John Sieger
Sieger On Songs

Laura Nyro’s Underrated Artistry

She was a unique singer songwriter who avoided the limelight.

By - Jan 10th, 2018 04:55 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

Laura Nyro. Photo by Biography.com Editors [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Laura Nyro. Photo by Biography.com Editors [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a fact that some of the artists who covered Laura Nyro’s songs hit it big without even coming close to her level of artistry. Middle of the road acts like Three Dog Night, The Fifth Dimension and Blood Sweat and Tears made her a millionaire in her early 20’s, but they weren’t able to do much more than flash their professionalism. The cartoonishly macho David Clayton-Thomas was exactly the wrong singer for her (and probably everybody else). Beware the three-named artist! Unfortunately, these performers made me tune out and guilt by association tainted my perceptions. Yet, as played and sung by Ms Nyro, the same tunes were stunning and remain so to this day.

Laura Nyro, all brass and confidence in the studio, shied away from the spotlight. She did very little TV and had no use for the celebrity’s life. A careerist she wasn’t. Others, like The Fifth Dimension and Barbra Streisand, were better suited to the rigors of show-biz, and took her songs to the top of the charts. Nyro died at 49, the same age as her mother and of the same thing, ovarian cancer. That was 1997 and since that time her career has gone through a few re-evaluations, being hailed by artists like Todd Rundgren, Tori Amos and Elvis Costello as a groundbreaking artist, only to slip once more below the horizon. I’ve done this column for three years, so I guess it’s time for me to fess up to my sin of omission and try to atone for it.

Listen to Eli’s Comin’. Her performance of this mini-epic will act as a palate cleanser, snatching it back from Three Dog Night, who gave it a shot but came up about a dog short. I hadn’t listened to Nyro in a long time and hearing the sheer energy radiating from this petite woman makes it hard to believe she was so young. Where did all this confidence come from?

Eli’s comin’
Eli’s comin’
Whoa you better hide your heart
Your lovin heart
Eli’s a comin’ and the cards say
Broken heart
Oh broken heart
Eli’s comin’
Hide your heart girl
Eli’s comin’
Hide your heart girl
Eli’s a comin’
Better hide girl
Eli’s a comin’
Better hide your heart
Your heart
Eli’s comin’
Hide your heart
You better better hide your heart
Eli’s comin’
Better walk walk
But you’ll never get away
From the burn and the heartache
I walked to apollo and the bay
And everywhere I go
Eli’s a comin’
Eli’s a comin’
Eli’s a comin’
And he’s comin’ to get me mama
I’m down on my knees
Eli’s comin’
Hide it girl
Eli’s a comin’
Better hide girl
Eli’s a comin’
Better hide your heart
Your heart
Eli’s comin’
Hide your heart
You better better hide your heart
Eli’s comin’
Better walk
Cry but he’s never gonna follow
I cried at the corners of the square
And everywhere I go
Eli’s a comin’
Eli’s a comin’
Eli’s a comin’
And he comin’ to get me mama
I’m down on my knees
I’m down on my knees
Oh no no no
Hide it
Hide it
Hide it
Hide it
Hide it
Hide it
Hide it
Eli’s comin’
Better hide your heart girl

© Laura Nyro

Nice imagery, “I walked to apollo and the bay.” Not sure what it means, but rolls off the tongue. She sounds like a messenger, shouting her warning, carried away by joy and fear at the same time. The religious fervor is there from the moment the intro gives way to an outlandishly uptempo rave up straight out of the gospel playbook. Try not to be swept away.

Nobody was writing songs like her at the time and only Rundgren dared to emulate. You can see what it was about her that moved him. She sets the energetic chorus and verse structure aside, stretching the song form from short story to novella, inserting inventive sections here and there — she must have had a drawer full. It ends like it began, in a quiet coda that may not have been necessary, but who’s complaining? Not one note sounds gratuitous.

With little desire to engage in public life and the means to live any old way she wanted, Ms. Nyro spent the rest of her life mostly out of the away from prying eyes. From all reports, the storms of her youth had given way to stable, long-term relationship. With a little country place situated on one of the bigger revenue streams in the music biz, I hope she was happy. Her life was short, but it was very productive.

If you haven’t heard Laura Nyro, she’s an artist that can warm you up on your long slog through winter. I really have been remiss in singing her praises, but go ahead and put her up there with anyone you can think of. She deserves to be heard.

11 thoughts on “Sieger On Songs: Laura Nyro’s Underrated Artistry”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Eli’s Coming (Laura Nyro’s version) is so entirely different from that of Three Dog Night – much more authentic and heart-breaking!

  2. Virginia Small says:

    Thanks for this tribute. Laura Nyro was indeed one of the best and most original songwriters ever–and did killer renditions of all her own songs. She also conveyed emotions deeply and purely.

    I was always glad when others covered and popularized her songs but even more so to listen to the originals. Especially Stoned Soul Picnic and And When I Die.

  3. John Kishline says:

    She was brilliant. Right there with Joni. So it goes.

  4. Kenneth says:

    Gonna Take a Miracle: I got this on vinyl. Though covers, having Labelle singing back up is delightful!

  5. Lou Gagliano says:

    Todds first Album “Runt” has a song called “Baby Lets Swing “that was about Laura, the baby lets swing line had meaning about her lifestyle as well. He loved her a lot.

  6. Larry Hinds says:

    Nice article on a great artist. I believe one correction is in order though. The best line of the song which you paid particular attention to is actually “I walked to Apollo by the Bay. Its a place by the water n Australia. Actually, the Temple of Apollo by the Bay of Baiae (now the Bay of Naples) was in ancient times considered to be one of the entrances to the Underworld. So Nyro may have meant nothing more by “I walked to Apollo by the Bay” than “I walked to the very end of the earth.” At this temple, visitors could ask the Sibyl (the priestess of Apollo) about their fate. So perhaps Nyro’s lyric is invoking such a pilgrimage. There is also a famous painting by JMW Turner depicting Apollo (& the Sibyl) by the Bay of Baiae, which Nyro may have had in mind. {Explanation copied]

  7. JL Serkes says:

    When we try and interpret Laura’s first songs through the Trilogy, we can forget about it. She was well read and Larry that may be true. Thing is, who knows. Take her music on. Eli and the 13th Confession is brilliant, and just sit with your headphones on, a candle lit, and take her in.

  8. Susan says:

    Jazz pianist Billy Childs made a beautiful recording of Laura Nyro’s work a couple of years ago and toured it around the country. Gorgeous arranging and performance, a fitting tribute to Laura Nyro. I heard it performed at the Jazz Standard in NYC. He won a Grammy for the track with Rene Fleming. The whole recording is worth checking out!

  9. well-deserved tribute to a sublime artist—
    John, I don’t usually get around to thanking you
    for your enlightening perspectives, but
    they’re always much appreciated

  10. Kevin Dwyer III says:

    “I walked to Apollo and the bay”, a myth reference in my mind anyway, The Daphne myth specifically. bay leaves from the laurel tree….check it out
    http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/musings/daphne-myth-laurel-leaves/471306.html

    ” The Daphne myth speaks of the obliteration of women’s identities and how it is imperative for women to take on new identities in order to resist being ‘subsumed’ (absorbed) in their entirety in patriarchal societies.”

  11. JT Nichols says:

    1st thing I heard was New York Tenderberry, one of the 1st 20 albums picked for the new music room at my college (university of Maine in Portland). Whoever picked them was a freak; among the 20 was Rundgren’s double album and Arlo G’s electric album, Running Down the Road!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *