Yesterday was the birthday of one of the most successful recording stars of all time: Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt was the golden voice of radio in the Seventies, having a string of radio hits with revisits of classic tracks from the Golden Age of rock, with songs first recorded by Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and others, as well as Motown hits like “Heat Wave.” She also, along with recording buddies the Eagles, helped to transform rock and country, making them, er, sleep together to produce the hybrid “country-rock”—or I guess country-pop—that now pretty much dominates Country radio. Ronstadt was an incredible singer and I can use the past tense because she has revealed she has Parkinson’s disease and will not be singing any more.
Her run in the spotlight began in 1974 with Heart Like a Wheel and flagged but briefly till this decade. It’s been a pretty stellar output for a “girl singer” (her own phrase for herself) who rose to the heights of fame and arena-sell-out shows at a time when there was no such thing as a rock diva. Rock was a boy’s world, and girls were a boy’s sport. Almost every other female singer in the game had been part of a group or was a much-managed property by some producer or other. The exceptions were the songwriters—Joni Michell, Carole King, Carly Simon, but only King of that group ran up a streak of platinum albums. When we talk about the likes of Debbie Harry or Stevie Nicks or Christine McVie as big-drawing female artists, we should acknowledge Ronstadt was there first (in fact, Simple Dreams was the album that finally knocked Rumours out of the #1 spot). She did compose songs too, but her real gift was in reinventing songs you already thought you knew, turning them into “chick songs” rather than songs about chicks. It began with her version of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” which, in a man’s voice, is about staying clear of women who want to tie him down. In Ronstadt’s version, it becomes a brave feminist crie de coeur: “All I’m saying is I’m not ready / For any person place or thing / To try to pull the reins in on me.” You go, girl.
And, in the many moods of her career—rock, pop, country, traditional, Mexican songs, comic opera, jazz standards, new age, new wave—Ronstadt generally picks material she can make the most of. Her vocal on “Long, Long Time” makes me misty just by force of how seemingly unconstrained and plaintive her voice becomes. She always sounds “pretty”—which is to say, there’s an affecting tenderness to her delivery, even when she’s denouncing some stud with “You’re No Good.” Her voice matches her looks in a “girl next door” ease of manner, and she’s never shrill or harsh. And somehow she manages to avoid the kitschy twang that so many country sirens have to flog, much as she never bores the living daylights out of me like someone like Celine Dion. Ronstadt, in the stretch from 1972 to 1980 in which I’m familiar with all her hits, still doesn’t cloy for me.
That view might be helped by the fact that my wife, even before she was my wife, was a fan and played Ronstadt songs in our early heyday. I have a particular affection for Prisoner in Disguise (1975) for that reason, but for today’s song I chose the lead-off hit from perhaps her most successful album (except for the multi-platinum Greatest Hits), Simple Dreams (1977). This is the one Mary picked up in the summer of 1979 and the first track made it onto one of my tapes of the time. And why not? It is easy to fall in love, I guess. I did it in 1978 and in 1979, and Ronstadt’s full-throated bellow on this song made such events seem, well, to be expected. “People tell me love’s for fools / Here I go breaking all the rules.” And let the devil take the hindmost. How often does it happen to you?
It’s a Buddy Holly number, much like Ronstadt's earlier hit “That’ll Be the Day”—a song that says, nah, you ain’t gonna get to me, babe. “It’s So Easy” sort of celebrates the opposite fact—you got to me, yeah, I done been got to—but with no hard feelings. It’s just putting it out there that, y’know, the stars are aligning and this thing is happening. What makes the song—besides the enthusiasm with which all, especially trusted guitarist Waddy Wachtel, play—is the way Ronstadt gets that husky trill into her voice on “fall in love,” and that grab at the end when the music stops and she hits “oh whoa” above the background guys (yeah, background guys).
There are other songs I could’ve picked to showcase how good she is as an interpretive singer with the right material (this album’s “Blue Bayou” is probably the best match of material, arrangement, her voice and no less than Don Henley on back-up), but this is the one going through my head at the moment. So—here’s to the late, great Buddy Holly as well.
Where you’re concerned / My heart can learn.