By the time she retired from performing in 2009, Linda Ronstadt had spent four decades as one of the most popular singers in the world. She’s sold millions of records, won 11 Grammy Awards, and toured all over the globe. Now, she’s sharing the story of her origins and rise to stardom in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (Simon & Schuster, $26), which has been published in simultaneous English and Spanish-language editions. In this candid and charming memoir, Ronstadt traces the timeline of her remarkable life, wide ranging career, and hard-won education as a singer. In her own voice–as genuine, heartfelt and distinctive in print as on her recordings–Ronstadt weaves together a captivating account of her rise to fame in the Southern California music scene of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Ronstadt has collaborated with music legends Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Randy Newman, The Eagles, Aaron Neville, Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Nelson Riddle and many others. Her recordings of songs like “Different Drum,” “You’re No Good,” and “When Will I Be Loved” propelled her to stardom, and in the 1970s Time dubbed her the “Queen of Rock.” Ronstadt’s intense artistic curiosity and determination to control the direction of her career led her to take big creative risks again and again, moving from folk to rock to country to the great American songbook to operetta to Mexican songs, each time to enormous success and acclaim.
Roots and California Country Rock
Ronstadt’s entire career had its roots in her experiences as a child growing up in a large musical family of mixed Anglo and Mexican ancestry in Tucson, Arizona. Born in 1946, she listened and sang along to everything from Hank Williams to Gilbert and Sullivan, Frank Sinatra, Mexican folk, jazz, and opera, as well as the pop and rock she heard every day on Top 40 radio. After performing with family and friends in folk clubs in Tucson, she moved at the age of nineteen to Los Angeles, where she quickly found herself at the center of the folk-rock and country-rock scene that spawned the dominant pop sound of the 1970s. Its unofficial headquarters was the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where Ronstadt spent night after night listening to every pop performer of note. Fabled singers, songwriters, and musicians like Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther, Chris Hillman of the Byrds and Ry Cooder were friends and neighbors, and her early back-up band later became The Eagles.
In Simple Dreams, Ronstadt shares what it was like trying to blaze an independent trail as a prototypical “girl singer” in a field that up until then had been almost completely dominated by men. Along the way, she had memorable encounters with other music icons–from discussing stage outfits with Janis Joplin to helping Jim Morrison of The Doors escape from a street fight in New York. Later that same night, Ronstadt had to lock an amorous and very intoxicated Morrison out of the Greenwich Village apartment where she was staying. On another occasion, Ronstadt had to fend off the advances of a Johnny Cash Show producer who stripped down during a meeting in her Nashville hotel room.
After the dissolution of her first band, the Stone Poneys, Ronstadt went solo, had several Top 40 hits and was soon touring with Neil Young. But it was the huge popular and critical success of her double-platinum country-rock album Heart Like a Wheel that established her as a major musical figure in her own right. That enduring pop masterpiece led to a string of superb albums for David Geffen’s Asylum label, with Peter Asher as her producer–including Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind and Simple Dreams–which made her the most successful female recording artist of the 1970s, and the first who could repeatedly sell out large concert arenas.
From rock star to opera singer and other dramatic changes
Seeking a break from the grind of touring and a fresh musical challenge, Ronstadt moved to New York City in 1980. The Public Theater’s Joseph Papp cast her as the female lead in an outdoor Central Park production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance, which was so successful that it was moved to Broadway. One of the unforgettable moments of the outdoor production for Ronstadt was when a mosquito got trapped in her lipstick right before a kissing scene with her co-star, Rex Smith. She had another New York adventure when she picked up a gun dropped by a cop in hot pursuit of a suspect, and started waving it at a passing police car until her good friend Randy Newman made her hide it in a Roy Rogers lunch box she was carrying. Ronstadt later returned to New York’s Public Theater to sing the lead role of Mimi in Puccini’s opera La Bohème–an experience that was decidedly less successful in conventional terms, but that gave her a profound and lasting appreciation of Puccini’s artistry.
Against the strong advice of her producer and record company, Ronstadt soon made another dramatic change in direction that came to mark her career. With legendary arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle at the helm, and backed by a forty-piece orchestra, she recorded an album of American standards called What’s New. Unexpectedly, it became a smash hit and led to two further albums with Riddle, as well as concerts in venues around the globe. With her musical sisters Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, she recorded an album of intimate contemporary ballads and traditional American songs called Trio–another genre-bending success.
Next, in an equally impressive and perhaps even more improbable turnabout, Ronstadt made an album of the antique Mexican folk songs that she had heard as a child, called Canciones de mi Padre (Songs of My Father).” Contrary to all predictions, the album was one of her most popular ever, selling over two-and-a-half million copies and winning the Grammy for best Mexican-American performance. It brought her a brand-new Latino audience and became the best-selling non-English-language album in U.S. music history. The theatrical stage shows Ronstadt created around the canciones–complete with brilliant costumes, dancers, and traditional musicians–were her favorites of her entire career. In more recent years, until her retirement from singing in 2009, she has pursued a mix of contemporary pop, American standards, and traditional Mexican music–all with deep personal meaning for her.
Only a simple dream
“People ask me,” Linda writes, “why my career consisted of such rampant eclecticism, and why I didn’t simply stick to one type of music. The answer is that when I admire something tremendously, it is difficult not to try to emulate it. . . . The only rule I imposed on myself, consciously or unconsciously, was to not try singing something that I hadn’t heard in the family living room before the age of ten. If I hadn’t heard it by then, I couldn’t attempt it with even a shred of authenticity. At the time, struggling with so many different kinds of music seemed like a complicated fantasy, but from the vantage point of my sixty-seven years, I see it was only a simple dream.”
Told completely in Linda Ronstadt’s own words, Simple Dreams is the first and only book to put her extraordinary life and career in their full context, and to tell the tales behind the beautiful songs, magnificent albums, and bold creative decisions for which she is justly famous. Sensitive, thoughtful, and lyrical, it encapsulates not only her story, but also a remarkable half-century in America’s musical and cultural life.