In 1971 Ronstadt indirectly helped form The Eagles, a group of musicians based in Southern California whom she’d brought together as her backup band before they set off on their own. At the same time she cultivated a number of other key artistic relationships, notably with Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Emmylou Harris. Harris, along with Dolly Parton and Maria Muldaur, would provide crucial support during those lonely, early years on the road. “We were about the only ones who understood the specific problems there were for a girl in rock,” Linda once said. “Maria pulled me through some terrible times.”
By the time she hooked up with producer Peter Asher, on her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now, Ronstadt had been touring for years, treading various musical waters while distinguishing herself with not just her live performances but the fact that she was far prettier than any of her male counterparts (an advantage she didn’t hesitate to exploit, especially given the uncharted—and often hostile—territory she had to navigate). The modest success of her covers of “Love Has No Pride,” “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” and The Eagles’ “Desperado” became a crucial element in a formula she would refine on her next album.
That album, Heart Like A Wheel, along with its first single, “You’re No Good,” was released in 1974 and in short order pushed Ronstadt to the forefront of country rock. An unabashed R&B rocker, “You’re No Good” showed off an unexpected ballsy side to Linda. It hit #1 on the Rock charts, and was followed by “When Will I Be Loved,” which reached #2 and #1, respectively, on the Rock and Country charts. This set the pattern for most of Ronstadt’s ’70s releases, which encompassed classic rock & roll covers; showcases of contemporary, less well-known artists; and country songs old and new.
Heart Like A Wheel was hailed as a landmark of its genre, hitting #1 and spending 51 weeks on Billboard‘s Album chart. It also contained the #2 country hit, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You),” and served as a template for the following year’s Prisoner In Disguise, 1976’s Hasten Down The Wind, and the crossover smash Simple Dreams—which knocked Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the top spot and remained at #1 for five straight weeks.
From 1974 to 1980, Linda Ronstadt released six albums, all of which made the Top Five on both Rock and Country charts (with the exception of Mad Love, which contained no country songs) and included six #1 rankings. Those albums’ many hits formed a steady aural backdrop to the remainder of the decade. There were the Buddy Holly covers, “That’ll Be The Day” and “It’s So Easy”; Willie Nelson’s “Crazy”; Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”; Chuck Berry’s “Back In The USA”; Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”; Neil Young’s “Love Is A Rose”; Elvis Costello’s “Alison”; the feel-good oldie stomps “Heat Wave” and “Just One Look”; the Top 10 Motown cover, “Ooh Baby Baby”; plus the New Wave-ish “How Do I Make You?”, “Hurt So Bad,” and “I Can’t Let Go.” And that doesn’t include the non-singles regularly heard on FM: “Tracks Of My Tears,” Zevon’s “Carmelita,” Costello’s “Party Girl,” and of course her much-discussed cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” which the New York Times claimed “offers whatever proof might still be needed that she is a great rock singer.”
Now recognized as a world-class interpreter and popularizer of other people’s songs, Ronstadt was heralded as “a kind of latter-day Billie Holiday” and “rock’s supreme torch singer.” Her unique blend of rock oldies, modern pop, and country music would earn its own informal label, “torch rock.” So popular had she become that beneath the heading, “Rock’s Superwoman,” a 1978 cover of Pizzazz magazine showed her with a backing band comprised of Captain America, Dr. Strange, and Star Wars‘ C3P0(!).