Fame, Then Death For Singer -- Nancy Lamott's Breakthrough Came As She Was Dying Of Cancer

------------------------------------------------------------------ AS HER FRIENDS and family will testify, Nancy LaMott was an imperfect person as well as a phenomenal talent. That combination, they insist, is why the cabaret singer's final album, "Listen to my Heart," has touched so many listeners. ------------------------------------------------------------------

NEW YORK - This was it: She had the brass ring.

Suddenly, all the long nights in half-empty cabarets vanished in a burst of "overnight success." The searching, but never finding, melted away with the at-long-last look in her new husband's eyes. For a moment, even wretched illness could not touch her.

In the last hour of her life, Nancy LaMott had everything she ever craved: fame, fortune, love, family, talent, passion, beauty, peace. The 43-year-old singer was unique, uniquely gifted, even in death.

"What is so compelling is that, down to the day . . . she proved that you can be full of warts, have a scarred-up body, . . . make mistake after mistake, AND still you can be beautiful and brave," says Peter Zapp, whom LaMott married a little more than an hour before she succumbed to uterine cancer last December.

Gathered around her at the hospital were dozens of people who understood what she and they were losing. "Yes, yes, yes," she said to the priest who wed the couple even as Nancy was dying.

"She is a testament that you don't have to give up or be bitter. There is hope for happiness. You can have a dream," says Zapp, an actor who did not know that his dream, Nancy, would be gone seven months after they met.

Nancy LaMott would be the first to cringe at a saintly epitaph. She was never so simple.

Oh, there was the gift, those gloriously clear notes, the intimacy she brought to classic tunes by Mercer, Berlin, Gershwin, all the greats. But her art lay in what lifted them, the raw realness, the instinct and guts that suffused the tiny, blue-eyed woman's lifetime of song.

`Just a damned good person'

Her dad struggles a minute.

"She was just a damned good person," says Jack LaMott, a retired Dow Chemical supervisor whose weekend band gave Nancy her start. He remembers her as a father would - for her slobby habits, the fattening foods she loved, the easy way in which she unconditionally loved.

"I was always tough on her. Really tough. She'd say, `I'm doing such and such a club this week.' And I'd say, `Is that a good club? I've never heard of it.' She'd say, `Yeah, Dad, it's a good club.'

"Finally, I said one day, `Things must be going pretty good, because you haven't asked for any money lately.' "

" `You know, Dad,' she said. `I'm pretty good at what I do.' "

And she was.

When she died in late 1995, Nancy LaMott had a quarter-million dollars' worth of contracts for 1996. Kathie Lee Gifford had become a huge booster, promoting her at every opportunity. She'd played the White House twice in recent months, so touching President Clinton that his call was among the last she received in the hospital.

But just as her career was on a wild upward spiral, cancer was taking her down. Illness was no stranger to LaMott, who at 17 was diagnosed with the chronic, chronically miserable bowel disorder known as Crohn's disease.

When she took center stage, it was despite unrelenting pain, fatigue, arthritis and diarrhea. She sang through the steroid treatments and extended hospital stays. Sometimes it was a struggle just to remain standing.

Only recently recovered from an intestinal operation that had given her a new lease on life, LaMott delayed cancer treatment, close friends say, in order to make an album she sensed would be her last.

"Listen to My Heart" is that final legacy. With full orchestra, she recorded it in two remarkable days. Like that, the pain went away. She had things she simply had to say.

Since her death, Midder Music, a home-grown label based at the Upper West Side apartment where Nancy LaMott lived, has been swamped daily with hundreds of calls and fond letters. More than 100,000 copies of the album - an astounding figure for a cabaret artist - have sold since its release in October, and posthumous CDs already are in the works.

"People are calling me at night, saying, `I know this is weird. I've never done anything like this, but I just had to talk to somebody who knew her,' " says Scott Barnes, LaMott's manager and dear friend.

"There was something very different about the way Nancy dealt with her career and people. It was very much about being connected."

A heart-rending goodbye

Her last performance, a haunting rendition of "Moon River," was on Charles Grodin's CNBC cable talk show. When Barnes and his partner David Friedman, who produced all five of Nancy's albums, look into her eyes on the video playback, they see now that she knew what they didn't.

"She was nine days away from death. I don't know how we couldn't have seen it," says Friedman, who promised Nancy that he would not rest until the whole world heard her sing. "I didn't see what she knew: `Moon River' is about that last trip she would make."

On the frigid February night of her public memorial, it wouldn't have been surprising if only a handful of people turned out. And yet there they were, hundreds of friends and fans wrapped around a midtown Manhattan block.

The place echoed with laughter, tears, irreverent jokes and solemn silence as she sang, her unlined face filling a big screen, her sweet voice filling the void.

"`Make no mistake about it: The girl could be infuriating, undisciplined, pigheaded, incredibly manipulative and stubborn," said Barnes, one of many friends who shared remembrances that night.

"But her innate goodness, genuine sweetness, courage, wicked sense of humor, deep capacity for trust and emotion - and that remarkable talent - managed to outweigh any difficulties."

Music ran in the family

Nancy LaMott knew early on that she was made to sing. She grew up in Midland, Mich., her brother's best friend. Together, they made their way through childhood and divorce. Mutual love was their constant.

It was the tail-end of the swing era. Their dad's band set the stage, playing live on the radio and at nightclubs back when jugglers, strippers, magicians and comedians still made Midwestern stands.

"We'd stay up with baby-sitters and listen to the first hour of the radio show," says LaMott's brother, Brett, now a chef in San Francisco. "Dad would bring the band back to the house, and Nan and I would get up at 3 in the morning and have breakfast with them."

Nancy and Brett made their way west to San Francisco, she singing and he accompanying her on drums.

They bunked together, playing clubs through the late 1970s. She sold out everywhere, if on a small scale. But it wasn't a living.

She never had money enough for a decent haircut, never had money enough to pay off her debts. The life was tough, often exhausting, except when she was out there on stage.

Christopher Marlowe, Nancy's piano accompanist from 1985 until her death, saw the singer through good times and bad.

"Nancy and I started out with very little to go on, except talent and the desire to do this," he said. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to go there - where I was with her - again."

`Trust the wind, breathe the air'

There were many Nancy Lamotts, and each of them held a special place in someone's heart.

She was LaMottski, the bawdy character who was constantly broke and having a bad hair day. She was Nance, the Michigan girl-next-door who wore glasses, avoided make-up, baked snickerdoodles. She was LaMott the diva, demanding and mercurial, phenomenally gifted and frustratingly lazy.

"A perfect person could not have sung the way this woman did," says Barnes.

Often, she didn't know where she was going. That's not unusual. What was unusual was the way in which she led with her heart.

"She was the magnet standing at the center of us all. She pulled us all in. She taught people how to love," says Friedman, an accomplished composer and conductor best known for his Disney animated-film scores.

"I was unable to write after Nancy died," he says. Then, all at once the voice came to him while walking down Broadway a few weeks ago:

"It tells me,

"Trust the wind, breathe the air

"There's a place you're meant to be

"And you're already there

"Open up your heart and let life in

"You know that you can always trust the wind"

Friedman did not offer to produce albums for Nancy LaMott as a career move, though he knew she was a rare talent. He did it because he was compelled . . . by an indefinable connection.

"You don't have to know the way you're going all the time," says Barnes. "Nancy knew this. It's an illusion that there are other paths or other doors. There's only the door you open and the path that you take."