Laura Nyro is one of my favorite artists ever, and one of the more underrated singer-songwriters of the fruitful 60s and 70s period when such musicians were found in abundance. More deeply rooted in R&B than the Laurel Canyon artists like Joni Mitchell, yet jazzier and more expansive than the great Carole King, New York’s Nyro imbued pure emotion into her music from a young age.
As a teen, she enjoyed tripping on cough syrup and listening to John Coltrane records – and if you don’t believe me, consult Michele Kort’s biography Soul Picnic. I would venture to assume that some of this mind-altered consumption to jazz influenced her masterpiece New York Tendaberry (1969). But that would come later.
The First Songs, however, are exactly that. A reissue of Nyro’s debut More Than a New Discovery (1967), all 12 of these songs were recorded in 1966 (by an 18/19 year old Nyro!). I highlight this reissue for several reasons: it’s more ubiquitous (it’s the version you’ll find on streaming services), it’s the one I own on LP, and it has a better tracklist.
The songs themselves are fairly straightforward: breezy, classic piano pop and R&B, all penned by the brilliant young Nyro. My favorites are the ballad “He’s a Runner,” with its catchy chorus and Stevie-esque harmonica accompaniment, and the sublime “Buy and Sell”. “Lazy Susan” is perhaps the best indicator of what was to become Nyro’s signature style: a lush song with several unexpected changes in rhythm and structure, as well as an emotive vocal performance (hear her almost gutturally bellow “black-eyed Sue” in the middle of the track).
Not unlike Carole King, Nyro initially made it in the industry via the success of her songs being performed by other artists. The 5th Dimension went number 1 with “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1968, and Blood, Sweat & Tears made it to number 2 on the charts a year later with their cover of “And When I Die”. Here you’ll find the original compositions in all their tender glory. As I mentioned above, Nyro would go on to make even greater music, but The First Songs holds a special place in my collection and my heart.
Listen to The First Songs on Spotify.