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Nicolette Larson; Award-Winning Singer

December 18, 1997|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nicolette Larson, pop-rock and country recording artist who soared to fame in 1978 when she recorded singer and songwriter Neil Young's "Lotta Love," has died at 45.

Larson died Tuesday at UCLA Medical Center of complications from cerebral edema (swelling of the brain caused by abnormal fluid accumulation), said her husband, drummer Russell Kunkel.

The singer's other major hits were "Rumba Girl," "Fool Me Again" and "That's How You Know Love's Right." She released six well-received albums during her career and performed with such stars as Jimmy Buffett, the Beach Boys and Willie Nelson.

"I got that song off a tape I found lying on the floor of Neil's car," she once said of her initial hit. "I popped it in the tape player and commented on what a great song it was. Neil said, 'You want it? It's yours.' "

"Lotta Love" quickly established the reputation of Larson, who was soon named best female singer of 1978 by Rolling Stone magazine. In 1985 she collected another spate of best new female vocalist commendations--for country music--after that style's popularity swelled.

Born in Helena, Mont., and brought up in Kansas City, Kan., Larson always wanted to become a singer but worked as a waitress, sure she could never get a start in music where she lived. A trip to San Francisco in 1973 changed her life.

"I got to see Tom Waits and Commander Cody and all sorts of bands," she told The Times in 1978. "It was great. I'd get up every morning and say, 'California. I'm in California.' It was like Mecca."

She moved to Berkeley soon after that and got a job as a backup singer for a short-lived band put together by David Nichtern. Next she sang backup for Hoyt Axton for a year and then joined the Commander Cody group. Her solos during their performances caught the attention of record company representatives.

She made her solo performance debut in 1978 at the Ice House in Pasadena and afterward performed regularly throughout Southern California.

Propelled so quickly to success, Larson kept herself in perspective. When the praise seemed overwhelming, she told The Times in 1978, "I just try to run off somewhere and do something real normal: go to the grocery store and stand in line or take the dirty clothes down to the Laundromat. That's the best way to keep in touch with reality."

In addition to her husband, Larson is survived by her daughter, Elsie May Larson Kunkel; her parents, Robert and Josephine Larson; her grandmother, Elsie Hoffman; three brothers, Robert, Daniel and Michael Larson; two sisters, Judith Havey and Heather Kierszenbaum; and 12 nieces and nephews.

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