Nicolette Larson (, 1952 ? , 1997) was an American singer best known for her 1978 cover of Neil Young's "Lotta Love". This song, her debut single, was a Number One Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks hit and #8 pop hit that year. It was followed by four more Adult Contemporary hits, two of which were also minor pop hits. By 1985, she shifted her focus to country music, charting six times on the Hot Country Singles (now Hot Country Songs) charts. Her only Top 40 country hit was "That's How You Know When Love's Right", a duet with Steve Wariner.
Early life & career
Nicolette Larson was born in Helena, Montana. Her father's employment with the U.S. Treasury Department necessitated frequent relocation for Larson's family. She graduated high school in Kansas City, Missouri where Larson attended the University of Missouri for three semesters and also worked at waitressing and office jobs before giving in to the pursuit of a musical career she'd dreamed of since singing along to the radio as a child. Larson eventually settled in San Francisco where she worked in a record store; her volunteer work as support staff for the Golden Gate Country Bluegrass Festival brought encouragement for her vocal ambitions and she began performing in Bay Area showcases, eventually making her professional debut opening for Eric Andersen at a club in Vancouver BC. In 1975 Larson auditioned for Hoyt Axton who was producing Commander Cody with the result that Larson performed with Commander Cody during their gig opening the "Diamonds and Rust" tour for Joan Baez and accrued her first recording credit on the 1975 Commander Cody album Tales From the Ozone: Larson would also provide background vocals for Commander Cody albums in 1977 and 1978. Other early session singing credits for Larson were for Hoyt Axton and Guy Clark in 1976 and in 1977 for Mary Kay Place, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Jesse Colin Young, Jesse Winchester and Gary Stewart.
Larson's work with Emmylou Harris - the album Luxury Liner (1977) prominently showcased Larson on the cut "Hello Stranger" - led to her meeting Harris' associate and friend Linda Ronstadt who became friends with Larson. In the spring of 1977 Larson was at Ronstadt's Malibu home when neighbor Neil Young phoned to ask Ronstadt if she could recommend a female vocal accompanist, and Ronstadt suggested Larson, becoming the fifth person that day to put Larson's name forward to Young. Young came over to meet Larson who recalled: "Neil ran down all the songs he had just written, about twenty of them. We sang harmonies with him and he was jazzed." The following week Ronstadt and Larson cut their vocals for Young's American Stars 'n Bars album at Young's La Honda ranch - the two women were billed on the album as the Saddlebags - and in November 1977 Young invited Larson to Nashville to sing on the sessions for his Comes a Time album, an assignment which led to Larson's being signed to Warner Brothers, an affiliate of Young's home label Reprise. Larson continued her session singing career into 1978 accruing credit on recordings by Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris' (Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town) and Norton Buffalo. Larson also contributed vocals to the Doobie Brothers' Minute by Minute whose producer Ted Templeman would be responsible for Larson's debut album Nicolette.
Released in September of 1978, the Nicolette album was an eclectic mix of rock, C&W and R&B which recalled Maria Muldaur's eponymous debut from 1973. Despite the release of her album so late in the year, Larson was acclaimed Female Vocalist of 1978 by Rolling Stone who opined no one else could sound as if she were having so much fun on an album and Nicolette reached #15 on Billboard's album chart aided by the hit single "Lotta Love" a Neil Young composition. Larson's "Lotta Love" peaked at #8 the week of 10 February 1979, the same week the single off Comes a Time: "Four Strong Winds" a duet with an unbilled (on the single) Larson, debuted on the Hot 100 on its way to a #61 peak. (A track from the Comes a Time sessions featuring Larson: "Sail Away", was included on the otherwise live Neil Young album Rust Never Sleeps released in 1979.)
Warner Brothers also issued the limited edition (50000 copies) promo-only Live at the Roxy album comprising a 20 December 1978 concert given by Larson at the Sunset Boulevard nightclub. Larson was also featured on the No Nukes album recorded in September of 1979 at Madison Square Garden backed by the Doobie Brothers in her performance of "Lotta Love"; Larson can be seen in the No Nukes film but her performance was not included.
Like Maria Muldaur, Larson would be unable to consolidate the commercial success augured by her debut: the second single off Nicolette, "Rhumba Girl"1 just missed becoming a major hit for Larson at #48 and her sophomore album In the Nick of Time released November 1979 failed to showcase Larson's voice attractively. Don Shewey in Rolling Stone opined: "Larson's rough-edged, down-home tone is definitely appealing - especially when she backs up the likes of Neil Young and Steve Goodman ? but as a soloist, her limited vocal resources are severely taxed" - "It's symptomatic of Nicolette Larson's problems as a performer that the finest singing on In the Nick of Time is by Michael McDonald. 'Let Me Go, Love'...McDonald's entrancing vocal presence...so overshadows Larson's that she seems to be playing second fiddle rather than sharing the lead. Elsewhere, Larson is dwarfed by Ted Templeman's typically luxurious production".
Released as the album's lead single "Let Me Go Love" was only a peripheral hit reaching #35 in February of 1980 - that year Larson would be heard more on the airwaves via guest appearances on "Say You'll Be Mine" by Christopher Cross and the Dirt Band's "Make a Little Magic". Larson had enough residual popularity from her debut for In the Nick of Time to become a moderate success. However without the boost of a major hit Larson's commercial decline was evidenced by the muted impact of her 1981 and 1982 album releases: Radioland - her last album produced by Templeman - and All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go even though both releases showed Larson back in strong vocal form. Larson almost had a hit with her remake of "I Only Want to Be With You" (#53) perhaps the least effective track on All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go; that album was produced by Andrew Gold to whom Larson was for a time married following a brief early marriage to songwriter Hank DeVito and liaisons with Neil Young and Ted Templeman.
Larson had continued her session singing career accruing credits on releases by Tom Johnston, Linda Ronstadt (Mad Love), Graham Nash, John Stewart, Albert Hammond and Rita Coolidge. Larson again backed the Doobie Brothers on their One Step Closer album - she can be heard on the hit "Real Love" - and a song Larson co-wrote with John McFee and Patrick Simmons entitled "Can't Let It Get Away" was a 1981 single release for the Doobie Brothers in Japan; the song was also featured on the Doobie Brothers' Farewell Tour album (1983). Larson also contributed a harmony vocal on the track "Could This Be Magic" on the Van Halen album Women and Children First (1980) to thank Eddie Van Halen for contributing a guitar solo to the Nicolette album track "Can't Get Away From You" against David Lee Roth's wishes. (Larson would be the maid of honor at Eddie Van Halen's marriage to Valerie Bertinelli.)
Larson's recording of the Burt Bacharach/Carole Bayer Sager song "Fool Me Again" was featured on the bestselling soundtrack album for the 1981 film Arthur despite not being heard in the film: Larson was also featured on the soundtrack album for National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) with the track "Summer Hearts".
1"Rhumba Girl" was written by Jesse Winchester who introduced it as "Rhumba Man" on his Nothing But a Breeze album; although Larson had been a session singer on Nothing But a Breeze she had not sung on "Rhumba Man" first hearing the song at a live performance by Winchester.
Larson's appearance in a touring production of the C&W musical Pump Boys and Dinettes garnered enough positive reaction for MCA Nashville to sign her in 1983: the Nashville music community was so enthused about Larson's C&W cross-over that the Academy of Country Music named her the Best New Female Vocalist in 1984 before she'd had any MCA Nashville releases. In fact Larson's MCA debut ...Say When was not released until 1985 and the C&W career it ushered in proved anti-climactic with only one of Larson's six MCA single releases becoming a significant hit: her duet with Steve Wariner entitled "That's How You Know When Love's Right" - taken from the April 1986 album release Rose of My Heart - reached #9 C&W. Larson's MCA albums - produced by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Tony Brown - attracted little critical attention: in a Stereo Review critique headed "No No Nicolette" which characterized Larson as a faded Pop star for whom C&W music represented "the Last Chance Saloon", Alanna Nash opined Larson sounded as if she were reading lyrics off cue cards. Nash's review of Rose of My Heart - in which Nash stated her earlier review had drawn a response from Larson's manager implying Nash had taken "etiquette lessons from the Marquis de Sade" - granted that Larson's interpretive skills showed improvement.
Larson's final mainstream album release was Shadows of Love a 1988 recording made for the Italian CGD label and produced by Carlo Stretti and Ernesto Taberelli. In 1990 Larson participated in the Festival di Sanremo duetting with Grazia Di Michele, the song "Me and My Father".
Larson's final album was the self-produced Sleep, Baby, Sleep comprising music for children and released on Sony in 1994.
Larson's further session vocal credits comprised work with Paul Barrere and the Bluesbusters, Jimmy Buffett, Carlene Carter, Robert Forman, the Georgia Satellites, Marc Jordan, Troy Newman, Dolly Parton, Guthrie Thomas and "Weird Al" Yankovic. In 1992 Larson reunited professionally with Neil Young to sing on his Harvest Moon album; in 1993 Larson was featured on Young's Unplugged. Larson also provided vocal accompaniment on "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Greensleeves" the two tracks Neil Young contributed to Seven Gates : A Christmas Album by Ben Keith and Friends (1994).
In 1988 Larson contributed to the soundtracks of the films Renegade and Twins with respectively the tracks "Let Me Be the One" and "I'd Die For this Dance"; the latter was performed live onscreen by Larson accompanied by Jeff Beck.
Larson also contributed to the seasonal albums Tennessee Christmas (1987) with "One Bright Star", Acoustic Christmas (1988) with "Christmas is a Time for Giving" and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1989) with "Nothing But a Child" and "One Bright Star".
The Live at the Roxy album recorded in 1978 was given its first full release on Rhino in 2006.
She was married to Russ Kunkel from 1990 until her death. Their daughter Elsie May Larson-Kunkel was born in 1990.
Larson died on , 1997 in Los Angeles as a result of complications arising from cerebral edema triggered by liver failure. According to her friend Astrid Young, Larson had been showing symptoms of depression and her fatal seizure "was in no small way related to her chronic use of Valium and Tylenol PM".1
Larson is buried in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.
A benefit concert was held in Larson's honor the following February, with tribute concerts staged on the tenth anniversary of her passing in December 2007 and also the following year.
1Young, Astrid. Being Young. p.107, Insomniac Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-897178-45-4.