then president of Columbia Records.
The story of that audition Davis detailed in his autobiography, recalling how Nyro invited him to her New York apartment, where he found all the lights turned off save for a flickering television screen beside her piano, and in that peculiar light she played him the songs that would make up her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession – among them Lonely Women, Eli’s Comin, and Stoned Soul Picnic. Davis was stunned.
This period of Nyro’s life was charged with promise – shows at Carnegie Hall, her songs covered by Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat and Tears, and the 5th Dimension. In 1969, a year after Eli, came her most commercial release, New York Tendaberry, followed in quick succession by Christmas and the Beads of Sweat and Gonna Take a Miracle, a collection of covers of her favourite songs of her teenage years, including Spanish Harlem and Jimmy Mack….