During a recording career spanning four decades, Linda Ronstadt covered much of America's popular and folk music and appealed to a mass audience that, but for her, might never have heard the work of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, or Elvis Costello, not to mention the older pop standards and traditional Mexican songs she sang later in her career.
Ronstadt is half Mexican, half German. She grew up singing Hank Williams and Elvis Presley favorites with her siblings and Mexican folk songs with her father, who played his guitar. While in high school, Linda performed around Tucson with her brother and sister. Local guitarist Bob Kimmel invited her to go with him to L.A. She declined the invitation until after a semester at the University of Arizona, but by the end of 1964 she was in L.A., where she joined the Stone Poneys, a folk group with Kimmel and guitarist Kenny Edwards.
The trio landed a gig at the Troubadour, where promoter Herb Cohen offered Ronstadt a solo management contract. She refused the offer out of loyalty to the trio and doubts about going it alone (earlier, the three had turned down Mercury's offer to make them into a surf-music group to be called the Signets). But when the Stone Poneys failed to attract further interest, they split up, and Ronstadt signed with Cohen, whom she later persuaded to manage the trio.
Cohen got the Stone Poneys a recording contract with Capitol in 1966 and hired Nick Venet to produce three albums. The first was a failed attempt to present the Poneys as a sort of Hollywood Peter, Paul and Mary. The second included a song on which L.A. session musicians backed Ronstadt — "Different Drum," written by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees — which was a Top 20 hit in 1967. It induced Capitol to send the Stone Poneys on tour as an opening act, but Edwards soon quit. (He was reunited with Ronstadt in 1974 and was her bassist for the following five years.) Kimmel and Ronstadt stayed together for a while, using pickup musicians for another tour and recording a few tracks for the third album, but soon Kimmel dropped out, leaving Ronstadt with a contractual obligation to finish, using session musicians. It sold so poorly that it wasn't until Heart Like a Wheel went gold seven years later that Ronstadt began to collect royalties.
Solo, Ronstadt floundered for most of the next five years. She went through a succession of managers, producers, and backup musicians (including in the last category the four original Eagles). Onstage she was often devastatingly timid, and in the studio her voice was undermined by inappropriate material and arrangements. She attracted brief notice as a country singer — playing the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, making TV appearances on The Johnny Cash Show and a Glen Campbell special — and reached the Top 30 in 1970 with "Long, Long Time" off Silk Purse. But by the end of 1972 she was in debt and paying commissions to two managers: Cohen (who still owned her contract) and John Boylan, her current producer. Don't Cry Now, her first album on Asylum (although it turned out she owed another to Capitol), was predictably bogged down and unfinished in the studio.
The catalyst to Ronstadt's popularity and acclaim was Peter Asher. A former half of the British pop duo Peter and Gordon, he had gone from performing in the mid-60s to producing and managing. Under Asher's direction, Don't Cry Now was completed after a year in the works, $150,000, and three producers. Despite its flaws, the album sparked Ronstadt's career and prompted Capitol to market a collection of her early songs under the title Different Drum.
With Asher as producer and manager, Ronstadt made Heart Like a Wheel, which established her best-selling mix of oldies covers and contemporary songs. In addition to astute song choices, high standards of studio craft became Ronstadt and Asher's trademarks. Released shortly before Christmas 1974, Heart Like a Wheel reached Number One the following spring and eventually sold 2 million copies. "You're No Good" rocked to Number One on the pop singles chart while its flip side, Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You," hit Number Two C&W, and won the Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance that year. "When Will I Be Loved" went Number Two pop, Number One C&W. Although still hampered by stage fright, Ronstadt became a popular concert attraction and something of a sex symbol.
With a 1976 tour of Europe — her first outside the U.S. — she extended her popularity to the world market. Heart Like a Wheel was the first of 17 gold or platinum albums. She won a second Grammy in 1976. Her albums retained a California sensibility with songs by J.D. Souther and Warren Zevon, but she also expanded her repertoire to R&B (the Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown classic "Heat Wave," a couple by Smokey Robinson), show tunes (Hammerstein-Romberg's "When I Grow Too Old to Dream"), traditional folk ballads ("I Never Will Marry," "Old Paint"), reggae (Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross"), and even cocky rock & roll (Jagger-Richards' "Tumbling Dice"). Her hit covers of Buddy Holly ("That'll Be the Day" and "It's So Easy") brought his music to a new audience.
Ronstadt's success gave a substantial boost to other female performers. She was the first to record songs by Karla Bonoff. Maria Muldaur, Wendy Waldman, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton are a few of the female singers who have harmonized with Ronstadt in the studio and onstage; and she was instrumental in the careers of Valerie Carter and Nicolette Larson. With these women, Ronstadt formed tight friendships and a sort of professional support system. (In 1987 she, Parton, and Harris released the platinum Trio, a project 10 years in the making.)
By decade's end, Ronstadt was at the height of her popularity; both Simple Dreams (1977) and Living in the U.S.A. (1978) hit Number One. She was also highly visible as the constant companion of California Governor Jerry Brown, with whom she shared the cover of Time. Ronstadt's Mad Love (Number Three, 1980) included new-wave rock. Working with a self-styled L.A. new-wave group, the Cretones, she put three songs by group member Mark Goldenberg alongside three by Elvis Costello (whose "Alison" she had covered on her previous album). The response from Ronstadt's audience was decidedly mixed, but "How Do I Make You" went Top 10, as did a remake of Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Hurt So Bad."
Rather than return to the studio, Ronstadt tried something new — the role of Mabel in Gilbert and Sullivan's 19th-century light opera The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt performed at Central Park's Delacorte Theater in New York City through the summer of 1980 and later appeared in the film version. A subsequent attempt at opera in a production of La Bohème was less well received by critics.
In 1982 she released Get Closer (Number 31), her least successful LP of new material in 10 years. Ronstadt then took a stylistic right turn, and she became among the first rock artists to tackle American pop standards. Lavishly orchestrated by veteran arranger Nelson Riddle, the triple-platinum What's New (Number Three, 1983), platinum Lush Life (Number 13, 1984), and gold Sentimental Reasons (Number 46, 1986) were critically acclaimed and introduced baby boomers to such pre-rock classics as "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "When I Fall in Love."
In 1987 Ronstadt and James Ingram topped the charts with the romantic ballad "Somewhere Out There" from the animated film An American Tale, and she made another commercially successful stylistic leap with the all-Spanish Canciones de Mi Padre ("Songs of My Father"), which went platinum though reaching only Number 42 on the chart. Later that year, the Trio album with Parton and Harris hit Number Six on the chart and also went platinum (it won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Duo/Group in 1988). Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind (Number Seven, 1989), went double platinum and contained two Grammy award–winning (for Best Pop Performance Duo/Group) ballads sung with Aaron Neville: "Don't Know Much" (Number Two, 1989) and "All My Life" (Number 11, 1990). However, two more Spanish-language albums, Mas Canciones and Frenesi, met with middling sales.
Ronstadt returned to English-language recording with 1993's Winter Light, which she produced herself with George Massenburg (her first pop solo album in 20 years that Peter Asher did not produce). Feels Like Home (Number 75, 1995) was originally conceived as a followup to Trio, but Parton had to withdraw because of scheduling problems. The album included more country-rock sounds but had disappointing sales. That same year Ronstadt sang on a recording of Randy Newman's musical Faust. Dedicated to the One I Love (Number 78, 1996) was a collection of lullabies, but buyers stayed away from We Ran (Number 160, 1998), a return to more pop fare.
The long-in-the-making Trio II (Number 62 pop, Number Four C&W) finally came out in 1999, followed a few months later by a duet album with Harris, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (Number 73 pop, Number Six C&W). Harris and the reluctant Ronstadt, who had not been on the road since 1995, then embarked on a tour. In addition to her well-known dislike for public performances, Ronstadt revealed that she was afflicted with Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder the side effects of which include a loss of energy; she prefers staying home in Tucson, where she moved back in the early 1990s to raise her two adopted children. A Merry Little Christmas, a holiday collection, was released in 2000. Hummin' to Myself, another collection of pop standards, came in 2004 followed by her 2006 collaboration with Ann Savoy of the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Adieu False Heart.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).