Listen now on:
Of the great songwriting teams of the ’60s, Goffin had King, Mann had Weil. And as much as I’ve fantasized about being a fly on the wall of one of those Broadway cubicles where famed New York songwriting teams banged out their hits for the ages, I’ve been equally mesmerized by the thought of Laura Nyro at the piano, the young genius, completely oblivious to anyone else in the room and in her own reverie as she flies up and down her vocal range, divining her own world of flim-flam men, California shoeshine boys, and at least more than one Billy.
She did it all—words and music—with a voice so singularly her own, creatively and vocally, that her first record’s title, More Than A New Discovery, is a prescient, bold declaration from a time when many pop musicians and music-biz people didn’t think they were making music anyone would care about generations later. But as this title claims: This is someone who will outlast the hype.
And what made them think that? When you hear these songs you’re undeniably in the presence of a brilliant soul who had absorbed the rich pageant of American music—gospel, jazz, musicals, Tin Pan Alley, doo-wop, soul, girl group, rock ’n’ roll—as well as American folklore and tales of the city. And you can hear it all in her phrasing, in her lyrics, in the composition—and in that vocal power built from the Bronx street-corner singing she had done when she was a young girl.
This is sophisticated adult pop made by one world-wise teenager
But just as impressive as the styles she mined for her first record is the range of complicated emotion she was able to understand and dig deep into for her songs. Laura Nyro was only 19 when she made this LP in 1966. Nineteen! And she could write about the supreme heights of infatuation and the ditch lows of betrayal and loss and provide any grownup who knows of such things with a musical mirror of his/her experience. This is sophisticated adult pop made by one world-wise teenager.
Since she couldn’t be categorized so conveniently, Laura Nyro sometimes seems lost in the crowd of great songwriters and performers from pop’s most prolific age, rather than a standout with a singular vision doing her own thing between hippie abandon and Brill Building formalism. You may have heard her hit tracks as sung by others—“Wedding Bell Blues” by The Fifth Dimension, “Stoney End” by Barbra Streisand to name two from this record alone—smash successes of their time. But More Than a New Discovery—later released as The First Songs—allows us to hear them as done by their creator, and set down in context of the larger world she conjured.
This LP also introduces us to the smart, whimsical and even sometimes magical wordplay that Nyro gave her songs. A love is described as “my well meaner, my day fancy dreamer” in “Blowin’ Away.” For the ebb and flow of a city street she comes up with one of pop’s most delightfully surprising rhymes: “Cocaine and quiet beers, sweet candy and caramel, pass the time and dry the tears, on a street called buy and sell.” And is there a better way to describe a flim-flam man than, “He’s the one in the Trojan horse making out like he’s Santa Claus”?
Two years before Joni Mitchell’s first album, Nyro released this unprecedented statement from a female singer-songwriter
Two years before Joni Mitchell’s first album, Laura Nyro released More Than a New Discovery, an unprecedented statement from a female singer-songwriter. It was neither a vehicle for producer, nor a cash-in record on a trend. It is the purest expression of a young artist who wasn’t looking for her voice—she had already found it. Other musicians made hits out of her songs. Elton John, Todd Rundgren, and a slew of others claim her as a major influence. Now a new crop of pop singer-songwriters is finding freedom in her example, making her music relevant once again. But this first record—lesser known than some of her later ones—is the best place to start if you’ve been curious about her too. We urge you: surry* down.
*A word Nyro made up for her classic hit “Stoned Soul Picnic,” which is on Eli and the Thirteenth Confessional, the record to check out after this one.