In the Rock'N'Roller-Skate Set of L.A., the Hot Act Is Ronstadt Protegee Nicolette Larson

updated 04/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

Anyone who gave Linda Ronstadt her first pair of roller skates deserves a place in this decade's social history. Happily, Nicolette Larson, 26, has been rewarded by her "best friend and singing buddy." Ronstadt, who's sort of godmother to a whole old-girl network of singers like Emmylou Harris and Mary Kay Place, has thrown the full force of her Malibu Mafia behind Larson and helped turn a former backup singer into the year's freshest female voice.

Larson's Top Ten single Lotta Love, for instance, was written by Neil Young, who met her through Ronstadt. Back in 1977 Nicolette and she were harmonizing by the fire at Linda's house when her Trancas Beach neighbor Young called to ask if she knew any good backup singers. Sure, replied Ronstadt, the lady sitting next to me. Nicolette not only sang on 12 out of 13 cuts on Young's recent Comes a Time LP but also had a brief "fling" with him. The romance ended, Nicolette winces, "when he just disappeared. I haven't seen him since. If you don't have money and you do these things, you're crazy; if you do have money, you're eccentric."

Ronstadt played Linda-on-the-spot again when she and Nicolette were lunching in Beverly Hills' Magic Pan and a phone call came in from Ted Templeman, producer of the Doobie Brothers and Carly Simon. "He wanted to talk about working with me," Nicolette recalls. "Just then, Linda grabbed the phone and said, 'She's your ticket.' " Ronstadt followed through by singing backup on Nicolette's debut LP, which turned gold and won her Rolling Stone's best female singer award.

"Linda was a big help," Nicolette understates. "I'd go over to her house and tell her I was thinking of recording this or that, and she'd say, 'Great' or 'Naw.' At first I was jittery about seeing her, but my mother told me, 'Famous people need friends too.' "

Nicolette's mother was an amateur singer and piano player and her father a Treasury Department official when she was growing up in Kansas City. She took some piano lessons, then went to the University of Missouri for three semesters before dropping out to "schlump around" in jobs as a Kelly girl, nurse's aide and waitress. She moved to San Francisco as a production assistant for a bluegrass festival and wound up singing in a bar band. Soon Larson made it to a name group, Commander Cody, and was on her way to L.A. to become a session singer on albums by Emmylou Harris, Hoyt Axton and Jesse Colin Young.

While waiting for the first royalty checks from her own LP to clear (she's planning on swapping her Honda Civic for "a bitchin' Mercedes"), Larson lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Westwood with her brother, Danny, 29. She double-dates with Ronstadt (the Jerry Brown thing, Nicolette insists, "is much ado about nothing") and has seen Saturday Night Live's Dan Aykroyd. "I get crushes all the time," she confides. "It's hard not having an old man to come home to, and I cry when I get lonely. But let's face it," she adds, "no one wants to be Mr. Larson. He'd have to give a little. I travel a lot and live very fast." (Which doesn't mean the drug scene, though. "Sometimes I think rock'n'rollers are obligated to party," she observes. "But I don't anymore. I'm real straight now.")

Next month Larson will follow her current East Coast tour by cutting her second album. She's also testing for Willie Nelson's movie, Red-Headed Stranger. "People are always asking me what I hope to do/' says Nicolette. Her new answer: "God, I've already done it."

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