When Linda Ronstadt joined the distinguished party recognised at the hallowed Kennedy Centre Honours in 2019, it was a timely celebration of a career silenced too early by Parkinson's disease. She may no longer record, but in a 40-year oeuvre liberally decorated in platinum and almost every award imaginable, she was already assured of her position as one of the definitive voices of American popular music.
Rarely a songwriter herself, Linda Marie Ronstadt has few rivals for the sheer breadth and depth of her interpretative skills. It’s a rare artistic timeline that began in folk, then sat at the forefront of country-rock to the tune of tens of millions of records.
The girl who grew up in the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona, daughter of a machinery merchant of ranching stock, was in a folk trio at 14. She was recording by her late teens, before coming to national prominence with the Stone Poneys. She started solo in 1969, making 24 studio records in her own name over the next 35 years, as well as many others in memorable duos and trios. In the 1970s, she made rock into country and vice versa, gaining respect as a serious album artist while maintaining a constant presence on commercial radio in the States and far beyond.
Never satisfied to stay in one comfort zone, at the height of her fame she proceeded again, with confidence and vision, into the Great American Songbook, Latin serenades, children's and music for film and performing on Broadway. In the process, she shone an early light on countless young singers and writers, from the Eagles to Lowell George, while being further rewarded with 11 Grammys and membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The history books display her 35 entries on Billboard's Hot 100, two dozen on the country charts and, in a significant nod to her versatility, different No. 1s across each. The numbers were no less impressive at 33rpm, with 14 albums going at least single platinum, three of them triple. By 1976, Linda was already onto a Greatest Hits collection that ended up shipping seven million, all in the US alone.
But such statistics tell a fraction of the tale. The true story is one of an artist who took many years to come to terms with her own talent. “I just didn’t feel like I could quite sing well enough,” she told the New Yorker of her early years on stage. “It was best when I forgot about everything and just thought about the music, but it took me a long time to get there”. It's to our great fortune that she most certainly did.
This enduring ode to independence was a first in two respects; first, it earmarked Michael Nesmith as a songwriter and soon-to-be country-rock trailblazer who could do so much more than just Monkee around.
But secondly, the song - a substantial top-15 pop hit in America for the folk trio she formed with Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards – most importantly introduced Ronstadt's clear and bold voice to the wider world.
“I had no idea that I sang as loud as I did,” she told the New Yorker. “I always thought I wasn’t singing loud enough, because in the early days there were no monitors. You couldn’t hear yourself”.
Linda and the Stone Poneys (their own trademark misspelling) would release three albums in a 15-month spell; learning their craft in the meantime at the celebrated Troubadour, they met everyone from the Byrds to later arrivals such as Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Eventually though, Capitol's insistence on her top billing for Linda Ronstadt, Stone Poneys and Friends, Vol. III ensured that it was the trio's final outing.
Hand Sown...Home Grown’ – complete with covers of Dylan, Randy Newman et al - became her first solo release in 1969, to little commercial success but considerable TV exposure. Silk Purse would arrive a year later, showing her ease in both country and pop styles through Goffin and King's 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' and via writers like Mickey Newbury and Mel Tillis. Yet 'Long Long Time', one of two numbers by the lesser-known Gary White, is the beautifully orchestrated highlight.
At an ends, Capitol had one more try at breaking Linda with a self-titled set in early 1972. While it's warmly remembered for its performances and cast list of future VIPs, its modest performance marked the beginning of the end of her time at the label.
Nevertheless, the repeated contributions of Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Randy Meisner of the recently-formed Eagles, in particular on this Jackson Browne cover, help Ronstadt further leave her mark as an emerging talent on the album rock scene.
Elsewhere she did acoustic, fiddle-fuelled blues on 'Ramblin' 'Round', sang 1950s-era Johnny Cash on 'I Still Miss Someone' and reimagined Patsy Cline's 'I Fall To Pieces.'
Switching to Asylum, the label formed by David Geffen and by then distributed by Atlantic, Ronstadt's label debut Don't Cry Now also marked the start of her long working relationship with stalwart British producer Peter Asher.
He oversaw the LP with J.D. Souther, another member of her favoured circle who contributed three compositions, and John Boylan. Finally, there was traction, as the album logged more than a year on the US chart and burnished her credentials considerably. Rolling Stone called it “the Ronstadt album for which we’ve been waiting...it surpasses in almost every respect her excellent Capitol album of last year, revealing Linda’s supreme vocal abilities in a fine production setting”.
Far from a country record, it still included her second recording of this tune first popularised in the 1950s by Wanda Jackson - becoming Linda's first country hit.
It's ironic that Heart Like A Wheel, the last album Linda owed to Capitol, was the record on which her simultaneous wooing of country, pop and rock audiences finally paid dividends in all departments.
Never an out-and-out Nashville devotee, she had nevertheless grown up steeped in its sounds, her sister having possessed all of Hank Williams' records. Hence, from this album, came first a country hit in the shape of a cover of Hank's 'I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)', then a No. 1 with the Everlys' 'When Will I Be Loved'.
Leiber & Stoller's 'You're No Good' was first cut by Dee Dee Warwick, but it was the British version by the Swinging Blue Jeans that had the ear of their contemporary, Peter Asher.
It was cut for the album at the last minute, and the result was a US pop No. 1, with a guitar solo by another of her bandmates who would find solo fame, Andrew Gold.
The genre-blurring continued with the next in Ronstadt's rich platinum seam.
Here, she interpreted such friends as James Taylor and Lowell George, made soft rock from reggae with Jimmy Cliff's 'Many Rivers To Cross' and stepped up the soul quotient with hit versions of Motown staples 'Heat Wave' and 'Tracks Of My Tears'.
For variety, we've gone for the heart-wrenching title track ballad; written by J.D. Souther, he sings harmony as Andrew Gold plays the piano.
Just as our guide to Bonnie Raitt features the songwriting talents of songwriter-artist Karla Bonoff, so she appears here as a significant contributor to Ronstadt's catalogue too, with three tracks on the multi-million-selling Hasten Down The Wind alone.
The album, which also acknowledged such writers as John Hall of the band Orleans and the emerging Warren Zevon, started with this aching ballad of hopeless love; “nothing can save me from this ball and chain”.
The Ronstadt-Asher partnership struck yet again on another hit-filled package, which topped the US chart for the whole of December 1977.
Linda was in a familiar playground with the songs of Zevon ('Poor Poor Pitiful Me') and Buddy Holly ('It's So Easy'), while she confronted the Stones' 'Tumbling Dice' with fearless resolve.
But it was her tender take on the Big O's 'Blue Bayou' that became a platinum-selling single.
Ronstadt in roller skates would become the latest of many memorable cover shots for her last album of the 1970s, on which she maintained her golden run despite, by now, having toned down the country elements.
Here, she favours rock 'n' roll (Chuck Berry's 'Back In The U.S.A.'), new wave (Elvis Costello's 'Alison') and more Motown, as on this sensitive treatment of Smokey Robinson's glorious, soul-baring ballad.
A new decade brought a different sound from a familiar team.
Asher and the A-list players were again on board, as Linda went new wave, including no fewer than three Costello covers and this frenetic number by Billy Steinberg (who was soon to team with Tom Kelly to write songs that would soundtrack the '80s such as 'Like A Virgin' and 'Eternal Flame').
The album also sported well-chosen versions of The Hollies hit 'I Can't Let Go' and Little Anthony & the Imperials' divine 'Hurt So Bad'.
After a less successful return to her more traditional pop-rock milieu for 1982's Get Closer, Ronstadt followed the instincts that had led her to the Broadway stage for the light opera of Pirates Of Penzance, which won her a Tony nomination.
Sure enough, her next move on record was to make something new from something old, exploring the Great American Songbook for the first of three albums arranged by the peerless Nelson Riddle.
Fans and new admirers flocked to buy it, with worldwide sales of five million. The title track tends to be the best remembered, but this gem, one of two covers of George and Ira Gershwin, was equally indispensable.
Trio was the first of Linda's meetings on record with two more long-time friends, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
Deftly produced by George Massenburg, A&R'd to perfection with a superior track list and with some of the greatest three-way female harmonies ever committed to disc, the Grammys, ACMs and CMA Awards poured in.
This remake of Phil Spector's US pop No. 1 for the Teddy Bears would also make the country summit.
With an apparently insatiable appetite for new challenges, Ronstadt changed gear again for her first album based on her family's musical heritage.
Steeped in Mexican mariachi, her first full set of Spanish-language recordings was delivered with utter authenticity and, with yet another Grammy win and double platinum sales in the US alone, it did much to integrate these noble traditions into the broader pop culture.
Four Jimmy Webb songs and three by Karla Bonoff helped illuminate this new Peter Asher production and take it to triple platinum.
Its signature song, one of Linda's biggest latter-day hits (along with the James Ingram duet 'Somewhere Out There', from An American Tail) was written by long-time hitmakers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, alongside Tom Snow.
Ronstadt and Neville's pairing of two distinct voices from different disciplines had Grammy-winner written all over it from the get-go, and so it proved.
The 1990s brought more modest commercial rewards to what was now an epic career. Linda's recording output was still creatively bounteous also, on such high points as Webb's 'You Can't Treat The Wrong Man Right' (from 1993's Winter Light) and Harley Allen's 'High Sierra,' from the 1995 set Feels Like Home.
In 1996, co-producing Dedicated To The One I Love herself with Massenburg, she hit upon the lovely idea of reimagining pop and rock favourites as children's lullabies. Brian Wilson's Beach Boys staple never sounded quite so dreamlike.
Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, alongside studio royalty in Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel and Leland Sklar, helped populate this late-'90s set, which also featured key Brits including Andy Fairweather Low, Ethan Johns and his dad Glyn for some production duties.
With songs by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and John Hiatt, it was something of a return to her rock instincts, leavened with soul choices such as Allen Toussaint's fabulously haunting 'Ruler Of My Heart', which was definitively cut in 1963 by Irma Thomas.
It was friends reunited and proof that sometimes you can go back as the famous trio reconvened.
The recordings were actually dated nearly five years before their release, in that time pulled in a few different directions until its emergence.
Still, the harmonies were as unimpeachable as ever, the song choices formed a further salute to country and roots history, and this Neil Young cover was sublime.
Linda's last solo album, and first for Verve, saw her stepping back into the jazz territory of her Nelson Riddle albums of the 1980s, with songs by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and other invincibles.
Jazz Times welcomed her latest visit to a sometimes cloistered environment by calling it a “gorgeously intimate collection of standards”, while for Billboard it featured “saloon songs for a sober era”.
It closed with a poignant reading of a song published just before World War II, by a voice who is, and will remain, just as timeless.
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Photography courtesy of Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy.