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Linda Ronstadt

+ {Stone Poneys}

Gorgeous goddess of country-rock with roots in folk and affiliations with the Latin-American-Mexican pop scene, star-turn LINDA RONSTADT captured the hearts of the music world, while winning multiple Grammys, Emmys or ALMAs for her gold/platinum selling albums. An interpreter rather than a singer-songwriter, Linda chalked up several Top 3 hits in her time as princess of pellucid pop: from `You’re No Good’ (her only chart-topper), `When Will I Be Loved’ and `Blue Bayou’ in the 70s, to `Somewhere Out There’ and `Don’t Know Much’ in the late 80s. Until sadly retiring from Parkinson’s disease in 2013, she remained a consistent live draw and a widely respected vocalist with the ability to effortlessly slide between genres.
Born July 15, 1946, Tucson, Arizona, Linda was raised on a ranch by her parents, Gilbert and Ruth Mary, who’d derived from pioneering stock of Germany, England, Mexico and the Netherlands. The young RONSTADT grew up singing a combination of country, jazz, rock’n’roll, R&B, gospel, opera and mariachi songs, many of which she’d transform in later years.
In 1960, aged only 14, Linda and her siblings Peter and Suzy formed their own trad-folk trio, playing to coffeehouses and other venues as mainly, the Union City Ramblers, or indeed, the New Union Ramblers. After a semester at Arizona State University in 1964, she relocated to Los Angeles where she hooked up with Tucson friend and guitarist Bobby Kimmel, who’d already co-wrote several tracks with fellow strummer Kenny Edwards (the Stateside ISB).
Through manager Herb Cohen and producer Nik Venet, the close-harmony trio eventually secured a deal with Capitol Records (after a one-off: `So Fine’), releasing their eponymous THE STONE PONEYS {*7} LP, early in 1967. Consisting of several Kimmel-Edwards pieces (including the single `Sweet Summer Blue And Gold’), a traditional ballad (`Wild About My Lovin’’), one from Tom Campbell (`Orion’) and another from FRED NEIL (`Just A Little Bit Of Rain’), the record was cast in similar terrain to PETER, PAUL AND MARY.
Recorded and rush-released with full focus being centred on lead/star attraction Linda, EVERGREEN, VOL.2 (1967) {*6} managed to stir enough interest for the set to indent the Top 100. Though probably best remembered for the sunny-day, MICHAEL NESMITH-penned Top 20 hit, `Different Drum’, the crystalline BAEZ/COLLINS vocals of Linda excelled on baroque-folk takes of John Braheny’s `December Dream’, PAMELA POLLAND’s `I’ve Got To Know’ and STEVE GILLETTE’s two, `Song About The Rain’ and `Back On The Street Again’.
The group’s final effort, VOL.III (1968) {*6}, was credited to “LINDA RONSTADT, STONE PONEYS and friends”, Venet and Capitol insisting on pushing their girl to the forefront, while leaving a disgruntled Edwards – who’d already departed – and Kimmel, unfairly pushed out to merely auxiliary members (`Star And A Stone’ and `By The Fruits Of Their Labors’ their only paper contributions); Linda was also said to be unhappy with this arrangement. One supposes the “friends” element was the several covers it projected, namely NESMITH’s `Some Of Shelly’s Blues’, The GREENBRIAR BOYS’ `Up To My Neck In High Muddy Water’ (both 45s), GILLETTE’s `Fragments’, DINO VALENTI’s `Let’s Get Together’, LAURA NYRO’s `Stoney End’ and TIM BUCKLEY’s triumvirate of `Wings’, `Hobo’ and `Aren’t You The One’.
Thrown into the deep end, a solo LINDA RONSTADT subsequently struggled through a turbulent, relatively bleak period for Capitol Records, striving to find a niche among the changing musical tides. Setting up home in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, alongside the countrified, singer/songwriter elite (NEIL YOUNG, JONI MITCHELL et al), she went through a series of producers, managers and backing musicians on three LPs.
The first of these, the Chip Douglas-produced HAND SOWN… HOME GROWN (1969) {*6}, failed on a critical and commercial level, although there were several decent country-rock covers: from DYLAN (`Baby, You’ve Been On My Mind’ and `I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’), FRED NEIL (`The Dolphins’), RANDY NEWMAN (`Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad’), The SPRINGFIELDS (`Silver Threads And Golden Needles’), JOHN D. LOUDERMILK (`Break My Mind’) and an Ivy J. Bryant track she would sing on The JOHNNY CASH Show, `Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line’.
Faring a little better by way of a belated, near Top 100 appearance, the Elliot F. Mazer-produced SILK PURSE (1970) {*6}, played to the Nashville contingent having moved to the steely Music City in order to echo her surroundings. Despite an odd arrangement of (Gerry) Goffin & (CAROLE) KING’s `Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ and Don Harris & Dewey Terry’s `I’m Leaving It All Up To You’ (a soon-to-be hit for DONNY & MARIE OSMOND), it was pure country all the way on the HANK WILLIAMS song `Lovesick Blues’, MEL TILLIS’ `Mental Revenge’, DILLARD & CLARK’s `He Darked The Sun’ and Gary White’s `Nobody’s’ and `Long, Long Time’ (her inaugural Top 30 solo single); the latter Texan-born songsmith duetted with her on PAUL SIEBEL’s `Louise’.
Hiring EAGLES alumni GLENN FREY and DON HENLEY as her touring band (adding other flyers RANDY MEISNER and BERNIE LEADON in session), guitarist John Boylan was at the mixing desk for her 1972 eponymous solo set, LINDA RONSTADT {*7}; note too that Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Buddy Emmons played steel guitar, and Gib Guilbeau the fiddle. Along with three tracks recorded live at The Troubadour (i.e. NEIL YOUNG’s `Birds’, PATSY CLINE’s `I Fall To Pieces’ and the FONTELLA BASS cue, `Rescue Me’), the sultry singer cherry-picked from modern-day star turns, JACKSON BROWNE, LIVINGSTON TAYLOR, ERIC KAZ and ERIC ANDERSEN to come up with respective readings of `Rock Me On The Water’, `In My Reply’, `I Won’t Be Hangin’ Round’ and `I Ain’t Always Been Faithful’, and threaded them next to JOHNNY CASH’s `I Still Miss Someone’, LEADBELLY’s `Ramblin’ Round’ and a song made famous by JERRY LEE LEWIS, `Crazy Arms’.
Following in the footsteps of those aforementioned purveyors of chart-smooth country-rock (FREY and HENLEY), Linda signed to Asylum Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic, set up by biz maestro David Geffen plus Elliot Roberts. Her first effort for the label, DON’T CRY NOW (1973) {*6}, was largely produced by fellow Topangan-ite and EAGLES collaborator, J.D. SOUTHER (and author of her `I Can Almost See It’, `Don’t Cry Now’ and `The Fast One’), with whom RONSTADT briefly became romantically entwined. With the album failing to be completed on schedule, Englishman Peter Asher (previously of 60s pop duo PETER AND GORDON) was brought in to finish the project. Eventually released into the Top 50 (ERIC KAZ’s `Love Has No Pride’ was a modest hit; as was a re-tread of `Silver Threads…’), the album virtually kick-started RONSTADT’s career; EAGLES song `Desperado’, NEIL YOUNG’s `I Believe In You’, The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS’ `Colorado’, RANDY NEWMAN’s `Sail Away’ and BOOKER T. JONES’ `Everybody Loves A Winner’, were the other re-vamps on show.
Asher would subsequently become her manager, guiding her towards superstardom. In Asher, she’d finally found a mentor who could package her crystal-pure vox and dusky looks for the mainstream market. Finally covering material that was sympathetic to her vocal style, one thing that was nearly overlooked was the fact that she still owed Capitol Records a contractual set. HEART LIKE A WHEEL (1974) {*9} turned out to be her best ever. Also reaching the coveted No.1 spot was her re-tread of Clint Ballard, Jr.’s much-covered `You’re No Good’ (BETTY EVERETT, et al), which finally established RONSTADT among the pop/rock hierarchy. The album was a considered mix of rootsy oldies and similarly-accented current material (affecting readings of JAMES TAYLOR’s `You Can Close Your Eyes’ and LITTLE FEAT’s `Willin’), a winning combination which would serve her well over the latter 70s period. Guaranteeing her and the album further sales was the double-header-hit, `When Will I Be Loved’ (The EVERLY BROTHERS) and `It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ (penned by PAUL ANKA for BUDDY HOLLY), while SOUTHER was behind her on `Faithless Love’, followed by Dan Penn & Chips Moman’s `The Dark End Of The Street’ and the ANNA McGARRIGLE-scribed title track; the other pair were from HANK WILLIAMS (`I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)’) and Paul Craft (`Keep Me From Blowing Away’).
On subsequent albums, however, RONSTADT increasingly moved away from the dated C&W bias of her earlier work, incorporating Motown soul/R&B into 1975’s Asylum return PRISONER IN DISGUISE (1975) {*7}. One such cut was her equally chart-wise, Top 5 rendition of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s `Heat Wave’, which was followed into the Top 30 by her dulcet take of The MIRACLES’ `Track Of My Tears’ (respective flip-sides turned up NEIL YOUNG’s Love Is A Rose’ and the James B. Coats-penned EMMYLOU HARRIS duet, `The Sweetest Gift’). On the other side of the spectrum, not withstanding SOUTHER harmonies on his own `Prisoner In Disguise’ and `Silver Blue’, the other main highlights stemmed from her version of DOLLY PARTON’s `I Will Always Love You’, LITTLE FEAT’s `Roll Um Easy’ and JIMMY CLIFF’s `Many Rivers To Cross’.
Not tampering too much with the tried-and-tested template, but for the fact she’d introduced a trio of songs by the then-unknown KARLA BONOFF (bookend hits `Lose Again’ and `Someone To Lay Down Beside Me’, with `If He’s Ever Near’ as track 3), Grammy winner HASTEN DOWN THE WIND (1976) {*6} strode into the Top 3. Alongside her own co-penned songs (one with ANDREW GOLD: `Try Me Again’), the token oldies chart volley came courtesy of another HOLLY hit, `That’ll Be The Day’, although it was in RY COODER’s `The Tatler’, WILLIE NELSON’s `Crazy’, WARREN ZEVON’s title track and ORLEANS’ `Give One Heart’, that gave the Californian her edge.
With 1977’s SIMPLE DREAMS {*8}, RONSTADT was back at the top spot, covering a couple of songs by cult L.A. gunslinger WARREN ZEVON: the sardonic `Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ (a near Top 30 breaker) and the raw beauty of `Carmelita’. With the punk wars raging in an attempt to break the stranglehold of a perceived decadent rock aristocracy (the back-slapping L.A. mob were particularly reviled), Linda showed she could roll with the best of them a la progenitors The ROLLING STONES, on her hit re-vamp of `Tumbling Dice’, while she reeled back the years on hardy and emotive Top 5 renditions of BUDDY HOLLY’s `It’s So Easy’ and ROY ORBISON’s `Blue Bayou’; traditional pieces `I Never Will Marry’ and `Old Paint’ concluded both vinyl sides, while other contributions came via SOUTHER (on `Simple Man, Simple Dream’), KAZ (`Sorrow Lives Here’) and band member Waddy Wachtel’s `Maybe I’m Right’.
RONSTADT then bravely attempted a cover of ELVIS COSTELLO’s `Alison’, a track from LIVING IN THE USA (1978) {*6}. While the Scouser was reportedly none too impressed with the result, RONSTADT’s formula was roller-skating on thin ice: the sexy/suggestive sleeve shot; the J.D. SOUTHER, LITTLE FEAT, ZEVON and KAZ scans; the golden oldies hit parade (this time by way of CHUCK BERRY’s `Back In The USA’, SMOKEY ROBINSON’s `Ooh Baby Baby’ and DORIS TROY’s `Just One Look’ (b/w ELVIS’s `Love Me Tender’)); and a token nostalgic cut – surely there were other ideas floating about.
Mixing up the medicine to gate-crash the new wave party, the highest paid “rocker” Linda made a rather ill-advised attempt to get hip with the day’s youth on 1980’s MAD LOVE {*5}, covering a further three COSTELLO songs (`Party Girl’, `Girls Talk’ and `Talking In The Dark’) on a Top 3 set that was met with some critical derision. The fact that her backing band were the power-pop act, Cretones (led by composer Mark Goldenberg) said it all really, as crossover cues `Cost Of Love’, `Justine’ and the title track also appeared on their own “Thin Red Line” album. Enjoying further Top 10 appraisal covering LITTLE ANTHONY & THE IMPERIALS’ `Hurt So Bad’ and Billy Steinberg’s `How Do I Make You’, there were also trips to the vaults for TROGGS track `I Can’t Let Go’ and NEIL YOUNG’s `Look Out My Love’.
Later in the year, she made her acting debut (starring opposite Kevin Kline) in the stage production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Pirates Of Penzance; she won award nominations for this and the subsequent film adaptation. 1982’s GET CLOSER {*4} received an even rougher ride from the press, and it was clear RONSTADT needed a speedy rethink as to where her career was going. Stalling just outside the Top 30, even re-makes of IKE & TINA TURNER’s `I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine’ (a duet with JAMES TAYLOR), GEORGE JONES’ `Sometimes You Just Can’t Win’ (a recording in ’77 with SOUTHER) and DOLLY PARTON’s `My Blue Tears’ (alongside Dolly herself and EMMYLOU HARRIS), had seen her losing touch with her audience. Despite chart material coming from the Jon Carroll title track, JOE SOUTH’s `I Knew You When’, and JIMMY WEBB’s `Easy For You To Say’ (she also spun out his `The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’), it was indeed a shock to the system when it won a Grammy!
In a shrewd move to wow her older fans, the singer (who’d dated comic actor Jim Carrey for 8 months) made a stylistic U-turn, subsequently recording three albums of Nelson Riddle orchestrated/easy-listening standards. Predictably, WHAT’S NEW (1983) {*5}, LUSH LIFE (1984) {*3} and FOR SENTIMENTAL REASONS (1986) {*4}, all sold in a descending #3, #13 and #46 scale, but at least she’d found a market to resurrect her ailing career. As the festive season approached, RONSTADT secured a Top 3 (and soon-to-be transatlantic) hit with via a syrupy duet with JAMES INGRAM, `Somewhere Out There’, taken from the animated movie, An American Tail.
Equally fruitful was a Top 10 “Trio” set, a Nashville-type country disc cut in Los Angeles with friends DOLLY PARTON and EMMYLOU HARRIS. Branching out with PAUL SIMON on his “Gracelands” `Under African Skies’ piece, there was also time enough for RONSTADT to make another stylistic volte-face in 1987/1991; going back to her roots to record a couple of Latin/Mexican folk sets for Elektra Records: CANCIONES DE MI PADRE (1987) {*5} – “Songs Of My Father” – and MAS CANCIONES (1991) {*5} – “More Songs”.
These globally-marketed releases (#42 and #88 respectively) were punctuated by a more conventional contemporary pop set, CRY LIKE A RAINSTORM – HOWL LIKE THE WIND (1989) {*5}, from which her drippy duet with AARON NEVILLE, `Don’t Know Much’ (penned by Mann-Weil) lavished RONSTADT with her/their biggest transatlantic hit to date. A major success, the co-billed set with Aaron drew from the talent of BONOFF once again (`All My Life’ was chosen to grace the charts over `Trouble Again’ and `Goodbye My Friend’), while ISAAC HAYES’ `When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’, was pitted against guest composer/pianist JIMMY WEBB (whom featured on four) and the combination of PAUL CARRACK, NICK LOWE and Martin Benmont (whom featured on two).
While FRENESI (1992) {*3} – “Frenzy” – reinstated her claim to be America’s top Tropic/Salsa act, RONSTADT once again found herself in the commercial fringes with WINTER LIGHT (1993) {*6}. Produced by herself and George Massenburg (and not Asher for once), the Top 100 album tended not to stray from her usual suspects of singer/songwriters: WEBB, McGARRIGLE, HARRIS and KAZ were now joined by songs that made America great from the likes of BACHARACH-DAVID, GOFFIN-KING and BRIAN WILSON.
FEELS LIKE HOME (1995) {*5} and DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE (1996) {*4} continued her run of Top 100 entries; the first of these sets balanced by country-rock tracks from big-name acts such as TOM PETTY (`The Waiting’), NEIL YOUNG (`After The Goldrush’), RANDY NEWMAN (`Feels Like Home’) and A.P. CARTER (`Lover’s Return’); the second a sweet “lullaby” record that reinterpreted classic tunes and pop hits into children’s songs: `Be My Baby’, `Baby, I Love You’ and `We Will Rock You’ (yip!), receiving the soft-rock “Andrex” treatment; Linda had become a single-mother when she adopted an infant and a baby in 1990 and 1994 respectively.
Roping in HEARTBREAKERS Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein, as well as Waddy Wachtel and Bernie Leadon, a string of producers (including Asher) were ready and willing to pull out the stops for WE RAN (1998) {*6}. Scratching out a peak position of #160, it seemed her fans preferred listening to the originals from SPRINGSTEEN, DYLAN, HIATT, MARTY STUART, Uncle Tom Cobley an’ all.
1999’s “Trio II’ (actually recorded in ’94!) and her other EMMYLOU HARRIS country collaboration WESTERN WALL: THE TUCSON SESSIONS {*7}, brought back a little of the bright light she’d shown a few decades past. Produced by Glyn Johns and recorded at The Arizona Inn in downtown Tucson, it was fair to say that it was a treat for fans of the genre, featuring as it did NEIL YOUNG, ANDY FAIRWEATHER LOW, ETHAN JOHNS, BERNIE LEADON and others on covers of JACKSON BROWNE’s `For A Dancer’, SINEAD O’CONNOR’s `This Is To Mother You’, SPRINGSTEEN’s `Across The Border’, LEONARD COHEN’s `Sisters Of Mercy’, and several more besides.
From the stocking filler of A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS (2000) {*4}, to her jazz standards comeback solo set, HUMMIN’ TO MYSELF (2004) {*6}, Linda would suit herself wherever her mood would take her. If ROD STEWART or, indeed, CARLY SIMON could find solace in reviving nostalgia, then why not the legendary specialist RONSTADT. As she signed off in 2006 with trad-folk ADIEU FALSE HEART {*7} – a collaboration as The Zozo Sisters, with Ann Savoy (of the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band) – the record was a full-circle round-up of her lengthy 40-year career; switch on to beautiful renditions of The LEFT BANKE’s `Walk Away Renee’, JOHN JACOB NILES’ `Go Away From My Window’ and RICHARD THOMPSON’s two `King Of Bohemia’ and `Burn’s Supper’. The question was: why hadn’t she attempted this genre before?
Since then, she toured in support of the set, featured on a CHIEFTAINS/RY COODER album (`San Patricio’) and published her autobiography (Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir). Sadly, as previously mentioned, Linda retired due to Parkinson’s disease, but was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD/BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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