Full name Linda Marie Ronstadt; born July 15, 1946, in Tucson, Ariz.; daughter of Gilbert (a hardware-store owner) and Ruthmary (Copeman) Ronstadt. Education: Attended Catalina High School, Tucson, and the University of Arizona. Addresses: Office --c/o Asher, 644 N. Doheny Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Few performers in any medium have proven more daring than Linda Ronstadt, a singer who has made her mark in such varied styles as rock, country, grand opera, and mariachi. In the 1970s Ronstadt churned out a veritable stream of pop hits and heartrending ballads that delighted country and rock fans alike. Just when she seemed pegged as a pop idol, however, she turned her talents to opera--in The Pirates of Penzance and La Boheme --and to torch songs accompanied by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Almost every Ronstadt experiment has met with critical acclaim and, surprisingly, with fan approval and hefty record sales. Newsweek contributor Margo Jefferson attributes this success to Ronstadt's voice, which she describes as having "the richness and cutting edge of a muted trumpet." Jefferson concludes, "In a field where success is often based on no more than quick-study ventriloquism, Linda Ronstadt stands out. She is no fad's prisoner; her compelling voice wears no disguises."
Time reporter Jay Cocks calls Ronstadt "gutsy," "unorthodox," and a challenger of creeds. As the singer tells it, she developed a habit of rebellion early in life and stuck to it with singleminded determination. Ronstadt was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, the daughter of a hardware-store owner who loved to sing and play Mexican music. Ronstadt herself enjoyed harmonizing with her sister and two brothers--she was proud when she was allowed to take the soprano notes. At the age of six she decided she wanted to be a singer, and she promptly lost all interest in formal schooling. Aaron Latham, a classmate at Tucson's Catalina High School, wrote in Rolling Stone that by her teens Ronstadt "was already a larger-than-life figure with an even larger voice. She didn't surprise anyone by becoming a singer. Not that anyone expected her fame to grow to the dimensions of that voice. But the voice itself was no secret."
Ronstadt attended the University of Arizona briefly, dropping out at eighteen to join her musician boyfriend, Bob Kimmel, in Los Angeles. With Kimmel and guitar player Kenny Edwards, Ronstadt formed a group called the Stone Poneys, a folk-rock ensemble reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas and the Lovin' Spoonful. The Stone Poneys signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1964 and released a single, "Some of Shelley's Blues," in early 1965. Their only hit as a group came in 1967, when "Different Drum," a cut from their second album, made the charts. By that time, intense touring, drug abuse, and a series of disappointing concert appearances as openers for the Doors caused the Stone Poneys to disband. Ronstadt told Rolling Stone that her band was "rejected by the hippest element in New York as lame. We broke up right after that. We couldn't bear to look at each other."
Ronstadt fulfilled her Capitol recording contract as a solo performer, turning out some of the first albums to fuse country and rock styles. On Hand Sown ... Home Grown (1969) and Silk Purse (1970), Ronstadt teamed with Nashville studio musicians for an ebullient, if jangly country sound. The latter album produced her first solo hit, the sorrowful "Long, Long Time." In retrospect, Ronstadt has called her debut period the "bleak years." She was plagued by the stresses of constant touring, difficult romantic entanglements, cocaine use, and critical indifference--and to make matters worse, she suffered from stage fright and had little rapport with her audiences. "I felt like a submarine with depth charges going off all around me," she told Time. Ronstadt eluded failure by moving to Asylum Records in 1973 and by engaging Peter Asher as her producer and manager. Asher collaborated with her on her first best-selling albums, Don't Cry Now and the platinum Heart Like a Wheel.
Heart Like a Wheel was the first in a succession of million-selling albums for Ronstadt. By the mid-1970s, with hits such as "When Will I Be Loved?," "Desperado," "You're No Good," "Blue Bayou," and "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," the singer had established herself as rock's most popular female star. Stephen Holden describes Ronstadt's rock style in a Vogue magazine profile. Her singing, according to Holden, combined "a tearful country wail with a full-out rock declamation. But, at the same time, her purity of melodic line is strongly rooted in folk." A Time contributor elaborates: "She sings, oh Lord, with a rowdy spin of styles--country, rhythm and blues, rock, reggae, torchy ballad--fused by a rare and rambling voice that calls up visions of loss, then jiggles the glands of possibility. The gutty voice drives, lilts, licks slyly at decency, riffs off Ella [Fitzgerald], transmogrifies Dolly Parton, all the while wailing with the guitars, strong and solid as God's garage floor. A man listens and thinks 'Oh my, yes,' and a woman thinks, perhaps, 'Ah, well ...'"
A leap from rock to operetta is monumental; few voices could make it successfully. In 1981 Ronstadt astonished the critics and her fans by trilling the demanding soprano part of Mabel in a Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance. Her performance led Newsweek correspondent Barbara Graustark to comment, "Those wet, marmot eyes turn audiences on like a light bulb, and when her smoky voice soars above the staff in a duet with a flute, she sends shivers down the spine." Ronstadt's appearance as Mimi in La Boheme off-Broadway in 1984 was received with less enthusiasm by the critics, but the singer herself expressed no regrets about her move away from rock. "When I perform rock 'n' roll," she told Newsweek, "it varies between antagonistic posturing and to-the-bones vulnerability. I wanted to allow another facet of my personality to emerge.... I've gained confidence in knowing that now ... I can handle myself in three dimensions, and even if I never use my upper extension except in the bathtub, I've gained vocal finish."
That "vocal finish" was applied to yet another Ronstadt experiment--two albums of vintage torch songs, What's New? and Lush Life, featuring the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Jay Cocks calls What's New? a "simple, almost reverent, rendering of nine great songs that time has not touched.... No one in contemporary rock or pop can sound more enamored, or winsome, or heartbroken, in a love song than Linda Ronstadt. Singing the tunes on What's New, or even just talking about them, she still sounds like a woman in love." Stephen Holden writes, "One of the charms of Ronstadt's torch singing is her almost girlish awe in the face of the songs' pent-up emotions. Instead of trying to re-create another era's erotic climate, she pays homage to it with lovely evenhanded line readings offered in a spirit of wistful nostalgia." Holden adds that What's New "revitalized Ronstadt's recording career by selling over two million copies, and, coincidentally, defined for her generation the spirit of a new 'eighties pop romanticism."
More recent Ronstadt projects have departed even further from the pop-rock vein. In 1987 the singer released Canciones de mi padre, an album of mariachi songs that her father used to sing. Newsweek critic David Gates calls the work "Ronstadt's best record to date," noting that "its flawless production is the only concession to Top 40 sensibilities. And Ronstadt ... has found a voice that embodies not merely passion and heartache, but a womanly wit as well." Ronstadt also earned several prestigious awards for her 1986 album Trio, a joint country-music venture with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. While Ronstadt will not rule out recording more rock, she seems far more fascinated by other forms and other, more remote, historical periods. Gates finds the raven-haired artist "the most adventurous figure in American popular music," concluding that, at the very least, Ronstadt is "commendable in her refusal to bore herself."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Linda Ronstadt's Career
With Bob Kimmel and Kenny Edwards, formed group the Stone Poneys, 1964-68, had first Top 40 hit, "Different Drum," 1967; solo artist, 1968--. Has made numerous concert tours in the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Sang at Jimmy Carter's inaugural concert, 1977. Appeared as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway, 1981, and in a feature film, 1983; appeared as Mimi in La Boheme off-Broadway, 1984.
Linda Ronstadt's Awards
Recipient of Grammy Awards for best female pop performance, 1975, best female pop performer, 1976, and (with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris) best country performance, 1987; recipient of American Music Award, 1978, and Academy of Country Music Award, 1987.
- With the Stone Poneys
- Evergreen Capitol, 1967.
- Evergreen, Volume II Capitol, 1967.
- Linda Ronstadt, the Stone Poneys, and Friends, Volume III Capitol, 1968.
- The Stone Poneys Featuring Linda Ronstadt, Capitol, 1976.
- Solo LPs
- Hand Sown ... Home Grown Capitol, 1969.
- Silk Purse Capitol, 1970.
- Linda Ronstadt Capitol, 1972.
- Don't Cry Now Asylum, 1973.
- Heart Like a Wheel Capitol, 1974.
- Different Drum Asylum, 1974.
- Prisoner in Disguise Asylum, 1975.
- Hasten Down the Wind Asylum, 1976.
- Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits Asylum, 1976.
- Simple Dreams Asylum, 1977.
- Blue Bayou Asylum, 1977.
- Retrospective Capitol, 1977.
- Living in the U.S.A. Asylum, 1978.
- Mad Love Asylum, 1980.
- Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits, Volume II Asylum, 1980.
- Get Closer Asylum, 1982.
- What's New? Asylum, 1983.
- Lush Life Asylum, 1984.
- For Sentimental Reasons Asylum, 1986.
- Prime of Life Asylum, 1986.
- Rockfile Capitol, 1986.
- 'Round Midnight: The Nelson Riddle Sessions Asylum, 1987.
- Canciones de mi padre Asylum, 1987.
- With Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris
- Trio Warner Bros., 1986.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony Books, 1977.
- Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martin's, 1974.
- down beat, July, 1985.
- Esquire, October, 1985.
- Newsweek, October 20, 1975; April 23, 1979; August 11, 1980; December 10, 1984; February 29, 1988.
- People, October 24, 1977; April 30, 1979.
- Rolling Stone, December 2, 1976; March 27, 1977; October 19, 1978; November 2, 1978; August 18, 1983.
- Saturday Review, December, 1984.
- Time, February 28, 1977; March 22, 1982; September 26, 1983.
- Vogue, November, 1984.
- Washington Post Magazine, October 9, 1977.