News of Laura Nyro's death from ovarian cancer on April 9 at the age of 49 came as a sad jolt from the blue for many of us who'd lost sight of her over the past two decades. In our memories, Nyro was frozen in youthful brilliance and vitality. Her best-known songs -- "And When I Die," "Eli's Coming," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues" -- were written when she was a precocious New York City teenager, and the hit versions by Blood, Sweat and Tears, Three Dog Night and the Fifth Dimension defined Top 40 AM radio during the '60s and early '70s. Her folkie jazz -- or jazzy folk -- albums "More Than a New Discovery" (1967, later re-released as "The First Songs"), "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession" (1968), "New York Tendaberry" (1969) and "Christmas and the Beads of Sweat" (1970) introduced a new archetype to pop music, the moody, be-bopping, female-centric child woman who influenced (among others) Rickie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega. In the early '70s, Nyro grew reclusive. Her concerts were all too rare, and though she continued to make records after her heyday (1966-72), Nyro faded from the air waves and the popular consciousness.
Listening to the two-CD retrospective "The Best of Laura Nyro: Stoned Soul Picnic" (Columbia Legacy), which was released shortly before her death, lapsed fans might be moved to tears -- we should have bowed down and worshipped her daily and never let her out of our lives. If "Best Of" consisted only of its first eight tracks (the hits), it would be an astonishing enough testament to Nyro's genius. She blended rock 'n' roll, R&B, folk, jazz, soul, gospel and Broadway swing with quirky, soulful poetry. She could chart the course of a whole genre in a single song. "Wedding Bell Blues," for instance, is a chiming, swaying homage to the swoony girl-group songs Nyro loved as a kid, songs like the Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love" and the Marvelettes' "Don't Mess with Bill."
Whatever style Nyro attempted, though, there was always that voice, coltish and passionate, gliding from a husky alto to a pure, emotional soprano. Nyro multi-tracked herself into a roiling dialogue between all the voices, all the impulses, in her head and heart. And from Nyro's songs of sexual awakening ("Eli's Coming," "Capt. St. Lucifer," "Stoney End," "Sweet Blindness") to her later ballads touting environmentalism, Native American rights and animal rights, Nyro kept returning to the themes of Mother Earth, maternal wisdom, maternal sensuality and comfort. "Cradle me, mama, cradle me again," she cries on "Stoney End," singing the part of a seduced and abandoned girl, while on "To a Child," she's the mother watching her rapidly growing boy playing on the climbing bars and knowing she's soon going to have to let him go.
Nyro's music was both sensitive and sassy, ethereal and earthy; her confidence was exhilarating. Listen to the bold, almost taunting emphasis she places on "die" in the first line of her 1966 version of "And When I Die"; in that moment, she was the teenager who knew she was going to live forever. And, in a way, she was right.