By Steven M. Housman
Hummin It Up With Linda Ronstadt
Shortly after the third anniversary of September 11, I wrote an article on recently released CDs that celebrated the Great American Songbook. With all the hoopla surrounding Rod Stewart, and his third incarnation of American standards that just entered the Billboard charts at Number 1 this past week, most people seem to forget that Linda Ronstadt was the first pop/rock star that started this successful trend over twenty years ago. It began with her smash album, 1983s Whats New, conducted by the late, and legendary composer, Nelson Riddle. After that success, Ronstadt and Riddle collaborated for two more highly successful and critically acclaimed albums in 1984 and 1986, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons, respectively. Ronstadt has covered nearly every genre of music with great success, including folk, country, rock, pop, standards, opera, Spanish-language, and traditional, winning eleven Grammy Awards in the process. She also has received the most Grammys in different categories than any other performer. Before I tell you of Linda Ronstadts latest conquest, her first jazz album of American standards titled Hummin to Myself, lets first examine where shes been.
Linda Ronstadts first successful single Different Drum was released in November 1967 under the name The Stone Poneys Featuring Linda Ronstadt, (her newly formed band) and became a big pop hit. It wasnt long until Ronstadt, a Tucson, Arizona native, started recording folk and country songs, and became one of the first crossover artists to establish hits on both Billboards country and pop charts. Soon after The Stone Poneys first couple of singles and albums, Ronstadt went solo and began releasing several pop and country hit singles including Long, Long Time, Love Has No Pride and Silver Threads and Golden Needles. Her first Grammy nomination came in 1970 for the single Long, Long Time in the Best Contemporary Female Vocalist category. The new back-up band that she formed consisted of Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner, known better as the Eagles. In 1971, the Eagles hit it big on their own, and although still provided back-up vocals on various projects of Ronstadts, they eventually went their own way a year later.
1974 would prove to be a turning point in Ronstadts career. She released the highly successful and critically acclaimed album, Heart Like A Wheel, and became the queen of pop/country rock. Heart Like A Wheel became her first Number 1 album and spawned her first Number 1 single, Youre No Good. The album was hailed by Billboard and Rolling Stone as One of the years best albums. The following year, Heart Like A Wheel was nominated for Album of the Year and for Best Pop Female Vocalist. She picked up her first Grammy Award in the category of Country Vocal Performance-Female, for the single I Cant Help It (If Im Still In Love With You), and from then on, Linda was rocking on a roll that seemed to have no end. Just as the success of Heart Like A Wheel was unfolding, so was her contract. Capitol Records foolishly let her contract expire while other record companies were courting her with very lucrative deals. The winner was Warner Bros. where she began three decade recording career on their subsidiary, Asylum Records. She became a colossal recording star, and has been at the forefront of the music industry ever since. Throughout the 1970s, the hit singles just kept on coming. Among them are When Will I Be Loved, Desperado, Heat Wave, Tracks Of My Tears, Thatll Be The Day, Someone To Lay Down Beside Me, Blue Bayou, Its So Easy, Poor, Poor Pitiful Me written by her close friend Warren Zevon, Back In The U.S.A., Ooh, Baby Baby, and Just One Look. All her singles were released from hugely successful and critically-acclaimed albums, the aforementioned Heart Like A Wheel, Prisoner In Disguise, Hasten Down The Wind (Grammy Winner-Best Pop Female Vocalist), Simple Dreams (nominated in five categories, it won for Producer of the Year- Peter Asher.) and Living In The U.S.A. with a Greatest Hits package and an acting stint in the 1978 film FM tucked neatly in the middle. All of the albums reached platinum, double platinum and multi-platinum status. Ronstadt also became the highest paid female recording artist of the 1970s, securing her superstar status.
Where does the most successful female rock singer of the seventies go when the eighties begin? There was only one direction for Ronstadt, and that was up. It was a new decade and there was a new sound, new wave. Most critics scoffed at Ronstadts attempt at a new wave album, but it worked, and it worked brilliantly. The album was Mad Love, songs written mostly by new artists as Elvis Costello, Mark Goldenberg and Billy Steinberg was released in March 1980, one month after its debut single How Do I Make You was released. The single quickly became another Top 10 hit, and the album was enormously successful, reaching Number 3 and quickly going platinum. It also included new wave attempts at old rock songs as Hurt So Bad and I Cant Let Go both reaching the tops of the charts. That same year, Linda decided to exercise her acting chops and opened on the New York stage opposite Kevin Kline in Gilbert & Sullivans operetta Pirates of Penzance. It was so successful, she repeated the role for the film version three years later. In between, she released another album, the pop/rock mix of Get Closer. While the album and singles, the title track, I Knew You When and the beautiful ballad Easy For You To Say had enormous appeal, Ronstadt felt it was time for yet another new direction. She had found it listening to old Frank Sinatra records and decided to record an album of American standards. Who does one of the most successful singers of the decade recruit? Only Sinatras main man, Nelson Riddle. Riddle was already a legendary composer of several Sinatra albums and live concerts and was honored and up to the task. He was so thrilled, he even came out of retirement and went on a lengthy tour with Ronstadt. The country rocker traded in her blue jeans and donned chiffon dresses and gowns of the 1940s. It most likely would have been hokey on any other performer, but like actress Meryl Streep with her diverse roles and accents, Ronstadt eased into the role of torch singer as easily as she slipped into a pair of cowboy boots a decade earlier. It seemed that there wasnt any genre of music that Linda couldnt cover, and cover with enormous success. Whats New went through the roof, reaching Number 3 on Billboard and triple-platinum status. Not only did Ronstadts fans follow, she developed a whole new demographic. Ronstadt picked up another Grammy with Riddle for Best Instrumental With Accompanying Vocals. She quickly followed up with two more albums in as many years with great success. 1984s Lush Life garnered another Grammy for Ronstadt and Riddle in the same category from the previous year.
In 1986, Ronstadt had her biggest hit single success in six years, teaming up with James Ingram for the theme from Steven Spielbergs first animated film, An American Tail. The single Somewhere Out There won another Grammy for Ronstadt and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song.
The actress of song was ready for her next role. In 1987, Ronstadt teamed up with friends Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris for Trio, an album of country songs that reached Number 6 on Billboard. This was pre Garth Brooks, so any country artist, with the exception of Parton having success on the pop charts, was practically unheard of. The album also reached platinum status and would forever make the trio great friends and picked up a Grammy for each performer in the category Best Country & Western Vocal Performance. Just eight months later, Ronstadt traded in her cowboy hat for a sombrero and recorded Canciones de mi Padre, (My Fathers Songs) an album of Spanish songs dedicated to her father who is of Mexican descent. When Linda appeared onstage at the 1989 Grammy Awards in full Mariachi garb, the audience was aghast and laughed
for about five seconds. Linda then performed Los Laureles and finished to thunderous applause. A few minutes later, Ronstadt received a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance.
At the end of the decade, Ronstadt decided to return to pop and recruited legendary R&B singer Aaron Neville. Not only did Ronstadt revive Nevilles waning career, it won the duo a pair of Grammys. One Grammy for the single Dont Know Much, and the other for the single All My Life for Best Vocal Group the following year. Cry Like a Rainstorm- Howl Like The Wind was not only one of the biggest hit albums of 1989, its also one of the best pop albums of Ronstadts career. The album also won Peter Asher, Ronstadts longtime Producer and collaborator, another Grammy.
In December 1991, Ronstadt released a follow-up to Canciones de mi Padre titled Mas Canciones and it was another huge success rewarding Linda with another Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album. That same year, she released Frenesi, a Latin Album, and it won her a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album.
In the mid-nineties, Linda released a pair of pop albums, Winter Light and Feels Like Home. Although no hit singles were released, the albums did well and followed in the tradition of her best pop albums.
Unmarried and wanting children, Linda adopted her first child in the mid-nineties and sparked yet another musical idea. Why not a pop album with a twist on childrens lullabies? The album Dedicated To The One I Love was recorded. It consisted of all contemporary pop songs, such as the title track, Queens We Will Rock You, The Beach Boys In My Room, The Ronettes Be My Baby and more. The album went on to win a Grammy for The Best Musical Album For Children. After another pop album in 1998, titled We Ran, Ronstadt teamed up with old friends Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris for a sequel to Trio a dozen years later, Trio II. The album was country at its best and collected another Grammy for the trio. Seven months after Trio II was released, Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris released Western Wall-The Tucson Sessions to the critics and fans delight. The following year, Linda started off the new millennium with her first-ever holiday album, A Merry Little Christmas. This would be the last album Ronstadt would record for Elektra/Asylum, and for the Warner Bros. label, although Elektra released one more retrospective in 2003, The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt, covering 21 previously recorded tracks. I only listed the 11 Grammy wins. In between Linda Ronstadt has racked up close to 40 Grammy nominations since her first nomination in 1970. What did I tell you about being the Meryl Streep of the music world? Shes worn more hats, literally (cowboy, sombreros and veils from the 30s and 40s) than any other musician in the business. And shes not through. Four years have gone by without a new recording. Thats the longest period of time Ronstadt has taken off since the beginning of her recording career in 1967.
Im thrilled to say, Linda Ronstadt is back! Her 34th release is a jazz album titled Hummin to Myself on Verve Records. The album covers both popular favorites and rare gems from the mid-20th century. Ronstadt chose songs such as Frank Loessers Never Will I Marry and Ive Never Been In Love Before, Cole Porters Get Out of Town and Miss Otis Regrets, the 1944 Frank Sinatra gem I Fall In Love Too Easily and a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellingtons Day Dream. Other highlights include Cry Me A River, Hummin To Myself, and the discs closer, Ill Be Seeing You. Also included, Tell Him I Said Hello, which was a ballad recorded only once in 1955 by jazz legend Betty Carter and Gordon Jenkins Blue Prelude.
Ronstadt comments about her latest endeavor, I was driving up the coast with my kids, listening to a Chet Baker CD that a friend had loaned me to play in the car. It sparked something in me, and suddenly it all came flooding back. I remembered Tell Him I Said Hello and Never Will I Marry and all of these songs that Id always wanted to sing that were still haunting me and still keeping me up at nights. I Fall In Love Too Easily was also on that record, and I heard it and thought, I have to sing this! Thats how it always starts, Ill sing a song and think, If I cant sing that, Im gonna die! There are a lot of songs like that on the album.
She also returned to singing live with an orchestra, something she hasnt done in a long time. No studio tricks, just her voice and the musicians. She said she found it inspiring. She continued, This was such a raw experience because it was so transparent and so bare. There was absolutely nothing to hide behind, no sound being messed with. For a long time, I had been quintuple-tracking vocals on my records, because I had worked with Brian Wilson and he showed me how the Beach Boys did that. That was great fun, but this was the exact opposite of that.
Hummin to Myself begins quietly with Tell Him I Said Hello, which at moments, I questioned the vocal quality of Ronstadts voice, mostly because I wondered whether she could execute jazz effectively. After all the other genres of music shes covered, what was I thinking? My ambivalence was quickly terminated on the second track, a knockout, drop dead production of Never Will I Marry, where it was clearly evident, Linda Ronstadt, at 58, had the same vocal power and impeccable timing of her classics from three decades ago. Cry Me A River is a much-covered track most closely associated with Julie London and Barbra Streisand, but Ronstadt easily made it her own. Linda swallows up Sammy Fains wonderful title track and spews it out with such raw energy, youd swear it was written just for her. Looking at the track listing (as I always do when listening to an album for the first time) I expected Miss Otis Regrets to get the same treatment a la Bette Midler. Do you recall her 1940s dazzling romp rendition? I was in for a pleasant surprise. Ronstadt sang this song with such a downbeat tone, for the first time, I actually realized the painful, tormented feelings of this woman scorned. Its a brilliant take. The Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn sonata I Fall In Love Too Easily first sung by Frank Sinatra in the film Anchors Aweigh, was a great choice. I easily became transported in time, and began to really examine the lush melody and beautiful lyrics as I always do when a song is performed so effortlessly and breathtakingly beautiful. My other favorites include Sir Dukes Day Dream, and a sentimental favorite, Sammy Fains gorgeous and heart-wrenching song Ill Be Seeing You.
Linda concludes, Every experience you have colors every sound you make. Your voice changes as you get older, so I have a different range of colors to work with, and I have a lot of different stories to tell. Hummin to Myself is a record that I dont think I could have made as a young singer. Its a grown-up record, and Im very proud of that.
In summation, no matter how popular a song is when its previously recorded by a recognized artist, only the best and most unique artists are able to put their own indelible vocal stamp and make it memorable. Linda Ronstadt is one of those artists.
© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.