Obituary: Nicolette Larson

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 27 December 1997 01:02

Nicolette Larson, singer and songwriter: born Helena, Montana 17 July 1952; married 1990 Russell Kunkel (one daughter); died Los Angeles 16 December 1997.

The transition from backing vocalist to lead singer is not always an easy one, though Sheryl Crow has managed it recently, while the American singer Nicolette Larson came to the fore in the Seventies. With "Lotta Love", a simple but heartfelt Neil Young composition, she reached the American Top 10 in 1979 and was voted Best Female Vocalist by Performances magazine.

Before and after her major success, Larson also sang backing vocals on a multitude of recordings made in Los Angeles by the likes of Christopher Cross, the Doobie Brothers, Van Halen and Emmylou Harris. In the later part of the Eighties, she made a successful switch to the country music which had always been inherent in her singing style. She also acted and campaigned for President Clinton in 1996.

She was born in Helena, Montana, in 1952, into a large family (she was one of six children) which followed her US Treasury Department Executive father around the country. The Larsons moved every couple of years and the young Nicolette was exposed to every genre of music from soul to pop via country. She especially liked Hank Williams and her singing was undoubtedly influenced by Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, but her peripatetic childhood and varied taste would later be reflected in albums containing Tamla Motown material alongside songs by Sam Cooke, Burt Bacharah and Jackson Browne.

Larson graduated from high school and majored in psychology and sociology at college. At 21, she found herself working as a part-time secretary and a waitress and decided to head for California in search of the American dream. Always the practical girl, she bought a return bus ticket in case things didn't work out. But they did. In a club, she met a lady who organised the Golden State Bluegrass Festival and hired her as a secretary.

"From there, everything snowballed," she would later recall. "You sing a little with somebody backstage, then you sing background on somebody's demo, then somebody lets you sing on an album and pretty soon people are talking about you. Then you go on the road with somebody - Hoyt Axton or Commander Cody - and they let you do a song in the show, and pretty soon people are saying: that girl was good! Then they offer you a record deal."

For Larson, it was as simple as that. By her own accord, she "was not a prolific songwriter". But she had an amazing, twangy, vulnerable and emotive voice. In 1978, Lenny Waronker signed her to Warner Brothers and put her together with the Doobie Brothers producer Ted Templeman and Bill Payne of Little Feat fame. And she brought "Lotta Love", a Neil Young composition, to the party.

"I got that song off a tape I found lying on the floor of Neil's car," she said in interviews. "I popped it in the tape player and commented on what a great song it was. Neil said: `You want it? It's yours.' " With Templeman's smooth production and Jimmie Haskell's sophisticated string arrangement "Lotta Love" became an American Top 10 hit in 1979 and, alongside Boz Scaggs, ushered in a new era of blue-eyed soul LA-style.

Still, on Nicolette, her debut album which sold half a million copies and was certified gold, Larson was more than the crown princess of California rock. She was equally at ease with Jesse Winchester's "Rhumba Girl", given a Little Feat funky flavouring by the keyboardist Bill Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere.

A year later, she duetted with Michael McDonald (of Doobie Brothers fame) on "Let Me Go Love" and reached the Top 40, but In the Nick of Time and Radioland were less successful albums. She was seen as a poor alternative to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris (she often sang with both) and couldn't quite follow up her major hit. In 1982, she worked with Andrew Gold on All Dressed Up & No Place To Go, but to no avail.

Two years later, after touring with the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes in which she played the part of Rhetta Cupp, Larson signed to MCA Nashville and went back to her country roots, stressing at the time that "country music is almost what Southern California rock was - is really. The Eagles today would be a country band."

After initial resistance from a scene that doesn't like performers switching styles (Juice Newton being a classic example), Larson toured with Steve Earle and Poco, released two albums (Say When and Rose of My Heart) and scored several Top 40 country hits ("That's How You Know When Love's Right", with Steve Wariner, was nominated for duet of the year by the Country Music Association in 1985).

But even at the height of her popularity in Nashville (the Academy of Country Music named her Best New Vocalist in 1984), the singer with the long distinctive black hair (Crystal Gayle and Eddie Brickell had nothing on her) remained a California resident and was very much part of California's creme de la creme of session players, appearing in concert with Jimmy Buffet, the Beach Boys and Willie Nelson. She moved into acting, guesting in the US sitcom Throb and acting opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito in Twins (1988). Somewhat typecast as a night-club singer, her performance of "I'd Die For This Dance" proved one of the saving graces of that box-office smash.

In 1990, Nicolette Larson married the drummer Russ Kunkel (the number one Los Angeles session drummer who worked on such classic recordings as Carole King's Tapestry). After the birth of their daughter Elsie May, she recorded Sleep Baby Sleep (for the Sony Wonder label in 1994), a collection of lullabies and children's songs which included duets with Linda Ronstadt and Graham Nash.

Five years ago, Larson's career completed a full circle when Neil Young called on her to provide the backing vocals on his excellent Harvest Moon album. She was on especially fine form on the ethereal "Dreaming Man" and on a live performance of "Natural Beauty", echoing Young's chorus of "a natural beauty should be preserved like a monument to nature".

- Pierre Perrone

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