You’re So Good, Baby, You’re So Good

A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt

The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.

Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.

Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).

Linda Ronstadt Feb 2019
Linda Ronstadt in Feb 2019

And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.

When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.

In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!

After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.

During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.

In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.

If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.

I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.

Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.

In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”

While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube

My Playlist: Joe Walsh

Once asked about Joe Walsh, Eric Clapton said, “I don’t listen to many records, but I listen to his.” Or how about Jimmy Page? “I’ve loved his style since the early James Gang,” noting his “tremendous feel” for the guitar. And, as Walsh’s bio on his website adds, this praise from two of the greatest guitar icons on the planet came even before he joined the Eagles, my introduction to Walsh. I still get goosebumps to this day when listening to the solo with Don Felder on Hotel California, one of the most epic moments in rock music. Do I really need more reasons to justify a Walsh playlist?

Joe Fidler Walsh was born in Wichita, Kan. on November 20, 1947. His mother was an avid piano player who brought music into the family’s humble home before Joe was old enough to discover rock n’ roll on the radio. Though he had played guitar in a high school cover band and a popular Kent, Ohio bar band while in college, Joe really came into his own in 1968, when he joined the Cleveland-based James Gang. In March 1969, they released their debut Yer’ Album, which became a staple on FM radio. The sophomore James Gang Rides Again from July 1970, included Funk #49, which despite initial moderate success has become a rock classic.

In 1972, Walsh left James Gang, finding the band’s trio format too constraining only to form another trio later that year, Barnstorm. In addition to Walsh (guitar, keyboards), the band included his college buddy Joe Vitale (drums, flute, keyboards) and Kenny Passarelli (bass). Their record company decided to market their albums as Joe Walsh solo records, which eventually became a source of increasing frustration for Walsh and one of the reasons Barnstorm disbanded.

Eagles 1977
Eagles in 1977 (from left): Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey and Don Felder

In December 1974, Walsh released his first true solo album So What, which featured contributions from Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner of the Eagles, the band Walsh joined the following year to replace founding member Bernie Leadon. Walsh appeared on the Eagles’ studio albums Hotel California (December 1976), The Long Run (September 1979) and Long Road Out Of Eden (October 2007). He was part of the band’s reunion in 1994 and remains a member to this day. In addition to his various band projects, Walsh has also released 12 solo studio albums (including two Barnstorm records) and a live album to date. Time for some music.

What better tune to kick things off than the above mentioned Funk #49, a kick ass rocker co-written by Walsh and fellow James Gang members Jim Fox (drums, vocals, percussion, keyboards) and Dale Peters (bass, vocals, guitars, keyboards, percussion). “I came up with the basic guitar lick,” Walsh said according to Songfacts quoting the book The Guitar Greats. “It was a real good example of how we put things together, bearing in mind that it was a three piece group, and I don’t think that there was any overdubbing. The only thing we really added was the percussion middle part, which the three of us actually played, putting some parts on top of the drums, but that’s the three piece James Gang, and that’s the energy and kind of the symmetry we were all about.”

Rocky Mountain Way appeared on Barnstorm’s second album The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, which as previously noted was marketed as Walsh’s second solo record. The song is credited to Walsh, Vitale, Passarelli and Rocke Grace, who had joined the band as a keyboarder. One of the best known Walsh tunes, the track peaked at no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Next up: Welcome To The Club, the opener to So What, Walsh’s first true solo album from December 1974. This is another nice rocker!

For the aforementioned reasons, I was very tempted to include the title track from Hotel California in this playlist. Instead, I decided to feature Life In The Fast Lane, my second favorite tune from the Eagles’ fifth studio album that appeared in December 1976. Walsh came up with the signature guitar riff, while Henley and Frey co-wrote the lyrics. The song became the record’s third single, reaching no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In-between Hotel California and the next Eagles album The Long Run, Walsh released another solo record in May 1978. But Seriously, Folks… includes his most successful solo hit: Life’s Been Good. Here’s the full close to 9-minute album version of the hilarious take on the excesses rock stardom. It also appeared as a 4 1/2-minute single, which climbed to no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In The City is a tune co-written by Walsh and Barry De Vorzon from The Long Run, which appeared in September 1979 and was the Eagles’ final studio album until 2007’s Long Road Out Of Eden. It is one of the few Eagles tunes on which Walsh is also handling lead vocals. He had first recorded the song in 1979 for the soundtrack of the motion picture The Warriors.

In March 1981, Walsh released his next solo album, There Goes The Neighborhood. It featured a smoother sound and would become his final commercial and critical success for more than 25 years. Here’s Rivers (Of The Hidden Funk), a track Walsh originally had co-written with Don Felder for the Eagles’ The Long Run album that didn’t make the record. Felder appeared as a guest on talk box guitar.

After five additional solo albums that were not well received, Walsh took a 20-year break before resurfacing in June 2012 with Analog Man, his most recent solo effort. Co-produced by Jeff Lynne, the album features an impressive array of guests, who in addition to Lynne include Ringo Starr, Graham Nash, David Crosby and Little Richard, along with former Barnstorm members Kenny Passarelli and Joe Vitale, and former James Gang members Jim Fox and Dale Peters. In a May 2012 interview with The Huffington Post (now called HuffPost), Walsh said about Lynne, “Gradually, we worked on some stuff and checked out some of his stuff too. It ended up that he really helped me finish it up and ended up producing. He really put his stamp on my music and took it in a direction I never would have gone, and I’m really grateful to him.” The album reached no. 12 on the Billboard 200. Here’s the title track co-written by Walsh, Drew Hester and Gannin Arnold

To say Joe Walsh has had an eventful life would be an understatement. In addition to a 50-plus-year professional career, he has been married five times. His current wife is Marjorie Bach, sister of Barbara Bach and sister-in-law of Ringo Starr. Walsh battled alcohol and drug addiction for much of his early career but has been sober since 1995. In 1998, Walsh was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Eagles. He is currently touring with the band in Europe. Starting in late September, they are playing three gigs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, during which they will perform Hotel California in its entirety, the band’s only scheduled dates in North America so far this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, Joe Walsh website, Songfacts, HuffPost, YouTube

New Tom Petty Box Set Works Because It’s Not A Greatest Hits Or Typical Anthology Compilation

An American Treasure focuses on previously unreleased material, including alternate takes, deep cuts and live versions

When you see a box set being issued one year after the death of a widely beloved music artist like Tom Petty, you can’t entirely escape the cynical notion that somebody is trying to make a quick buck here. And while I’m sure Reprise Records wouldn’t mind, should An American Treasure turn out to be a hot seller, this box set is neither a greatest hits compilation nor a typical anthology, and that’s a good thing! Instead, the career-spanning collection focuses on previously unreleased alternate song versions, live performances and deep cuts. Is it going to gain Tom Petty additional listeners post mortem? Probably not. Are longtime fans going to like it? I certainly do and think others will as well.

An American Treasure, which dropped on September 28, is the first release following Tom Petty’s untimely death on October 2, 2017 at age 66 – just one week after the triumphant conclusion of his 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers. I hate to sound like a broken record, but it still hurts and like so many other longtime fans, gosh, I miss him!

Tom Petty_Am American Treasure Formats

According to the official press release that announced the box set in July, Adria Petty and Dana Petty – Tom’s daughter and wife, respectively – were the key drivers behind this new collection. They teamed up with former Heartbreakers guitarist and keyboarder Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, as well as Ryan Ulyate, one of Petty’s studio collaborators. Campbell, Tench and Ulyate co-produced the box set, while Adria and Dana Petty served as executive producers.

“Everyone involved in this project chose each track with tremendous care and deep respect for the body of work Tom Petty created over the course of 40 years,” Adria and Dana Patty stated.  “He also accumulated a wealth of unreleased music in his vaults, and we have collectively uncovered one gem after another that will keep us all listening and discovering new facets of Tom’s talent for many years to come. We can’t wait to share with Tom’s fans this musical portrait of an artist who deeply affected our culture and indelibly touched the lives of fans the world over.”

Time for some music. Lost In Your Eyes is a previously unreleased single recorded during sessions in 1974 with Mudcrutch, Tom Petty’s band that preceded the Heartbreakers and included future members Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench  (keyboards). Tom Leadon (guitar and vocals), the brother of former Eagles lead guitarist Bernie LeadonJim Lenehan (vocals); and Randall Marsh (drums) rounded out the lineup. Petty was on bass and vocals.

Keep A Little Soul is a previously unreleased tune from the 1982 sessions for Long After Dark, the fifth studio album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released in November that year. It also appeared as the collection’s first single back in July when the box set was initially announced. Here’s a video featuring rare never-before-seen footage of the band.

In 1984, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded a demo with Stevie Nicks called The Apartment Song. Perhaps it was motivated by the Petty/Campbell co-write Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, which had appeared in July 1981 on Nicks’ studio debut Bella Donna, generating a U.S. hit that peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune, which must have been recorded around the same time the band was working on their sixth studio release Southern Accents, did not make that album or any other records, as far as I know.

Another collaboration on the box set is King Of The Hill, a song Roger McGuinn co-wrote with Petty. It became the lead single to McGuinn’s sixth studio album Back From Rio released in January 1991. The version on the box set is an early take from November 1987 – great tune!

In April 1999, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came out with their 10th studio album Echo. One track that was recorded during the sessions for the record but not included on the album or released separately is Gainesville, an autobiographic song about Petty’s home town: Home-grown, in the headphone/Sandy loadin’ up the van/Singin’ through the speakers/You’re alright anywhere you land/Gainesville was a big town/Gainesville was a big town…

The last track I’d like to highlight is another song related to Petty’s home state of Florida: Bus To Tampa Bay, yet another previously unreleased tune. It was recorded during the sessions for Hypnotic Eye, the final studio album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released in July 2014.

An American Treasure is available in various formats: A Super Deluxe Limited Edition 4-CD set, a 6-LP Vinyl Edition and a 2-CD Standard Edition. All of the recordings have been mixed by Ryan Ulyate from transfers of the original studio multitrack masters. They have been re-mastered by Chris Bellman, a sound engineer at Bernie Grundman Mastering, who has worked with artists like Diana Ross, Neil Young, Carole King, Duran Duran and Van Halen, among others.

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Petty website, YouTube

Great Music Isn’t Quite Dead Yet

Four coinciding releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry Cooder, John Mellencamp and Glenn Fry

Yesterday was a great day in music as far as I’m concerned. When was the last time you can remember new releases from four great artists coming out the same day? While admittedly sometimes I don’t recall what I did the previous day, I really couldn’t tell you. Sadly, when checking iTunes for new music, I usually see stuff I don’t care about, so why even bother? Well, part of me refuses to give up hope that amid all the mediocre crap that dominates the charts these days, I might find something I actually dig. This time I surely did, with new releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry CooderJohn Mellencamp and Glenn Frey.

Since I just wrote about Daltrey’s new single How Far from his upcoming solo album As Long As I Have You, I’m only briefly acknowledging it in this post. Based on this tune and the previously released title track, his new record surely looks very promising. It’s set to come out June 1, tough I have a feeling we might see a third single leading up to its release – really looking forward to this one!

Ry Cooder_The Prodigal Son

Ry Cooder’s new album The Prodigal Son is his 17th solo record and first new release in six years. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on his music – in fact, I know far too little about it. But here’s what I know. I’ve yet to hear bad music from this virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and I know good music when I hear it. And this it, baby, great music – plain and simple – no need to over-analyze!

The Prodigal Son is a beautiful collection of roots and gospel music. Eight of the 11 tunes are covers from artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Alfred Reed and Carter Stanley. All of the reviews I read noted the album represents a return all the way to the beginning of Cooder’s 50-year recording career. Asked by the Los Angeles Times why he decided to make a gospel-focused record, Cooder said, “In these times, all I can say, empathy is good, understanding is good, a little tolerance is good. We have these dark forces of intolerance and bigotry that are growing back…The gospel music has a nice way of making these suggestions about empathy…Plus I like the songs, I have to admit.” Well said!

Here’s a nice clip of the Blind Willie tune Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right – sadly, this couldn’t be more timely! Watching the maestro at work live in the studio is a real treat. By the way, the drummer is Cooder’s son Joachim, who has collaborated with him on several records and tours in the past and apparently was an important catalyst for the new record.

More frequent readers of the blog know that I’m a huge fan of John Mellencamp. His new release Plain Spoken: From The Chicago Theatre is a companion to a concert film that debuted on Netflix on February 1st. It captures a show Mellencamp performed at the landmark venue on October 25, 2016. The set features country singer Carlene Carter, with whom he has been on the road for several years and recorded the excellent 2017 collaboration album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.

John Mellencamp_Plain Spoken From The Chicago Theatre

The new DVD-CD set includes the original version of the Netflix film with commentary from Mellencamp throughout, a “non-commentary” version of the film, and a live CD of the concert. While I’ve only listened into some of the tunes from the CD via Apple Music, I certainly like what I’ve heard so far. Here’s a clip of Cherry Bomb, a track from the 1987 studio album The Lonesome Jubilee, one of my favorite Mellencamp records.

Last but not least, there’s Above The Clouds: The Collection, a new four-disc box set capturing the solo career of Glenn Frey. The set combines well known tunes like The Heat Is On, Smuggler’s Blues and You Belong To City with lesser known, deeper cuts and, perhaps most intriguingly, a copy of Longbranch Pennywhistle, a pre-Eagles 1969 album Frey recorded with J.D. Souther. The set also includes a DVD capturing footage from Frey gig in September 1992.

Glenn Frey_Above The Clouds Box Set

Admittedly, I had not been aware of Longbranch Pennywhistle, which according to Ultimate Class Rock until now had only been available on CD as an import. Frey and Souther also performed as a duo under that name, though it was a short-lived venture. Frey went on to co-found the Eagles in 1971, together with Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. Souther ended up co-writing some of the band’s best known tunes, such as Best Of My Love, Heartache Tonight and New Kid In Town. Here’s a clip of Run Boy, Run, one of the tracks from the Longbranch Pennywhistle album, which was written by Frey.

While Daltrey’s upcoming album is something to look forward to, I’m under no illusion that yesterday was an aberration. The days when great music releases were part of the mainstream are long gone. Still, why not enjoy the nice moment while it lasts!

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, NPR, John Mellencamp official website, USA Today, Ultimate Classic Rock, YouTube