The Divine Miss N
Gilda and Lou Nigro are Mum and Dad. She has
one sibling, a younger brother. His name is Jan Nigro.
She is Jewish and Italian, or Italian and Jewish. One reads rather often now—Nyro was Italian and Jewish. Nyro sometimes described herself as “Italian and Jewish.” In printed copy on the subject of Laura Nyro she is often “Italian-Jewish.” With or without the hyphen. Doing a few Google searches one finds things like: “She grew up in an Italian-Jewish home.” (An Italian-Jewish home?) And: “Her parents were Italian-Jewish.” (Mother and father were Italian-Jewish? Would that be like the Finzi Contini’s? I wondered years ago. One of those aristocratic Jewish families whose members have resided in Italy for many centuries?) (No.)
Forty years ago she was described often enough as the offspring of a Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father. Getting warmer. Actually it was Lou Nigro—not Laura Nigro—who was that.
Lou Nigro (1916—2014), a quintessential New Yorker perhaps, was the son of a Jewish woman born in Ukraine (Imperial Russia I guess I should say)—and a Catholic man born in Italy (the area around Naples). Under Halachic Law one is Jewish—or one isn’t—based on the identity or putative identity of the mother. Under Halachic Law there is no such thing for example as “half-Jewish.” But putting Halachic Law all the way to one side: she is three-quarters Jewish (that would be East European Jewish) and one-quarter Italian Catholic.
In 1946 the year he is married Lou Nigro is a working musician. In spring 1947 the face of Laura Nyro begins to appear on the screen of time. Lou Nigro has a club date on the night she is ushered into the world—in October 1947. He gets word of the event via telephone call. (Fathers in delivery rooms: considered grotesque or insane in 1947.) He is a gifted jazz trumpeter in the big band era in the big band capital of the world. He has some experience of the world of 1930s Manhattan nightlife—Runyonesque, transgressive, corrupt. A world municipal government (led by Mayor LaGuardia) was ever trying to rein in and regulate. (It is because of Damon Runyon that we know a little of that world. Jimmy Breslin said it was a world that never really existed: Damon Runyon conjured it, created it.)
A great jazz musician has an antisocial side generally speaking. He has an unsavory aspect—or has had exposure to unsavory worlds—generally. Jazz musicians say often enough (in my experience—when I’ve been among them): they are “not part of the straight world” and “never will be” (where straight does not mean not gay). I have little idea as to the netherside of jazz musician Lou Nigro’s soul—but he was simultaneously (and complexly) the man in the gray flannel suit, the family man, the mensch. Lou Nigro was gentle and aristocratically mannered. Whatever makes a guy a mensch: he radiated it. Because he was simultaneously a jazz musician and the man in the gray flannel suit the temptation is to say: he was “a study in contradictions”—possessing character traits and their opposites. But it would be a vapid statement. (Anybody who lives is a considerable study in contradictions—a rather cagey union of opposites. Anybody who wasn’t couldn’t possibly survive—would never see age 26, let alone 56 or 86.)
When I rendezvous’ed with Lou Nigro in the year 2000 I spent the day with him. It was a Sunday. I arrived at his place on the Upper West Side at 1 PM. When we parted company it was around 7:20 PM. (I’m not absolutely certain—but I think we hit it off.) When I arrived: for a little while he did his New York tough guy act. At the outset he was—of muscular personality, Runyonesque. For the first 30 minutes or thereabout he reminded me slightly of—Frank Sinatra. In a bunch of ways. They were exactly the same age for example. Mr. Sinatra: New York tough guy, icon of the greatest generation, icon of mid–20th century masculinity. Mr. Nigro was a tough guy (stylistically)—and perhaps a prototype (if not an icon) of mid–20th century masculinity. But after 30 minutes or so a metamorphosis was unfolding—before my eyes. When I had been with him less than an hour: he, Lou Nigro, was perfect gentleness, perfect kindness.
Bronx native, true daughter of the Bronx, 10 years younger than Lou Nigro—Gilda Mirsky Nigro gets married young (at age 20) and has Laura when she’s very young (at 21). In 1940s vernacular she’s quite a number. Well—according to the photographic record. A young Lou Nigro was absolutely crazy about her? One doesn’t hesitate for a moment. In a hypersexist age it was the common wisdom: every man coming of age was in search of a cute number. Finding her, he would be unnoticing of her other virtues until after the dust had settled—at which time he was firmly ensconced in married life. My father (coming of age in the mid 1940s) said a few times (in long vanished and hypersexist environments): often the real numbers turn out to be the smart ones—in which scenario the married guy has struck pay dirt. Lou Nigro in his young married life may or may not have experienced that particular shade of feeling—the feeling he had struck pay dirt. As far as I can gather Gilda Nigro was smart as hell. She knew how to do many things.
mama was clever mama was clever
I said, my mama was clever
and my daddy loved her forever
mama mama you’re a whiz and a scholar too
mama I’m at anchor in your glow now
And so—he felt from time to time—where did she come from? It appears she had—well, more or less everything going for you you can have
going for you. Alan Merrill (born Alan Sachs), formative years companion
and confidant and cousin to Laura Nyro, posted to one of the Laura Nyro message
boards (ca. 2005): “Gilda was a genius in her own way.” And: “Gilda was such a
culture junkie, well thank God for that.” In a direct address to “members”
of the forum: “You all have benefitted greatly from Gilda’s saturation of Laura’s
life with the best that art has to offer.” Gilda Nigro was literate, literary,
philosophic, political, leftist and progressive, a lover of music and art,
a lover of opera. To boot: she had practical skills. I mentioned—she knew
how to do things. (I think I may know the type.) She could as it
were—scoop a great big dipperful of lard from the drippings can, throw it in
the skillet, go out and do her shopping, and be back before it melted in the
pan. Let’s see. She could feed the baby, grease the car & powder her nose—all at the same time. (Sorry about that—but the point is made.)
She worked. She worked the way most women who worked worked (at midcentury): off and on. She worked off and on as secretary and bookkeeper. For about 6 yrs. in the 1960s she worked as secretary and bookkeeper (and conference arranger) to the American Psychoanalytic Association. Fair to say (in psychiatry-speak): she functioned at a high level.
In interviews Nyro described her mother and maternal grandfather as “progressive thinkers” and spoke about the near limitless gratification with which she recalled moments spent in their company in the Nigro family apartment. Isidore Mirsky, Grandpa Mirsky, was also—a lover of music and art and a lover of opera (he met his future wife in the standing room section of “the old Met”). He dabbled in leftist politics. He first engaged with leftist politics around the time “parlor pinks” were becoming “pinkos” (the late 1920s). It wasn’t Laura who had the “red diaper” upbringing (as has sometimes been purported)—it was Gilda. New York City of course was a hotbed of political and pro-labor and pro-union activism during the first 40 years of the 20th century (1937 was a banner year). Michele Kort mentions attendance by a very young Gilda Mirsky and her 2 siblings at May Day parades, May Day rallies, pro-union rallies, pro-tenant rallies (in the 1930s).
Grandfather and granddaughter were lifelong pals. (Mirsky lived a long life.) They were tight buddies, Kort even uses the term soulmate:
Laura adored the long white haired gentleman, considering him a parental figure and even a soulmate, while fully embracing his progressive legacy.
Kort says—he was her biggest fan. He attended his granddaughter’s concerts with bells on—and that’s an understatement. He was a hip-looking older guy per the photographic record. At some of the concerts the elder Mirsky was the dapper guy seated front and center who made no effort to curb his enthusiasm and who (Russki that he was) was shouting “Brava Lauriska!” and “Go Lauriska!” at moments of peak enthusiasm.
City kids doing city kid stuff:
was just discussing with [friend to a very young Laura Nigro] Barbara
Berman about how she and Laura used to always try to get me to
play dolls with them on the staircase. Barbara said the only way they
me is if they played nurses and I was an injured soldier. How the dolls
into the scenario puzzles me. I would say this was in 1954 or
were revered in the aftermath of World War II.
Barbara, Laura, and I all lived on College Avenue in the Bronx, and we played on the staircase on the 5th floor near the roof. (Specifically we were playing at 1378 College Avenue, for those of you interested in exact addresses. That would be on East 170th Street, now known as the mean streets of the South Bronx.) Laura actually lived in the next building over, but she played with
Barbara a lot.
The immediately preceding from a 2004 posting by the aforementioned Alan Merrill to the Yahoo Groups’ Laura Nyro message board. I used to visit that message board often, more or less for one reason: to see if Alan Merrill had posted anything. Because he knew her and knew her well—and his postings were very good. To say he knew her well is almost understatement.
The Nigro’s moved—from College Avenue to a larger apartment at Sheridan Avenue, when Laura was 7.
Merrill wasn’t exactly her cousin: his father’s sister married Gilda’s brother (which actually doesn’t make them cousins). Merrill is a singer and musician in his own right. He is co-author of Joan Jett’s biggest hit, “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.” He is the son of midcentury jazz singer Helen Merrill. Alan Merrill is the guy who should write the book on Laura Nyro.
At age 9 she has begun to compose. Deborah Sontag writing in 1997 in the New York Times—the well-titled “An Enigma Wrapped in Songs”: “By age 12 she practically slept with a keyboard.” She is at this phase as one has perhaps already intuited something of a loner. Nyro said again and again in early interviews: she was “a sad little girl.” But this tells us almost nothing. All or virtually all kids are powerfully sad from time to time.
To say nothing of the “theory of narrative identity”—the many and varied studies that have concluded: 1. we remember highly selectively and poorly; and 2. we all invent and fabricate and put together our own self-narratives... The idea that all self-narratives are unduly romantic and/or antiromantic creations, and so on.
An urban legend: the oddball youngster would soothe her greater-than-average sadness by spending limitless amounts of time at the piano. There does happen to be a massive 75 yr. old Steinway (not quite a concert grand—a “salon grand” I believe) in the Nigro apartment. Even as a kid I noted: people acquire pianos in strange and serendipitous ways. Lou Nigro told me—he bought the piano for $25 from an old lady he knew who wanted to get rid of it.
I decided to run it by Lou Nigro. His daughter’s comment—which she had voiced not rarely—that she had been a sad little girl. And so I volunteered: “Laura said several times in interviews—well, she claimed to have been a very sad little girl.” His response was—priceless. And I would have to say—it was one not 100 percent unanticipated (on my part). He closed his eyes, smiled serenely, and shook his head back and forth slowly. He said nothing. What he was actually saying: “Not a chance.” He continued to shake his head—as if to say: “It has to have some anchoring in reality if I’m going to respond.” His demeanor was confident and even relaxed. He saw no reason to speak a single syllable. Once in a while a parent knows.
He said later in the afternoon: she was a happy kid—and disarmingly so. (Her joie de vivre was disarming to adult onlookers.) He did tell the story—as a 3 yr. old she could sing the daylights out of “If I Knew You Were Comin I’d’a Baked a Cake” (a real hit in 1950, reaching the No. 1 spot in Billboard magazine’s Top 100). And he remembered—when she sang “If I Knew You Were Comin I’d’a Baked a Cake” her enunciation of the words was clear, clear as a bell, and adultlike (which made for a few very precocious sounding performances).
In the 1950s—Lou Nigro gigs in the borscht belt. And to earn daily bread he tunes pianos—something he likes and is good at. The great French composer Boieldieu worked throughout his life as a piano tuner. When Boieldieu’s successes were great he continued to tune pianos.
In the 1950s and 1960s Laura gains her own experience of the borscht belt, its ambience, its institutions (which are greatly thriving during this period). She goes to “camp” in the region (it is the era of kids of greater New York going to summer camp) and is even a camp counselor, ca. 1962.
Again—words of Alan Merrill (2004):
The first time I understood that Laura was an
extraordinary talent was the second summer of camp, where she arranged and wrote
songs for the “Color War” music program competition. The teams were the Green
and the Gold teams. Laura wrote a spectacular theme. It was genius. There were counterpoint
melodic harmonies that were as brilliant as anything in “West Side Story.” This
was where the music came bursting out of her like a force of nature. I was
astonished. We all were. She was only about 16 or 17 at the time.
Bronx New York in hot summer: not a fit
night out for man or beast. Residents ache to get away.
Michele Kort: “Laura’s father would typically take a trumpet job with a
hotel band, and the families would rent bungalows nearby.” The borscht
belt “bungalow colony” is a booming U.S. cultural institution—at middle
century. Kort mentions the FarSite bungalows in Mongaup Valley
New York—where Gilda works as summer
bookkeeper—where Laura (when not scoring triumphs as de facto composer
residence and choirmaster at the neighboring summer camp) remains glued to the
piano in the
bungalow colony playhouse.
The summer camp with activities for kids and adolescents—locale of Nyro’s first songwriting and performing successes—is Camp Eva in Mountaindale New York. Jan Nigro is a camper at Camp Eva one summer, summer of ’63 I believe, with his sister (and Alan Merrill), and is a participant and contestant in the Color War (Gold versus Green). Michele Kort quoting Jan Nigro:
People who were there will tell you [the
songs] were her first masterpieces. The inspirational ones were so powerful ...
She had worked out these soaring harmonies that left the audience stunned. Her
songs had such passion extolling the virtues of the green team. I still
remember many of those songs 35 yrs. later.
Back on Sheridan Ave. during the (pre-Beatles) golden age of rock and roll, street singing is a fairly constant presence—which she finds—in a word—irresistible. She is irresistibly drawn to a coterie of Hispanic kids that has taken to frequent public performance within her earreach. She is rather moved by their singing. The Hispanic teenagers are an all male singing group. Not an apocryphal story: she observes, then approaches, then joins in. They do not ask her to leave.
Kort depicts Nyro as the “ringleader” of “nightly subway songfests.” Nightly! It is the early and middle 1960s in the United States—and immense numbers of its citizens are listening to the same music, the same recordings. It is an explosion of gorgeous sounds and gorgeous singing—gorgeous sounds issuing from 50 million cheap AM radios (rather cyclically). It is everywhere in the United States but the Bronx is a major hub. The Belmonts, the Chantels, the Earls, the Chiffons: all Bronx groups. Phil Spector is developing his Wall of Sound—he is expressly looking to create a sound that will sound terrific on a cheap AM radio. (Spector is from the Bronx.)
A song that gets under her skin at this pre-Beatles moment is “Sally Go Round the Roses”—the 1963 recording by the Jaynetts, a Bronx group. The Wikipedia entry for “Sally Go Round the Roses” (individual songs get their own entries at Wikipedia) avers: “[The song] was a formative influence on Laura Nyro.” Nyro loved the recording—“formative influence” is possibly overstatement. It’s not even a great song, it’s a good song. The recording by the Jaynetts has an eerie feel (perhaps). It has a faraway sound (and I’m not just talking about the placement of the microphones during the recording session). Years ago (prior to 1990) I would hear the recording once in a blue moon on an oldies station—and I always found it oddly Nyrovian (or Nyrovien, or perhaps Nyrovienne). This was long before I found out she had been keen on the song.
For Laura Nyro the mother
of all formative influence I believe is—not Miles Davis—whom she would cite
(sometimes) first and foremost as “influence”—but Curtis Mayfield. She would cite Curtis Mayfield less often. Musically speaking she is much closer to Mayfield than to Miles
Davis. Andy Arleo has written that Mayfield may have influenced Nyro’s vocal
style. (Mayfield always sang in falsetto.) From the Kort bio:
She told a journalist that she had listened
to Mayfield’s records on her little record player “for hours and days and weeks
and months and years,” finding great comfort in his music.
Ms. Nyro said at the time of her Nested
tour (1978) that her concert programmes were likely to have a 2 part organization:
A Mayfield composition she sang a lot in her live shows—the almost sublime “I’m So Proud.” She fancied it (she said so—in one of her concerts—one at which I happened to be present). “I’m So Proud” sounds like something she might have authored herself. The song has been covered again and again and again. Both Nyro and Todd Rundgren used to perform the song often in their respective concerts.
Mayfield dies in 1999, 2 years after Nyro dies. For Laura Nyro the music of Curtis Mayfield is a lifelong infatuation.
In my experience pianists call it noodling. What they do at the piano when not “practicing” or actively composing. Noodling is solace (to the pianist). Ms. Nyro noodles. When bummed out or just needing distraction, she goes to her room, closes the door and noodles. That’s correct—goes to her room. The Nigro’s are now a 2 piano household.
Her sparsely furnished bedroom has an upright. And pretty good acoustics. Lou Nigro buys his daughter an upright at some point (ca. 1963) because—well chiefly because he knows someone who wants to unload one. Michele Kort writes—he got the 2nd piano because he was afraid his daughter was causing harm to piano number one—as she usually sat at the piano with one leg tucked under her. I expect he had a range of motives for getting the 2nd piano.
Merrill spoke of amenity and domesticity on Sheridan Avenue a few
times. Merrill (2004) on the subject of the actual apartment at 1504
And he goes on. And then further down in the same post a kind of summing up:
Really, the apartment layout was large for the area. It was in fact a one bedroom with a living room, dining room and one bathroom. That’s it. All the rooms were big, and with a bit of resourceful creativity, which Gilda certainly had, it was a very comfortable household, especially compared to those of our friends in the neighborhood who lived cramped like mice.
There was the post about the plane propeller/door ringer—a posting by Merrill
I rather liked:
And—a single sentence by Alan Merrill that kind of fascinated me when I first read it. The sentence is beautiful in its way—or it points to something beautiful. It is deceptively simple sounding.
Marguerite Yourcenar said—every happiness is a masterpiece.
Attends Music and Art (the prestigious High School of Music and Art) in Harlem (West 135th Street), 1962—1965. It is a public school (and free)—but one has to apply (and, usually, audition) and be accepted. (It no longer exists. In 1984 it merged with the High School of Performing Arts—becoming the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & the Arts—located in midtown, very near Lincoln Center.)
Nyro meets up with Janis Ian at Music and Art. Ian has said—at Music and Art Nyro looked like a beatnik. The Kort book names several of Nyro’s contemporaries who knew her at about this time who said: she, Nyro, looked like a beatnik. Her contemporaries in this period sometimes called her “weird” [see above]. One begins to acquire a sense—at age 15 she is moving swiftly toward outsider status. But outsider status can entail elements of paradox. It feels like—she is both outsider and insider (something that’s perhaps common enough). Janis Ian with perhaps less than perfect magnanimity remembers her in the corridors of Music and Art:
In high school you could always hear Laura
coming because she’d wear these big overcoats and she’d have these bottles full
of Cheracol® that would be clanking in the pockets. Cheracol was a narcotic
cough syrup that Laura apparently was fond
Laura Nyro as schlemiel. Schlemiel and addict. It sounds like a tall
tale actually. It is kind of funny. “[Bottles] clanking in the pockets”:
technically that’s 4 bottles minimum. (In 1964 Cheracol is sold only in glass
The account of Nyro’s clanking bottles given just above is an extract from Shooting Star: Laura Nyro Remembered, a BBC-produced “radio documentary” (2005). It, the documentary, has several rather jolly segments—but hey, y’all know the expression “damned by faint praise.” Shooting Star: Laura Nyro Remembered is chockablock full of backhanded compliment and faint praise—as well as show business cliché. In the rockumentary, the radio documentary—you have David Geffen (identified as “billionaire” at first mention) casting his pearls of wisdom into the darkness. “After we split up she never had another success.” Narrator Bette Midler says right off the bat, “I considered her a friend.” Ouch. There was no one at hand to tell Midler: the comment “I considered her [or him] a friend” is usually code. It is code for: “we weren’t actually friends.” (I thought that that was well known.) Even the title used (Shooting Star) was essentially backhanded compliment and somewhat pejorative—and intended as such. In Laura Nyro high level compositional inventiveness was sustained across 30 years [see above]. A shooting star is over in the blink of an eye. She was as much shooting star as Georg Philipp Telemann (credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific composer of all time).
“I thought she was weird,” posted a friend of Laura’s brother to a Laura Nyro message board—about 12 yrs. ago. He was he said a guy who saw her often in the Nigro apartment during the early and mid 1960s. So he witnessed let’s say a 15 and 16 yr. old Laura Nigro—submersed in the throes of what one might call “teenage girl stuff.” In a 1969 interview Geffen would say a propos his first meetings with Nyro (in 1967): “She was a very strange girl.” (He cited purple lipstick and Christmas ball earrings.) There is I’m afraid no getting around it: she was weird. But Michele Kort makes clear enough: she is at this period simultaneously a kind of celebrity—wherever she goes. At Music and Art and at summer camp her feminine peers are (sometimes) in awe of her. Nyro herself said somewhere: at one of the summer camps there were girls who “dug where her head was at” and came close to following her around.
Imagine what Laura went through trying to
concentrate in the next room on the piano!!! And... when Laura went into a rage
at Jan it was like a gathering storm. When the storm went to full force, there
were the tears, the yelling, and histrionics, and Jan trying hard not to laugh,
saying rapid fire “what’d I do what’d I do what’d I do?” The scene usually ending
with Laura locking herself in the bathroom, after slamming the door very loud
and hard, and Gilda running (always from the kitchen area, for reasons I still
to this day can’t explain) trying to get her to come out of the bathroom.
A little peek at domestic bliss. And the young genius at work. Needless to say, words of Alan Merrill. Almost without anyone’s paying attention or noticing the high school student is well on her way toward the possession of an oeuvre. At the age of 16 she has close to 3 dozen completed songs under her belt. Saint-Saëns used to say: “Music flows from me.”
Graduates from Music and Art (just barely) in 1965. At Music and Art she has been less than illustrious. Not surprising—she didn’t like the place. She didn’t like school in general. In June 1965 she marches in cap and gown (the ceremony is at Carnegie Hall). Upon graduation—she wants to publish her songs basically.
In 1965 she has begun calling on music publishers—with her (sometimes formidable, or sometimes formidable in office settings) mother at her elbow. Michele Kort: “[S]he is [taking] her first tentative steps toward a music career.” It is a version of pounding the pavement. A bit hard to imagine actually. She is visiting the offices of music publishers—and running smack dab into a multitude of Artie Mogull types.
There is her semi-legendary hatred of “the music business.” On the day I met Lou Nigro he said right off the bat—out of nowhere—I was still in the foyer—“She hated the music business.” [Emphasis Lou Nigro’s.]
Artie Mogull is a music rights man. The music rights business in 1965: Runyonesque, it is more or less still the 1930s. The music business in general (the business of promoting and remunerating artists) in 1965: as generally wholesome and conducive toward human gladness as the day to day administrative affairs of any of the courts of the Spanish Inquisition. The differences (under this analogy) being rather more in degree than in kind. Well no—not that bad. As generally wholesome and productive of good feeling as draughts of air coming off of a roomful of bank directors. What was Joni Mitchell’s comment (in 2002)? Something about a cesspool—and she hoped the whole business would go “down the crapper”?
Artie Mogull is—record promoter and music publisher (and later record company executive). The way it works sometimes in 1965: a composer grants “copyright” (ownership, more or less) of his compositions to a music publisher. The music publisher attempts to keep track of when and where those compositions are performed or recorded, collects music publishing royalties (distinct from—but not entirely distinct from—performance royalties) and distributes them. (It’s not about the publishing of sheet music.)
A songwriter is of course at liberty to form his own music publishing company—virtually out of thin air (it would seem). Bob Dylan has just done it. Nyro will do it. In 1965 or 1966 Dylan forms Dwarf Music. Renowned piece of work Albert Grossman (subsequently manager of Janis Joplin) is partner. Artie Mogull is hired to run it.
Mogull a bit like Grossman is gentle aesthete—gentle citizen of the folk music world—with lowlife aspect. Mogull—somewhat antiquatedly (in 1966)—like some underworld greaseball in a 1930s crime film from Warner Bros. perhaps—the kind of character for whom women are “tomatoes,” or “tomatahs”—is given to deriding Nyro’s looks whenever he can. The genesis of Nyro’s first meeting with Mogull is and forever will be enveloped in opacity. From the Kort book—Mogull gives his (rather cinematic) version:
The next day this rather unattractive girl
comes up to my office and the first three songs she played me were “Stoney End,”
“And When I Die,” and “Wedding Bell Blues.”
Again—a 1930s movie. Sounds contrived and specious—to my ears. (Lou Nigro told me—he didn’t know how his daughter came to the attention of Mr. Mogull.)
Mogull died in 2004. There was a write-up in the now defunct New York Sun. It told of Mogull’s “discovery” of Laura Nyro. From the New York Sun (2004):
Stoney Inn! Perhaps not Mogull’s error—more likely the error of some transcriber or editor or proofreader.
But for several years thereafter I couldn’t stop saying (and writing) “Stoney
Inn.” Kind of like—a not very good melody you can’t get out of your
Real mensches in the trenches. In music industry guy Joe Smith’s Off the Record, An Oral History of Popular Music: The way it really was, in the words of the people who really made it happen (1988), Geffen expounds on some of his dealings with Artie Mogull. The book is a collection of interviews. Smith asked “some of the major names in music” to talk about themselves. Smith does comment—his comments tend toward the sunshine-y. “It appears that the term wunderkind was invented for this dynamite record, film and theater impresario.” Geffen tells Smith—in 1967 he wanted to represent Nyro and approached Mogull. Mogull said to Geffen: “You don’t want to represent her. She’s a dog.” (In 1988 Laura Nyro is around, she is alive and well.)
Michele Kort interviewed Mogull. Mogull
denied (to Kort) ever having said it.
Not off the record. If Mogull did say it: kind of interesting that Geffen repeated the story—in an interview setting—to a guy he knew was writing a book. If Mogull didn’t say it: Geffen’s saying he said it (to a guy writing a book) is even more interesting.
I feel as if I ought to advocate for the opposite point of view (opposite to the “an unattractive girl walks into my office” narrative). She looked kind of gorgeous sometimes in live performance. I witnessed it once. She could look rather gorgeous (as a young performer)—onstage—seated—gowned—with naked shoulders and partially naked bosom—head bobbing—head thrown back sometimes—hands moving gently or like pistons.
One man’s meat. If I go to YouTube and look at Laura Nyro or Laura Nyro–related videos (usually—audio with slide show) and then scroll down to (viewers’) “Comments” sections I very readily find things like: “Dear God she was beautiful.” “She looks pretty hot here.” And: “Smokin’.” (Factor in that these are fans.) A monosyllabic “comment” that turns up repeatedly: “Hot.”
In the abovementioned Kraft Music Hall clip (in which she’s introduced by an excited Bobby Darin)—where Darin says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Laura Nyro”—the camera pans to the upper half of a seated Laura Nyro—and for a moment it’s startling. (As to why it’s startling—I don’t know. I have multiple theories.) I’ve watched the clip a number of times in mixed company—and responses were similar. Persons tend to freeze at first sight of her here—and then say something about how “striking” she is. Again—one man’s meat (a good English language expression that goes back to at least the fifteenth century).
At YouTube—videos of Nyro’s 19 minute performance at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival (1967) or segments thereof come and go. They’re posted, they stay a while, they’re taken down. It’s all the same video more or less (from the “concert film” by D. A. Pennebaker)—the individual videos turning up in varying states of abridgment, showing perhaps varying degrees of digital enhancement. In one (mostly of higher quality than the others) in which she sings “Poverty Train”—what was the 3rd song of a 4 song set—she is shown very much to advantage and outstandingly so in its final 30 seconds. In the 30 second segment she is well photographed (and possibly enhanced) and she is—well, she’d knock your eye out. At the conclusion of “Poverty Train” she abruptly turns around and walks upstage, stops, turns around again and walks back to the microphone. Back in her spot in front of the microphone, her face obscured momentarily as she moves about, she couldn’t look any better. She is beautiful. She is plump in exactly the right amount. Her moves are sexy. She is vamped up. (She is 19.) I remember my thought process, first time I saw it. (One doesn’t just remember concrete events, concrete things. Sometimes one remembers what one was thinking at a given moment.) I remember thinking—in passing—and with a trace of alarm: Mercy. YouTube—without intending to and without in the least wanting to—is birthing a whole new contingent of one handed typists.
And now you know. Lou Nigro makes a pest of himself. Artie Mogull agrees to listen to his daughter—“just to get rid of him.” A day later—the daughter (on the homely side) walks into Mogull’s office and performs at the piano. She is so good Mogull “goes crazy,” “almost faints.”
I asked Lou Nigro—did he at some point pull strings for his daughter (pun not intentional) and get her her first audition? His answer: “No.” I happened to be curious about it. (This was well before I knew of some of Artie Mogull’s claims.) When I questioned Nigro repetitively and in detail about this he replied that he never—at any time—not even once—said to one of his colleagues or clients in the music business, “I have this daughter who writes songs.” (I realize—that doesn’t mean he did not.) He added, “They would have laughed at me if I had.” He looked rather sad as he said this.
It seems (to me) somewhat unlikely that the guy who says “just tune the goddamn piano” becomes soft hearted a few moments later. I think Mogull may have agreed to audition Laura Nyro (in 1966) because—because he had heard of her. Full-sized talent, like murder, will out. Some news travels with a rapidity that is almost distressing. And “music publishing” in New York in 1966 is a very small universe. Michele Kort writes that Bobby Darin got into the music publishing racket in 1963—and Kort seems to say that Darin was very cognizant of songwriter Laura Nyro in her first year out (of Music and Art).
Mogull isn’t a musician and calls one in. He wants a second opinion. Mogull calls in his friend Milt Okun, real musician, former pianist for Harry Belafonte—in the 1960s producer and mentor to Peter Paul and Mary. And to John Denver (to whom Okun was particularly and improbably close).
Okun gives the thumbs up. Tho’ he’s rather unforthcoming about it (and tho’ his relationship with Nyro is not smooth), he is impressed down to his toes. The point toward which everything careens now is the making of a record. (She will have a record in less than six months’ time.)
Okun, Mogull, and Nyro in a room. They meet at Okun’s studio on East 34th Street. It is her first meeting with Okun, her second with Mogull. Michele Kort tells us a tape of the session exists—one she was able to listen to.
As Kort describes it: Nyro performs many of her songs—including 3 or 4 or 5 or more songs that will never make their way to any Nyro disc. Artie Mogull meanwhile has a new focus. He’s interested in knowing if she “[does] any songs other than those [she’s] written.” She says that she does not. Mogull continues in his line of questioning. He asks her if she knows anything by Irving Berlin (Berlin was over the top, he was brilliant—but Mogull is being something of a wise guy when he invokes Berlin).
He asks her (about 4 times) if she knows any “pop standards.” She attempts to perform a few songs by other composers—but in each case it doesn’t go well and she gives up. It is a failure. She says embarrassedly in the end, “I would do it if I could.” So again one is at liberty to question Mogull’s account of his first meeting with Nyro and his saying he “almost fainted” and “went crazy” at first encounter with her live performance of her own songs.
Actually Mogull himself said to Michele Kort (ca. 1999), astutely: “All those who now say they flipped over her, none of them thought she had it.” Persons flip over—not the guy on the way up—but the guy who has become a hot property (note well use of past tense) as a general rule. It is the experience of every performer. Mogull I believe refers principally to record company execs who took a pass on Nyro (there were at least 2) in 1966, when he was trying to get her a record deal.
Laura Nyro and father figure Milt Okun clash over song structure and song length. He wants to abbreviate the songs. He wants other changes. With each request—in each and every case—she refuses.
From Okun’s memoir Along the Cherry Lane (2011):
The [case in point] I regard as my biggest
failure was actually quite successful, but she really should have had a far
bigger career. Laura Nyro was a big talent but a very strange young woman.
I met with her and was very impressed—by her piano playing, her melodic writing, and her lyrics. She had one serious handicap: she didn’t have any idea about the structure that a song needs. All her songs were full of poetic imagery and great ideas and lovely melodic themes; but they all went on for six or eight or ten minutes, without structure. Without beginning, without middle, and certainly without end, on and on they went. I realized that if we were going to record them as she had written them, we would get maybe three songs on the album.
All I knew was that I had to make a record, with at least ten tracks. Which was not possible given the length of her songs. Her mother, Gilda, who was a woman I really enjoyed meeting and talking to, listened to reason. She tried to convince Laura that she should do as I suggested and at least cut down some of the songs enough to make the record. Laura adamantly refused.
But she comes around. She has no choice.
I came up with an idea. I took one of her
songs that I particularly liked, “And When I Die,” and did a three,
three-and-a-half minute arrangement for Peter Paul and Mary. We recorded it,
and I played [the recording] for Gilda, then for Laura. And Gilda happily, and
Laura reluctantly, agreed to record it that way, and to allow me to cut down
the other songs. So we spent the majority of our time together just fighting
about cutting and putting some structure into the songs. She fought every cut,
but we finally ended up with ten or eleven songs that were quite ideal for
radio play and had the potential to be hits.
any album of recorded music being made—there’s work to be done.
Okun hires pianist/arranger/high school basketball coach Herb Bernstein
(with whom she gets on nicely) to do some of the
arranging. Actually—her relationship with Bernstein isn’t
100 percent smooth either. But Bernstein said to Michele Kort (30 years
after the period of his first association with Nyro): he
saw her backstage at one of her Bottom Line shows—and she kissed his
He also said to Kort: “She adored me and I adored her.”
In passing, “And When I Die” is part of The Peter Paul and Mary Album, released August 1966. In 1966 the considerable popularity of Peter Paul and Mary is flagging—but the album does well. Heady stuff for an 18 yr. old songwriter I would expect.
With a little help and huckstering from Mogull she has succeeded in getting a record deal. (She still had to audition.) Verve/Folkways began as Verve Records in 1956—founded by Norman Granz, who wanted to showcase the vocal abilities of Ella Fitzgerald (whom he managed). Actual recording of More Than a New Discovery begins July 1966.
Recording begins in 1966: “Laura Nyro” is right now, as of this writing—50 years ago. Laura Nyro is fifty years ago? Who’d believe it? Imagine it is 1966 (a year I remember in exquisite detail). What was “fifty years ago” in 1966? Vaudeville, silent film, megahit “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula,” and the (literally) astounding popularity of French Canadian New Yorker (from Staten Island)—Mabel Normand.
Okun was fantastic all the way—but he was wrong about her innocence or let’s say incognizance vis-à-vis “the structure a song needs.” He was referring to what? Verse—verse—chorus—verse? She was possessed of a preternatural sense of what a song needed.
In their sessions his mode was full on pedagogical and she bristled.
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), set in Nuremberg in the early 1500s, is an opera about if you can believe it—the art of the singer-songwriter—and adherence versus nonadherence to rules of songwriting. Bavaria in the Late Middle Ages: not an environment in which rules are made to be broken. The singer-songwriter (the mastersinger) must adhere to strict rules of song composition and song performance. Hans Sachs, pillar of the community and member of the ancient guild of mastersingers, attempts to teach the art of the mastersinger, the composition and performance of mastersongs, to youthful soldier of fortune Walther von Stolzing.
Milt Okun is yet one more lover of opera. Stunningly (I was stunned when I read it) he told Michele Kort that as he and Nyro worked hard to make a record—inside his imagination he was Hans Sachs and Nyro was Walther von Stolzing.
But Nyro didn’t need to adhere to songwriting conventions more. She needed to adhere to them less (perhaps arguably). In Meistersinger Stolzing has raw talent. He also feels a mysterious pull in the direction of free form musical composition. Some of Nyro’s most gorgeous compositions are principally free form (there is no such thing as entirely free form). Putative record company requirements to one side, Okun might just as creditably have given her advice opposite to his actual advice—might have encouraged her to go further in the direction of free form composition—with just as creditable results.
Her songs meandered, Okun said. “Lonely Women,” “December’s Boudoir” (with its beautiful finale and haunting final chord), “New York Tendaberry” (the album’s title track), “I Am the Blues,” “Coffee Morning” (released posthumously): each is meandering and anarchic. Each is a fairly stunning musical composition.
“Goodnight, Irene” (origins not entirely known, believed to have been first recorded ca. 1933) is (perhaps arguably) the worst song ever written. Let’s say in the western hemisphere. Mystifyingly—a recording of “Goodnight, Irene” (by Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra and the Weavers) became a blockbuster, a colossus of airplay and record sales—back in 1950 in the United States. Released in July 1950 the recording flew to number one positions and stayed in those positions for long periods of time (verging on 3 months). Anyone who drew breath in the 1950s knows the song. (Check it out. Ask anyone in his mid 60s or above.) The recording still receives airplay. Throughout the 1950s the recording’s omnipresence on airwaves frayed nerves, put persons on edge, led them to thoughts of violence. The recording’s adherence to 19th century Anglo-Irish song convention is close to 100 percent, its structure immaculate. Participation by the venerable Weavers notwithstanding—it is still the worst song ever written.
The songs are pruned and ready to go. More Than a
New Discovery is released January 1967. Milt Okun writing in his memoir
“[S]ophistication that belied her youth” is understatement. The album was released when she was 19, recorded when she was 18 and 19, the songs were written when she was 17 and 16 and even 15. Fifty years on and it is still not entirely credible—that a 17 yr. old could have written for example the musically superb “Buy and Sell.”
Some songs—well they simply stand out. Some songs affect nearly everybody. Some songs have a tendency to elicit tears. Some national anthems for example are rather good at wringing tears—sometimes in non-national persons as well as national. Simone Weil said something like: a great popular song is worth more than a great symphony in 4 movements. Some songs can leave you with a tingling in the scalp—altho’ this is rare. Some songs stand out as compositionally brilliant. When Jerome Kern completed “All the Things You Are” in 1937 (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II), his songwriting colleagues in New York and Hollywood almost immediately dubbed it “the best song ever written.” Arthur Schwartz called it “the perfect song.” Jazz musicians everywhere go apeshit for the song and always have. “All the Things You Are” rises to the level of gorgeous. Its harmonic progressions, all of them, are variants of one another and echo one another. Kern said he never thought the song would be successful: it was too complex. It would not be to the taste of the average Joe and average Jennifer. (He was wrong obviously.)
So some songs stand out. Some popular songs have very little—next to nothing. Not quite fair to choose an example. But think of most of what you hear on radio. Think perhaps of Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” Think perhaps of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (Songs I’ve just this minute heard on the radio.) There are a zillion. Some songs have almost nothing—and some songs have something. Each of the songs on More Than a New Discovery has something. I mentioned above—“Buy and Sell” equals compositional brilliance. The first 16 measures of the song I think are near to amazing. Melody, harmonies, rhythms, words: all strong. Nyro’s creative product at 19 reminds me slightly of that of Jerome Kern at the height of his power (when he is in his 5os).
If one gives a listen to More Than a New Discovery one is perhaps likely to take note of—the technically skilled and experienced sounding singing. It is not surprising to stumble upon singing this good. What is surprising is to stumble upon singing this good in a rank newcomer. Nyro never had a singing lesson in her life. She didn’t need one. (They said that about Barbra [sic] Streisand on one of her album covers.)
A great singer of course makes it all sound effortless. Upward vaults of more than an octave, high pianissimos (hard to do). Listening to the record—there is in my judgment nowhere for her to go (as a singer). She’s already all the way there. I do not wholly 100 percent believe how good the singing is on “And When I Die.” Particularly at the song opening. The singing is confident, confident as hell, correct in all details. It signals—she knows what she’s doing.
From the Kort bio. Ellen Sander is a music writer and “sixties chronicler” who became Nyro’s friend.
I hear that in her last years she was fond of the album.
She’s completed the record and what is the next step? You might be able to guess. She moves to Manhattan. 888 8th Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen. The place, described as a dump (by persons in her inner circle, in 1967 and 1968), is no dump. There are dumps and there are dumps. It’s all relative of course. The bldg. has a doorman, which usually means: no dump.
In the first months of 1967 she is manifestly a happening girl. Less than 6 weeks after she and her upright move into 888 8th Ave she’s out in San Francisco playing an extended gig at a small club—opening for Shelley Berman if you please.
Artie Mogull gets her the gig. The club in San Francisco is the hungry i (long defunct but rather well-remembered). Her first real gig and it is in a way a prestige gig.
She spoke to Chris Albertson at Down Beat magazine in 1969 of the hungry i experience. Her own review of the place and the experience was unenthusiastic.
From the interview:
She described the experience as “disastrous.”
Cousin Joel Pope (son of Kay Nigro Pope, Lou Nigro’s sister) was there. Interestingly Pope remembered—per Michele Kort’s book—that Nyro sounded “superb” and that she was well received and well applauded by Berman’s fans. (Pope also remembered—she had a great time exploring the city.)
I suspect that her experience of live performance at the hungry i was more mixed bag than disastrous.
Waking consciousness has considerable movement. When one considers states of consciousness (one’s own or those of one’s neighbor) one does a kind of macroscopic averaging—serving to bury an abundance of “microscopic” thought processing that is frenetic, all over the place. Waking consciousness has near constant fluctuations that are passed over and almost unnoticed by and large—by him who experiences them.
Speaking of Nyro’s “disastrous” experience: in the same interview Nyro said a few things about the making of More Than a New Discovery.
It couldn’t have been that bad. Her words are exaggerative—they would have to be.
Michele Kort quotes Toni Wine (a buddy of Nyro’s who hung out at More Than a New Discovery sessions) as having said:
Her experience at making the record was more variant (than she knew) and less like hell, more like purgatory—it feels like.
Everything under the sun is oscillatory. Protons and neutrons are
oscillatory. (They are not like billiard balls.) A cesium atom under controlled conditions undergoes slight
disturbance and returns to its undisturbed state (oscillates) exactly
9,192,631,770 times per second. Human
wish, human liking and disliking, human motive, human resolve
undergo variance at just slightly lesser frequencies.
Divine Miss N