There were other popular female singers, of course. Olivia Newton-John had scored a number of country hits in the early to mid ’70s, while Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks were forging strong identities in pop, folk, and rock. Those three in particular receive a large share of attention in any assessment of ’70s female rockers. And with good reason: they not only sang some of the decade’s most defining hits, they also wrote them. Unlike Ronstadt, who sought her muse in others (most of whom were men), Joni, Carly, and Stevie were true singer-songwriters. It’s a distinction that, ever since The Beatles and Bob Dylan, still carries significant weight. (Would Taylor Swift be half the critical darling she is if she didn’t also write all those precocious, catchy tunes?)
But it’s an unfair knock. No one ever accused Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday or Aretha Franklin of not writing her own material, and each still manages to get all sorts of R-E-S-P-E-C-T (sorry). Linda was—and is—an interpreter. As was Frank Sinatra. And Bing Crosby. And even Elvis Presley. And she was an amazingly successful and versatile one, continuing her string of hit albums even after she’d left the safety of rock for the riskier waters of opera, big band standards, and Mexican ranchero music. But it’s that very versatility which may be her undoing in The Establishment’s eyes—suggesting as it does that her decade-long commitment to pop was only a youthful flirtation.
But despite what she’s done since, the fact remains that she was there—down in the trenches with the big boys, helping to define a new genre and a new perception of what a female singer could accomplish. And if the songs she chose to sing weren’t usually her own, they were still remarkably consistent in what they expressed and in the very specific feelings that fueled them. “I have to be emotionally connected to a song or I can’t sing it,” she once said. “I won’t step out of character. I won’t do things that aren’t authentically me.”
Just as importantly, the popularity of those songs—written by artists like Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly as well as new talents like Warren Zevon, Karla Bonoff, and Elvis Costello—brought an undeniable awareness of those artists to a new generation of music listeners.
I was among those in Ronstadt’s “school of rock.” Like so many Top 40-weaned adolescents finding their way in the musical wilderness, a sense of what came before or what lay ahead wasn’t always apparent. This was before MTV or even oldies stations, much less the Internet and satellite radio. So it was far more difficult (and costly) to casually investigate artistic legacies or the work of cutting-edge newcomers. Certainly I knew who The Rolling Stones were. But the first time I heard “Tumbling Dice,” at age 14, was when Linda sang it. It was the same with Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and “Party Girl”—songs that went on (in both their versions) to become all-time personal favorites. And while Warren Zevon’s first album is now considered a classic, few had heard of him until Ronstadt’s cover of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” Other composers, less well-known today, also experienced major career boosts from being in Ronstadt’s spotlight. If not a songwriter herself, she was the singer-songwriter’s champion and best friend.
Rolling Stone, which grew increasingly dismissive of her in later years, acknowledges as much in its online bio. Yet despite all those 1970s magazine covers and in-depth interviews, its damning-her-with-faint-praise approach was already apparent in a 1980 review of Mad Love. “No matter how tough she acts,” it read, “she can’t help sounding pretty.” As if a superb, often note-perfect, voice were somehow antithetical to rocking out. If there are any doubts about Ronstadt’s (or her kickass band’s) rock & roll bona fides, just look at her 1977 Atlanta performance of “Tumbling Dice/”You’re No Good” on YouTube; or even more impressive, her 1986 rendition of “Back In The USA” in which she not only holds her own with rock gods Chuck Berry and Keith Richards, she tears the roof off the joint.
Still, the question remains: What, if any, is Linda Ronstadt’s 1970s legacy, and is it deserving of greater recognition? Looking back on the decade in 1980, Ronstadt herself was typically modest: “I don’t think I’ve made the kind of impact that changes the face of music like, say, The Rolling Stones or the Beatles . . . I brought together a lot of kinds of straight threads of music and put them in a little fabric that has an interesting design. I had commercial success and opened the door for girl singers.”
That last sentence is key, and it’s what many believe makes her unjustly neglected by rock & roll’s gatekeepers. She had more hits, more money, and more platinum records than any other female singer up to that time, along with international recognition and a slew of top awards. That alone should be enough to make her Hall of Fame-worthy. But her songs also formed an indispensable part of a decade’s musical fabric, not only helping define a genre that thrives even today, but teaching more than one starry-eyed 14-year-old what good music was, where it came from, and how beautifully—and heartbreakingly—it could be sung.
Special thanks go to Linda’s unofficial fan website, www.ronstadt-linda.com, whose archive of historical clippings and articles proved an invaluable resource while researching this piece.