A forty-seven-piece orchestra waited in the pit. Nelson Riddle, legendary arranger for Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat "King" Cole, picked up his baton.
The curtain parted.
And there, cunningly disguised in coiffed hair, a strapless gown, and high heels, stood the First Lady of rock and roll.
"I've heard a rumor," Linda Ronstadt breathed into the microphone,
"that Frank Sinatra's been doing my tunes." Her audience laughed- they had come to hear her
sing the romantic ballads Sinatra had made his own.
But when Ronstadt came backstage and discovered that
Sinatra himself had been in the audience- and had ducked out after four songs-
she was mortified. "If I'd known he was here," Ronstadt said, "I'd have left."
In the old days, Sinatra's vanishing act might have pushed
Linda Ronstadt into a decline that lasted for months. It wouldn't have mattered to her
that, between 1975 and 1980, she was selling a million records of six rock albums in a row,
a record exceeded by only one other female singer, Barbra Streisand. Nor would she have
been consoled by the fact that hers was the rarest voice in rock, a pure,
almost operatic instrument that made her laments about faithless lovers, busted romances,
and her poor, poor, pitiful self heartbreakingly real. Instead, she would have sulked
and despaired and wondered why, since everybody knew she had no stage presence
and couldn't dance or even talk to an audience, anybody liked her at all.
But here is Linda Ronstadt, sitting crosslegged on the floor
of a Los Angeles rehearsal room and telling the Sinatra story on herself.
Her backup singers crack up over their late-afternoon salads and tell some disaster
stories of their own. They are red-haired and glamorous; Ronstadt is short, stumpy,
and disinclined to wear makeup. Who's the star? An untutored observer couldn't tell.
Nor could most of her fans. For this is not the Linda
Ronstadt who once used interviews as confessionals
("My big fantasy," she told one reporter, "is to seduce a priest"), and allowed
herself to be photographed sprawled across her bed in a red slip and lace-trimmed tap pants.
Nor is this the Linda Ronstadt who, nerves trembling, made her theatrical debut in 1980
as Mabel in a New York Public Theater production of Pirates of Penzance.
This is a newly self-confident Linda Ronstadt who is pressing on with a radical
Last year, she released What's New,
an album of torch songs and pop standards that, against all expectations,
soared up the charts and sold over two million copies.
While the critics praised her courage, many wondered if the album was, at bottom, a stunt.
Ronstadt's response was to follow up that Sinatra-soaked record by touring with Nelson Riddle
and the orchestra. In September, she started recording Lush Life, a second
torch record with Riddle. For the next two months, she'll upgrade light opera to
the real thing as Mimi in the Public Theater's Broadway production of La Bohème.
As for rock, she says, "I don't care if I never sing 'Heat Wave' again."
Ronstadt's professional independence is more than equaled
by her personal outspokenness. In interview after interview, she's spoken freely of
her sexual acquisitiveness, and defended her right to seek sex as men traditionally do.
In 1977, she delivered the boldest of these broadsides to a Time reporter:
"I used to think you could only go to bed with a man out of pure love. I still think
that's the best reason. . . . I've now included pure lust as the second reason . . .
and a perfectly acceptable third reason is curiosity. It's a good way to get to know someone."
This spring, People ran this opinion in an article about her romance
with Star Wars director George Lucas. Ronstadt
forgot that she'd ever said that, exploded, and
declared all personal questions off-limits.
She still holds to that position.
But as she settles herself in her manager's office and starts talking about her new music,
it quickly becomes clear that even a professional chat leads, in her case,
to personal revelation. Ronstadt doesn't just relate an anecdote, she propels it,
150 words a minute, toward her visitor.
Indeed, with rock behind her, Linda Ronstadt finally comes
across as the articulate and complex woman her friends have known for years.
She's smart, she reads, she's curious about everything. It's because her interests
are so free-ranging, she says, that she got into the music of the 1930s and the 1940s
in the first place.
In 1976, she began singing "What's New" at the sound check
before her rock concerts. And when Mick Jagger presented her with a Charlie Parker
record with a ballad medley on it, she began playing it during the intermissions of
those concerts while kids yelled "Rock and roll! Rock and roll!"
It was Kermit the Frog, though, who finally made it
impossible for Ronstadt to continue as a rock singer. "Television is something I don't do,"
she recalls, "but Peter Asher [her longtime manager/
producer] called to say the Muppets had asked me on their show- and said I wouldn't
have to sing my hits. I said, 'If they'll let me sing "I've Got a Crush on You"
with Kermit, I'll do it.' And they did. And it worked out great. And once I'd
gotten a taste of it, there was no turning back. "
In 1982, she called Nelson Riddle and asked him
to arrange one song on her own album. Riddle suggested that he do the whole album.
Ronstadt saw the chance she'd been waiting for.
"If I never go on the road again, it'll be too soon,"
she once said, citing autograph hunters and her dislike of the long nights of
trucker-talk with her all-male entourage. And then, of course, the inadvisability
of on-the-road romances with her band ("though if there's another band traveling with you,"
she said, "things can get pretty interesting"). But now she finds it a thrill, every night,
when the curtain opens, and there, looking up at her, is Nelson Riddle.
Now, for the first time, she can do all the girlish things
she missed out on by leaving Tucson, Arizona, at eighteen with $30 in her jeans.
"The girls and I love to get dressed up and paint our faces,"
she says. "We see books about old movie stars and paint our mouths that way or get
a 'forties roll in our hair." She has expanded her wardrobe from half a dozen pairs
of jeans and two dresses to a collection of things that almost fills a small closet.
And, for her show, she has "lots of dresses, and two wardrobe girls who steam yards
and yards of net skirt so I can look formal every night." But that interest in fashion
doesn't extend beyond the stage. A friend shops for the "six things I wear all the time
and carry around with me."
This no-frills approach extends in all directions.
She makes no political appearances: "People think I'm political because I dated Jerry Brown,
but I've never been political." And, despite her appearance in the film version of
Pirates of Penzance, she turns down all movie offers: "People call and say
'This movie would be really good for your career,' and I say, 'The only thing that's good
for my career is for me to sing.'" Her new repertoire is demanding: no longer can she risk
her voice with late-night meandering; to sing these songs properly, she says,
she must keep banker's hours. She quotes Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your daily life,
so you can be violent and original in your work. "
It is possible to believe that Linda Ronstadt,
by following her enthusiasms rather than record-business wisdom, has taken a step that,
by happy accident or shrewd calculation, anticipated the romantic and nostalgic
longings of her audience. It is even possible to believe that natural talent
and voice training will prevent her from embarrassing herself as an opera singer.
But the purity of feeling in her love-'em-and-lose-'em songs- and her long history of
tattered romances would make anyone who's ever heard her sing or read one of her
interviews wonder if a regular, orderly life is even thinkable for Linda Ronstadt.
Is she so disciplined, for example, that she'd decline to
sing an obvious rock hit? "If someone brought me a new Elvis Costello song and I
put it side by side with something by George Gershwin, there'd be no contest," she says.
"To me, the choice is easy. For a singer who's arrived at a point where you'd
like to have a little more sophisticated sentiment, Gershwin is what comes out of your mouth."
Jesse Kornbluth is a screenwriter and a New York journalist
Thanks to Teresa Myers for providing this article.