Singing came just as easy as breathing for Linda Ronstadt. She established herself as a professional singer during the mid-1960s around the time of California’s folk music movement. As her career progressed, Ronstadt lent her voice to all sorts of genres including Latin, opera, rock, and country.
Although she never wrote any of her songs, she was inspired by the works of Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Dolly Parton, and more. Her gifted voice allowed her to become the most successful female singer of the 1970s with numerous awards. Ronstadt’s life is anything but ordinary, so keep reading to discover her inspiring journey as a female music icon.
Her Early Life Influenced Her Voice
Linda Maria Ronstadt was born July 15, 1946, in Tucson, Arizona. She was the third out of four children to Gilbert and Ruth Ronstadt and the family lived on a 10-acre ranch. Gilbert came from a long line of Arizona ranchers, who influenced practices such as wagon making, music, and commerce.
On her mother’s side, she was the granddaughter of a famous inventor. He had over 700 patents such as the toaster, refrigerator, electric stove, and microwave. His rubber ice cube tray invention brought in millions of dollars. One of Ronstadt’s fondest childhood memories was listening to the radio and singing with her family.
Music And Performing Was Always A Part Of Her
Ronstadt’s father was said to have “a beautiful baritone singing voice” and her grandfather was part of a brass band in the late 1800s. Her aunt was a performer who would play traditional music around Mexico and Spain. When she became a teenager, Ronstadt and her siblings formed a band.
They started to play local clubs around Tucson and would usually perform folk music. Their band was largely inspired by Peter, Paul, and Mary and would rearrange their songs to fit their voices. Ronstadt knew that singing was going to be her career, so she dropped out of the University of Arizona and moved to California to pursue it.
The Formation Of The Stone Poneys
When Ronstadt was still performing with her siblings, their bass player, Bobby Kimmel, introduced her to a guitarist named Kenny Edwards. The three of them formed her first professional band called the Stone Poneys. Edwards and Kimmel had already been writing songs and all they needed was someone to sing them.
Once they perfected their trio, they started to book gigs at various clubs around Los Angeles, including the Troubadour. Their first hit came in 1967 with “Different Drum,” which led to opportunities to tour with famous bands such as the Doors.
Time To Go Solo
After a couple of years with the Stoney Poneys, Edwards and Kimmel decided to go another route, while Ronstadt pursued a solo career. Ronstadt felt a bit unprepared because she didn’t have anyone to write songs for her anymore. She began to experiment with songs she remembered from her childhood and branched out to work with other top musicians.
Her list of collaborators is long with everyone from the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Frank Zappa. During the early 1970s, she was able to headline sold-out tours and was called the “first arena-class rock diva.”
And The Award Goes To…
By the mid-1970s, Ronstadt had released several albums, but 1974’s Heart Like A Wheel led to her first Grammy Award. It came with two Billboard chart-toppers including “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved.” Over the course of almost five decades, Ronstadt has won 12 Grammys with 17 other Grammy nominations.
A lot of her early success can be attributed to record producer Peter Asher. The two had a great working relationship where Ronstadt was allowed to have creative freedom over the majority of her projects.
Why No One Sounds Like Her
One of the reasons why Ronstadt is able to jump around to different genres is due to her uniquely trained voice. She coined the term “Mexican bluegrass” for her Southwestern roots of a fusion between Country, rock, and ranchera music. Country rock started to become more mainstream in the 1960s, which helped her become more popular in the United States.
Many music critics thought she wasn’t going to do well when she switched between genres, but Ronstadt never wanted to label herself as a specific type of artist. Her vocal range spans from contralto to soprano, which is more octaves than most singers.
The Most Successful Singer Of The 1970s
Ronstadt was the first female singer in history to have four consecutive platinum albums. She was selling out stadiums and her image was on the cover of millions of posters, magazines, album covers, and more. Her songs were number one on the music charts and her song covers became more successful than the originals.
She made history as the first person shot by Annie Leibovitz on the cover of Rolling Stone, which included a full photo layout and a lengthy interview by Ben Fong-Torres. In 1977, Ronstadt became the first woman to have two songs on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Top Ten list at the same time.
Keeping Up Her Rock Image
During all her success, she admitted that she felt that she was expected to act tough to keep up with her rock and roll image. Some of her famous magazine covers put her in a different light, which caused her to become upset. Annie Leibovitz had shot some revealing photos of her for Rolling Stone and wouldn’t allow Ronstadt to veto any of them.
At the time, Ronstadt felt she couldn’t control what was being said about her in the media. Being told what to wear and how to act deeply pained her ego.
Bringing In The Cheddar
The late 1970s was a golden time for Ronstadt. She was the most popular female solo act in the country and was consistently selling out concerts, albums, and merchandise. This meant that she was now the highest-paid woman in rock music.
In 1978 alone she made $12 million ($47.8 million today) and grossed over $60 million ($239.2 million today) in albums sales. According to friend and singer Bonnie Raitt, “She was like what Beyoncé is now.” By the end of the ’70s, she outsold all female artists and had five straight platinum albums.
She’s Ready For Broadway
After playing dozens of sold-out shows in concert arenas and racking up album sales in the millions, Ronstadt wanted a change of pace. In the summer of 1980, she began rehearsals for her first lead role in a Broadway musical. She was cast in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
Her paternal grandfather actually wrote an arrangement for the musical back in 1896. The majority of the reviews favored Ronstadt in the demanding role of Mabel and she went on to star in a film version of the musical with Kevin Kline and Angela Lansbury.
Revamping The Great American Songbook
In the early 1980s, Ronstadt and famous conductor Nelson Riddle set out to record the Great American Songbook in a new and exciting way. The songs are from the early 20th century and many popular artists such as Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, and Bette Midler have tried their hand at them.
Critics warned her not to do it because they thought it would flop, she proved them wrong. What’s New spent 81 weeks on the Billboard Album Chart, went triple platinum, earned a Grammy nomination, got great reviews, and led to a worldwide concert tour.
The Trio Everyone Was Waiting For
In 1986, Ronstadt formed a country group with friends Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. They wanted to collaborate in the late 1970s, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work. The three of them got back together and recorded an album called Trio.
It was considered a hit. Trio went on to the top spot on the Billboard Country Album chart, sold over three million copies, and won a Grammy. Their next album, Trio II, didn’t come until 1994, which included a masterful cover of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush.” Trio II became certified Gold (sold over 500,000 copies).
Ronstadt Tries Traditional Mexican Music
Since Ronstadt grew up with traditional Southwestern and Mexican music in her home, she was ready to release some of her own. In the late 1980s, she came out with Canciones de Mi Padre. It was an album of traditional Mexican folk and mariachi songs inspired by her father’s side of the family.
The album did very well and won a Grammy Award for Best Mexican-American Performance. Her work on the album was said to have started a Latin cultural craze in North America. A few years later, Ronstadt decided to give Afro-Cuban songs a try and ended up winning the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album.
Her Great Return To Contemporary Music
After she ventured into the jazz and mariachi genres, Ronstadt decided to return to the contemporary music scene. Her duet with James Ingram titled “Somewhere Out There” was a massive hit. The song is best known for being the theme of 1986’s An American Tail.
It did so well that it reached the second spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, won the Grammy for Song of the Year, was nominated for an Oscar and was loved by Steven Spielberg. Later, she released a few more contemporary albums and performed several of the songs with Aaron Neville.
The Highs And Lows Of Her Career
As the years went on, Ronstadt had to figure out how she was going to top her previous work. During the 1990s and 2000s she released several albums across multiple genres. Some did really well and earned her many awards, while others were commercial flops that didn’t even make it on the charts.
Ronstadt released her final studio album, Hummin’ to Myself, in 2004. It included a collection of songs accompanied by a small jazz ensemble. She noticed that as she got older her voice began to change.
The Gradual Change Of Her Voice
Ronstadt performed her final concert in 2009, which was the same year she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Recording Academy. A few years later she revealed that she had Parkinson’s Disease, which was later re-evaluated as progressive supranuclear palsy.
The disease is a gradual loss of function in the brain and it has severely altered her ability to sing. Ronstadt told AARP that she “can no longer sing a note.” She went on to tell CNN, “I just lost a lot of different colors of my voice. Singing is really complex and I was made most aware of it by having it banished. I can still sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.”
An Inspiring List Of Achievements
While Ronstadt has lost a lot of her vocal abilities, she has managed to earn some of the most prestigious honors over the course of her lifetime. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 and was selected as a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2019.
Ronstadt was called the “#1 Female Artist of the Decade” by Cashbox magazine in the 1970s and has two albums on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Also, she became the first female solo artist to have two Top 40 singles simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 list and was music’s first major touring female artist to sell out large venues.
She Values Her Personal Life
Although she was never married, Ronstadt has been linked to a few famous men such as Jim Carrey and George Lucas. She adopted a baby girl named Mary in 1990 and a baby boy named Carlos in 1994. Ronstadt never really felt at home in Southern California because of the superficial vibe.
She decided that San Francisco was more her pace, but raised her children in Tucson and goes back and forth between the two cities. Ronstadt earned an honorary doctorate of music degree from the Berklee College of Music in 2009 “for her achievements and influence in music and her contributions to American and international culture.”
Her Life Was Turned Into A Documentary
There is arguably no other singer who has experienced the same kind of success as Ronstadt. Since she can’t perform anymore, she released a documentary in 2019 called Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. She details her life from her early years to what it’s like living with progressive supranuclear palsy.
Fans of Ronstadt can get an exclusive look with rarely seen footage of her best performances and what her life was like off the stage. The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “The film will make you fall in love with [Linda] all over again and will delight the singer’s old fans and likely make her new ones as well.”
She’ll Be Receiving A New Award
This isn’t the last that people will hear from Ronstadt. It was announced that she will be receiving the Legend Award at the 33rd Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards on October 6, which will air on PBS. Many Latin musicians will do a medley of her songs including The Mavericks, Carla Morrison, Joy Huerta, and Lupita Infante.
Other recipients of this award include Selena Gomez, Jessica Alba, and Bad Bunny. A source close to Ronstadt said, “Linda represents so many things to so many people and we’re proud to know that she carries her Mexican and Latino heritage as a source of inspiration.”
Highest-Paid Female Rock Artist
By 1979, Linda Ronstadt’s talent earned her the rank of the highest-paid female rock artist in the industry. With her albums continually reaching platinum status, Ronstadt sold out concert after concert in huge arenas that could hold tens of thousands of her adoring fans.
The previous year, she made $12 million, a sum unheard of for females in the industry. Time magazine said it best, though. In print, the magazine said, “Linda Ronstadt … has made herself one of the biggest individual rock draws in the world.”
She Was Dubbed “Rock’s Venus”
With the money she was making with her music and tours and the notoriety she was receiving, by the end of the 70s Rolling Stones named Linda Ronstadt “Rock’s Venus.” By 1979, she had six platinum, four multi-platinum, eight gold certifications for her albums.
She didn’t know it at the time, but Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits would go on to sell well for years to come, turning seven-times platinum by the time 2001 rolled around.
She Outsold Her Female Competition
By the end of the 70s, Linda Rondstadt was so popular that she was blowing her other female competition out of the water. During the time, she dropped five straight platinum LPs, something no modern-day female artist has ever accomplished!
In 1978, US Weekly named her one of the “Queen’s of Rock,” saying, “Rock is no longer exclusively male. There is a new royalty ruling today’s record charts.” And she wasn’t even close to done yet!
Her Tenth Album
The 70s might have solidified Linda Ronstadt as one of the greatest rock and roll females of all time, but that doesn’t mean she was done making music. In 1980, Rondstadt released her Tenth studio album, Mad Love.
The album marked her seventh consecutive platinum album, debuting at number five on the Billboard charts. It was a mix of post-punk, rock and roll, with some new wave influences thrown in, including tracks written by some of the greats like Elvis Costello.
Sixth Rolling Stone Cover
In 1980, Linda Ronstadt graced Rolling Stone magazine’s cover for a record-breaking sixth time to help promote her new album, Mad Love. Apparently, it worked because the album hit number five on the Billboard Album charts within a week of its release, a record for the time!
The album wound up climbing to the number three position, with its singles “How Do I Make You” and “Hurt So Bad,” making their way to the list of Top 10 hits. The album earned Ronstadt a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance/Female, losing out to Pat Benatar.
Ronstadt Made It To Broadway
The year 1980 also marked Linda Ronstadt making her way to Broadway. And not just making her way to the stage, she was honored with the lead in many productions, including Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt has said during interviews that she feels at home singing Gilbert and Sullivan numbers.
As it turns out, her grandfather, Fred, had arranged one of the original songs for the show! The show became a hit, running from 1981 through 1982.
She Helped Form The Eagles
Throughout her career, Ronstadt had an impressive grouping of backup musicians. Among them included icons such as Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, and Randy Meisner, who would later go on to form the rock band The Eagles.
The group would go on to have five No.1 singles, six Grammy Awards, and five American Music Awards. Considered one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, their album Hotel California is one of the best-selling albums in the history of music.
Film Was The Next Avenue
After the wildly huge success of the stage production of The Pirates of Penzance, in 1983, Linda Ronstadt was offered to bring the performance to the silver screen, portraying Mabel in a film version of the play. She accepted, co-starring alongside the likes of Angela Lansberry!
It is the only motion picture the rock and roll legend is credited for actually acting in. The film earned her a Golden Globe nomination as well as a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
There’s A Guitar Named After Her
Considering her immense success over the years, it’s no surprise that there is a guitar named after her in her honor. In 2009, the Martin Guitar Company produced a 00-42 model “Linda Ronstadt Limited Edition” acoustic guitar.
Although this is a dream come true for any musician, Ronstadt made the decision that she appointed the Land Institute as the recipient of all the proceeds from her signature instrument. The Land Institute is a non-profit organization designed to establish sustainable agriculture and is based in Salina, Kansas.
She Always Wanted To Play Mimi In La Bohèm
Ever since she was little, Linda Ronstadt wanted to play a specific character when she grew up, Mimi, in the opera La bohèm. She discovered the opera through the silent film in which Lillian Gish plays the role. Then, one year, she was cast in the role!
It was 1984, and she landed the part in Joseph Papp’s Public Theater production of La Bohèm. Unfortunately, it was a critical and commercial failure, and the production was shut down after only a few nights.
She Was Inducted Into The Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall Of Fame
Hailing from Arizona, and among all of her other countless accolades, on September 23, 2007, she was inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame. She was inducted along with other notable artists, including Stevie Nicks, Buck Owens, and acclaimed director Steven Spielberg.
Incredibly, just one year later, in 2008, she received a tribute from artists such as BeBe Winans and Wynonna Judd when she was presented with the Trailblazer Award at the 2008 ALMA Awards, which was televised on ABC in the United States.
1982 And The One Album That Didn’t Go Platinum
Between 1975 and 1990, the only album Linda Ronstadt released that didn’t officially become certified platinum was her 1982 rock, pop, and country album Get Closer. Of course, the album had very popular hit singles that hit the Top 40, including “I Knew You When,” “Easy for you to Stay,” and the country song “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win.”
Even though the album didn’t reach platinum status, it was still good enough to earn Ronstadt two Grammy nominations, one for Best Rock Vocal Performance/Female and the other for Best Pop Vocal Performance/Female.
She’s A Producer In Her Own Right
On top of her success as a singer, Ronstadt has also worked as a producer on several projects that include her cousin, David Lindley, Aaron Neville, and Jimmy Webb.
Furthermore, she was also a producer on Cristal-Glass Music Through the Ages, which was an album of classical music using glass instruments with Dennis James, in which she lent her voice on several of the tracks. Impressively, in 1999, she also produced the Grammy Award-winning Trio II.
She Tired Of Playing In Arenas
After playing sold-out arenas and stadiums, Linda Ronstadt started to tire of the scene, thinking that people milling about drinking and doing other things wasn’t an “appropriate place for music.” Instead, she wanted “angels in the architecture,” such as theatres in Ancient Greece, where people were focused on nothing but what was happening on stage.
The thought most likely came after her time on the Broadway stage, where the audience’s sole focus is on the actors, music, and the performance they came to witness.
The Pop Trilogy That Was A Huge Risk
In 1983, Ronstadt enlisted conductor Nelson Riddle to help her reimagine the Great American Songbook into a pop/jazz trilogy. The three albums were What’s New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons. Needless to say, when Joe Smith, the president of her record label Elektra, was more than a little hesitant about her approach to the records.
He believed that the new sound was going to be a turnoff for her large rock fan base. During an interview, Ronstadt discussed the success of the albums, saying, “When the albums … were successful, Joe congratulated me, and I never said ‘I told you so.’
Her Grandfather Was Quite The Inventor
Ronstadt wasn’t the only famous member of her family. She was the granddaughter of Lloyd Groff Copeman, who was a successful inventor and the holder of hundreds of impressive patents.
All in all, it’s estimated that her grandfather had the rights to over 700 patents and was the inventor of the early version of the toaster, numerous refrigerator devices, the first electric stove, the grease gun, and even an early model of the microwave. To this day, he is best remembered for his rubber flexible ice cube tray, which earned him millions in royalties.
Returning To Mainstream Pop
After her wildly successful jazz albums, Linda Ronstadt returned to mainstream pop music, quickly finding her music back on the Top 100 singles charts. Het hit single “Somewhere Out There,” was featured in the animated film An American Tale and was nominated for numerous Grammys, winning for Best Song of the Year.
The song earned the status of a million-earning gold single, the last vinyl singles to do so in the industry. Of course, the rock goddess made a hit music video to accompany the song!
She Was Strongly Against Arizona’s Immigration Law
In January 2010, Ronstadt went shoulder to shoulder with thousands of activists in a “National Day of Action,” which opposed the treatment of illegal immigrants and Arizona’s enforcement of its illegal immigrant laws.
Then, on April 29, 2010, Ronstadt formed a campaign, which included joining a lawsuit against Arizona’s illegal-immigration law SB 1070. She would later go on record calling the law a “devastating blow to law enforcement … the police don’t protect us in a democracy with brute force.”
Her Last Grammy Appearance
Linda Ronstadt’s last known Grammy appearance was in 1990. And she made sure to go out with a bang. During the telecast, Ronstadt took to the stage with Aaron Neville. There, the two sand the duet “Don’t Know Much,” a song that hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 during the Christmas of 1989.
In 2007, Ronstadt reflected on the performance, saying, “Whenever I sing with a different artist, I can get things out of my voice that I can’t do by myself. I can do things with Aaron that I can’t do alone.” The duo won a Grammy for the song.
Her First Commercial Failure Since ’72
In 1993, Linda Ronstadt released Winter Light. And while it was loved by critics, it was the rock star’s first commercial failure since 1972. The album paid tribute to a lot of frontwomen of the 1960s who Ronstadt grew up listening to, with a distinct combination of rock and roll, ballads, and, of course, some oldies.
While the album only peaked at number 92 on the Billboard album chart, Rolling Stone gave it four out of five stars. Allmusic critic Jose Promis even praised Ronstadt, saying, “Winter Light could arguably be classified as Linda Ronstadt’s best pop album of the 1990s.”