August 26, 2004 – Laura Branigan was born on July 3, 1952 in Mount Kisco, New York. Her childhood in Armonk during the ’50s included her years at Byram Hills High School, where she graduated in 1970, and her time at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which she graduated from in 1972.
Though singing seemed to run in her family—her grandmother had studied opera in Ireland, and both her parents had good voices and led the family in singing at the dinner table—Branigan had no ambitions to pursue a vocalist’s career in her youth. In high school she was extremely shy; she did, however, enjoy singing harmony with friends and performing in her church choir. To help Branigan overcome her shyness, one of her teachers persuaded her to try out for the school musical in her senior year. Branigan did, won the lead in Pajama Game, and discovered her calling. She reminisced for a Seventeen interviewer: “It was amazing. Once I was up there, I felt a tremendous confidence. I realized this was my way of expressing myself—and that was it.”
After graduating from high school in 1970, Branigan enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City to prepare for her new vocation. At first she commuted from her parents’ home, but then she moved to Manhattan and worked as a waitress to pay her rent and tuition. Branigan found in waitressing a form of preparation for performing that wasn’t available in her classes. “In dealing with people all the time,” she told Seventeen, “I learned how to make them comfortable, and that helped me a lot to overcome my shyness. And I learned how to ignore hecklers.”
She recorded her first album when she joined the group Meadow at age 20. The album, “The Friendship,” was released in 1973 on Paramount Records following the release of two singles in 1972, “Here I Am” and “Cane and Abel”. The record label failed to adequately promote the album and it received little airplay. Not long afterwards Meadow disbanded.
Branigan did not give up her efforts to break into the music business. After landing a job as a backup singer for Canadian folk poet/singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and touring Europe with him, she decided to become a soloist. Knowing that her chances would be better if she had a good manager, she sought one. Sid Bernstein, who had managed talents such as the Rascals and the Bay City Rollers and had promoted the Beatles’ first U.S. appearance, listened to Branigan sing in 1977 and agreed to help her become a star. According to Sarah Crichton in Harper’s, Bernstein started Branigan slowly, first featuring her in concerts held in his office for his friends, and gradually inviting record producers to these informal gatherings. At first, this tactic was unsuccessful. Branigan recalled in Seventeen: “Everyone said, ’Well, you don’t really sound like anyone else.’ That meant that I really didn’t fit in.” She had a unique five-octave range voice.
Finally, in 1979, Branigan auditioned for Ahmet Ertegun, the chairman of Atlantic Records, and he signed her. An initial album session produced mixed results—Atlantic was unsure what style best suited their new talent.
Eventually the company hired Jack White, a German producer famous for his efforts in what Crichton labels the “Euro-pop approach.” White selected the songs for what would become Branigan’s debut album, including “Gloria,” which had been a hit in Italy a few years previous. Before the single was released, White introduced Branigan to manager Susan Joseph. After talking to her, the singer became convinced that Joseph could represent her interests much better than Bernstein. Branigan switched managers, but while she did indeed become a star under Joseph’s guidance, she also became the object of a $15 million breach-of-contract lawsuit by Bernstein.
Despite this controversy Branigan’s “smoky vibrato” voice struck a chord with pop audiences. The success of “Gloria” (Branigan received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance) was followed in 1983 by another European-style hit, “Solitaire,” originally done by another artist in France, and in 1984 Branigan had a smash with the title track from her third album, Self-Control. “Gloria” stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 36 weeks, at the time a record for a female artist.
Though she made her reputation by belting out danceable numbers, Branigan also had success with ballads such as 1987’s “Power of Love.” She modeled herself most after French torch singer Edith Piaf, whose life and career centered around the fifties and early 1960s.
Laura also contributed songs to films and television soundtracks, including the Grammy- and Academy Award-winning Flashdance soundtrack, the Ghostbusters soundtrack, and the Baywatch soundtrack, as well as having songs featured in the popular Grand Theft Auto video game series.
She quit performing in 1994 after her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died in 1996. In later years she continued to perform and record music, and dated the drummer in her band, Tommy Bayiokos. She spent most of her time, however, caring for her mother, Kathleen, 83, who had Alzheimer’s, while gardening and cooking for friends.
She also played Janis Joplin in the Broadway American musical “Love, Janis” in 2002, but soon dropped out for equity reasons. She was happy about that, since she did not feel comfortable imitating Janis Joplin’s unique voice with 19 of her songs in the play.
She died in her sleep from an undiagnosed brain aneurysm on August 26, 2004, after complaining about headaches for several weeks.