Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro

Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro

by Michele Kort

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Laura Nyro was a beloved and pioneering singer-songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s, whose songs were covered with great success by the Fifth Dimension; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Three Dog Night; and Barbra Streisand. This first biography uncovers previously never revealed details, including a love affair with Jackson Browne, and her relationship with painter Maria Desiderio.

Unappreciated in her time, Nyro's legacy is currently experiencing a revival. With her groundbreakingly honest and passionate lyrics, her unusual and innovative rhythms and melody, Nyro's influence is still felt by singers and songwriters today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312303181
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/14/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 791,999
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Michele Kort, Los Angeles-based writer and editor, has been a journalist for over twenty years. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Songwriter, Ms., Los Angeles Magazine, L.A. Reader, Redbook, InStyle, The Advocate, and L.A. Weekly, she has won numerous awards. She also coauthored the memoir The End of Innocence with Chastity Bono.

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Soul Picnic: the Music and Passion of Laura Nyro

By Michele Kort

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Michele Kort
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-12261-2



She was named after a song.

Her father, Louis, loved the complex melody of "Laura," the title theme from the 1944 Otto Preminger film. A professional trumpeter, Lou may have been playing at the very moment his Laura was born, since he had a band date that mild, windy autumn night. On breaks, he would telephone Lebanon Hospital in the Bronx to learn whether his wife, Gilda, had delivered. Finally, after one such call, in the early hours of October 18, 1947, he returned to announce, "Fellows, I have a daughter."

Her surname was Nigro. The proper Italian pronounciation would be NEE-gro, but Lou's family pronounced it NIGH-gro to avoid a racial tease. After high school, Laura would choose Nyro as her last name, but pronounce it NEAR-oh rather than the predictable NIGH-ro. That wasn't surprising. Her trademark would be an obstinate insistence on treading a path less taken.

The dark-haired, chubby-cheeked Laura wasn't a particularly remarkable baby. "She slept through the night," is what her father remembers. By age three, however, she began showing some precocious talent and spunk, quickly absorbing the lyrics and melodies of songs she heard on the radio. Lou recalls a Catskills resort's talent night at which the three-year-old sang a song that went, "If I knew you were coming I would bake a cake," and followed it up with a little dance. "The applause was tremendous," he says.

Her aunt Esther Marcus, Gilda's sister, pictures her niece at that age offering a lispy rendition of a very grown-up tune from Showboat: "Fish gotta swim / Birds gotta fly / I'm gonna love / dat man til I die." Esther also recollects her niece's early willful streak. When Laura came with her grandmother to visit Gilda and newborn baby brother Jan at the hospital, she insisted on wearing a long dress rather than something more appropriately casual. "At three years old!" Esther says. "My mother [Laura's grandmother] said, 'That's what she wants to wear, I do not argue with her.'

"Laura was very quietly stubborn," says Esther. "She very much did what she wanted to do."

Laura's parents first met in 1938, when Louis Nigro was a nattily dressed twenty-three-year-old. Gilda Mirsky, a Nigro family friend, was only thirteen. Lou remembers her looking at him with adoring adolescent eyes, but he didn't take much notice of her until six years later, when they met again at a family New Year's Eve party. By then, Lou was a trumpeter in a U.S. Army band, while the high-cheekboned, darkly attractive Gilda had shed her baby fat. Lou was smitten.

The two began dating and quickly became serious about each other. After just a few months, Gilda suggested they tie the knot. "Lou, we're grown people," she said, although she was only nineteen. "I know what I want, and I think you know what you want. Let's go over to Borough Hall and get a license." Even as he imagined his carefree life slipping away, Lou found himself taking the half-mile walk to the Bronx's civic center. "You know what saved me?" he says. "It was closed."

Nonetheless, they married scarcely a year after they started going out, in January 1946. To avoid a three-day wait in New York City, they opted for a small civil ceremony in Yonkers. "The judge looked like the typical judge in a small-town movie, with glasses perched on the tip of his nose," says Lou. "It was a real quickie marriage." So quick that when Lou's older brother Mike went downstairs to add a nickel to the parking meter, he missed the ceremony entirely.

A civil wedding at least circumvented the need to choose a secular venue. Theirs was a mixed marriage: Gilda was Russian Jewish, Lou half Russian Jewish and half Italian Catholic. Neither, however, had been raised in formally religious households.

Lou's father, Joseph Nigro, a tailor from a small town near Naples, and his mother, Esther Passov, from Kiev in the Ukraine, didn't pressure Louis, Michael, or younger sister Kaye to choose one creed over another. Their primary religion was work, and Joseph and Esther literally spoke each other's languages: He learned Yiddish and Russian; she learned Italian. Their skill in foreign tongues came in handy with their polyglot clientele in lower Manhattan, where they variously sold boys' pants, dry goods, and groceries.

After Joseph became ill with a kidney disorder, the family moved to the Bronx, an area still considered "country" in the 1930s, but quickly becoming a suburb for young couples and their broods. The Nigro children remember a household filled with music — Esther Nigro sang Russian folk songs, and the brothers taught themselves piano on a huge upright someone had given them. When Lou was about ten, the brothers also played ukuleles, strumming their instruments in Crotona Park, across the street from their Fulton Avenue apartment.

"We'd start to play and everybody would sing," says Lou. "Anyone who played an instrument was very, very popular." The first horn Lou took up was the saxophone, but he "never got anywhere with it" and switched to trumpet instead. Fortunately he didn't need his right pinkie to play it, because he had lost the tip of that finger after catching his ring on a nail while vaulting a schoolyard fence.

The arts also permeated Gilda's side of the family. Her mother, Sophie Meyerowitz, from Gezelitz, Ukraine, was the daughter of a cantor, and her older brother William occasionally took on cantorial duties as well, also showcasing his fine baritone for a time in the Metropolitan Opera's chorus. As a career, William Meyerowitz pursued art, not music, and became fairly well known as a painter, printmaker, and art teacher in Manhattan and in Gloucester, Massachusetts. His work and that of his wife, fellow artist Theresa Bernstein Meyerowitz, provide a unique visual history of Laura's maternal family, since both depicted Laura's mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-aunts. In one painting by William, Sophie has her arm tenderly around her mother, and with her long dark hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and full red lips, she is a dead ringer for her granddaughter Laura.

Laura and her brother Jan would see their artist relatives at family holidays, and would occasionally visit their West Side studio or their Gloucester home, leaving Laura with strong early impressions of visual art integrated with music. The two strains combined in William and Theresa, as well: Her work included many paintings of musicians and their listeners, while critic Stanley Olmstead wrote of William that he captured "pulses in our national instinct which are aural, yet heard with infinite rareness — translating them to color." Great-niece Laura would later "hear" colors, thus translating those "pulses in our national instinct" into melody.

Given the fertile cultural heritage on Gilda's maternal side, it's not surprising that her mother, Sophie, met future husband Isidore Mirsky in the standing room section at the Metropolitan Opera House. Mirsky, who had come to the United States from Vilna, Lithuania, was an artist, too, but on houses rather than canvas.

"He was used by decorators because he could mix colors better than anybody," says his daughter Esther. "He once painted a staircase for me, and the way he stained the wood it was like the best piece of furniture."

Like Joseph and Esther Nigro, the Mirskys were secular first-generation immigrants. The real faith in their home was progressivism: Isidore and Sophie were Communists. That political philosophy was particularly popular among Russian Jews, who had fled a world where they had been restricted to certain jobs, confined to the narrow western edge of the country (known as the Pale of Settlement) and terrorized by the anti-Semitic riots known as pogroms. Laura's grandparents translated their political beliefs into action, working for the rights of the impoverished in their New York community.

Gilda, her sister, Esther, and younger brother Gary grew up as classic "red diaper" babies, marching in annual workers' May Day parades and attending antiwar, pro-union, and pro-tenant rallies. New York–born historian Amy Swerdlow, who also had a red-diapered childhood, has written that the legacy of such an upbringing is "commitment to a world of justice, peace, and joy." It was a commitment that would be felt by third-generation Laura as well, expressed over and over in the songs she grew up to write.

When Isidore and Sophie moved from Harlem to the East Bronx in the early 1920s, Sophie made sure they chose a neighborhood with a settlement house — that late nineteenth-century social invention which served as a community center for immigrants and poor families. Esther remembers the siblings taking classes there from WPA-funded artists, and Gilda — who was bright and creative, with a fine singing voice — earned a starring role as the mother in Dead End, Sidney Kingsley's 1935 drama about a gang of East River tenement toughs. She was only twelve, but her acting ability drew interest from a Broadway agent, Esther says. Isidore, however, whose charm and revolutionary zest were counter-balanced by weekend drinking and gambling binges, would have none of it.

"You would think that Communists would be progressive as far as women's rights and so forth, but in my father's case it didn't work that way," says Esther. "I think he was caught between the culture he was brought up in and a new sense of economy."

Gilda would later strongly support her daughter's desire to perform, thus perhaps fulfilling some of her early dreams. And Isidore Mirsky, although he always enjoyed his whiskey ("painters have to drink," he'd say), mellowed with age. Laura adored the long-white-haired gentleman, considering him a parental figure and even a soulmate, while fully embracing his progressive legacy. She would stay close to Mirsky, the longest-lived of her grandparents, throughout his life, he becoming her greatest fan and she doting on him.

Indeed, Laura connected more strongly to her ancestral past than to her immediate inheritance. "I feel the genes of previous generations in me," she would tell a journalist in 1969. "There's not much of my father's and mother's generation in me."

* * *

Shortly after Gilda and Lou married, they moved to a tiny one-bedroom apartment at 1374 College Avenue, just a few blocks east of the Grand Concourse. The Concourse, a wide tree-lined avenue along the crest of a hill, was at one time the Champs Elysées of the Bronx. If you lived in its handsome five- or six-story brick apartment buildings, you were somebody. And you were probably Jewish if you lived in the Grand Concourse neighborhood at that time, although the area also boasted a large population of Italians.

By the time Laura was eight, her family had moved into a much larger apartment a block off the Concourse, at 1504 Sheridan Avenue. Despite its proximity to the boulevard, Laura would remember the neighborhood as "kind of dirty. Down. Slummy," populated with a rainbow coalition of Puerto Ricans, Irish people, Jews, and Italians. In the mix, though, she found a sense of closeness and community. "Right within two blocks, there was poverty and harmony," she said in another 1969 interview — "poverty" and "harmony" being two words that would often appear in her lyrics.

Postwar opportunities for musicians were plentiful, so Lou regularly played weddings, bar mitzvahs, and club dates. Gilda worked as a bookkeeper, including stints with a costume jeweler in Manhattan and for the American Psychoanalytic Association (which expanded her duties to include conference arrangements). The numbers that she dealt with in bookkeeping, Gilda would tell Laura, kept her mind calm amid the stresses of life.

Just as they had been raised, Lou and Gilda didn't stress religion at home. "But my mother, being the person she was, provided a model of compassionate and ethical behavior in everyday life," says Laura's brother Jan. "She was what you might call a spiritual atheist — someone who didn't believe in God or religion, but who led a deeply spiritual life."

The closest Laura and Jan came to a religious education were the Sunday school classes they attended when Laura was around eight years old at Manhattan's Ethical Culture school — perhaps the only formal education Laura ever admitted enjoying. The Ethical Culture Society, founded in 1876 by social critic and educator Felix Adler as a sort of Jewish-originated version of Unitarianism, espoused humanistic values such as the need to decrease suffering and increase creativity. One of its main tenets reads: "The mystery of life itself, and the need to belong, are the primary factors motivating human religious response."

A spiritual searcher throughout her life, Laura would never subscribe to organized religion, finding it boring and corrupt. "To me God is earth — an earthly thing," she told British journalist Penny Valentine in 1971. But she did credit Ethical Culture with giving her a strong educational base. "We learned about people and about life," is how she described it.

Laura's musical training began, quite richly, at home. She heard a lot of big band jazz because Lou, rather than using a trumpet exercise book, would practice by playing along with a Woody Herman or Count Basie record. Gilda's record collection included Broadway musicals, but she also loved symphonies, concert piano pieces, and opera (as did Grandpa). Laura particularly remembered the voice of soprano Leontyne Price, and she loved hearing the impressionist composers Ravel and Debussy, whose chordings deeply influenced jazz artists.

Laura also knew and appreciated folk music, especially dark songs of love and loss such as "All My Trials," "Hey Nelly Nelly," and "Two Brothers." And like any youngster of the 1950s, she adored rock and roll. "Laura and I had our collection of rock and roll 45s, which we played endlessly," says Jan Nigro. "We had a little box record player in our room, with 45s scattered all over."

Laura sang from the time she could make noises and wrote poetry as soon as she could string words together. She loved reading poetry from an early age, too, exploring books by poets from different countries. By age six or seven, she had written her first musical composition, an "Indian song" with fourths in it (a harmonic interval that evokes the clichéd Hollywood version of Native American music). Enamored with her accomplishment, she played it day and night.

Writing songs just came naturally: "I saw music as my first language," she would later tell an interviewer. Her singing ability, too, came as a gift. By the time she was about seven or eight, her aunt Esther said to Gilda, "Laura has an unusual voice. She is special."

* * *

When the Nigros moved to the larger apartment on Sheridan Avenue, Laura no longer had to share a room with Jan, and the living room now had enough space to hold a magnificent seventy-year-old Steinway grand piano. Lou had been tuning the Steinway for an elderly woman — he had used his GI benefits to become a piano tuner, planning for a more stable job than being a musician — and when the woman became frail, she sold it to him for the token amount of $25.

Around the time Lou acquired the Steinway, Laura took piano lessons — briefly. "I came home one day and Laura's hysterical," Lou says. "My wife said, 'She doesn't want to go for the piano lesson because the teacher hollers at her.' Laura was extremely sensitive. So we stopped the lessons."

Without formal training, Laura thus learned piano primarily on her own, developing an individual style and sense of harmony. "She didn't even have a knowledge of chords; she'd figure out her own and memorize them," says her father of her later musical development. "It was amazing; her chords were so different."

At one point, Lou grew concerned that Laura, who tended to sit on the grand piano's bench with one foot tucked under her, would scratch the finish on his pride and joy. That's when he got his daughter a seventy-three-key upright for her room. "Then she could plunk away as much as she wanted," he says. "I closed the door. But I never discouraged her." Lou and Gilda supported both their children's interest in music — Jan would develop into a pianist, singer, and guitarist as well. Laura also took guitar lessons for a time, when she was about ten years old. She even wrote "Laura and Elvis" on her lesson book, obviously identifying with the idol of the day.


Excerpted from Soul Picnic: the Music and Passion of Laura Nyro by Michele Kort. Copyright © 2002 Michele Kort. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Foreword and Acknowledgments,
1. One Child Born,
2. Teenage Primal Heartbeat,
3. More Than a New Discovery,
4. Monterey and Geffen,
5. Eli's Comin',
6. New York Tendaberry,
7. Top Ten,
8. Singer-Songwriter,
9. Beads of Sweat,
10. Gonna Take a Miracle,
11. Marriage — and a Divorce,
12. Smile,
13. Season of Lights,
14. Nested,
15. Mother's Spiritual,
16. Roadnotes,
17. The Bottom Line,
18. Walk the Dog,
19. Angel in the Dark,
20. A World to Carry On,
Selected Bibliography,
Selected Covers,
About the Author,

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