A list of Karla Bonoff's contemporaries/collaborators from the early 1970s singer-songwriter scene reads like a who's who of Southern California pop – Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Warren Zevon.
All are held in high esteem, and a few have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The irony, as Bonoff told me in an interview a few years back, is that the same industry that lauds the artists and is kept afloat selling their back catalogs probably wouldn't sign them if they were starting out today.
"We were lucky to have the business not so corporate structured," Bonoff said. "There was a lot of freedom. It did allow for a lot of good stuff to happen."
For Bonoff, that freedom brought the opportunity to get her songs in front of the public, first through Ronstadt's popular interpretations and then through her own recordings. If Bonoff's career never achieved the heights of her better-known friends, that's fine with her.
"Looking back, I think that it's just I didn't really want to do that," Bonoff said. "You've got to really want to schmooze all those people, and I never really liked being on tours for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time."
Bonoff's lower-trajectory these days involves playing weekend dates across the country and occasionally hitting the road overseas, either as a solo artist or as one quarter of the singer-songwriter collective Bryndle. She performs May 9 at City Winery in Napa.
A larger irony of the '70s Southern California scene is that so many of its biggest names and brightest talents were transplants, with Ronstadt hailing from Arizona and Eagles Frey and Henley from Michigan and Texas, respectively. What brought them together was a shared passion for country and folk music.
"A lot of those people had the same influences and liked the same kind of music," Bonoff said. "I can remember when I first met Glenn Frey ... he was a huge Poco fan. He was 19 or something. It became kind of crowd that just naturally occurred."
By contrast, Bonoff was a Los Angeles native steeped in the city's acoustic music scene from adolescence. She took guitar lessons as a teen from Frank Hamilton of the folk group the Weavers and as a high schooler attended the Monday night hootenannies at the Troubadour, the folk club not far from her West Los Angeles home. In any given week, Browne, James Taylor or Elton John might be on the bill.
After a brief tenure at UCLA, Bonoff turned to music full time, joining Kenny Edwards, Wendy Waldman and Andrew Gold (best known for his 1977 hit "Lonely Boy") in Bryndle. The group cut one album, which went unreleased by A&M Records, before splitting.
Edwards had played with Ronstadt in the late '60s in the Stone Poneys. When he joined the now-successful solo artist's band, he introduced Ronstadt to Bonoff's songs. Ronstadt cut three Bonoff tunes for her album "Hasten Down the Wind" (1976) – "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me," "Lose Again" and "If He's Ever Near." A decade later, Bonoff provided Ronstadt with "All My Life," her hit duet with Aaron Neville.
The Bonoff-Ronstadt creative connection was obviously deep, although Bonoff notes that "Linda was able to establish that with a number of people."
"Linda would find a writer that she liked, and she would dig down pretty deep to what she had. That was one of her strengths as a singer. She had the courage ... to really take these songs and really make them her own."
The collaboration helped Bonoff get a deal of her own with Columbia Records. She released three albums -- a self-titled debut (1977), "Restless Nights" (1979) and "Wild Heart of the Young" (1982) -- that fared well critically but went overlooked by the public. "Restless Nights" sold the best, peaking at No. 31 on the charts, even though "Wild Heart" spawned Bonoff's sole hit, the Paul Kelly-penned "Personally."
"It was something ... Glenn Frey had found," Bonoff said. "He played it for me, and I remember thinking, 'That's a cool song.' They just kind of fall into your lap."
After her brief run on Columbia, Bonoff essentially walked away from her recording career. And how does she feel knowing that, while many people are familiar with her songs, they might not know her?
"I think that's part of the package," Bonoff said. "If you choose to be the songwriter and not forcing your image out there ... people are not going to know as much about you. I'm happy with the way things are."
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