Linda Ronstadt has said that “all girl singers” eventually “have to curtsy to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.” Of Maria Callas, Ronstadt says, “There’s no one in her league. That’s it. Period. I learn more … about singing rock n roll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays. … She’s the greatest chick singer ever.”
For those of you who might not have been around in her heyday, Linda Ronstadt was a force. I usually end these posts with the accomplishments but I’ll begin this one with hers:
She has earned eleven Grammy Awards, three American Music Awards, two Academy of Country Music awards, an Emmy Award, and an ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Award, (Ronstadt’s father was of Mexican heritage. She recorded three albums in Spanish, one of which – Canciones de Mi Padre – won a Grammy and is the biggest selling non-English language album in American record history.)
She was awarded the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award by The Latin Recording Academy in 2011 and also awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. She was inducted (by Glenn Frey) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2014.
On July 28, 2014, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts and Humanities. In 2019, she will receive a joint star with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for their work as the group Trio.
In total, she has released over 30 studio albums and charted 38 Billboard Hot 100 singles, with 21 reaching the top 40, 10 in the top 10, three at number 2, and “You’re No Good” at number 1. In addition, she has charted 36 albums, 10 top-10 albums and three number 1 albums on the Billboard Pop Album Chart.
Ronstadt has collaborated with artists in diverse genres, from Bette Midler to Frank Zappa* to Warren Zevon and Gram Parsons. She has lent her voice to over 120 albums and has sold more than 100 million records, making her one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time. (And may I also add there were exactly zero guys who did not have a crush on Ms. Linda. Although that said, while well aware of her sex appeal she always gave off a “just a musician, one of the guys vibe.”)
Linda Maria Ronstadt was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. Her family was musical and she grew up singing. “I loved to sing and I loved music and the house was always full of it. We started singing together… my sister and brother and I started a trio kind of thing when I was in high school.
We used to sing backup for country music sessions a lot and then we used to also sing a lot on our own; make some little country records in studios. There’s a lot of country records that came out of Arizona… Phoenix, especially. We used to sing on these little TV shows and little things like that. It was fun and good experience, too. That’s how I met Bobby Kimmel before the Stone Poneys. He was playing bass for us. And he and I would sing together sometimes.
But I finally decided to move to California. I was 17 or 18, and I decided firmly that I really wanted to sing and anything else would be wasting my time. I told my parents and they said: ‘Oh… she’s leaving the nest.’ But they were really groovy about it. In fact, they gave me 30 bucks (about $250 in today’s money). And then off I went, with this old boyfriend of mine- he was a steel guitarist. All steel guitarists are crazy. And the two of us sought fortune and fame!”
I remember once reading an interview with her where she said she didn’t bother learning math as what good would it do her as she was going to be a singer. The following is from an October 1970 interview with her in a periodical called Country Song Roundup. (Asked who she was listening to she said she loved The Beatles, Dylan, and The Band.)
CSR: If you hadn’t become a singer what do you think you would have been?
Linda: I don’t know really. When I was two years old I decided I’d like to sing. I started school and decided I hated it and totally ignored it. I didn’t finish high school and I didn’t finish college so I was never able to do anything else. I suppose if I couldn’t sing, I’d have to scrub floors. That’s ok because I’m pretty good at that.
CSR: Did you come from a musical family?
Linda: My father’s a real good singer, and my brother’s a real good pianist, he writes songs. I play the guitar but none of them do it professionally because they got married. They’re all dummies and maybe they were smarties I don’t know. They probably came out on the good end of the stick they all have regular lives, a home and a family. Somebody nice around to take care of them. They never have to go on the road. . .
Moving to Los Angeles in 1964 when she was 17, she, Kimmel and a guy named Kenny Edwards formed a folk-rock unit called the Stone Poneys. (Their name came from Delta Blues singer Charley Patton’s 1929 song “The Stone Pony Blues.”)
It took several years of kicking around but on their second album, released in June 1967, they hit paydirt with a Michael Nesmith-penned tune called “Different Drum.” The producers decided to go with a more complex arrangement and – as so often happens in these cases – studio musicians (including Jim Gordon) were used and Ronstadt is the only Stone Poney actually on the tune.
This song was all over the radio back in 1967:
Ronstadt’s first solo album Hand Sown … Home Grown was released in March 1969. Weirdly, both the guys who were in the Stone Poneys play on this album so I guess somebody decided, well she’s the draw not them. If you’ve never heard early Ronstadt it will probably surprise you to hear just how country she was back then. From song to song she seems to vacillate between sounding like Dolly Parton, herself and folkie Joan Baez. The album went nowhere but there’s some pretty good stuff on it.
Here she is doing Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight:”
Ronstadt’s second solo album, Silk Purse, provided her with her first real hit since “Different Drum.” It’s a song about unrequited love (is there anything more painful?) called “Long, Long Time” and if Ronstadt doesn’t break your heart here you have no heart to break:
I can’t say you hurt me when you never let me near
And I never drew one response from you
All the while you fell all over girls you never knew
‘Cause I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine
And I think it’s gonna hurt me for a long long time
Next (and final) post – Ronstadt gets herself a backing band who realize they sound pretty good together.
*Zappa: “In 1967, we were living in New York, and I got a request from an advertising agency. See, I did one commercial in ’67 for Luden’s Cough Drops, and that got an award. It got a CLIO for the best music in a commercial in ’67. Then I got this request from Remington. They were looking for some kind of a ‘new sound’ for their commercials. (laughter)
So, Linda Ronstadt happened to be managed by Herb Cohen, who was our manager at the time, and they supplied me with this advertising copy, and they wanted music for it. So, Ian Underwood and I put together this track, and Linda did the vocal on top of it, and we made a demo. They paid a thousand dollars for the demo, and that was the last I ever heard from ’em. They didn’t like what I did.” Hard to believe an ad of Zappa weirdness that says, ‘shave and you won’t get busted’ didn’t make the cut. Enjoy it here.
Sources: Wikipedia, Hit Parader, Country Song Roundup