Hers was the voice that launched a thousand ships. What girl in the 1970s and ’80s didn’t sing along with Linda Ronstadt, or wish that they had a voice like that voice? From “Heat Wave” to “Blue Bayou” and beyond, Ronstadt was an icon of feel-good music.
Ronstadt, who released over 30 albums, and 15 greatest hits albums as well, had 38 singles charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, and earned 10 Grammys, three Country Music Awards, an Emmy, and more, as well as Golden Globe and Tony Award nominations.
Ronstadt retired in 2011, shortly before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which left her unable to sing.
However, 2019 has been a banner year. “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” a documentary from Oscar winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, was released and, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck, it “will make you fall in love with her all over again.” Ronstadt, along with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and she was also a recipient at the Kennedy Center Honors in July.
Ronstadt never fit into a mold. She recorded tunes from all genres, from rock and country to standards and the Mexican songs of her youth. Ronstadt simply said, “I call myself a singer. I sang rock and folk, country, operetta, Mexican traditional music. But I don’t call myself a Mexican singer or an operetta singer. I’m just a singer.”
Aside from her singing career, Ronstadt has been passionate about music in general, especially when it involves children.
“I’m involved with a little group called Los Cenzontles. I have been for the last 25 years. It is an indigenous word for The Mockingbirds,” she said. According to Los Cenzontles’s website, “Los Cenzontles is a band, a nonprofit organization, a music academy, a community space for youth and families, and a hub for Latino artists — all working together to amplify our Mexican roots here in the Bay Area and beyond.”
“They teach traditional Mexican music, dance, and visual art. And they do a brilliant job at it. They have a center with a kitchen, a really pretty kitchen, and they cook fresh food. They teach kids how to cook, and they have a place to come to after school to do their homework. Their parents can come and find them there. And they take music slowly. They teach it slowly and carefully, so by the time the kids are nine or 10, they have a really good foundation in traditional music,” Ronstadt said.
“And it’s not for them to perform necessarily, although they have a performing group. But it’s an opportunity to socialize,” she added. “They’re not teaching the arts at all in the public schools in California anymore,” she said bluntly. “The STEM programs should be STEAM.”
Turning to the recent doc, Ronstadt said, “I’ve had several offers to do documentaries, and I really didn’t want to do one. It’s kind of excruciating to be on the spot, and I thought it would wind up being embarrassing. But I shared an IT guy with these two guys,” she said, referring to Epstein and Friedman, “and my IT guy said that they wanted to make a documentary based on my book.” Ronstadt’s autobiography, “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” was published in 2013.
“That was more interesting to me,” she continued. “Because that book was about my musical process, and it was stuff that I had already made public. And I had seen a documentary they had made about Harvey Milk, and I thought it was really good,” she said. “And if I gave permission to them, maybe all the other ones would go away.”
Ronstadt admits it’s a little harder to get around these days. “I can’t sit up in a seat,” she acknowledged. About the star on the Walk of Fame, “Oh, Dolly will go to that,” she said with a laugh. Even before her diagnosis, Ronstadt — whose public life often followed who she was involved with as much as her musical career — has always been a private person, more of a homebody than a party animal.
As far as being the torchy sex symbol of the ’70s, “I didn’t try to do that,” she said. “I mean, I always tried to look as good as I could. I wore shorts all the time because that’s basically what I wore growing up,” she said with a laugh. “Levi’s, some kind of T-shirt or blouse, and sneakers. I still wear that.”
As far as expressing herself creatively now with something other than her voice, Ronstadt said, “I’m looking for it but I haven’t found it yet. I love to knit, and I love to sew, things like that, but my hands are not capable of doing those things anymore. I’m pretty disappointed about that, but,” she said, her voice brightening, “I’ve got plenty of good books to read.” Then, after a pause, followed by laughter, “But my eyes are going too.”
She’s been in touch with the Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s foundation, but “I have a different Parkinson’s than he does,” she said. “It’s called progressive super-nuclear palsy. It doesn’t use the same treatment. All the Parkinson’s medicine makes it worse. There’s no treatment for it,” she said.
But still, she’s grateful. “I like my house,” she chirped. “I like my fireplace, and friends who visit. And the people who live here. I’m pretty happy,” she continued. “I’m not depressed or bummed out.”
Was there ever someone who inspired awe when she met them, where she was utterly tongue-tied? “Smokey Robinson,” she replied without hesitation. “Smokey was so charming and cute and sexy,” she laughed. “I was singing with him and I kept telling myself, ‘I’m singing with Smokey Robinson, I can’t believe it!’ He just had a way to make you love him.”
Advice for women coming up in the business? “Boy, that’s a tough one,” she admitted. “This business has changed so much I hardly recognize it. And there’s so much pressure on the girls to be beautiful. I think that’s so limiting. Although there’s some singers who don’t subscribe to that,” she said, referencing Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. “I love her. She’s so charming. And her size, and her color, and everything about her, is so appealing.”
“I’ve learned you don’t have to be young to be beautiful, you don’t have to be fit to be beautiful, you don’t have to be white or black or green or blue, you can just be beautiful by not subscribing to the norm.”
For Thanksgiving, family is coming from Tucson to visit Ronstadt in northern California. “I’m still friends with people from my childhood,” she said. “Friendships that were renewed when I moved back to Tucson for 10 years. And I’m delighted those friendships are very solid. As I always say, ‘Your friends are there to protect you from your family, and your family is there to protect you from your friends.’”
Was there ever anything she wished she had recorded, or a genre left unexplored? “I didn’t try anything I didn’t know before I was 10, because I wouldn’t be able to sing it with any authenticity. But I guess I would have learned to play an instrument. I would get more proficient on the guitar. I liked to just concentrate on singing,” she said.