When you think of Linda Ronstadt you might think of hits like “You’re No Good.” But she insists there’s more to her music legacy than just the hits.
“To tell you the honest truth, I like rock ’n’ roll, but it wasn’t my favorite thing to sing by a long shot,” Ronstadt told CapRadio during a recent phone interview. “I always felt that I could only use a tiny part of my voice, and it was mostly shouting.”
Rock ’n’ roll was good to Ronstadt. She spent a lot of the 1970s performing in outdoor arenas around the world. She merited big hits and big audiences. But she never lost touch with the music she grew up with.
Listen to Donna Apidone's full conversation with Linda Ronstadt
“You know, if I hadn’t heard it by the time I was age 10, I wouldn’t attempt it as an adult. ‘Cause you kind of have to know things in your bones,” she said.
Ronstadt’s grandfather led a brass band in Arizona in the late 1800s. As a child, she was surrounded by country music and operetta and a lot of traditional Mexican songs. “When I was singing Mexican music, I felt the most totally me. I felt like that was my family and where I came from and my identity, really. And that and the stuff that I sang with Nelson Riddle. My mother and father both loved that music,” she remembered.
When Ronstadt got tired of being on the road, she looked to smaller venues, she settled down — on Broadway — singing the songs her mother taught her.
“She adored Gilbert and Sullivan, and there was always a big book of the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on the piano, and I learned them all by the time I was seven,” she said.
The idea of Ronstadt singing operetta on Broadway seemed crazy. She proposed the idea to renowned N.Y. producer Joseph Papp. When he called to hire Ronstadt, her then-boyfriend, Gov. Jerry Brown, answered the phone and got the message wrong.
“They called me, and I was in the shower, but Jerry Brown was next to the phone, so he answered, and he said, ‘Oh, they want you to sing ‘HMS Pinafore,’’ which was the only one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s shows that he’d ever seen,” she said.
It was “Pirates of Penzance.” Glad they got that straightened out.
Ronstadt’s decision to work with big band conductor Nelson Riddle surprised a lot of people. She said her knees were shaking the first time they performed together onstage.
Ronstadt was always a queen of collaboration. Her long list of duets includes Aaron Neville, Frank Sinatra, and she recorded “Trio” with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. “I can sing harmony with just about anyone, including the garbage truck,” she said.
And she developed a strong bond with Rosemary Clooney. “I used to say if there was a Girl Singers Anonymous, that Rosemary would have been my sponsor,” Ronstadt said.
Ronstadt doesn’t sing anymore — she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s several years ago — but she occasionally appears onstage to talk about music. She’ll do that on Sept. 21 at the Harris Center in Folsom for a sold-out crowd. She'll also be speaking on Oct. 25 at the Pioneer Center in Reno.
“Most of my life when I was singing, I never said a word onstage. And now all I do is talk.”