I grew up singing Mexican music, and that’s based on indigenous Mexican rhythms. Mexican music also has an overlay of West African music, based on huapango drums, and it’s kind of like a 6/8 time signature, but it really is a very syncopated 6/8. And that’s how I attack vocals. ,,, If I didn’t hear it on the radio, or if my dad wasn’t playing it on the piano, or if my brother wasn’t playing it on the guitar or singing it in his boys’ choir, or my mother and sister weren’t practicing a Broadway tune or a Gilbert and Sullivan song, then I can’t do it today. It’s as simple as that. All of my influences and my authenticity are a direct result of the music played in that Tucson living room.
Linda Ronstadt: “[Producer] John Boylan was very active in helping me put a band together in those days. He knew all the musicians, and apparently, Don Henley had already sent him some songs he had written. He’d heard me sing, he’d heard my records, he wanted to meet me and he came to L.A. hoping he could, and he had written some songs he hoped maybe I’d record.
He sent them to John and they didn’t turn out to be good songs for me at the time, but I heard him play the drums when I was walking through the room at the Troubadour and I thought he was such a good drummer. He had country mixed with rock in a way that didn’t compromise either genre. So I said, ‘Let’s see if we can get him to play drums,’ and John went to talk to him and he said, ‘All right.’
So we hired [Henley] to play drums. And then I needed a guitar player. I couldn’t take Bernie Leadon ’cause he was working with the Flying Burrito Brothers, so I said ‘All right, I’ll get Glenn Frey. He can play really good guitar.’ I was living with J.D. Souther then, and [Frey] was J.D.’s music partner. They had a group called Longbranch Pennywhistle. They were kind of breaking up; they decided to go their separate ways, but they were still really good friends. So I asked Glenn if he would come on that tour with us.
In those days we didn’t have enough money to put people in separate rooms, so Glenn and Don were rooming together and they each discovered the other could sing and was a great songwriter. Glenn used to call Don his secret weapon. He said, ‘I’m gonna do a band with Don. We’re gonna do a band together.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’
So we all talked about it. John said, ‘I can help you do this. I can help you put this band together, and while you’re waiting to get a record deal, you can play with Linda and you can have a gig.’ It was one of those kinds of situations where it was in everybody’s advantage. So I suggested they get Bernie Leadon to play guitar ’cause I liked Bernie and John suggested that they get Randy Meisner, and that’s how the Eagles were formed.
They used to rehearse in my house, where I was living with J.D., ’cause we had a bigger living room than they did. And I remember coming home one day and they had rehearsed ‘Witchy Woman’ and they had all the harmonies worked out, four-part harmonies. It was fantastic. I knew it was gonna be a hit. You could just tell. They had really strong voices, really strong playing, really strong songwriting ideas and they had an extended pool of songwriters like Jack Tempchin and J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne. It was just an amazing time. There was no way they could miss with all that going for them.”
These four (Frey, Henley, Leadon, Meisner) played live together behind Ronstadt only once for a July concert at Disneyland but all four appeared on her eponymous January 1972 album. (The four guys later released their debut album in June of that year. Sources tell me they were quite successful on their own.)
From Linda Ronstadt, here is the Jackson Browne tune, “Rock Me On the Water:”
Despite all this firepower, Ronstadt could not catch a break and the album was a commercial failure. However, she started to get better gigs, opening for Neil Young and meeting future collaborator Emmylou Harris. She also met Peter Asher who became her manager (as well as James Taylor’s) and who had formerly been part of the British Invasion’s Peter and Gordon.
Asher was “hesitant at first to work with her because of her reputation for being a ‘woman of strong opinions (who) knew what she wanted to do (with her career.)’ But he got over this bias and later said, “To me, she was everything that feminism’s about.” Qualities which, Asher has stated, were considered a “negative (in a woman at that time), whereas in a man they were perceived as being masterful and bold.”
In fact, Ronstadt was not shy about addressing being a “chick in a male musician’s world.” At first, I found the guys’ attitude puzzling because men have always backed up female singers in the jazz world. Maybe the difference here is that she was in charge and some of their fragile egos couldn’t deal with that. But she hung in there.
Per an interesting Rolling Stone interview detailing her early days, “For one thing, she felt inadequate — she didn’t know how to talk in musical terms, she said and couldn’t give effective orders.” For another: “Backing up a girl wasn’t cool at all. They didn’t want to do that. They wanted to be rock & rollers and have this sexual identity they get by being up onstage with their guitars.”
Ronstadt’s breakthrough came in late 1974 when she released Heart Like a Wheel. She seemed to finally figure out that balance of country and rock that was not only excellent but that would appeal to a wider audience. Peter Asher produced it, played guitar and sang background vocals. Present also were Kenny Edwards, Glenn Frey, fiddler David Lindley, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Cissy Houston, Maria Muldaur, Timothy B. Schmidt, J.D. Souther.
I can by no means list every great Ronstadt tune. (I’ll save that for the inevitable Spotify list.) But I dig her version of Lowell George’s “Willin'” (with that lonesome, lonesome harmonica):
By March of 1975, Ronstadt had made it to the cover of the Rolling Stone, the first of six covers. And for the next seven or eight years, she had a constant stream of hit albums and singles in the rock and country-rock genres that made her a superstar and even, in 1977, Time Magazine cover girl.
Given that her reign included the era of punk/New Wave, she covered Elvis Costello’s “Alison.” Critics said she was just trying to jump on the bandwagon. La Ronstadt – not much giving a shit what they thought – covered two more EC songs on her next album.
Ronstadt talked about the price of fame in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview:
What does the invasion of privacy do to your life?
What it does is it makes people look like enemies all the time, ’cause you never know what someone’s going to do. Somebody will come up and say, “Gee, you and some other singer (who you think is the worst singer in the world) are my favorite singers…” Or you’re trying to have dinner with a friend and not have people… I mean, it’s a distraction and it’s an annoyance and they don’t realize it’s rude.
You see it coming and you start to wince and you start to get defensive, because as far as I’m concerned that person is going to hurt me. The only thing I can do is look cold or I can be rude- I can tell them just flat out, “Go away, don’t bother me” or I can sit there and put up with it and store a lot of pissed-offness. No matter what, it’s a no-win situation…. This is one of the major icky side effects of my job and if I don’t want to go completely nuts, I’m going to have to put up with a certain amount of it.
Has it gotten a lot worse in the last couple of years?
A lot worse, yeah. There’s been so much press, you know. I went to some beach club on the Fourth of July and I couldn’t believe it. I mean we just got jumped on- literally jumped on!
Do you find it easier in New York than other places?
Sometimes it’s easier, but on St. Patrick’s Day I got chased by millions of people, literally chased. And I came running up the steps of the Plaza and there were these four little boys after me. They had locked the doors and they wouldn’t let anybody in unless they had a room key and my room key was in the bottom of my purse. I was sort of going, “But you don’t really understand. Those people are chasing me with green faces.”
Basically, people are just rude. I mean, they just don’t have any manners. They’re only thinking of themselves. They’ll say, “But this is the only chance I’ll ever get to talk to you.” That’s not my problem, you know. There isn’t really any reason for them to talk to me. If they want to hear me sing they can go buy a record- that’s the way I feel about it.
She later said, “they haven’t invented a word for that loneliness that everybody goes through on the road. The world is tearing by you, real fast, and all these people are looking at you. … People see me in my ‘girl-singer’ suit.” Like her male peers, she admitted to doing every drug known to mankind including heroin. (To those who seek fame, be careful what you wish for – ME.)
Before we end this series, let me toss out another song here, one of my favorites by her. This is her version of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou:”
In the early ’80s, Ronstadt performed in a NYC production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, nailing the challenging operatic parts. Starring opposite Kevin Kline, she was also in the corresponding movie.
Additionally, after that string of pop albums, once established, Ronstadt felt the freedom to move into standards like “What’s New” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” And I would be totally remiss if I didn’t post one of her Spanish-language songs, in this case “Hay Unos Ojos:”
While she remained active till her retirement in 2011, in the late 80s she had hits with Trio (with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton) and her last majorly successful solo album, 1989s Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. (There was also a Trio II in 1999.)
Despite several high-profile relationships (including with California’s current governor Jerry Brown back in the 70s), Ronstadt never married. In the early 90s, she adopted a couple of kids. The last I heard, she was shuffling between San Francisco and her (and BTW, Stevie Nicks’) home state of Arizona.
At her (incredibly long-overdue) induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, a musical tribute was performed in her honor featuring Nicks, Carrie Underwood. Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Emmylou Harris.
The reason Ronstadt was not there is the same reason she retired – in 2012 at the age of 66 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and among other symptoms, alas, can no longer sing. The disease affects the brain’s communication with the muscles and made her unable to control her vocal muscles.
Wikipedia: “Ronstadt opened many doors for women in rock and roll and other musical genres by championing songwriters and musicians, pioneering her chart success onto the concert circuit, and being at the vanguard of many musical movements. She stays active in environmental, pro-immigration and LGBTQ causes.”
And while she can no longer sing, well, as of this writing she’s still alive and well and you can – and should – listen to her music any old time you choose.
Sources: Wikipedia, Billboard, Rolling Stone.