Laura Branigan is a classic example of a great and underrated talent whose life and career were cut short far too soon. Laura possessed an elastic alto voice with a stunning four-octave vocal range. She began her career with stints as a backing vocalist for Leonard Cohen and as a member of the group Meadow. She was signed to Atlantic Records by the legendary Ahmet Ertegun, and after much delay, her debut solo album, Branigan, was released in 1982. All the voices in your head made “Gloria,” the album’s second single, a surprise worldwide smash. The song reached #2 in the U.S., eventually spent a record-setting 36 weeks on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart, and racked up sales of over two million copies. In 1983 “Gloria” earned Laura her first of four Gammy nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance—Female. Thanks in large part to its most prominent hit single, the Branigan album went gold. Not bad for the new gal on the block.
The spring of ’83 saw the release of Laura’s second album, the cleverly titled Branigan 2. Building on the success of the first album, Branigan 2 managed to spin off two more major hits. The Diane Warren-penned “Solitaire” sailed into the top ten on the pop charts based on the strength of Laura’s overly dramatic vocals and the track’s Euro-synth-pop sound. A little-known singer-songwriter named Michael Bolton gave her the tune “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” which settled in at #1 on the adult-contemporary chart and stayed there for three weeks. Laura’s original version is arguably better than Bolton’s eventual remake of the song he cowrote. After just two albums, it was now clear that Laura was no mere one-hit-wonder.
1984 brought the release of Self Control, her most successful album yet. The title track featured hushed, seductive vocals and a driving Euro beat. Thanks in part to a moody and rather controversial video, “Self Control” went to the top of the charts in numerous countries, became a dance-floor staple, and ended up being Laura’s biggest worldwide hit. Other hits from Self Control included the midtempo “The Lucky One” and the heartfelt ballad “Ti Amo.” One of the highlights — and biggest surprises — of the album is Laura’s aching, impassioned version of the Carole King classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” It’s easily one of her best performances and belongs in the collection of any Branigan or King fan.
Laura’s fourth album, 1985′s Hold Me, couldn’t match the sales success of her first three albums, despite containing her trademark dramatic vocals and the wildly popular Euro-disco sound of the ’80s. However, three of the album’s singles did manage to find their way onto the charts in some form or another. The title track became a mild dance hit, but by the time of its release the publicity machine surrounding the singer was grinding to a halt.
Pop music was now starting to be overrun by generic, talent-free dance divas who were willing to wear tighter clothes and slink around in smoky, badly lit music videos. True talents like Laura and Irene Cara were being pushed aside for the young and the clueless. Who needs a great voice when you’ve got a tight ass and a weave? In spite of the disappointing performance of Hold Me, it does contain the song “Forever Young,” which Laura continued to perform in concert for years. Hold Me quickly went out of print but remains Laura’s most sought-after album.
“Spanish Eddie” cashed it in and came the closest out of any of the album’s tracks to becoming a hit or getting any radio airplay. The album’s lead single is a dramatically-sung ode to a drug dealer/mobster/modern-day outlaw running from the cops. At least I think it is. Good luck figuring that one out. The narrative of the story has odd lyrics that make reference to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and mixing Vicks with lemon gin. Anyone? Me neither. Eddie wasn’t the only one with amazement on this face.
“Spanish Eddie” was Laura’s sixth top 40 hit in the U.S., but unlike her previous singles, it didn’t make it into the top 20. The over-the-top music video was ignored by MTV, making it even harder for the song to gain a wide audience. Laura continued to perform this fan-favorite in concert for the rest of her career.
“I Found Someone”
Here’s another hip trip back to the Michael Bolton oeuvre. This is Laura’s original take on a pop-rock ballad eventually made a lot more famous by someone named Cher. Laura’s version can’t quite match the fiery delivery of Cher’s version but it far outpaces Mr. Bolton’s eventual remake. “I Found Someone” was not properly promoted and was also not made into a music video. Because of this, and an increasingly lower profile for Laura’s career, the song only managed to choke and fume its way to the bottom of the charts. Unfortunately the “someone” that music consumers were looking for at the time was not Laura.
Album #5, Touch, made an inauspicious debut in 1987. The album showed Laura’s voice and talent progressing with increased control and maturity. This marked her mildly-successful attempt at a full crossover to the then-thriving Adult Contemporary genre. It seemed like a great idea in theory considering Laura’s flexibility and natural gifts. However, the synth-heavy album ultimately could not achieve what was needed to turn around a career and image that seemed headed in the wrong direction. The album is overloaded with a few too many quiet, dreamy ballads (“Spirit of Love”, “Over Love”) but Laura manages to handle them with her usual stirring vocals. The overabundance of ballads however, does serve to make the upbeat, dance-oriented cuts stand out that much more. Despite the spotty quality of the songs, Laura’s voice sounds as good as ever in a more restrained environment.
A genuine effort was put behind getting the album’s third single to succeed. However, “Cry Wolf” did not catch fire at radio despite featuring an orchestra, Laura’s intense vocals and being paired with a dramatic music video. The single did manage to squeak into the top 30 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Perhaps this was becoming too little, too late. By the time of the release of Touch, Laura had gained new management and had switched to different producers in an attempt to put the brakes on a career that was progressively hitting the skids. On the upside, with this album Laura began learning to produce her own songs and would put that talent to use on her future projects.
On the album’s lead single, the infamous ’80s production team of Stock-Aitken-Waterman helped Laura return to the dancefloor in engaging style with this Hi-NRG tour de fierce. In an attempt to get a big hit (or even a small one at this point) and restart her faltering career, Laura enlisted these proven hitmakers. Love them or hate them, S/A/W had previously worked musical magic for the nubile likes of Kylie Minogue and Bananarama. In “Shattered Glass”, Laura declares herself free of a bad relationship, letting her ex know that she’ll be just fine on her own, thank you so very much. She also lets him know that the behavior he exhibited that ruined their relationship will only continue until he changes his ways. However, Laura has precious little time to worry about him now as she’s quite busy picking out colorful sweaters for her future music videos.
“Power of Love”
Are you ready to learn about the “Power of Love”? By now this song has been covered by every artist who ever existed including no less than Jennifer Rush, Air Supply and Celine Dion. That makes Laura’s version all the more impressive for the emotional and vocal firepower that it unleashes. Laura’s vocals roll by like thunder and are as sensual, blazing and passionate as they’re ever been. The song takes a turn from it’s typical love song origins into something that truly aches from its core. She outdoes herself particularly well towards the end when her already soaring vocals explode into an ear-spinning key change during the stunning final chorus. This is my vote for Laura Branigan’s finest achievement as a vocalist. “Power of Love” proves that, given the right material, Laura could have stood diva to diva with Celine Dion had she been given the chance.
“The Name Game”
Isn’t this cute? What seems like it should be nothing more than album filler turns out to be rather engaging thanks to Laura’s upbeat performance and a head-bopping group of young backing vocalists. “The Name Game” (sometimes known as “The Banana Song”) was written by Shirley Ellis and Lincoln Chase and became a hit for Ellis in 1964. A few synthesizers and key changes have been added to Laura’s version to keep things interesting. The song is essentially a rhyming, singalong game that creates fun and sometimes strange variations on people’s names. As long your name isn’t Chuck.
Laura’s most creatively titled album quietly came onto the scene in 1990. Richard Perry and Peter Wolf appear as producers on some of the tracks to help elevate the affair. Laura continues to sing everything with feeling but the album’s singles saw very little action in the way of mainstream airplay or video rotation. “Moonlight on Water” made some noise in the dance clubs where Laura was (and is) still considered a vocal goddess. The second single, “Never in a Million Years” managed to make its way into the adult-contemporary top 30.
Laura added some of her burgeoning production skills to the tracks “Let Me In” and the Bryan Adams tune “The Best Was Yet to Come.” The album also included the song “Unison” which links her yet again to future-superstar Celine Dion who recorded the song as the title track to her debut English-language album. However, the sixth album in Laura’s discography didn’t even make it onto the top 100 best-selling albums chart. It was the first album of her career to not produce a Top 40 hit.
“Turn the Beat Around”
Love to hear percussion! No one would ever bet against ’70s disco diva Vicki Sue Robinson, especially when it comes to her thrilling signature dance track. Laura certainly has the pipes to take on this classic and does a nice if not extraordinary take on it. Her more active role in production included this track which has arguably had it’s tempo slowed down just a little too much.
Despite the chance to land Laura a much-neeeded and long-overdue hit, her record company did not officially release “Turn the Beat Around” as a single. This is further proof that at some point record companies simply give up on artists who they think have no tread left on their tires. The DJs and club bangers who were still loving Laura grabbed hold of the numerous remixes of this track and helped turn it upside down until it became one of the more popular tracks from Laura’s later career. Unfortunately, “Turn the Beat Around” did not make the impact on the dance charts that it should have. This was a real missed opportunity. Love to hear it!
OVER MY HEART
If you were flipping through the bargain bin too fast then you probably missed this one altogether. Arriving with no fanfare in 1993, Over My Heart created nary a blip on the music scene radar. It seemed as though Laura Branigan’s chance for continued popularity had come and gone. She was no longer being given the nurturing and publicity that’s so crucial for an artist to get their work out to the general public. In fact, many casual music fans likely assumed that Laura was no longer performing since they had not heard anything major from her in so long. It’s understandable that this album did so badly as it forces Laura to struggle against some sub-par songs and uninspired, now-dated production values.
The producers take their bucket to the Michael Bolton wellspring once too often and can only manage to come up with the light, trite “It’s Hard Enough Getting Over You.” Tracks like “Didn’t We Almost Win It All” and the title track get bogged down in sentimentality and treacly arrangements. The kickoff single, “Love Your Girl” was written by Gloria Estefan and was aimed at the club scene that had always supported Laura so fiercely. However, the single never took off and any momentum the album might have gained was lost.
Laura’s voice sounds as great as always but even her most obvious attribute could not save this album’s fate. Over My Heart did not manage to chart a single and Laura’s usual safe harbor of soft rock radio paid little attention to the release. One rather prophetic track was a remake of the Roxette song “The Sweet Hello, the Sad Goodbye.” The song details the struggle of dealing with the loss of a loved one. Laura’s own life would soon imitate her art as she retreated from the music industry after the release of this album to care for her husband who had become ill.
BACK IN CONTROL
Despite never fully stopping her live appearances, Laura had not been in the mainstream for a very long time. A great idea emerged to begin to build Laura’s comeback starting in the dance clubs where her massive popularity had begun. This is where her most devoted fans were still swaying to her music, blissfully unaware that any time had passed or that Laura was no longer the huge hit-maker that she once was. Laura’s back catalog of hits was given the remix treatment and injected back onto the dance floor.
Releases like Back in Control, Gloria 99, and Self Control 99 featured modern, updated remixes of Laura’s most beloved hits and album tracks. Devoted fans embraced the new versions and hoped that a full-fledged comeback would soon happen for their favorite singer. Having stirred up renewed interest in her signature hits, Laura eventually started to work on some highly-anticipated new material. It seemed as though everything was full steam ahead for Laura’s re-emergence.
REMEMBER ME: THE LAST RECORDINGS
The title of this release alone is heartbreaking enough. Having to emerge from denial and admit that a great singer is gone is all the more painful for an obsessive fan. At the time of her death, Laura was working on what fans had hoped would be her official comeback album. This EP is made up of the material that was recorded before her passing along with some of the newer remixed versions of her previous hits “Gloria” and “Self Control.” The posthumous release contains some upbeat tracks created to keep Laura popular in the dance clubs. While there are a few ballads included, it’s clear that Laura may have been heading in a new direction with her career.
A surprising controversy quickly arose after this release. Many fans claimed that the songs included here were unfinished and/or were not the versions that Laura would have wanted released to the public. No explanation was made as to why these versions were the ones included instead of the ones that Laura reportedly preferred. Regardless, this is apparently the last original music we will hear from this talented artist. Laura, we will indeed remember you.
“The Winner Takes It All”
This terrific ABBA remake is the standout from the EP. Laura was always great at doing her own interpretations of classic songs and this track is no exception. It’s fitting that this may be the last major song that Laura is known by. Originally written by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the song was meant to detail a painful romantic breakup. Despite being written decades before Laura’s death, the lyrics now take on a new meaning and seem painfully prophetic:
I don’t wanna talk
About the things we’ve gone through
Though it’s hurting me
Now it’s history
The gods may throw a dice
Their minds as cold as ice
And someone way down here
Loses someone dear
WHEN ALL THAT I’VE BEEN LIVING FOR IS GONE
Could Laura Branigan have had the same career as Celine Dion? Sadly, we’ll never know this but there’s little questioning that Laura had an amazing voice that embodied strength, versatility and distinction. She could easily outsing many of the other long-forgotten plastic girl singers of her time. That some of those artists achieved more success than she did makes it all the more frustrating for fans who know that Laura deserved and bigger and longer career than she had. It’s a textbook example of a great talent who got caught in the gears of the music industry machine. If you are no longer the latest, hottest young thing you are ultimately dismissed as being irrelevant. Talent, determination and originality will only get you so far. Once you have your inevitable stumble such as an album or single that bombs, you’re likely to be left by the side of the entertainment superhighway while everyone else rides along to find the next big thing. The same fate has befallen numerous other artists, especially female artists such as Taylor Dayne, Sheena Easton, and Sinead O’Connor. Laura was blessed that she always had her talent and a group of devoted fans who knew exactly how good she was.
On August 26, 2004, Laura Branigan suffered a brain aneurysm and died in her sleep. The “Spirit of Love Memorial Gathering” is an annual event held on the anniversary of her death to allow friends and fans to remember her and the passionate music that still lingers in the air.