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Songwriter-Idealist Laura Nyro Dies

Feminist wrote major hits, but for other performers The Boston Globe Laura Nyro, a cosmically inclined feminist who wrote major hits for Barbra Streisand; the Fifth Dimension; and Blood, Sweat and Tears, died Wednesday of ovarian cancer at age 49. It was just a month after the release of a compilation, “Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro,” that had helped bring her idealism to a new generation.

Nyro, along with Carole King and Joni Mitchell, was among the first singers to write in an authentic women’s voice after years of industry decrees that men write for them.

She had kept a low profile for the past 20 years while raising her son, Gil, emerging for infrequent but well-received performances that included a stop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1989. She released only one album in the ‘80s, “Mother’s Spiritual.” Her last album of originals, “Walk the Dog & Light the Light,” which defended animal rights and Native Americans, was released in 1993.

Nyro died at her home in Danbury, Conn., with “the support and love of her son, Gil Bianchini, and her life’s partner, Maria Desiderio,” according to a statement from the Elizabeth Rush Agency in Boston. It said a private funeral service would be held but did not say when.

A onetime teenage prodigy, Nyro was the Bronx-born daughter of an Italian jazz trumpeter and a Jewish homemaker. She soaked up the sounds of urban doo-wop and soul, combined them with a churchy, gospel wail and the hippie sentiments of the ‘60s - and distilled it into such hits as “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” and “Save the Country,” all hits for the Fifth Dimension.

“I don’t think people realize how many songs she penned. She’s a well-sung, unsung songwriting hero,” Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls said Wednesday. She had the ability that great songwriters have to bring you to an emotional realm that cannot be named.”

Nyro, alas, never scored a hit with her own versions, but kept writing hits for others. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (when David Geffen became her manager), she penned “Eli’s Coming” for Three Dog Night, “Stoney End” and “Time and Love” for Streisand, and “And When I Die,” for Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Nyro wrote “And When I Die” when she was 19. The lyrics captured the live-for-the-moment spirit of the late ‘60s: “I’m not scared of dyin’ and I don’t really care/if it’s peace you find in dyin’/well then let the time be near.” She would later play it in concert in a quieter, more meditative fashion with mandolin.

Not easily pigeonholed because she crossed genres from soul and jazz to rock and blues, Nyro never totally fit in with her own career. She was booed off the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, for instance, because she sang some streetcorner doo-wop that clashed with the psychedelic-rock tone of the event.

Nyro was a stubborn, searching individualist who also paved the way for literate songwriters such as Rickie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega. And, as the years went by, her peaceful aims intensified. One of her last songs, “Art of Love,” sounded a message of peace with the help of recorded voices from Israel, Africa, America, and Italy.

“I have complete freedom as a songwriter, which is a very good feeling,” Nyro told Billboard. “I look at my music as ‘soul talk’ - a healing using the language of love - and I think there’s more of that kind of feeling in it now.”