In some notable ways, singer Linda Ronstadt’s life has come full circle.
In the coming weeks, Ronstadt, 72, is about to embark on a cultural exchange program in which she’ll take a group of 20 young Mexican-American students from the Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy to northern Mexico to study traditional music, instruments, singing and dancing, and visual arts, she said in a telephone interview from her San Francisco home.
This is where Ronstadt, as a little girl born and raised in Arizona, learned to sing, tapping into her family background.
Dad was Gilbert Ronstadt, a prosperous rancher and civic leader with a fine baritone singing voice who was of Mexican, German and English ancestry. He introduced Ronstadt and her three siblings to the rancheras, huapangos and mariachi forms of Mexican folkloric music. Mom, Ruth Mary, of German, English and Dutch ancestry, introduced Ronstadt to the standards.
Her maternal grandfather, Lloyd Copeman, invented the early toaster, the first electric stove and the rubber ice tray, for which he made millions. Her musically inclined paternal grandparents hailed from the same small town in Mexico Ronstadt plans to take the kids.
At 10, the same age as these kids from the San Pablo, California, arts academy, she started singing those songs.
At 72, she can no longer sing. The woman who had one of the purest pitches and among the most powerful voices in popular music history, and who inspired generations of female pop and country stars, has Parkinson’s. She gave her last concert in 2009, when she wondered why her instrument wasn’t doing what had come naturally for so long.
The Parkinson’s diagnosis
A few years later, when she was about 67, doctors confirmed she had Parkinson’s disease — more specifically, she says, progressive supranuclear palsy. The brain cells disorder affects movement, which means walking and balance, speech, swallowing, vision, and controlling the muscles that let singers sing, can be compromised.
But she’s still involved in music. It’s just a bit different from the 1970s when, in 1978, The New York Times proclaimed Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and Carly Simon the “Queens of Rock.” A time when she sold so many records through No. 1 albums like “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Simple Dreams” and “Living in the USA,” her label, Asylum, practically came to rely on Ronstadt and her former backing band, the Eagles, to keep the company a mega corporation.
“The record business has changed so much it’s really amazing. I’m involved with music now more as as a mentor,” she said of her work with the children.
It’s a mutual learning experience, says Ronstadt, who recorded two albums of Mexican music — “Canciones de mi Padre” in 1987, the most commercially successful non-English language record in U.S. music history, according to the RIAA, and its 1991 sequel, “Mas Canciones.”
“I go to the original sources. If someone says, ‘I like your music,’ I say listen to Lola Beltrán, the singers I learned from. It was really hard to sing. I heard it as a child and the rhythms are very complex. What I learn from these kids is I get to hear these complicated rhythms and they are better than I am and they are 10-years-old.”
Ronstadt, of course, has always been self-critical. She’s no fan of “Linda Ronstadt.” When she finished making an album that ended her interest in ever playing it.
Don’t play one of her old hits around her — not “Blue Bayou,” “You’re No Good” or even her 1983 standards album, “What’s New,” which, following Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” and Carly Simon’s “Torch,” helped popularize the pop stars doing World War II era standards trend.
“I would run out of the room,” she laughs. “I’ve heard the song before.”
And even as her life has come full circle musically, she’s reliving a part of her middle life.
Live in Hollywood
With Friday’s release of “Live in Hollywood,” Ronstadt and the releasing label, Rhino, are celebrating a landmark: her first-ever live album.
“Live in Hollywood” was recorded on April 24, 1980, on a sweltering stage at Television Center Studios. “I feel like a chicken-fried steak,” she cracks on a track before introducing her band mates — the cream of L.A. session musicians: Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, Kenny Edwards, Bob Glaub — for an HBO special during her tour for the “Mad Love” album.
The year, 1980, coincidentally is the year when Ronstadt, whose “Different Drum” with the Stone Poneys became her first pop hit in 1967, believes she really “started to sing.” That’s when she’d absorbed all of her influences, learned how to wield her prodigious vocal instrument, and started to yearn to stretch into opera, Broadway, standards and Latin music — genres she tackled beginning in the early 1980s, which also included the Afro-Cuban “Frenesí” album in 1992. (In 2008, Ronstadt was presented the ALMA Trailblazer Award by American Latino Media Arts.)
Ronstadt curated 12 selections from the 20-song setlist for “Live in Hollywood.” She picked “What was the least embarrassing, that’s the truth. Some we had to leave on there because they were hits. I picked the 12 least embarrassing ones that we could get away with.”
So fans will relish finally having live renditions of “How Do I Make You,” Little Feat’s “Willin’” and the Eagles’ “Desperado.” They won’t get Elvis Costello’s “Party Girl,” the Cretones’ “Mad Love” or her 1969 country-rock staple, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” which had figured on that cooking concert stage.
She cut them because, “it’s excruciating. Why didn’t I sing this note or do that?”
That’s always been Ronstadt’s way. Second guessing. Sometimes it worked to her advantage. “We perform them better live than in the studio because on the road I knew the song better.”
Conversely, in the studio you get to do a redo.
“Sometimes you get a good bridge on a Thursday. Then you do a better job on the chorus on Friday,” she said.
“Live in Hollywood” posed its own challenges for Ronstadt and producer John Boylan, who worked with her in 1971 on her eponymous album that featured Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon as her band before they were the Eagles.
The album almost didn’t happen because HBO, Ronstadt, and Rhino’s parent label, Warner Bros., could not find the master tapes. Ronstadt initially says she wasn’t even aware these existed — perhaps one reason it wasn’t released in the Christmas record-selling window of 1980.
A hockey rink-side conversation Boylan had with a Warner Bros. audio engineer at their sons’ hockey practice finally led him to the missing tapes, Rhino said.
In the vinyl LP and CD version’s liner notes, Boylan writes: “I have no way of calculating the odds of finding the lost tapes through a chance encounter at a hockey practice, but they must be astronomical — like winning the lottery. And in this case of remarkable serendipity, every Linda Ronstadt fan is a lottery winner.”
Sound was another issue. Though “Live in Hollywood” packs a sonic punch and fullness — Kunkel’s drumming on “Hurt So Bad” drives the beat much harder than its studio counterpart on 1980’s New Wave-inspired California rock album, “Mad Love,” the primitive mono sound of television in that era is apparent.
“You can’t turn up what’s not on the tape,” Ronstadt said. “It’s so dispiriting, the sound quality. It’s so bad, Some registers have been dialed out. The guitars are gone.”
Kortchmar, Ronstadt said, played her favorite guitar solo on one of her records on the original studio recording of “Hurt So Bad.” It’s there on “Live in Hollywood,” too, but the clarity isn’t audiophile.
This applies to how most of us listen to music today — digitally compressed on cell phones, Ronstadt included. She champions vinyl’s superior fidelity, but like most, listens to music via her phone. She doesn’t have a turntable at home. She likes to go to the opera, when she can.
Of current contemporaries, she likes the music of Sia. Can’t stand modern country, “suburban mall music,” she calls it, the aural equivalent of shopping at big box stores.
Of her contemporaries, she loved Paul Simon’s “In the Blue Light,” an album he released in September of re-imagined versions of some of his more obscure LP cuts, like “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns,” a song she says she wishes she could sing now.
Simon’s music, Ronstadt says, “sings so deliciously. You want to sing and chew on the words, they are great for your mouth. I think he’s the best songwriter of the 20th century. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Webb, too. And Brian Wilson. He inherited what Gershwin would write. If you could make the range it was the best ride you ever had. Same with Gershwin. They wrote with singers in mind. Those writers knew how to do that.”
But now, that Parkinson’s. That damned disease.
Ronstadt’s speaking voice still carries delightful traces of its youthful timbre but it’s a bit more hesitant than even a few years ago when she first gave interviews about having Parkinson’s and its impact on her daily life.
“Life is more horizontal than vertical now, but I’ve spent my whole life wishing I didn’t have to go to the next town and now I don’t have to.”
She’s on medications to manage the symptoms but there are “really not magic herbs,” Ronstadt said. “I take a drug that helps me deal with the shaking and the weakness.”
She’s given up the “Conversations with Linda Ronstadt” Power Point-type presentations she toured before audiences in recent years. “That required leaving the house. I decided not to do that anymore.” Traveling by cars, trains and planes has become too difficult.
“I have a lot of good friends that come over,” she says, chuckling that she must have done something right because “my friends are still speaking to me.”
And there’s music, always music, even if it’s being sung by others.
“Follow the music,” Ronstadt said. “The music always told me where to go for better or worse and made my decisions for me.”