Considered the “most versatile vocalist of the modern era,” you know that when Linda Ronstadt takes the stage, the crowd will rise, and shake the rafters. That was the case at the Tilles Center, in Brookville, Long Island last Thursday night. She’s not on a concert tour, nor a book tour (her bestselling memoir, Simple Dreams, came out in 2013), and there’s really nothing to “plug,” but it’s just Linda and her fans, who followed her career since the late ‘60s, and continue to support her in this chapter of her career. In 2009, Linda gave her last concert, and announced her retirement; her diagnosis of Parkinson’s the reason. These appearances are being called a “public speaking engagement,” a way to connect with the people she loved singing to, and for.
John Boylan and Linda Ronstadt
Escorted by her longtime manager, John Boylan, Linda sits in front of a large movie screen which allows her career to pass in pictures before our eyes, beginning with her early years, growing up with music all around her, and singing her favorite Mexican tunes with her brothers and sister in their Tucson, Arizona living room. At the age of two, Linda says, “I was told I could sing.” She learned to harmonize with her sister, and it’s the kind of singing she likes best; and the ballad is the preferred choice of song, but, she says, “I knew I’d have to include livelier songs.”
While her siblings went on to other things, Linda kept to the singing and at 17 went to California and began hanging at the famous Troubadour club, meeting other singers, playing with new musicians, and formed The Stone Poneys. Upon the screen comes a black and white photo of Linda at 17 with the 19 year old Jackson Browne, and a few other guys like Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, who joined her backup band. Her first hit, “Different Drum,” came off the band’s second album. “At one point,” Linda says, “they told me they want to go off to form their own band.” That’s how the Eagles came to be. In 1968, Linda went solo.
Her versatile career took a turn into country music in her collaboration with good friends, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, for two top selling albums, Trio and Trio II. “Emmylou called me up and told me to come over, that Dolly was there. I did, and we sang together and thought, ‘a ha.’ ” At one point in her career, she “wanted to perform on a stage that had a curtain,” which drew a laugh. That desire brought her to the Public Theatre and a role in the hit musical, Pirates of Penzance, with Kevin Kline and Rex Smith, which also took her and her role as Mabel to the movie version. There came a point when she wanted to improve her range and vocal presentation, and knew that with one of the great American standards, there’s no room for error. She called up Nelson Riddle one day and asked if he’d work with her on one of the great classics, like the kind Frank Sinatra sang. “I was hoping he’d work on one song, but he came ready to do a whole album,” she says. “It was the most thrilling thing.”
John Platt and Linda Ronstadt
Of the onset of Parkinson’s, she first noticed it in 2000, “I knew it in my voice. It became more and more difficult to sing, and could only really whisper, and not always stayed in tune.” Appearing healthy and happy now, with a few pounds added to her once slight frame, Linda has, to the audience, come to terms with the diagnosis. In the second part of the night’s event, WFUV-FM radio host John Platt, joined her to do a Q and A with questions already submitted by audience members, covering topics like Was she ever interested in songwriting? “No, though I did write one song, I was never much of a writer, no desire to get into the songwriting business.” What does she do now? “More talking now. When friends come over, we used to sing a lot, now we talk a lot. I’m also interested in what happens with our immigration laws, and protect those who may be affected.” The crowd erupted with approval. Linda is also busy raising her adopted children, Carlos and Mary, and although she’s been linked to some celebrity beaus like George Lucas and Gov. Jerry Brown, had no interest in marrying. She has said, “it was not important to me.”
She can also reflect on a career that “defined a generation,” as one reviewer posted, garnering her multiple Grammy’s; the 2013 election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (despite her assertion that she was not a rock and roll singer); the Latin Grammy for Lifetime Achievement; and in 2014 at a White House ceremony, President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
In the opening paragraph of her epilogue, in the memoir, “Simple Dreams,” Linda writes this: “I live these days with my two children, and am watching them navigate the wonderful and strange passage from teenager to young adult. They both play instruments, have a lively and active interest in music, and use it to process their feelings in a private setting. This is the fundamental value of music, and I feel sorry for a culture that depends too much on delegating its musical expression to professionals. It is fine to have heroes, but we should do our own singing first, even if it is never heard beyond the shower curtain.”
Photo credit Steven Sandick Photography