ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MARCH 4, 1983
By Steve Newton
When Nicolette Larson released her first album, Nicolette, in 1978, she proved right from the start that her talents as an interpretive singer were vast and capable of taking her through many musical styles. On that album alone she wove a dreamy tapestry of songs by Burt Bacharach, Sam Cooke, Holland/Dozier/Holland, J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey, Jesse Winchester, and Neil Young–and had two big hit singles with Winchester’s “Rhumba Girl” and Young’s timeless ode “Lotta Love”.
On her fourth and latest album, All Dressed Up and No Place To Go, Larson continues her interpretive travels by putting her unique vocal touch to songs by Leon Russell, Jackson Browne, Lowell George, and the album’s producer Andrew Gold, best known for his hits “Lonely Boy” and “Thank You For Being a Friend”.
One of six children, Larson grew up all over the U.S., going where her father’s Treasury Department work took the family. But it wasn’t till she moved to San Francisco in 1974 that her course became musically directed. Through her work as a production secretary for the Golden State Country/Bluegrass Festival she met and became friends with several local Bay Area bands. A year later she was appearing in bars and clubs with David Nichtern and the Nocturnes. (Nichtern, incidentally, wrote Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis”.)
By 1976, Larson moved to Los Angeles, where she was a backup singer with Hoyt Axton, and then later on backup and lead vocalist with the Commander Cody band. When not touring with Axton or Cody, she was becoming known in the industry as a versatile and polished studio singer, appearing on albums by Jesse Colin Young and Gary Stewart. It was during this time that Larson met and became good friends with Emmylou Harris, and eventually recorded a duet, “Hello Stranger”, on one of her LPs.
Not long after Larson, with the help of Neil Young, secured a recording contract with Warner Brothers Records. After her gold-selling debut she recorded In the Nick of Time and then 1980’s Radioland. Following that album’s release she appeared with the Doobie Brothers in the No Nukes benefit concert.
Before returning to the studio last year to record All Dressed Up and No Place to Go, Larson sang on the Doobie Brothers‘ One Step Closer, Christopher Cross’s smash debut album, and Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love.
Last week, just before her Vancouver appearance at the Commodore, Larson spoke with me on the phone from Ronstadt’s L.A. apartment, where the two have just recently become roommates. Says she, “It’s kind of like a sorority house now–borrowing lipstick and makeup and sweaters. But it’s great because we wear the same size clothes!”
Have you ever been to Vancouver before?
I lived there for a while actually, in 1974. There used to be a club called The Egress on Beatty Street, and I used to help out there. As a matter of fact it’s one of the first places I ever sang. I did the worst show in the history of music, probably, when some friends of mine who were booking the club said they needed somebody to open for Eric Anderson. They said, “Oh you should do it, we’ve heard you sing along with the radio.” I said, “You’re kidding. I can’t sing in front of people, I’ve never performed.” But when they said I’d get $200 I thought, “Gee, maybe I could sing a few songs after all.” It was a long time ago, but I remember the Georgia Straight being around even then.
Did you do much singing as a child?
My mother sang around the house. She originally wanted to be a professional singer, but had kids instead. I always sang–I thought that everybody did, so it never even entered my mind not to sing. My sisters and brothers all took dancing and music lessons, but I was the only one that really stuck with it. After I heard the Beatles I just decided that I had to learn how to play the guitar because I wanted to be able to sing all their songs.
What was it like singing backup for Hoyt Axton, and then later with the Commander Cody band?
Well, Hoyt was a tough old bird–he’s a very colourful character. It was kind of the background vocalist School of Hard Knocks crash-course division, but it was a really good experience. The Commander Cody gig was a little nicer because I got to sing some lead.
During those times did you have it in mind that somebody you’d go solo?
No. It never crossed my mind until I was singing with Cody and people started saying “You should make your own album.” I remember telling Hoyt that I never even dreamed about having a Nicollete Larson album, which I think he was sort of nervous about because most of his background singers had gone on to do solo albums.
Did meeting Emmylou Harris have much of an effect on you as a singer?
Yeah, because I really studied what she was doing, and Linda Ronstadt as well, just to see how they did what they were doing. I learned a lot just from watching them and listening to them, about vibrato and breathing and all those things. I started out thinking, “Okay, I’m going to sing”, but I had no concept of how to do it properly. I guess it’s like sports or anything–you watch the people who do it good and pick up things on how to do it better.
How did you come to meet Neil Young?
When he did American Stars ‘n Bars his initial concept was to get two unknown singers and do the album with them, but he tried that and it didn’t work at all. And then he decided to take the other route and get Emmylou and Linda, but Emmylou wasn’t available to do it, so she and Linda recommended me.
Neil kind of functions on cosmic operations, you know, and that was cosmic enough for him. If everyone had recommended me then I was supposed to work with him. So Linda and I went up to his ranch and sang backups on that album, and then when he did Comes a Time he called me again to come and sing on it.
Did you release your own version of “Lotta Love” before he did his?
Well, this is what happened. He recorded it first, and I heard it and said “Gee that’s great. How come you don’t put that song out?”. And he goes, “Oh, do you want it? It’s yours.” That was what he said with every song of his that I admired. It was kind of like, “Don’t ask me why I don’t put this out. You want to put it out, you put it out.”
So I recorded it, and got it all ready to put out, then at the very last minute he changed his mind on Comes a Time and put it on that. So we both released it the very same day, actually. I changed it around quite a lot from Neil’s version. His is a lot different with all the “la la la la’s” at the beginning.
Also on your first album is a tune called “Can’t Get Away From You”, and on that song’s credits there’s a question mark where the lead guitarist’s name should be. Who was that mystery player?
Eddie Van Halen. He didn’t want his name used because they were Van Halen and that’s all there was to it. That was when they were just starting, and they were very much into being just Van Halen and nothing else.
On All Dressed Up and No Place to Go you sing Lowell George’s “Two Trains” and Paul Barrere’s “Love, Sweet, Love”. Were you a big Little Feat fan?
Oh huge. Lowell George was probably my favourite writer. I do a lot of Lowell’s songs, and will continue to do them because they’re the perfect vehicle for a vocalist. They really have melody and tempo and just about everything that I could be looking for.
How did you come to do Jackson Browne’s never-before-recorded “I’ll Fly Away (Without You)” on the new album?
A lotta luck. Rosemary Butler cowrote it and we were doing some backup vocal sessions together, and she played the song she had demoed of it. I told her that if she couldn’t get a deal on it I’d love to do it. So Andrew called Jackson and told him we’d like to cut it and he said, “Sure, why the hell not.” So that was that. Jackson’s a pretty generous guy.
Have you done very much touring in the past?
No, this is the first time I’ve toured in a long while. In my entire career I’ve only done one long tour, so it’s a different medium for me. But I really like it because I’ve got a band of my own and we have a great time. There are some ballads and pretty songs, but I do like to rock and roll.
UPDATE: Sadly, Nicolette Larson passed away in L.A. on December 16, 1997, as a result of complications arising from cerebral edema triggered by liver failure. She was only 45. A tribute concert for her two months later featured performances by Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffet, Carole King, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
If you enjoy hearing music legends speak as much as reading their words, check out my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 250 of my audio conversations with:
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
Jeff Healey, 1988
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Roy Buchanan, 1988
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joe Satriani, 1990
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Little Steven, 1987
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
…with hundreds more to come
2 thoughts on “Nicolette Larson talks good friend Neil Young, current roommate Linda Ronstadt, and favourite songwriter Lowell George”
Well it’s strange how your tastes change. I heard her name today on the radio just as I was getting out of the car and I thought “Where do I know that name from?” So that’s how I got here. Back then I was into what people considered hard rock. Pretty tame by today’s standards though. Now I’m loving Nicolette’s work. A whole new sadness at her loss…way late.
Thanks for this post.
I was very young when u started your singing career I heardmost of your music after passing beautiful. Voice beautiful woman gone to soon stil lisstening