That Girl from Arizona
When it comes to writing about music I seem to find myself stuck in the 70s. Maybe it’s easier to make sense of the songs I’ve been listening to for most of a lifetime.
Or maybe I just can’t stand today’s Swedish-produced pop music.
In any case, no female performer from my teen years stands out more than Linda Ronstadt. More than once I’ve referred to her as the first Mexican-American girl I ever had a crush on. That ethnic bit is true. The Ronstadts were immigrant farmers from Germany who settled in Arizona and married into the local population. You didn’t think Tejano and Norteño music sounded like polkas by chance, did you?
Raging teenage hormones aren’t the best basis for decision-making but Ronstadt really could sing. In the middle of that decade she was everywhere, You can hear her voice on records by Warren Zevon, Neil Young and even Earl Scruggs. Rumor has it that she told Billy Joel he’d be an idiot not to record ‘Just the Way You Are,‘ a song he evidently hates and yet is one of the few modern standards. She tirelessly promoted and sang the songs of her friends and used her fame to shine a light on the music of our neighbor to the south.
But I digress. La Ronstadt just turned 70 and her voice has been stilled by Parkinson’s. So let’s revisit just what it is that makes her so great.
Different Drum (with the Stone Poneys)–1967
Ronstadt’s first hit was as the front woman for a band. Proving the lie to Don Kirshener‘s assertion that his human cartoons hadn’t enough talent to do more than they were told to, this classic pop gem was penned by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees.
For the obsessive crowd this video is of note because, although filmed live, it later had the single version of the song dropped in for use as a promo. Contrary to popular belief, the music video pre-dates MTV.
You’re No Good–1974
When she first went solo no one seemed to know what to do with Linda. Always dependent on material penned by others, her first singles were covers of Girl Groups and Patsy Cline hits. That all changed with 1974’s Peter Asher-produced Heart Like a Wheel. “You’re no Good,” an R&B tune from deep in the back catalog, was a huge hit. The annoying logos and URLs in this video are worth enduring just to see a big chunk of the Mellow Mafia tear it up and extend this gem. It made me rethink my position on Andrew Gold.
It’s So Easy–1977
After the double platinum success of ‘Heart Like a Wheel‘, Ronstadt continued to mine the rock and roll songbook for material. She more than held her own covering Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry and, as here, Buddy Holly. This era culminated in ‘Living in the USA‘ which I suspect Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind when making Boogie Nights. I can’t be the only person who saw Rollergirl and thought immediately of Linda.
Hurts So Bad–1980
In 1981, having proven myself temporarily unfit for college, I was driving a cab with only an AM radio for company. (Hard to believe that on the verge of the MTV era AM was still the mainstay of pop music.) That year Linda and co. unearthed a 1965 gem originally recorded by Little Anthony & The Imperials I have always loved how the guitar solo starts on the same note she’s holding as she sings “please don’t go.”
In 1983 Ronstadt was, I think, the first of her generation to take on the songs her contemporaries had rejected. And she did it in high style with the help of Nelson Riddle, born just down the road from here and arranger for Sinatra and Fitzgerald among others. The strings may not be your thing but she has more business singing these songs than Rod Stewart, Annie Lennox or Bob Dylan ever will.
After the Gold Rush-1999
The end of the 80s marked the last Ronstadt ever saw of platinum-selling albums as a solo artist. But she worked on a number of projects: duets with Aaron Neville, songs in Spanish she’d heard from her parents and grandparents, and this trio with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Here they take on Neil Young, never mind the irony of Dolly singing an environmentalist anthem.
BONUS VIDEO: Tumbling Dice 1978
At her best, Linda could take on any song and sell it ,even as a B-side. So let’s not dwell on the silence and remember her having a blast. Here she takes on a classic from The Rolling Stones.
Here’s a Spotify playlist with some extra tracks thrown in. Look for the ones where you can hear her singing background.