Linda Ronstadt sang her last concert in 2009. Although now seventy-three, she’d probably still be out there thrilling audiences–on stage or releasing new albums–but Parkinson’s disease has robbed her of her singing voice. The documentary LINDA RONSTADT: The Sound of My Voice was made with her blessing. It’s a chance to go back in time and hear some great music while listening to Linda and others reflect on the forces that shaped her long (40+ years) music career.
What a voice. What a trailblazer. What a woman.
Nobody has tried as many different styles of singing and nailed it the way Linda has. So says Bonnie Raitt, just one of many performers, musicians, producers and critics interviewed for this film. Linda’s first hit song was “Different Drum” (written by Michael Nesmith of future Monkees fame.) The year was 1967. She was all of twenty-one and part of a folk trio called The Stone Poneys, but the record companies wanted her as a solo act. Once she went off on her own, she insisted on changing up the kind of music she sang, performing Rock, Country, R&B, old American Standards, and traditional Mexican songs with mariachi musicians, the latter in Spanish. The apoplectic record company executives predicted she’d destroy her career, but Linda’s albums sold millions, no matter what genre she was singing. The thought of performing the same hits over and over, she says in the film, reminded her of a washing machine. In 1981, she sang operetta on Broadway in The Pirates of Penzance to much acclaim and the surprise of critics, later starring in the movie version. (Growing up, Linda listened to Gilbert and Sullivan records–her mother was a fan.)
“Linda was like what Beyoncé is now.”–Cameron Crowe, filmmaker and music journalist
At eighteen, Linda said goodbye to a semester of college and her hometown of Tucson, AZ, and moved to L.A. It seems her parents gave her some good advice. Her father told her never to let anyone take her picture without her clothes. Her mother, who’d given up her dream of becoming a scientist to raise four kids with the man she loved, told her to go out there and have a life.
A very big life on a very big stage is what she got, much to her surprise. “Linda never thought she was as good as she was,” says Peter Asher. He produced several of her albums (and also worked with the Beatles). She credits her wide-ranging musical tastes to the family she grew up in. A family that sang together–in the living room, in the kitchen, in the car. A Mexican-American family–parents, two brothers and a sister–who loved many different types of music. Linda was just fourteen when she and her sister and older brother formed a folk trio, The New Union Ramblers, and played small local venues. “We learned so much about singing from each other,” says Linda.
Linda’s great-grandfather (on her dad’s side) came to this country from Germany and settled in Tucson, back when Arizona was part of Mexico. He married a Mexican citizen, and they raised a family. Linda’s mother grew up in Michigan, where her scientist father worked for Thomas Edison’s company and invented the electric stove, rubber ice cube trays and many other things. She enrolled at the university in Tucson and met her future husband when he rode his horse up the stairs of her sorority house. He later serenaded her with love songs beneath her window. After marrying, they raised their own family on his father’s cattle ranch.
In a New York Times interview in September, Linda was asked why so many people didn’t know what her background was until she started releasing her albums of Mexican songs.
“I only said it in every interview. In 1968, I said I’m of Mexican-German heritage. But I had white skin and a German name so I wasn’t Mexican. It was part of the way Mexicans are treated in this culture. We’re invisible.” Linda Ronstadt to Jim Farber of the New York Times.
Linda was the first female artist with five Platinum albums (over 1 million sales) in a row. She won 10 Grammys. In 2014, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This December she’ll receive a Kennedy Center Honor.
“I consider her a real auteur,” says Jackson Browne in the film. She didn’t write songs, but she knew how to make them her own. She and Jackson did a tour together and took turns opening and closing. “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night,” he said. “She was a woman having the success of a Mick Jagger.”
I love Linda’s take on the power of a song.
Linda says people sing for the same reason birds do. “For a mate. To claim their territory or simply to give voice to being alive in the midst of a beautiful day. They sing so that coming generations won’t forget what the current generation endured, or dreamed, or delighted in.”
When we get carried away by a song, isn’t that what we’re doing, too?