By Randy Lewis
Any other musical artist might have justifiably second-guessed her judgment when powers that be told her that a pet project she was itching to take on would constitute “career suicide.” But Linda Ronstadt was never any other artist, and when she ran up against that very response to some of her ideas, her response was something more akin to “What…. again?”
Linda’s storied career was launched in the mid-1960s in Los Angeles, where she and two friends formed the Stone Poneys. Within a short period of time, they hopped on the Billboard charts with the 1967 hit “Different Drum,” and that song title has aptly described her musical journey.
Ronstadt’s path time and again has been forged in service of songs she wanted to sing, and authentic emotions she wanted to share, not stratagems for career advancement.
Indeed, she was warned about torpedoing her career in 1980 when she’d had enough of life as “the Queen of Rock” of the 1970s and headed to New York to sing the dazzlingly constructed 19th century pop-operatic songs of Gilbert & Sullivan for theater impresario Joseph Papp.
It’s what she heard again a few years later when she shifted her focus to pre-rock pop standards of the Great American Songbook, well before that musical treasure trove became a crowded playground for the rock generation.
And it’s what she was told yet again when she insisted on recording — in Spanish — the traditional songs of Mexico she grew up loving in her Mexican American family in Tucson, Arizona, long before she bolted for Los Angeles to chase a life in pop music.
A consummately talented vocalist initially greeted in the record business as little more than just another pretty face, Ronstadt moved effortlessly from the folk-rock of the Stone Poneys through primordial Southern California country rock as a solo artist to a hit-after-hit decade in the ’70s during which she became arguably the most important female singer in rock.
She was virtually untouchable through a remarkable creative and commercial streak of five platinum and multi-platinum albums in the second half of that decade: “Heart Like a Wheel” (1974), “Prisoner in Disguise” (1975), “Hasten Down the Wind” (1976), “Simple Dreams (1977), “Living in the USA” (1978), and “Mad Love (1980).
They provided the basis for her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the same year that President Barack Obama presented her the National Medal of Arts at the White House.
For her extraordinarily diverse body of work across four decades, she has received lifetime achievement awards from the Recording Academy in 2016, the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington D.C. in 2019, and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s annual Legend Award in 2020.
In a business often defined by its penchant for staying the course rather than pushing into new frontiers, Ronstadt stepped consistently to the insistent beat of her heart, mind and soul as she took on a dizzying array of musical ventures.
Her star turn in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” was a hit on Broadway and led to her lead role in the 1983 film version alongside Kevin Kline and Rex Smith.
“What’s New,” the first of three albums of pop standards with celebrated arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle, shot to No. 3 on Billboard’s pop album chart in 1983, remained on that chart for 81 weeks and has been certified triple platinum by the Recording Industry Assn of America.
Likewise, “Canciones de Mi Padre,” her 1987 album paying homage to music she learned from her parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins as a child, remains the biggest selling non-English language album in U.S. music history with sales of more than 2 million copies, spawning two more hit Spanish-language collections: “Mas Canciones” (1990) and the Afro-Cuban inflected “Frenesi” (1992). Those albums brought her superstar status in the Spanish-speaking world as well.
Career suicide never looked so good.
Yet at each turn, Ronstadt was cautioned against abandoning the music that had been her bread and butter and made her a rock star capable of filling sports stadiums and arenas.
“I finally had enough hits to be in the position of saying ‘Here’s what you’re going to get,'” she recalled recently about moving forward with “Canciones de Mi Padre,” a project that nearly sent some of her record company executives into apoplexy.
Ronstadt’s instincts, of course, were proven correct: “Canciones de Mi Padre” is a shining testament to music that shaped her musical tastes and informed so much of the music that brought her to remarkable peaks of fame–something she never aspired to directly.
In her 2013 memoir “Simple Dreams,” Ronstadt wrote that she was all of 4 years old when it struck her that she wanted to spend her life as a singer.
“It’s weird, but that’s what I thought,” Ronstadt, 67, told me in 2013. “I didn’t think I was a famous singer. I didn’t think I was a star, or that I could make the waters part — just that singing was what I was going to do. I thought maybe one day I’d get a job singing in a nightclub, and that would be cool.”
But fame did come calling: She was among the first women rock artists to make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine; she recorded with pop and rock royalty artists, from Frank Sinatra to Aaron Neville, from James Taylor and Don Henley to Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton . She even propelled her backing band into the stratosphere when she gave guitarist-singer-songwriters Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner her blessing to go out on their own, and the Eagles quickly took flight.
Across the string of solo albums that began in 1969 with “Hand Sown…Home Grown” after the Stone Poneys disbanded, Ronstadt quickly proved herself a connoisseur of songs.
She consistently zeroed in on and helped launch the careers of soon-to-be songwriting icons such as Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Karla Bonoff, J.D. Souther, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Eric Kaz, Lowell George, John Hiatt and numerous others.
Over time, she demonstrated herself a singer equally adept at country, rock, American R&B and soul music with authoritative versions of Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby,” Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy,” the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” and Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You.” In fact, her version of Williams’ country classic earned Ronstadt the first of her 12 career Grammy Awards, from among her lifetime 26 nominations.
Although she often dazzled listeners with the sheer power of her clear voice in gutsy renditions of songs such the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” Clint Ballard Jr.’s “You’re No Good” and Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” Ronstadt always sounded most fully at home in heart-wrenching ballads of love lost, regained or never realized.
The quintessential example of that facet of her talent may be the title song of her 1974 commercial breakthrough album, “Heart Like a Wheel,” the song written by Canada’s McGarrigle sisters.
Her discovery of the song, and the road to recording it, also perfectly illustrate her artistic sensibility: She’d been introduced to the song in the early-’70s by singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, who had recently heard the McGarrigles sing it at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Walker sang her the first verse while they were sharing a cab ride one early morning in New York:
Some say the heart is just like a wheel
When you bend it, you can’t mend itAnd my love for you is like a sinking ship
And my heart is on that ship out on mid-ocean
“I went, ‘Oh my God,’ I thought it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard,” she recounted to me in 2010, shortly after Kate McGarrigle died. Yet, producer after producer nixed her expressed wish to record it.
“I was dying to do this song. But nobody thought I should do it. I finally put it on the shelf,” she said. “Sometime later I was rehearsing with [singer-songwriter-producer] Andrew Gold, getting ready to play at Carnegie Hall … and he started playing it. I went, ‘Oh my God, you know that song?’ And the next night I sang it at Carnegie Hall. “Peter Asher had just taken on the job of being my manager, and he was knocked out,” Ronstadt said. “That’s why I wanted to work with Peter–because he understood the McGarrigles.”
“Heart Like a Wheel” became the first of Ronstadt’s three albums to reach No. 1 in Billboard, and set her on a sustained run of sales chart and radio airplay domination for years.
When punk rock and new wave music stole some of the spotlight away from mainstream rock music in the late-1970s, Ronstadt quickly latched on to the music of one of England’s most accomplished young talents, Elvis Costello, new waver Billy Steinberg and several of their peers for songs on her edgy ’80s albums “Mad Love” and “Get Closer.”
Yet she remained musically restless, unfulfilled by the relentless demands of the road and often-dispiriting concerts in massive facilities not designed for the nuances of musical expression at which she was so adept. Then there was the attitudinal straightjacket she felt in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
“I never felt that rock ‘n’ roll defined me,” she told me in 2013. “There was an unyielding attitude that came with the music that involved being confrontational, dismissive and aggressive — or, as my mother would say, ungracious. …
“I cringe when I think of some of the times I was less than gracious. It wasn’t how I was brought up, and I didn’t wear the attitude well,” she said. “Being considered, for a period in the ‘70s, as the Queen of Rock made me uneasy, as my musical devotions often lay elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere” became the music of Gilbert & Sullivan, then the elegant jazz and pop standards she explored so successfully with celebrated arranger Nelson Riddle in “What’s New” in 1983 and its two successors, “Lush Life” the following year and “For Sentimental Reasons” in 1986.
Her catholic musical artistry made her the only artist with Grammys in pop, country, folk, children’s music, Mexican American and Tropical Latin fields. But that diversity may also have been a factor in the delay on her welcome into the Rock Hall of Fame: it took the organization more than two decades to draft her after she became eligible in 1992.
None of which mattered a whit to her.
“It’s like other awards that have come my way,” she told me in 2014 when her Rock hall induction was announced. “I’m delighted to get them, and I’m very grateful. But I didn’t work for that reason.”
Reaching her commercial peak in the ’70s. when women in the music business were most often relegated to a spot behind a microphone, or occasionally at a piano keyboard, Ronstadt also worked side-by-side with her producers and engineers in the studio as her natural curiosity led her to learn all she could about making records. She often called shots during production and mastering, yet without formal credit for her role in the technical aspects of her always meticulous recordings.
That leadership has manifested itself in other projects as well. For the last thirty-five years she has supported Los Cenzontles, a Cultural Arts Academy in the Bay Area, an organization founded by Eugene Rodriguez which teaches traditional Mexican music and dance to young students.
Linda Ronstadt has viewed music as one of the necessities of life– as elemental as food, air and water.
“Don’t delegate your art to professionals,” she has said, a stance she shared with the McGarrigles.
That attitude was baked into Ronstadt’s DNA. Her father was a singer of some acclaim and his father, Federico, or Fred, Ronstadt, also was a musician who often serenaded the extended family.
Indeed, Fred Ronstadt created one of Tucson’s first professional musical organizations in the late 1800s when he created Club Filarmonico Tucsonense, which played weekly concerts across the region during the final decade of that century.
Among her grandfather’s favorites was a forlorn ballad “A La Orilla de Un Palmar,” (At the Edge of a Palm Grove), which Linda recorded with longtime friend Ry Cooder and Ireland’s The Chieftains for their 2010 album “San Patricio.”
Fred’s influence figured in when Linda announced her plan to drop out from the University of Arizona and head to Los Angeles, inspired in part by the music of the Byrds she was hearing on the radio.
“[They] were playing folk rock, a new hybrid taking hold on the West Coast,” she wrote in her memoir. “As soon as I heard their creamy harmonies, I was mesmerized. It was clear to me that music was happening on a whole different level in Los Angeles. I began making plans to move to L.A. at the end of the spring semester.”
At first, her parents resisted. But they quickly came up against the same steely, unyielding determination their daughter would exhibit throughout her career. So they acquiesced. Her father even presented her with an 1898 Martin guitar that Fred Ronstadt had previously gifted to him, along with $30 in cash and the same words his father spoke when he received the instrument: “Ahora tienes guitarra, nunca tienes hambre (Now that you have a guitar, you will never be hungry).”
It was a significant move for her. Emphasis on education ran deep in the Ronstadt family: her great-grandfather, Frederick Augustus Ronstadt, was a German-born engineer who immigrated to Mexico, married and started a family in the state of Sonora. He provided for his son Federico’s education, insisting on music training early on as part of that experience.
It was the same story on her mother’s side. Ruth Mary had studied math and physics at the University of Arizona–a rarity for women of her generation but an example of the passion for intellectual pursuit her daughter inherited. In conversation, Linda Ronstadt is as well-versed in the ins and outs of social, cultural and political theory as she is in the biochemistry of the human brain and the songwriting genius of Chuck Berry.
When she first reached L.A., she joined a friend from Arizona who had preceded her there, Bobby Kimmel, and another musician they met, Kenny Edward. They formed the Stone Poneys and delved into the exhilarating folk-rock-country scene that was incubating acts such as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Arthur Lee & Love and Rick Nelson’s avant-country Stone Canyon Band.
As much as she admired the musicians she was meeting, they were quickly impressed with the young singer from Tucson.
“She’s one of the few pop artists who could make a country album with Dolly [Parton] and Emmylou [Harris], then do standards with Nelson Riddle and in between throw in the mariachi songs,” Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman told me several years ago. “She knew the music, and she could sing.”
Although it wasn’t visible to many at the time, in part because of her fair complexion and German surname, the impact on Ronstadt of the Mexican love songs her father often sang, along with the broad range of music her mother, brother Peter and sister Suzy often interpreted, and the opera recordings she heard regularly across the street at her grandparents’ house can’t be underestimated.
“There was no TV, the radio couldn’t wander around with you because it was tethered to the wall, and we didn’t get enough allowance to buy concert tickets,” she wrote. “In any case, there weren’t many big acts playing in Tucson, so if we wanted music, we had to make our own. The music I heard in those two houses before I was 10 provided me with material to explore for my entire career.”
What she absorbed by osmosis from Mexican music taught her how to tap the deepest of emotions, an ability she would apply so exquisitely to the songs of Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Jimmy Webb , the McGarrigles, Karla Bonoff and others decades later when she emerged as one of the defining voices of the rock era.
“Mexican music opened the doors to everything: classical music, jazz and passion,” Ronstadt said. “From that I learned how to sing in a joyous way about terrible sorrow. It taught me what joy is: Joy is a transcendent state, and I learned that from Mexican music. Joy isn’t happiness; it’s transcending the horrific.”
Throughout her career, Linda Ronstadt has prized community over competition, collaboration over egocentrism.
Some of her most celebrated and popular records were those she made with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton for their “Trio” albums in 1987 and 1999. Her “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions” 1999 duet album teamed her again with Harris; and she logged more hit singles featuring James Ingram–“Somewhere Out There” from the animated film “An American Tail”–and New Orleans music icon Aaron Neville on “Don’t Know Much,” which earned them the 1989 Grammy Award for best duo or group pop vocal.
Then there was her pairing with Frank Sinatra, late in his career for the 1994 album “Duets II.”
“The Frank Sinatra duet took me all day,” she recalled in 2014 of their version of Karl Suessdorf and John Blackburn’s “Moonlight in Vermont.” The Chairman of the Board was 79, and she conceded that, “His voice was faltering at that point, but he’s such a great singer that even when his voice was faltering he had such great colors, and as a singer he was still dangerous.
“I think his voice sounded a lot like my dad’s”– which she has described as a cross between Sinatra’s and that of Mexican pop idol Pedro Infante–“and it’s a voice I knew so well that I felt I would know how to shade in with his coloring,” she said. “To sing with Frank Sinatra in any capacity at all is overwhelming. …I love the way [that duet] came out. I heard he apparently liked it a lot too.”
Esteem for her runs deep throughout the music community, and has often bubbled up in public.
Glenn Frey handled her induction speech at the 2014 Rock Hall ceremony, and artists who feted her musically included Harris, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Carrie Underwood.
At a 2016 benefit tribute concert in Los Angeles benefiting research into Parkinson’s Disease, the lineup of artists paying homage to Ronstadt included old pals Henley and Browne, Aaron Neville and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley. Acolytes from successive generations were there as well: alt-country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, indie rock musician Grace Potter, Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno, L.A. rock band Dawes and Southern California sibling roots musicians Sean and Sara Watkins.
Having liberated herself from the shackles of a “Queen of Rock” persona, Ronstadt carved out one of the most impressively expansive trajectories in pop music, one that also found room for a 1996 album of pop hits rendered as lullabies, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” for which she collected the children’s music Grammy Award.
She put her imprint on collection of holidays songs with “A Merry Little Christmas” in 2000, delved fully into jazz with “Hummin’ to Myself” in 2004 and recorded her final album in 2006, a disarmingly intimate duet project with Cajun music singer, songwriter and historian Ann Savoy, “Adieu False Heart.”
She gave her final concert performance in 2009, and in 2013 went public with her diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, an assessment later updated to PSP (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy).
Since retiring from performing, Ronstadt has devoted considerable time and resources to supporting and mentoring others. For nearly three decades, she has been a powerful advocate of the Cultural Academy, Los Cenzontles and its students for their efforts to preserve and promote the cultural traditions that were so important in her life.
A 2019 documentary on her life and career, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” premiered to rave reviews at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and won a Grammy as Best Music Film.
PCH Films, which produced that film, also made a second documentary, “Linda and the Mockingbirds,” inspired by a road trip Ronstadt made in 2019 with Jackson Browne and nearly two dozen members of the Los Cenzontles troupe to Banámichi, Sonora, Mexico, the town where her grandfather was born. It was released Oct. 20 by Shout! Studios for digital distribution and began streaming in November, 2020 on HBO Max and HBO Latino.
Discussing the 2019 release of her “Live in Hollywood” album that had remained on the shelf since it was recorded in 1980, her former producer, manager and longtime friend Peter Asher crystallized the qualities that yielded so many iconic hit singles and albums, sparked so many vibrant musical collaborations and a half-century long string of critical and institutional accolades.
“I make no bones about it,” Asher told me at that time. “I’ve worked with some extraordinary female singers in my time: all instantly identifiable voices like Diana Ross, Cher, [10,000 Maniacs’] Natalie Merchant–people who sing two notes and you know immediately who it is. But of all the people I’ve worked with, for sheer knock-your-socks-off singing, I’ll take Linda.”
Randy Lewis covered pop music as staff writer and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1981-2020