Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Music: Laura Nyro

I picked up a stack of music last week, including a compilation of Dusty Springfield's A and B sides, and Laura Nyro's 1971 album with Labelle, Gonna Take a Miracle. While listening to the first, I found an article by Springfield's former lover, Canadian rocker Carol Pope. Although she never formerly came out as a lesbian, Dusty Springfield's attraction to women was the stuff of industry gossip. Gifted, yet wildly insecure, she drank and caroused her way out of her relationship with Pope. At the end of the piece, Pope described attending her funeral with her manager and friend, Vicki Wickham, who had introduced the two lovers.

Wickham is an intriguing person: a closeted (for most of her career) lesbian who made it in the mostly-male business of pop music. At the age of 20, she produced and booked one of the first television pop music shows in England, Ready, Steady, Go!". Wickham became a sought-after manager and producer. When she took on Labelle, a 60's girl group, she persuaded them to wear outlandish silver spacesuits and record "Lady Marmalade." It was an extremely successful re-branding, and the song hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1975.

So what's this have to do with Laura Nyro? Singer/songwriter Nyro was only 17 when she sold her first hit, "And When I Die," to Peter, Paul and Mary. Although she was marketed as a folk singer, her soul and jazz-inflected style didn't always sit well with folk audiences. Nyro also disliked the grind of touring and record promotion. Her best songs become hits for other artists, like The 5th Dimension. Albums such as Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969) had a limited audience when released, but influenced many later songwriters and performers. In 1970, Vicki Wickham introduced Patti LaBelle to Laura Nyro, and the two became close friends. Nyro and members of Labelle recorded Gonna Take a Miracle, an album of Motown covers. Nyro left and then returned to the music business twice between 1972 and 1984. Even devoted fans felt that her best work was behind her. She died of ovarian cancer in 1997, survived by a son and a female partner.

"Ready, Vicki, Go." The Guardian [Link]

"Laura Nyro, Intense Balladeer of the 60's and 70's, Dies at 49" The New York Times [Link]

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