- Linda Ronstadt
- Simon & Schuster
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by David Bruce Smith
- September 25, 2013
The popular singer traces her flight through harmony in her new memoir.
Eclectic is the word that describes Linda Ronstadt’s four-and-a-half-decade career. During that span, she catapulted over a myriad of genres — rock and roll, country, Big Band sultry standards, mariachi, West African/New Orleans Creole — and successfully assimilated them into her roomy repertoire. In her measured autobiography, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, she reminiscences about the arc of her life with gratitude and appreciation for tradition.
Born in Tucson, Ariz., in 1946, Ronstadt was raised in a melodious milieu of grandparents, parents and siblings — all of whom had talent with flair. The clan was committed to family sing-a-longs, opera and turning out for each other’s performances. After a semester at the University of Arizona, Ronstadt jettisoned her studies and left for California “to go where the music was.” But, it was not an easy decision:
“A … friend had offered me a ride to the coast. He had gigs north of LA and offered to drop me off on the way. My parents were upset and tried to talk me out of it. … The only thing I remember about that long ride through the desert night was searing remorse for having defied my parents. I was still very attached … they had always been so kind to me. I felt terrible for hurting them and causing them worry. There was nothing to be done. My new life was beginning to take shape.”
She settled in Santa Monica, an enclave of potent, artsy aptitude. Almost instantly she befriended the neighborly Charles Seeger, father of Pete; Ron Pearlman, a writer for the enormously popular television show, “The Beverly Hillbillies”;singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, and his friend, the young David Geffen, who had begun his occupational ascent in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency.
Ronstadt joined The Stone Poneys, an emerging folk-rock group that was quickly noticed by Capitol Records’ Herb Cohen. After their debut album was completed, Capitol dispatched the band on a promotional trek across the “folk club circuit” in Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston and New York. It was Ronstadt’s first trip to the East Coast. The recording company then reluctantly released “Different Drum,” a 1967 single from the band’s follow-up work. The song, written by guitarist Mike Nesmith of The Monkees, was an unexpected hit that propelled Ronstadt’s trajectory to stardom. Its success collapsed the group and, eventually, Ronstadt’s beloved “boutique” bookings in California nightclubs — as her star power heaped up fire.
“… [M]y records were selling so well that instead of playing in intimate spaces like the Troubadour, I was being booked into hockey arenas and outdoor pavilions with huge audiences. The sound in those enormous places was kind of like being in a flushing toilet with the lid down …”
On the way to her polished professionalism, Ronstadt was repelled by the hallowed helix of heroin that hindered Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons. Instead, she fashioned a plethora of enduring collaborative relationships with The Eagles, Randy Newman, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Aaron Neville, Rosemary Clooney and Bette Midler.
Ironically, at Ronstadt’s highest period of popularity, during which she was regarded as “The Queen of Pop,” she temporarily forfeited her “reign” in recording to push her way into other realms of musical performance — despite warnings from her bosses about the prospects of large-scale fan abandonment and an end to her livelihood. In 1981, Joseph Papp, producer-director of New York’s Public Theater, cast her as Mabel in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Pirates of Penzance,“and later as Mimi in Puccini’s “La Bohème.“For the first foray, she received Tony and Golden Globe Award nominations.
Even with consistently large sales, industry doubt resurged when Ronstadt decided to partner on a project with the renowned Nelson Riddle. The duo dusted off the Big Band sound internationally with “What’s New,” succeeded it with “Lush Life” followed by “For Sentimental Reasons,” and sold millions. Later, Ronstadt would introduce her public to the Mexican-themed music of her growing-up years with “Canciones de Mi Padre,” a best seller in the U.S., and then “Mas Canciones.”
“…The only rule I imposed on myself, consciously or unconsciously, was to not try singing something that I hadn’t heard in the family living room before the age of ten. If I hadn’t heard it by then, I couldn’t attempt it with even a shred of authenticity …”
For Ronstadt, becoming a great, culturally versatile singer ” … was only a simple dream,” but the way in which she unfurled her life has been memorably ladylike. There is not an unkind remark about anyone — even towards the people in “The Business” who tried to restrain her ambitions.
David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books. His latest, for children, is American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.