Back to Blue Bayou

An Interview With Linda Ronstadt

by Christian John Wikane

15 September 2017

(Promo Photo Courtesy of Elektra/Asylum Records.) 

99 Percent of Singing Is Listening

“You have to not think, but you have to listen when you’re singing…”

Ronstadt’s searing rendition of “Tumbling Dice” rerouted Simple Dreams in a whole other direction. Delivering what New York Times critic John Rockwell called “a hard-rock war cry of independence”, the singer punched the lyrics with spunk and sass. Originally one of the standout cuts on the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (1972), “Tumbling Dice” became the perfect vehicle to spotlight Ronstadt’s fluency in rock. 

“The Rolling Stones were staying out in Malibu for awhile,” Ronstadt recalls. “Ronnie Wood had a place. Mick taught it to me. I felt like I could sing ‘Tumbling Dice’ because I really identified with the lyrics.” The opening lines on Ronstadt’s version—“People try to rape me, always think I’m crazy. Make me burn the candle right down”—was a blunt comment on the more toxic and invasive byproducts of fame. She explains, “When you’re exposed to a wide segment of the public, somebody’s trying to violate you in some way, but it was nothing like it is now with Internet trolls.”

“Linda sang the hell out of it,” says Wachtel, who’d later join Keith Richards’ X-Pensive Winos. “She’s a great rock ‘n’ roll singer. Every time you see the live performance of ‘Tumbling Dice’, she’s just killing on it.” Ronstadt subsequently joined Jagger onstage for “Tumbling Dice” when the Rolling Stones played her hometown in July 1978. “Mick knew how to make things fun onstage,” she says. “He’s a showman. He’s not going to make the show look bad.” Earlier that year, John A. Alonzo’s feature film FM (1978) had also incorporated footage of Ronstadt performing “Tumbling Dice” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” from her November 1977 appearance at the Summit in Houston.

In fact, both “Tumbling Dice” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” exemplified Ronstadt’s growing inclination to outfit her albums with songs that suited larger venues. Her cover of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” rounded out Simple Dreams with another rocker that worked well for arena performances. “That was an afterthought that we threw in,” she says. “We needed an uptempo song because we had so many ballads. The songs like ‘Maybe I’m Right’ didn’t go over in those arenas. Anything with nuance or subtlety got lost. I did ‘Sorrow Lives Here’ as an encore because I loved it so much and I wanted to sing it every night. If I’d put it in the middle of the show, I probably would have emptied the place!”

Of course, Ronstadt had an impressive track record with Buddy Holly. Her version of “That’ll Be the Day” from Hasten Down the Wind had spent four months on the Hot 100 where it peaked in the Top 20 during the fall of 1976. “It’s So Easy” would fare even better than its predecessor, powered by Ronstadt’s capacity to understand what she calls the “vocal bloodlines” of a song. “It’s Texarkana,” she says. “It’s that area of the country (Texas / Arkansas). I grew up listening to that. It’s kind of country, it’s kind of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s kind of blues. It’s a little bit of all those things.”

As the gateway to Simple Dreams, “It’s So Easy” commanded immediate attention. Wachtel (guitar) and Grolnick (clavinet) played off each other as Ricky Marotta primed the beat for Kenny Edwards’ bass. Ronstadt infused her phrasing with a guttural growl. “That came naturally,” she says. “When you push a note in a certain register, you don’t know what it’s going to do until you get there. It just comes out. You have to not think, but you have to listen when you’re singing because 99 percent of singing is listening.” Ronstadt capped “It’s So Easy” with a triumphant cry, kindling a blaze of emotion in just a few notes.

With mastering underway, Ronstadt conceived a very specific vision for the album’s cover art. “I wanted to have something like the early color photographs that were done by exposing the film to the sun over a period of time, getting to that really soft focus thing,” she says. “I wanted something that was kind of timeless: all performers go to the dressing room before they go onstage. I was originally photographed in a little 1920s teddy—camiknickers they’re called—but Annie Leibowitz had taken that picture of me in the red slip (for Rolling Stone) which I didn’t like. Because of that, we changed the cover to me in a kimono.”

Simple Dreams reflected a particular moment in Ronstadt’s career, one where her profile had grown exponentially from recording artist to public figure. She’d begun the year performing at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and sang the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium during the World Series later that fall. In between, she made the cover of Time Magazine for a feature article that quoted Elektra/Asylum executives saying, “Right now Linda is the most successful female singer in record history” (28 February 1977). Other magazine covers proclaimed Ronstadt “The Million Dollar Woman” (Rolling Stone), “Rock’s Hottest Torch Singer” (People), and “The Queen of Rock & Roll” (Circus). Between concert appearances and seemingly constant media coverage, Simple Dreams shipped gold even before it bowed on the Billboard 200 the week ending 24 September 1977.

Elektra had issued “Blue Bayou” in advance of the album’s release. It slowly ascended the Hot 100 until it reached number three in December 1977, with “It’s So Easy” trailing close behind in the Top Five for three weeks. After more than five months on the chart, “Blue Bayou” became the best-selling single of Ronstadt’s career, earning the singer a platinum single and two Grammy nominations, “Record of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female”.

Simple Dreams quickly went from gold to platinum and, eventually, triple platinum. Beginning 3 December 1977, the album spent the first of five weeks at number one on the Billboard 200. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and “Tumbling Dice” kept Simple Dreams on the chart throughout 1978 as both singles climbed the Top 40 and laid the foundation for Ronstadt’s next double platinum release Living in the U.S.A. (1978).

The ‘80s embodied both the possibility and promise of artistic freedom in Ronstadt’s career. Some of her biggest gambles, from the record company’s point of view, yielded some of her greatest triumphs: her collaboration with Nelson Riddle on a trio of platinum-selling standards albums (1983-1986), her partnership with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on their first Trio (1987) project, and her Grammy-winning tribute to mariachi music Canciones De Mi Padre (1987), which set a record as the most successful non-English language album ever released in the US. Her starring roles in the Public Theater’s productions of The Pirates of Penzance and La Bohème only strengthened her vocal technique and developed the upper extension of her voice.

Ronstadt’s pop albums of the ‘80s, Mad Love (1980), Get Closer (1982), and Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind (1989), traced a fascinating arc as she piloted other creative endeavors. “I really loved singing American standards, where I found the true core of my voice,” she says. “I had a more authentic voice. It worked for everything—Mexican music, opera, standards, pop music. I could go back and sing rock ‘n’ roll with way more authority. Anything that happened before 1980, I think, I need to work on that. I did my best singing after the ‘90s, but I didn’t know the market at that point.”

In truth, the general public’s perception of Ronstadt as, first and foremost, a rock ‘n’ roll singer, has long diverged from the singer’s own manifold allegiances. “When I was singing standards, sometimes I’d miss singing ‘Tumbling Dice’, but not as much as I missed singing ‘What’s New’ when I was singing rock ‘n’ roll,” she says.

Adieu False Heart (2006), Ronstadt’s Grammy-nominated collaboration with Cajun music artist Ann Savoy, marked her last studio album before she retired from singing. “I had more fun making that record than any other record I’d ever made, except for the Trio records,” she says. The album’s vast array of sources—early 20th century folk ballads, Parisian love songs, Richard Thompson compositions, pop chestnuts like “Walk Away Renee”—stayed true to Ronstadt’s musical heart.

However, the enduring appeal of Simple Dreams remains a facet of the singer’s unparalleled legacy in music, specifically evidenced by the all-star group of women who honored Ronstadt at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2014. Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, and Carrie Underwood each performed classic Ronstadt hits, including two songs from Simple Dreams, “Blue Bayou” and “It’s So Easy”.

That evening, Waddy Wachtel guested as lead guitarist during the Hall of Fame’s tribute to Ronstadt. “It was so great to see all of these people that have loved Linda so deeply and learned so much from her,” he says. “It was a fantastic assemblage. Bonnie and Emmy go so far back with Linda. Stevie came in there and kicked the shit out of ‘It’s So Easy’. They all outdid themselves on each song.” Nicks spoke on behalf of several generations of artists when she thanked Ronstadt for inspiring her to declare, “That’s what I want to do.”

The true meaning of Simple Dreams transcends any one particular style or category. It’s really about songs, and the combination of strength, vulnerability, feeling, and technique that Linda Ronstadt brought to each performance. Perhaps the album title, with its nod to “Simple Man, Simple Dream”, says it all. “When I thought about doing a song, I always felt like it was a dream to do the song,” Ronstadt explains. “It really was satisfying to me when I realized the dream … and so the album was my simple dreams.”

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