She grew up in Tucson, in a household that rang with music. Her mother was from Michigan, her father from Mexico. The grandparents next door played opera on the Victrola; at home, Ronstadt’s father crooned northern Mexican songs and her mother entertained her kids with grim but hilarious ditties:
“Last night my darling baby died
She died committing suicide…”
Simple Dreams is subtitled “A Musical Memoir,” and that’s what it is. If you are looking for personal tidbits (I, of course, wasn’t), you will find slim pickings. Ronstadt does not dish. Beyond her early life, her book is all about her amazing musical career and all the people she worked with. The fact that she “was keeping company with then-governor Jerry Brown” is mentioned primarily because, after Ronstadt’s Malibu beach house was destroyed by a storm, other homeowners in the area were frustrated—they assumed, correctly, that the governor didn’t dare to address this problem since his girlfriend lived there!
I confess I looked up Ronstadt’s two children, mentioned after Ronstadt retired from music. They were adopted. Oops, was I hoping to uncover something?
The book is also unique as a musical memoir in that Ronstadt did not work with a ghostwriter, and did an excellent job by herself. Fluid writing, modesty about her accomplishments, and a light touch make this book a fun read. I have always admired Ronstadt’s singing; now I admire her intelligence and style, in both the literary and the musical sense.
Using Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Canadian group Ian and Sylvia as models, Linda and her siblings, Mike and Suzy, created their own folk group as teenagers, the New Union Ramblers. At 18, Linda moved to Los Angeles, where she formed a folk-rock trio called the Stone Poneys (after a Charlie Patton blues song). They played at the famed L.A. club the Troubadour. Stone Poneys made three albums, with Linda Ronstadt emerging as the star, her first hit “A Different Drum.” She recalls how green the trio were musically, and how the songs she sang shifted from folk-country to folk-rock, the norm for the late sixties–early seventies.
Ronstadt’s big voice dominated big stages as she made the shift to arenas. Rock author Gerri Hirshey called her the first “arena-class rock diva.” Perhaps the only thing missing from her stellar music career was that Ronstadt has sung mostly covers—well chosen, but not her own material. She made the songs her own by her diligent attention to phrasing and by learning musical styles as she tried them out.
When she heard Gary White play “Long Long Time” in his dressing room at a club, she wanted to record it, and it’s in her 1970 album, Silk Purse.
Cover for Ronstadt’s 1970 Album, Silk Purse
Bored and dispirited with playing huge, impersonal venues and with singing the same songs over and over, she comments: “My music had begun to sound like my washing machine.”
By the late 1970s, Ronstadt knew almost everyone in the music business. The Eagles were once her backup band; she opened for Neil Young, was friends with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, and called New York Times music critic John Rockwell when she wanted to work in smaller venues. John put her in touch with Joe Papp, who put her in his Pirates of Penzance production in Central Park, as well as its move to Broadway and, later, the movie version.
Ronstadt leapt gamely into the unlikely role of a dainty Gilbert & Sullivan coloratura. I remember the film mostly for Kevin Kline’s delicious turn as a pirate; Ms. Ronstadt sees fragments later in Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Linda got her first formal voice training from “Magic Marge,” Marge Rivingston, who worked with the entire Pirates cast.
Linda’s next change of direction was to croon the American Songbook (standards by Gershwin, Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Rodgers and Hart . . . ) with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. It was a triumph, opening at Radio City Music Hall in 1983.
She had grown strong in her determination to have artistic control and to follow her own musical passions. She became less interested in her rock star status: “I never felt that rock and roll defined me. There was an unyielding attitude that came with the music that involved being confrontational, dismissive, and aggressive.”
When her father told her that famed ranchera singer Lola Beltrán was appearing at the 1983 Tucson International Mariachi Conference, Ronstadt hopped on a plane. Ronstadt calls “Lola the Great”—who “stood for Mexico as Edith Piaf stood for France”—her major stylistic influence.
Ronstadt’s first album of traditional Mexican songs, Canciones de mi Padre, came out in 1987 and was a huge hit, despite her agent’s and record label’s fears that she would lose her audience. Canciones (here’s Ronstadt singing “Y Andale”) is the biggest-selling non-English-language album in U.S. recording history. It won Linda one of her 11 Grammy Awards.
In 1987, Linda finally synced schedules with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. The album Trio was born—three beautiful singing voices in a collaboration that continued with Trio II in 1999. Emmylou and Linda have remained great friends. Ronstadt and Parton recorded “I Never Will Marry,” a traditional song, arranged by Ronstadt, that is a long-time favorite of mine.
Linda Ronstadt never did marry. Perhaps she is too much the free spirit, or, as she says, she’s not fond of the compromises a good marriage demands. She mentions many men with whom she may have had romances, and they remain friends today. Only one person in the book gets mildly harsh words—a piano player with Neil Young who was also a “mean drunk.” She mentions numerous hilarious moments, like the time she and Randy Newman were walking in the rain and found a policeman’s gun in the gutter, and differed on how to deal with it.
She made one last album, with Cajun artist Ann Savoy—Adieu False Heart—in 1996, and gave a last concert, in 2009, with Mariachi Los Camperos (her touring band with Mexican shows for 20 years) in San Antonio.
Today Ronstadt lives with her two children, watching them grow into adulthood. Her children and many family members are involved with music. “I feel sorry for a culture that depends too much on delegating its musical expression to professionals . . . we should do our own singing first.”
Linda Ronstadt can no longer sing; Parkinson’s disease, she revealed in August, has stolen her voice. Fortunately, people continue to enjoy her singing electronically, and she can write with a strong, lighthearted voice. I look forward to her next book. Viva la Linda!