Linda Ronstadt: "Performing Is Not My Gift"
May 26 - June 1, 1984
And yet, the woman who'll spend two evenings singing "What'll I do when I'm wond'ring who is kissing you" and "The world will pardon my mush, 'cause I've got a crush, my baby, on you" and other classic lines- mostly written between 1922 and 1949- is none other than Linda Ronstadt, the '70s "queen of rock" who belted out hits like "You're No Good," "When Will I Be Loved?" and "Heat Wave."
Ronstadt's stage wear once ran to Cub Scout shirts and shorts; she has spoken freely about her past use of drugs (today, she's more interested in exercise and diet); and she has made headlines with her relationships (she dated Steve Martin, accompanied former California governor Jerry Brown to Africa, and has been seeing film producer/director ["Star Wars," "Return of the Jedi"] George Lucas).
In short, she seems an unlikely singer to be rekindling the torch songs of yesteryear.
But Ronstadt has always been a musical adventurer. After establishing herself as a country-rock singer, she successfully handled rock, reggae, pop and even a bit of New Wave. In 1980, she jumped back a century to tackle Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera "The Pirates of Penzance" on Broadway and on film. And now, she's invaded the world of arranger/ conductor Nelson Riddle, a world previously exclusive to the likes of Sinatra, Cole, and Garland.
The truth, says Ronstadt, is that she's always loved the old standards. While growing up in Tucson, Ariz., she heard the Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee records her father, a hardware merchant among whose hobbies are singing and playing the guitar, played around the house. "And one of the most influential records my father bought was the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duet album," she recalls. "I was about 8, and I listened all day long. I had this little baby voice and I'd sing along.
"I think of myself mainly as a ballad singer," she says. "It's the most expressive area of music for me to explore."
But when she talks, it's often in a latter-day version of her "little baby voice." Linda Ronstadt is 37, but you wouldn't know it from sitting with her. She's naturally ingenuous. In Santa Barbara, for instance, she's expansive about her collection of teddy bears. "I have nine or 10 now, plus now I have Ewoks [the cuddly killer-creatures from "Return of the Jedi"]- her one reference to George Lucas. She talks about the birthday party she and some girl friends staged for their teddy bears, about getting into makeup and costume for the event. And one begins to wonder: Is this the same woman who claims she's an avid reader of four newspapers a day, including The Wall Street Journal, and who always carries a book with her? Who has hung out with governors, journalists and filmmakers?
Ronstadt is one and the same. "I've been accused of behaving like a two-and-a-half year-old," she says, giggling. "I got enamored of Shirley Temple at one point; I started talking like her so much the band threatened to throw me off the bus!"
The kiddy talk may be a way of hanging onto youth, onto years when she was surrounded by a warm, musical family. When she first arrived in Hollywood in the mid-'60s, she says, she lacked confidence and relied on men to run both her career and her personal life. In recent years, she has assumed a leadership role in the selection and production of her music, and in the direction of her career. She may sound like Shirley Temple in Disneyland, but this little girl is in charge.
Her latest hit album, "What's New," for example, was strictly her idea. She started thinking seriously about it in 1980, and began listening to albums of standards. "I wanted to learn all I could about phrasing," she says. "But those songs just seduced me. I just had to record them."
At first, she was alone in her pursuit. "I was told that there would be no commercial audience for this and it would probably be the end of my career if I put it out," she recalls.
She decided to contact the man whose work she'd heard since she was a kid. When Nelson Riddle got the call, he didn't know very much about Linda Ronstadt. But after he heard her first attempt at standards, he agreed to arrange an album. "She's a wonderful, instinctive musician," he says. "She has the abilities to do many things in many fields. It's all music. That's the common denominator."
After a couple of aborted starts, Ronstadt and Riddle finished "What's New"- they even had surplus material, which will go into another collaboration- and Cinemax, HBO's sister pay-TV system, contacted her. The result was an episode of Cinemax's new show, Album Flash, devoted to Ronstadt that included four "What's New" videos.
After the Cinemax showings, Ronstadt sent the videos overseas, "and the album's done very well there." All together, "What's New" has sold nearly 2.5 million copies, compared with 800,000 for her last rock album. Still selling at a rate of about 10,000 a week, it's got a shot at eclipsing her all-time best seller, "Simple Dreams," which sold more than three million.
Ronstadt has no sociological explanations. "It's just that the songs are so good and I feel so good singing them. I've been in the business almost 20 years and suddenly find myself with a lifetime supply of wonderful songs. I don't have to go out and struggle through a show that's made out of 10 hits I'm real tired of. I'm not really thrilled with the idea of singing 'You're No Good' the rest of my life. It's a good song, but you can't really compare it to Gershwin!"
She is also pleased that she has reached an older generation of music fans. "It wasn't meant to be dedicated to older people, but I'm gratified by their response. They went through a lot, you know, with the sacrifices they made during the war years, and in the '60s, we all grew up with such a defiant posture against the generation that preceded us. [It was] just spoiled ingratitude. We told them, forget your values, your expressions, your hair styles, your clothes, your music."
Ronstadt has gone full-tilt; getting prom gowns out of costume and thrift shops, trying different hair styles. But to see her a few hours before show time the first night at the Arlington Center for the Performing Arts in Santa Barbara, you'd think she's gone back to rock.
She wanders onto the stage looking decidedly casual in a denim jacket, short skirt and leg warmers over high-top shoes. Her hair has streaks of red. Clutching a bottle of mineral water, she ambles up to the mike, glances back at Riddle and his orchestra and belts out "What's New,"
A hundred workers, involved in a dozen different crafts, stop to listen and admire.
What she wears and how she looks are suddenly incidental; the songs, the orchestra, and the setting- the Arlington looks like an outdoor amphitheater, with facades of Spanish buildings to each side, and a starry, sky-colored ceiling above- hurtle you back in time.
After a few adjustments and one more take, Ronstadt is joined by the Step Sisters, a trio specializing in '40s music that does a mini-set with Ronstadt in mid-show. A crew member delivers a plate of food, and while they run through a song called "Hey Daddy," Ronstadt skips away between lines to wolf down her dinner.
"I have to eat by 4," she says, "or else I have exotic dreams." By 6, Ronstadt is behind closed doors, getting made up and dressed. She explains how she copes with pre-show jitters: "We have the same bunch of giris backstage and go through this ritual. We put on our makeup, we complain about our hair or lipstick, we share our makeup and then I go on stage with exactly the same person. I don't want anyone to come up to me because it's liable to blow my concentration."
On stage that evening, Ronstadt is still less than relaxed. Singing her songs, she barely moves, just tapping a foot now and then. However, she is game for some choreography with the Step Sisters on a revue of uptempo classics like "Kalamazoo" and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," and the audience is charmed, especially when a bubble machine starts up to accompany "Dream."
But mostly she lets her remarkable voice do the work.
The next morning, over tea at the Montecito Inn, she elaborates: "Performing is not my gift. I always feel the songs speak the most eloquently for themselves. The more simply they can be presented, the better they are."
Last night, she thinks, "was boring. I knew when I walked out and wasn't nervous, I was in trouble. You either get real nervous, and the adrenalin takes over and gives you a lot of positive creative energy, or you go flat- it's like having kind of a brain death."
The second night, she thinks, will be better. It is, until midway through. when the bubble machine goes berserk. "It ruined the second half of the show for me," she says later, " 'cause once you have a fit of the giggles it flattens out your [vocal] chords."
Most of the HBO show, she says, will be taken from the first night. Will she have a hand in the editing? Ronstadt's big eyes widen. "I don't wanna see it!" she says. "I don't want to know about it." Then quieter: "I'm not really a video person."
After a summer of concerts with Riddle and his orchestra, Ronstadt will perform "La Boheme" in New York in the fall. When she manages to be home, Ronstadt lives in Los Angeles, where she shares her house with singer Nicolette Larson and guitar maker Danny Ferrington.
A big star like Linda Ronstadt has roommates? Yes. "I like companionship," she says.
Her setup sounds absolutely collegiate: "I can be alone when I want to be. I close my door. If I want friendship, I go in the kitchen. If I've got a date and want to sit on the couch and neck, I ask everyone to beat it for the night and they will."
"What's New," after all, is for romance. "I just wanted to make people dream," she says, "make them slow dance around the living room, sit down on the couch and make out."
That's Linda Ronstadt. An ageless, timeless romantic.