Laura Nyro, one of the most important female singer/songwriters of the '60s and '70s, died Tuesday at her Danbury, Conn., home at the age of 49 due to complications from ovarian cancer. Best known for such classics as "Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "And When I Die," "Stoney End" and "Eli's Comin,'" Nyro influenced peers and generations to come with her poetic lyrics, emotional vocal style and free-form compositions that drew on gospel and soul. She was also one of the first major acts managed by David Geffen near the beginning of his career.
Born in the Bronx, N.Y., Nyro released her debut album, "More Than a New Discovery," in 1966, at 19. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- lyrics such as "I was born from love and my poor mother worked the mines/I was raised on the good book Jesus 'til I read between the lines," the album went nowhere commercially. But several covers of her songs by other artists were major hits, including the Fifth Dimension's versions of "Wedding Bell Blues" and "Blowin' Away," Barbra Streisand's "Stoney End" and Blood, Sweat and Tears' "And When I Die."
Her second and third albums brought Nyro critical praise for her powerful lyrics and effective interpretation of black, urban musical styles in an era of folkies. On these releases, she perfected her sound, which was characterized by distinctive, keening vocals, surprising rhythmic changes and unusual phrasing.
Indeed, "unusual" was a word often used to praise Nyro's talent and explain her personal style. "Dressed in black ... Nyro wore purple lipstick and used Christmas-tree ornaments as earrings," says Artie Mogull, her first manager, in the book "The Mansion on the Hill."
A lack of commercial success prompted Nyro to retire for the first time in 1971, at the age of 24, after the release of two more albums, including "Gonna Take a Miracle," recorded with Labelle. She recorded and toured only sporadically after that, releasing three more albums before the end of the '70s, as well as "Mother's Spiritual" in 1984 and "Live at the Bottom Line" in 1988.
Nyro won over critics again with her last studio album "Walk the Dog and Light the Light," released in 1993. She has been cited as a major influence on Joni Mitchell, Ricki Lee Jones and succeeding generations of female singer/songwriters. Indeed, a Nyro tribute album, "Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro," is scheduled for release May 13 on Profile Records. It features Jones, Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash, Phoebe Snow, Holly Cole, Jill Sobule, Jane Siberry, Lucinda Williams, Lisa Germano, the Roches and others.