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Stars Line Up To Reimagine Laura Nyro


Laura Nyro's star shone bright, but briefly.


MUSICIAN LAURA NYRO: (Singing) Come on people, come on children.

SIMON: She staggered crowds at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival when she was just 20 years old. But by the time she turned 25 she was tired of stardom and rarely took the stage. Laura Nyro died of cancer in 1997, when she was just 49 years old. But the legacy of this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter is huge. She wrote "Eli's Coming," "Save The Country" and "And When I Die." Just a few, performed by everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary, Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand and Blood, Sweat and Tears and, of course, Laura Nyro herself.

This Tuesday marks the release of the latest tribute. Billy Childs, the composer, arranger and pianist has gathered a pretty famous group of friends together for the album "Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro."


SHAWN COLVIN: (Singing) I've got fury in my soul. Fury's going to take me to the glory goal. In my mind I can't be study war no more. Save the people.

SIMON: That's Shawn Colvin singing "Save The Country." This album also includes Renee Fleming, Esperanza Spalding, Yo-Yo Ma, Ledisi, Wayne Shorter and many more.

Billy Childs joins us now from the studios of NPR West.

Thanks very much for being with us.

BILLY CHILDS: Well, it's great to be here.

SIMON: What set you off about Laura Nyro's music when you first heard it?

CHILDS: Well, I mean, as an 11-year-old or 12-year-old kid, my sister Kirsten would play her records around the house and it seeped into my consciousness. And then as I listened more over the months and years, it became part of me.

SIMON: Let's listen to another track if we can. Alison Krauss, her version of "And When I Die."


ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) I'm not scared of dying and I don't really care. If it's peace you find in dying well, then let the time be near. If it's peace you find in dying, when dying time is near, just bundle up my coffin 'cause it's cold way down there.

CHILDS: The song, as Laura does it, and I think as Blood, Sweat and Tears did it, kind of juxtaposed the heaviness of the lyrics - because they're really deep lyrics, you know, talking about death and finality - with kind of a celebratory musical accompaniment. And written, I think, when she was like, a teenager like, I think it's the first song she wrote.

SIMON: Yeah. She was a real prodigy, we should remember.

CHILDS: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And then I saw a YouTube clip of her playing it by herself on a keyboard. And it had a really decidedly blues vibe to it. So I wanted to kind of explore that. And it turned into like, somewhere between jazz and bluegrass, you know, with Jerry Douglas, you know, including this incredible dobro solo. And I thought if it's in that direction, Alison Krauss would be a perfect voice to render that.


KRAUSS: (Singing) And when I die and when I'm gone there'll be one child born in the world to carry on, to carry on.

SIMON: You, of course, are great musician.

CHILDS: Thank you.

SIMON: And we get to appreciate some of your piano on the track you perform with Ledisi.


SIMON: No further ado - "Stoned Soul Picnic."


LEDISI: (Singing) Surry, surry, surry, surry, surry.

SIMON: Now, that's truly a Laura Nyro song as you never heard Laura Nyro before. And yet, it's a Laura Nyro song.

CHILDS: Yeah. Well, that's one of her biggest songs too. It was just really fun to play that. That was like, very Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock-influenced, funk, piano thing, you know, that - it was just really a blast to do.

SIMON: She played the piano, I remember, right?

CHILDS: Laura?

SIMON: Yeah.

CHILDS: Oh, yeah. I mean, as a matter of fact, her piano playing is what influenced me most profoundly.


(Playing piano)

CHILDS: "Map To The Treasure" is actually - that piano pattern is the first thing I ever learned on piano - one of the first things.


LISA FISCHER: (Singing) Take my hand now. Take my hand now. There is a land now in the treasure of love.

SIMON: As you may have gathered, I get emotional talking about Lori Nyro.

CHILDS: Me too.

SIMON: Maybe it's just because we were, you know, yoots, when we first heard her music. So what do you do about people who say, Laura who?

CHILDS: (Laughter) I don't really chastise people for not knowing Laura Nyro. But I really make it incumbent upon them to find out about her because I think she's one of the most important songwriters, in the mold of Gershwin and Simon and McCartney and Lennon. She's on that level of songwriters and composers. And actually, when I meet another Laura Nyro fan, it's almost like a club. It's almost like, oh, wow you're in this with me. You feel like you're in something together because all of her music seems like it's part of one long interconnected opera. And all of these songs are different scenes from it or acts in it. And when you meet another person who sees that, who has visited that world, you feel connected to them.

SIMON: Billy Childs. Composer, arranger and pianist. His new album, "Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro." Thanks so much for being with us.

CHILDS: Thank you so much for having me.


KRAUSS: (Singing) Don't want to go by Satan. Don't want to die uneasy. Don't want to go by the devil. Don't want to go by the demon. Don't want to go by Satan. Don't want to die uneasy. Just let me go naturally.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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