There are many things about her career that Linda Ronstadt wishes she’d done differently. Still, the most successful female singer of the rock ‘n’ roll era is happily 56 years old, raising two young children, and working only when she wants to.
“All musicians, if they say they’re doing it for the audience, they’re probably bullshitting,” Ronstadt says. “Music is a biological necessity. It’s a way that we all have of processing our feelings.
“Everybody really should do music. And once in a while, when you’re doing your music and you’re processing your feelings, you strike a resonant chord with other people. And that’s a wonderful feeling, and it can be very good in that you can make a living. Otherwise you have to get another job, and then you get to do your music in your spare time.”
The doe–eyed Arizona native left Tucson for Los Angeles in 1964 with no particular goal, other than to sing. It took a few years of stumbling, bumbling and feeling her way along, but she finally fell in with the right people, finally made the connection with listeners. “Everybody has their own level of doing their music,” she says. “Mine just happened to resonate over the years, in one way and another, with a significant enough number of people so that I could do it professionally.”
Her career has been a series of happy accidents: She started off as a folksinger, then spent a while marrying country and rock, and for most of the 1970s everything she did – everything – hit big with the rock ‘n’ roll audience.
Her dissatisfaction with it all led to excursions into Broadway, grand opera, orchestrated standards, traditional Mexican music and straight–ahead country.
“Your musical soul is like facets of a jewel, and you stick out one facet at a time,” she says. “I tend to work real hard on whatever it is I do, to get it up to speed, up to a professional level. I tend to bury myself in one thing for years at a time.”
She is grateful for her fans, but has no qualms about letting them know she didn’t like too many of her records. “There’s a famous story where a fan is talking to this famous guitar player – I think Ry Cooder told this story – and the fan is saying oh, you were great tonight, this and that, and the famous guitar player turns to Ry and says ‘Gosh, I was just trying not to suck.’
“That’s what you do. You just try really hard not to suck. And when you record, you try to take out the stuff that’s really embarrassing and just leave all that’s really good, or maybe what you think you got away with, or doesn’t suck.”
Ronstadt’s father was of Mexican–German descent, and he was the first in the family line who didn’t operate a cattle ranch – he ran the Tucson hardware store. Linda and her two siblings – her brother was a boy soprano – grew up listening to Dad crooning Mexican songs. Mom preferred opera.
Linda’s California sojourn began with Kenny Edwards and Bob Kimmel, as the Stone Poneys. The trio was a regular act at the Troubadour on Sunset Strip.
“I wanted to do traditional music, which would include Mexican music,” Ronstadt explains. “I tried to talk them into doing certain Mexican songs. They liked it, but they didn’t really understand the rhythms and how to play it.
“I kept trying to get back to traditional stuff with a lot of harmony, which is what I loved. I remember I had learned ‘Different Drum’ off a Greenbriar Boys record, and I knew it as a bluegrass approach. We recorded it that way, but the producer at Capitol didn’t like it.
“Came back the next day, and there was an orchestra there. So I recorded with an orchestra, because that’s what they told me to do. I never liked it, but it was a big hit.”
“Different Drum” (from Evergreen, Vol. 2, the second of the Poneys’ albums on Capitol) was actually a minor hit, and when the trio split, Ronstadt naturally assumed the recording contract. Three solo albums for the label, all musically rambling and badly produced, garnered some attention from the hippie crowd but failed to turn a profit.
“Long Long Time,” a weepy country ballad from her second solo release, was a Top 30 single in the fall of 1970, but the money wasn’t exactly rolling in. “The immediate problem,” says Ronstadt, “was getting onstage at the Insomniac or wherever your gig was that weekend, or that night. We got paid $300 a week, and we could live on that.
“It was always, let’s try to get better. Can we get a better drummer, or get drums when we didn’t have them before? Or can you find that magical bass player? Or you find some new songs, because you went to New York and you met Gary White or Jerry Jeff Walker, or somebody told you about the McGarrigle Sisters? You don’t think about that other thing. As long as you’re eating, you’re just playing your next gig. And trying to get through it.”
In 1972 David Geffen negotiated her out of the Capitol deal and signed her to his Asylum label. Ronstadt had a cult following, and it was no secret to anyone that, given the right material, the right producer and the right push, she was going to be huge.
For her, it was always about the music.
“I would have a manager that would say to me, ‘You don’t want to do that country shit. It’s too corny.’ And he also managed the Mothers. He wasn’t a musician, he didn’t really know anything about music. I would go to him and say ‘I have this song written by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and it’s really beautiful. I’d like to record it.’ It was ‘Heart Like a Wheel.’ He’d say ‘It’s too corny.’ We struggled along with somebody that Capitol had, Nick Venet … we were never any of us on the same page. I was trying to do one thing, they were trying to do another.”
While recording Don’t Cry Now with producers John Boyland and (then boyfriend) J.D. Souther, Ronstadt met the person who would, very quickly, end her career water–treading and send things into overdrive. His name was Peter Asher.
“I don’t think I would’ve got anywhere without Peter,” Ronstadt recalls. “He walked into the Bitter End with his wife one night, and we were doing a lot of Cajun stuff. I don’t know if my band was very good. I honestly can’t remember who was in it.”
At the time, Asher – a Londoner who’d had enough of fame and fortune as half of the ’60s pop duo Peter and Gordon – was managing and producing James Taylor, and making quite a good wage. He was eager to expand his stable.
“Peter was very cordial, and he was interested,” Ronstadt says. “When we got back to L.A., we had some various little meetings and he said he was interested in managing me – but as it turned out, he already managed Kate Taylor, James’ sister.”
That was, Asher explains, one female singer too many. He liked to give his artists his full attention.
“Bless Kate’s heart, she decided about a year later that a career in music really wasn’t for her,” Ronstadt recalls. “I was with her one night, backstage at a show, and she said ‘You know, you really ought to ask Peter again, because I don’t really think I’m going to be doing this.’”
Asher and Ronstadt met again, and something clicked. “I loved everything Linda was doing,” Asher says. “At that point, it was country rock, for lack of a better term, and I felt the songs were wonderful and she was wonderful. My main aim was to bring it to a wider audience. And to make the best possible record that I thought she could make.”
He came in at the tail end of her first Asylum album Don’t Cry Now, and to fully produce Heart Like a Wheel, her contract–ender with Capitol. Ronstadt: “When I sang ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ for him, he thought it was a wonderful song. He didn’t think it was corny or stupid. So at least we were on the same page musically about more things than I ever was with anybody.”
Asher didn’t think much of the way Ronstadt’s records had been produced. His idea was to focus them, to bring in the very best musicians available and to provide his singer with the best possible showcase for her instrument.
“It’s easy to talk in terms of master plans,” he says. “And of course one does have plans, but in general when you fall in love with an artist and their music, the plan is a fairly simple one. The plan is to make the whole thing as good as it can be. And get people to go and see them, and to make a record that you think properly presents their music to the public – and some of which you can get on the radio.
“I’ve had the good fortune to work with some terrific singers, and they tend to be the kind of singers whose voices are pretty unique, in all different ways. In each case, I’ve tried to have their voices be as well–recorded, as clear and as distinctive as it is in reality.”
His first order of business, as her manager, was to put her in front of as many people as possible. Ronstadt was the opening act for Neil Young’s Time Fades Away tour in early 1973. “So I went from being a club act to playing at Madison Square Garden overnight, which was pretty intimidating,” she says. “But I loved Neil’s music, and I watched every single show. Neil was using a lot of the same musical elements that I’d used. So it was real reinforcing for me to see somebody doing that so well.
“So I got a lot of exposure to people. Apparently they like the way I sang, because even in the coliseums they still listened. It was all completely over my head, I didn’t know what I was doing. We were just making it up as we went along.”
Released in the fall, Don’t Cry Now became Ronstadt’s first Top 50 album, but it wasn’t much different, sonically, from its predecessors (owing, perhaps, to its multiple producers, each of whom had different ideas about how Linda should be presented).
Heart Like a Wheel, however, was all Asher’s baby, and immediately after its appearance in late ’74 it rolled into the Top Ten, making No. 1 in December.
Within a month or two, “You’re No Good” (the old Betty Everett song) and “When Will I Be Loved” (from the Everly Brothers) had risen to No. 1 and 2, respectively.
“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” hit No. 2 on the country chart. A duet with Ronstadt and her new best friend Emmylou Harris, the song brought Ronstadt her first Grammy, for Best Country Vocal Performance.
Asher had taken the best things about country rock – the tight, focused harmonies – and applied them to pop songs, with precise and compelling performances from the backing musicians.
And there out in front, her voice sounding big and yet still vulnerable, was little Linda, barefoot in the middle of the stage.
“The oldies,” says Ronstadt, “were because I was a club act, or I had a concert that I had to pace, and they were just things that we could do. They were songs that maybe I liked, or I had some quirky interest in, but basically I sang ballad after ballad after ballad.
“Songs that I was really passionate about were songs like ‘Heart Like a Wheel,’ so there I was with all these ballads. I had to have some way to structure shows. It’s always been a problem for me.”
Between 1975 and ’80, Ronstadt placed 13 songs in the American Top 40, seven of them in the Top 10. Several of her biggest singles were oldies – from Roy Orbison (“Blue Bayou”) to Chuck Berry (“Back in the U.S.A”) to the Vandellas (“Heat Wave”) to Buddy Holly (“That’ll Be the Day,” “It’s So Easy”).
No matter that the programming on her albums was as eclectic as ever – she covered Warren Zevon, Neil Young, James Taylor, Little Feat, the McGarrigles and Randy Newman – the singles were almost uniformly old rock or R&B songs done up in the Asher style.
Still, her albums went multi–platinum out of the box, she was a star of the highest magnitude, and you’d do well not to argue with success.
“When you’re struggling, one is always grateful for a hit,” Ronstadt says. “But I’d go ‘Why that one, and why not this other one? I like this one better.’ It was just that way, and I got stuck.
“Eventually I just had to turn away from a lot of those songs because I outgrew them. And they don’t speak for me any more, and sometimes they just flat out bored me until I was crosseyed.”
It’s so easy
As she toured incessantly, as her fame grew and her bank account swelled, she began to question the validity – for her – of the songs she was putting out there. “They all have their time and their place,” she explains. “I mean, if Martha Reeves were singing ‘Heat Wave’ tomorrow I’d listen, it’s a neat piece of material. But it wasn’t something that spoke for me. You have to use music to speak for you, and to speak for what your feelings are, and it just wasn’t who I was after a while. A song like ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ isn’t ever not who you are. It’s a song that grows with you; it’s not a song that’s locked into one age.
“I just remember waxing my floor, after my boyfriend and I had broken up, and singing ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.’ I just wanted to sing that for two weeks. Or when I learned ‘Willing,’ you know, when Lowell George taught me how to play it, I just wanted to play it and play it. I just loved it.”
Concurrent with the mega–success was a gnawing distaste for public performing, of the sports stadiums with their awful acoustics, and of the superstar grind, with its inherent lack of privacy.
On the road, Ronstadt was literally the only woman in a dysfunctional traveling circus full of men – her manager, her band, her crew. And although sometimes got involved romantically with one of the boys, she was a reluctant center of attention. “It felt uncomfortable and awkward and unbalanced,” she recalls. “My first cousin Alisa was in the first female class they admitted to Yale, and I used to think about her a lot. I thought it was very comparable what she and I went through.
“The pressure, of course, is to adopt their swagger and their speech mannerisms, which I did. I just swore like a sailor. I adopted all the slang and everything, which you do. And it was very, very hard to clean up my language, especially when I have children in the house.”
And then … “I gotta tell you about drugs. I’m not gonna say I didn’t inhale, because I inhaled, I snorted, I this, I that. I didn’t inject. But I have some kind of a liver that just doesn’t metabolize drugs. It just won’t. I mean, I can’t take prescription drugs or drink coffee.
“So I have to say I tried most everything and didn’t like much of anything. But it was so much a part of the scene. I can’t drink at all; I never drank. Some people drink and say ‘I got a great buzz going, I feel really good’ and they get really mellow. I just throw up. And I have to go to bed for a long time. It’s like getting a bad case of the flu.
“I felt the same way about smoking pot. I just didn’t like it. After 20 minutes I’d feel like I wanted to peel my skin off with a knife.”
Her private life, too, was the subject of public scrutiny. After Souther, Ronstadt lived with writer/actor Albert Brooks, and was involved later with California governor Jerry Brown and Star Wars wizard George Lucas.
Reading about herself on the band bus, Ronstadt laughed all the time. “It was just so made up,” she says. “First of all, most of us didn’t have lives. We were on the road all the time. In the beginning of the book Heart of Darkness, he talks about how provincial sailors are. And we were just incredibly provincial.
“We’d get into these tight group dynamics. There’s some kind of a neuro–transmitter that’s released in your brain that’s incredibly pleasurable when you’re experiencing shared labor or shared endeavors. It really is fun and great. So we’d get into this tight little thing and it would kind of be ‘us against them.’ It increased paranoia and gave you this sort of strange fish–in–a–barrel mentality, and I don’t think it’s very healthy.”
In the 1970s, Ronstadt’s image was just as famous as her music. She was not only a great singer, she was a hot chick, and her album covers drove home the point again and again.
“I photographed OK from one angle,” she shrugs. “Those photographs are culled from thousands.”
Ronstadt offers no apologies. “Am I going to say I didn’t like it when someone thought I was cute? I was never beautiful, I was cute, and for some reason men liked me. I didn’t have a great figure and I didn’t have whatever you had to have to be like a model.
“People believe what they want to believe. When you’re trying to sell records, and the record company says ‘this picture doesn’t really look like you, but it will sell records,’ you say sure. Put a picture of a fire engine on the cover if you think it’ll sell records.
“Do I think it’s unfortunate that this culture forces that on women? Yes. We are taught that that’s what will sell. We aim to please. And I think it’s a shame.”
She drew the line when Rolling Stone photographer Annie Liebowitz “tricked” her into posing in nothing more than a skimpy red slip. Liebowitz, Ronstadt said, had shot her against red wallpaper – and the slip photo, depicting the singer lying submissively on a bed, her red underpants exposed – was taken during a break.
A week later, Liebowitz returned to Ronstadt’s home. “She brought the projector over and very politely showed us the pictures,” Ronstadt said. “We said ‘oh, we can’t use those,’ and she said ‘I didn’t say that you could choose them, I just said I could let you see them.’ At which point Peter unceremoniously threw her out of the house.”
So much for Rolling Stone. “I never had any respect for the magazine,” Ronstadt said. “I just thought I could respect her work.”
For her 1980 release, Mad Love, Ronstadt recorded a selection of edgy songs from Mark Goldenberg of the Cretones, and Elvis Costello. Less a conscious move into trendy “new wave” music than a reflection of the contemporary material she and the band were listening to on their long bus rides, Mad Love nevertheless sold considerably less than its predecessors.
“It’s just that she likes good music,” Asher points out. “And recognized how good punk was. And that isn’t the same thing as trying to jump on a bandwagon. I think it’s a genuine question of her excellent musical taste.”
The combination of boredom with her career and the desire to avoid repeating herself came to a head when Ronstadt accepted an invitation from producer Joseph Papp to co–star in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway in 1981.
“When I was a little child, I knew all of the Gilbert and Sullivan songs,” she says. “And I really wanted to play only in a theater, only as a concert artist. I didn’t want to play in sporting arenas. They were clearly inappropriate places for music. And anybody that thinks otherwise is a fool.
“Those settings changed the music so profoundly, because all you can hear are those high, arching, ringing guitar solos. You don’t have a chance for subtlety. You’re not working with anything that’s real. You’re hearing echoes of echoes and ghosts of ghosts.”
She loved the 14–hour days of constant rehearsal, staying in one place and ordering out for lunch. It was so very different from what she’d been doing for 10 years.
“I grew up thinking I was a boy soprano, so I wanted to use my high voice. I never really got to it early enough. It’s a shame in a way, because had I over–developed the bottom part of my voice so much that it was really hard to get into that other voice.”
She followed the Pirates production with a film version, which she despises, and a “return to form” album called Get Closer – which, aside from its title song being turned into a toothpaste commercial, was not a success. Which was fine with Linda Ronstadt.
It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
In the old days, Ronstadt and Souther used to sit up late at night, after she’d returned home from her Troubadour gigs, and put on the Frank Sinatra album Only the Lonely.A collection of intimate and heartbreaking popular songs from the 1940s and ’50s, it was (and still is) considered the vocal record by which all vocal records are measured. Nelson Riddle’s aching orchestral arrangements were constructed around Sinatra’s impeccable phrasing.
Once Get Closer and the Pirates movie tanked, Ronstadt started thinking about what to do next. “After I went to Broadway, I was really dying to not have to sing rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “What I wanted to do was work on my phrasing, and to get my musicianship cranked up a couple more notches.
“So I did what I always do – I go ‘What was before this? What’s this built on? Whose shoulders is this standing on?’” Her search led her back to Nelson Riddle, George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. “There were people that I knew but I hadn’t really studied. So I started to study them, and the songs are so sophisticated, they’re complex.
“It’s like a Brian Wilson song – if you can sing it, you can really sing it. Because it’swritten for a singer. So even though they’re kind of quote–unquote hard, if you can do it they’re easier than singing something that has a two–note range. Because you can get more out of it.”
She wouldn’t be the first rock singer to attempt the old standards, nor would she be the last. Still, she was determined to give it a try, and the first step, she knew, was to get Nelson Riddle in her corner.
“I think he was just dying to work,” Ronstadt remembers. “He didn’t particularly know who I was. I think he may have heard of me vaguely, but he didn’t know my work – nor much care, I don’t think. He liked some rock ‘n’ roll, but not very much of it. He wasn’t against it. To go from as complex an art form as he practiced to as simple an art form as that … he was a musician, so he liked and appreciated good music.”
Riddle pored over the enthusiastic Ronstadt’s suggested song titles, putting aside the ones he didn’t think she – or the orchestra – was capable of. “When he met me and heard me sing, he knew that I could sing,” Ronstadt says. “And he told me so. I didn’t create these songs in their original settings like Billie Holiday did, or Ella Fitzgerald, but I felt like they were really open to me for my interpretations, from my time, to tell my story. Which resonates with a lot of other people’s stories.”
Recorded with full orchestra, What’s New was released in November 1983, and its resonance was heard all across America: The album reached #2 in Billboard, sold multi–platinum and spawned two nearly–as–successful sequels. Ronstadt had re–invented herself once more.
Peter Asher, being practical as ever, had wondered aloud about making a standards album, let alone three. He considered the likes of Gershwin and Porter “elevator music, a lot of old boring songs from shows.”
Still he provided immaculate production on What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons. “I was on the side of the people going ‘This is a big mistake; it probably won’t sell,’” Asher recalls. “Which isn’t the same thing as saying ‘Don’t do it.’
“I did say that I thought the record company were right in their pessimistic view of whether anyone would buy it. And of course I and the record company were 100 percent completely and absolutely wrong.”
In the winter of 1984, Ronstadt appeared as Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme, the grandest of Grand Operas, at New York’s Public Theatre. “I was just following music that I loved,” she says. “I was just chasing the things that I heard when I was little.
“I could’ve made a different choice when I was 14. I could’ve made a choice to become an opera singer, and then I would’ve only sung things like Boheme. I don’t know whether I would’ve become successful as a an opera singer, although I have a big voice and a big range, and I’m musical so I suppose I would’ve had as good a shot as anybody going into that.”
Ronstadt, Harris and chum Dolly Parton had tried in the ’70s to make an acoustic country record based around their three–part fireside harmonies; Trio appeared in 1987, put three singles into the Country Top Five and climbed to #6 on the album charts.
The union was short–lived, however, and Trio II (1997) would have a long gestation period – due essentially to a falling out between Ronstadt and Parton.
For Sentimental Reasons was originally to have been a double album, but Nelson Riddle’s death in 1985 cut things short. Ronstadt and Riddle had planned to record in Brazil and Cuba with the maestro’s old friend Antonio Carlos Jobim (the Afro–Caribbean sound would permeate Frenesi, her third Spanish language album, in 1992).
With the success of the Riddle and Trio records, Ronstadt realized she never had to sing “Heat Wave” again if she didn’t want to. And she really, really didn’t want to.
“People think you’re sitting back thinking ‘well, what direction do I put my career next?’ And it really isn’t like that at all. It’s ‘I kind of like this song.’ It’s just like following lights in the swamp – I go ‘Ohhhhh. That.’”
Canciones De Mi Padre, a collection of traditional Mexican songs she’d learned at her father’s knee back in Arizona, appeared in 1988. “The Mexican stuff, I wanted to do from the beginning,” Ronstadt says. “But in the ’60s and ’70s, when I said ‘I want to make a Mexican record,’ they’d say well, Joan Baez cut a Spanish record and it didn’t sell.’ Oh. I got dead silence.
“So I’d cut a few songs in Spanish, but they weren’t the songs I wanted to do. I wanted to do traditional Mexican music. And you can’t just do one of those and put it on a pop record, because it just doesn’t fit.”
She says she knew the time was right “as soon as I got a chance to meet the guys that could play it really right, really authentic Mexican musicians … which I never had the chance to because they never went out of Mexico! And I was always on the road, playing in a hockey rink in Cleveland or something.”
Canciones De Mi Padre and its followup, Mas Canciones (1991) did not tear up the charts they way the Riddle records had, but Ronstadt didn’t care a whit. She had enough fame and enough money, thank you, and was pursuing whatever musical direction she felt like.
In 1989, following a performance in New Orleans, she and some friends went out to hear the Neville Brothers in a club, and Aaron Neville invited her onto the stage. They sang “Ave Maria” – it was the only song they seemed to know in common – and a friendship developed.
Less than a year later, the Ronstadt/Neville duet “Don’t Know Much” reached #2 on the pop charts. Her Cry Like a Rainstorm – Howl Like the Wind album, featuring four duets with Neville, made it into the Top 10.
With no interest in “momentum” after so many years, Ronstadt next turned out Mas Canciones and Frenesi. In 1993, she co–produced (with George Massenburg) Jimmy Webb’s album Suspending Disbelief.
She’s made a few more pop albums since, and in 1999 collaborated with Harris onWestern Wall: The Tucson Sessions.
Her friendship with Harris, Ronstadt said, had been partially responsible for her shift away from country rock in the mid ’70s. “She was chasing what I was trying to do, and she was doing it so well. I’m not saying that it made me record differently, but I surrendered a little bit more willingly to going more toward rock ‘n’ roll.
“But it doesn’t matter, you know? Because to me, that was a profound moment, because it made me aware of the kinds of informed choices I was going to make for the rest of my life. It made me know that a certain amount of my values, and the things that I was trained and brought up with, were firm in me. And one of them was that if you see something you admire, you can destroy your own admiration of it by feeling jealous or competitive, or you can just love it. And I made that choice. And I have continued to do so.”
She’s sung with Pavarotti, Jagger and Kermit the Frog. She sang with Sinatra. On an early ’70s TV variety show, she even sang with Neil Diamond (Ronstadt does not remember this, but the author saw it).
Her children, ages 8 and 11, are her favorite collaborators these days. Ronstadt performs when she wants to – she does orchestra shows and Mexican shows, for the most part – but at the end of the day, she’s only seeking approval from two people.
“My son got hold of this new Best Of CD that came out,” she said. “They’d sent me a box of them, and they were in the basement.
He came running upstairs and said ‘Mommy, you sing oldies!’ And I said ‘Get that out of there!’ It just ruins my day if I have to listen to it. I just can’t bear it.”