I only saw Linda Ronstadt once in her roughly 40-plus career as a singer, and though it was still at a relatively early stage, the impression she made at the Garden State Arts Center on that night in 1976 still lingers: a petite, dark-eyed singer caught out by a single spotlight, her voice filling the amphitheater until it had engaged every heart with songs of longing, joy and loss.
I did not know until watching Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice that this queen of rock ‘n’ roll doubted her ability so much that, if she saw one audience member talking to another, she might assume they were conversing about the bad show she was putting on.
How wrong she was. The documentary, in general release for several weeks now, reminded me that this voice created an indelible portion in the soundtrack of my youth in the mid-to-late Seventies, and I’m sure many Baby Boomers feel similarly. She was inescapable on the radio and in the print outlets that made rock ‘n’ roll so enormously essential back then—not just a Time Magazine cover but glamorous Rolling Stone photos by Annie Liebowitz.
All of this was not without struggle. The film painstakingly sets out two challenges she faced in her career, particularly starting out in the late Sixties and Seventies: being taken seriously by the male-dominated community of musicians, and convincing record executives to permit her to try new artistic challenges, especially when they did not seem initially to be commercially viable.
To tackle the first challenge, Ronstadt became instrumental in creating a de factor musical sorority consisting of Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these artists shared her broad musical tastes. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, Ronstadt displayed an almost unmatched versatility with different musical genres.
Already having displayed her facility with country, folk, R&B, pop, and New Wave, she became even more adventurous as she entered middle age, trying her hand at Gilbert and Sullivan (Pirates of Penzance), the Great American Songbook (three LPs in collaboration with producer Nelson Riddle), and Mexican ranchera.
As the documentary makes clear, she imbibed her eclectic tastes at an early stage from her immediate family. Canciones de mi Padre (“Songs of my Father”), the biggest selling non-English language album in American recording history, paid tribute to her German-Mexican father, who, the singer remembers, was gifted with a rich baritone that reminded her of Frank Sinatra. Ronstadt’s mother bequeathed to her an appreciation for Gilbert and Sullivan. Her siblings fed her interest in country (Hank Williams was a great favorite), pop and folk.
Without dwelling on it, the documentary takes note of her offstage private life (California Gov. Jerry Brown and singer-songwriter J.D. Souther were, for a time, romantic interests, and in the Seventies speed and diet pills were her principal forms of self-medication).
But it is more interested in aspects of her life that rock ‘n’ roll’s patriarchy, for one, did not take as seriously as it should have until her career was effectively over: her abundant talent and significant influence in the music industry.
Fond reminiscences and high praise for her skill are offered in interviews conducted especially for the film with friends and associates such as critic-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe and performers Raitt, Parton, Harris, Bonoff, Souther, Don Henley, and Jackson Browne.
In one of the interviews, Browne—whose early song “Rock Me on the Water” was covered by Ronstadt—labeled the singer “an auteur” who could make a song her own, even if she didn’t write it herself. In the most compelling segments of the film, abundant footage of her concerts and TV guest spots demonstrates not only her feel for lyrics but her magnetic stage command, even dating back to her first appearances at L.A. music meccas like the Whiskey A-Go-Go.
Ronstadt last performed in concert in 2009, as she realized that Parkinson’s Disease was undermining her vocal range. But her CDs confirm the beauty and purity of her voice when she was healthy.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman might have asked more bluntly why it took male-dominated electors nearly 20 years after her eligibility to enshrine her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But they do underscore her continual role in widening the vistas of the music industry. She leaped over genre barriers even as she helped pry the doors open to emerging singer-songwriters and female artists.
At long last, we can now reckon how much we are in her debt, more than we could ever have imagined at the time.