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).
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