June is ‘Pride Month‘, a time to celebrate LGBTQ history, raise awareness, and promote diversity and equality. As part of pride month, I’d like to take the time to celebrate the life of bisexual singer-songwriter, pianist, and women’s-rights activist, Laura Nyro.
Born in New York City, Laura embraced the Manhattan “Brill Building sound,” a hybrid of rhythm & blues, gospel, and jazz – adopted by other native New York songstresses, such as Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King. Between 1968 and 1970, she wrote songs for the likes of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Peter Paul & Mary, Barbara Streisand, and The 5th Dimension, but never had success with her own recordings, until her cover of Up On The Roof by The Drifters, which reached #92 on the US Hot 100 entry in 1970, a minor hit.
She wasn’t an artist driven by ego or a need for fame, Nyro shunned the spotlight and rarely made public appearances or gave interviews, famously turning down The Tonight Show, and the Late Show With David Leterman. Arguably, this is what made her music more special, genuine, and real.
Nyro’s mother was a bookkeeper, and her father a Jazz trumpeter. A musical family, Laura taught herself to play piano, she also listened to her mother’s Leontyne Price, and Billie Holiday records. Her family were of Russian Jewish, Polish, and Italian descent, and part of the Humanist Society for Ethical Culture. In 1970 she told Billboard Magazine that music helped her with a difficult childhood.
“I’ve created my own little world, a world of music, since I was five years old…I was never a bright and happy child.” – Laura Nyro, Billboard Magazine (1970)
Along with Joni Mitchell, who cites Laura Nyro as one of her biggest influences, she was an important part of the launch of the ‘women’s division’ of the singer-songwriter movement. A proud feminist and women’s rights activist, Nyro once stated, “I was always interested in the social consciousness of certain songs. My mother and grandfather were progressive thinkers, so I felt at home in the peace movement and the women’s movement, and that has influenced my music.” Later on in her career she mainly performed at women’s shows and was involved in the ‘lesbian-feminist women’s music’ subculture, performing with bands such as all-female New York horn-rockers, Isis, and at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1989, a festival described as “an entire city run by and for lesbian feminists.”
“I may bring a certain feminist perspective to my songwriting, because that’s how I see life.” – Laura Nyro
In 1967, a 20-year-old Laura Nyro met 13-year-old Maria Desiderio, who, at the time was taking keyboard lessons from the legendary Alice Coltrane. The two formed a strong bond. Although Laura had other relationships and gave birth to a son, they officially became a couple ten years later in 1977, exchanging rings. Their relationship lasted until Laura’s death in 1997, from ovarian cancer, at the age of 49.
Although Laura was a private person, there was no obvious shame or hiding about their relationship, and her family were supposedly supportive. They also fully supported the creation of the “Majic Speller,” a lesbian owned/ lesbian friendly bookstore Laura and Maria were involved in, Laura’s father said, “She was like another daughter, a lovely woman.”
In her 1967 song, And When I Die, Nyro wrote, “And when I die/and when I’m gone/there’ll be one child born/and a world to carry on.” An eerie premonition, her words rang true; Nyro’s only child, Gil Bianchini, is a successful rapper who incorporates samples of his mother’s songs in his own work. An endless list of musicians, including Tori Amos, Lush, Elton John, Steely Dan, and Cyndi Lauper have cited Nyro as a musical influence. A forward thinker and freedom fighter, Laura Nyro was a significant part of the peace movement and the women’s movement, as well as an environmentalist and animal-rights activist, she was without a doubt, one of the most inspiring women of the 60’s and 70’s.
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