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  • J.A.Willoughby

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice

From the opening scene of Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice, the first voice we hear is the sound of Ms. Ronstadt's. She narrates the entire film, beginning to end. The words are hers, and the delivery very much an unscripted, conversational one. I have had a long on again / off again relationship with Linda - one that she knows absolutely nothing about. Like most music listeners around the world, I discovered her on the radio - not in the very early days of her career, but later in her Cub Scout uniform wearing days, fronting a group of musicians who would become a powerhouse hit factory of their own. As a 21-year-old heterosexual male, I was completely infatuated with her. Her good looks, manner, stage presence, and of course her perfect singing, drew me in like a Siren's, causing my 'ship' to be pulled in and crash on the rocks. I 'crashed' with every hit she released thereafter. Along with her vocal narration, the film tells her story with the aid of family photos of her early life in Tucson Arizona. Her family was a musical one, her talent undoubtedly genetic. Her drive to sing at a young age was almost spiritual in nature. It was a need, not an option. Clips of interviews with friends, band members, managers and colleagues are interspersed throughout the documentary with concert and studio footage, sending the viewer back in time to enjoy those moments all over again, and encounter some behind-the-scenes imagery. Needless to say, the content of the concert footage has withstood the test of time. Ms. Ronstadt's life story would not be complete without mention of her outspoken and often critical views of world governments and their humanitarian policies - including her own. This documentary has that too - for all of about 30 seconds. Thankfully, the film is not a vehicle for driving political agendas. The brief mention of any of her political issues consisted of an undated clip on a talk show [my research identified it as the Don Lane Show, October 27, 1983] where she released a laundry list of grievances in a rant that ranged from nuclear arms proliferation to apartheid - all in about 30 seconds. That was it, unless you want to count her time as a girlfriend to former California governor, Jerry Brown - that segment was even shorter. A clearer, less 'messy' message comes through in the film; it is the complete story of a very strong, creative and talented woman who did what she wanted to do in an industry that, at the time, was dominated by men - and she didn't have to sleep with them to get what she wanted. All she had to do was sing. In fact, she dictated to her record label and managers what she was going to do, whether they liked it or not. And in many instances along the way, they did not. But they got in line and followed and supported her when her ideas proved fruitful. Ms. Ronstadt surrounded herself with talented songwriters and musicians throughout her career. Arguably, Bob Kimmel, her (eventual) bandmate in the Stone Poneys, was the most important of her career, in terms of influence. He, Linda and Linda's two siblings, Peter and Suzie, formed a folk group in Tuscon. In 1963 he left the group and moved to Los Angeles. After a time, he called Linda to invite her to come out there to live and seek out people in the industry for recognition. She agreed, and they formed the Stone Poneys. After many rehearsals in Laundromats, they played an open mic gig at The Troubadour and immediately secured a record deal with Capitol Records. It was a crucial decision to move and a pivotal moment, and it was perfectly timed in terms of the music industry and its hungry need for new sounds and artists. Although Ms. Ronstadt is not a songwriter herself, Jackson Browne called her an 'auteur', a stylist who 'rewrote' the song making it her own, when she recorded it. Dolly Parton offered a similar sentiment saying a successful singer 'claims' a song, making it theirs, by performing it their own unique way. Linda was strongly drawn to her musical roots as a child, and told the powers-that-be that she was recording an album, Mas Canciones, of traditional Mexican songs, sung in Spanish, of course. They were stunned and resistant, but in the end the album, according to the film, became the largest selling Spanish language album in musical history. And much to her satisfaction, the show was a success when she took it on the road in 1991, complete with traditional and accurate costuming and Mexican musicians and singers. She continued showcasing her diverse and incredible range of talent by becoming the female lead soprano in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, the Pirates of Penzance, starring opposite, actor Kevin Kline. More so, At the peak of her rock career, with backup musicians who would eventually leave on their own and become the Eagles, she had the strong desire to do an album with big band arranger Nelson Riddle (of Frank Sinatra's 'Wee Small Hours...LP) so that she could sing the songs that she used to "hear on the an radio as a child - and wear pretty strapless dresses that she had seen her sister wear to the prom". The album was released in 1983 and given the title, What's New, becoming the first release in a trilogy of the same genre. The album went triple platinum and remained on Billboard's charts for 81 weeks. Even with all that successful diversity, she wasn't done "experimenting", putting together a country album, Trio, with longtime friends Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. The album went to number one on the country charts and sold four million copies and spawned a follow up, Trio II, released in 1999. About the time her 11th album, Get Closer, was released in 1982, our 'relationship' became off again, for no particular musical reason. I just lost track of her because I had my own musical career that went in a different direction. Many decades later, after my rock career ended, I 'found' her again. Specifically, I discovered the trilogy compilation album, 'Round Midnight' - 30 years after the fact - and fell in love with her and her voice all over again. It was a sweet reunion. One that had my wife and I playing and singing those songs in a jazz tribute at local dinner venues. In 2007, I was fortunate enough to hear her sing at an outdoor concert venue close to my home. The set list included a small variety of her pop/rock hits, and a large portion of the Nelson Riddle arrangements. Her performance that night of "Someone To Watch Over Me" (a song my wife and I performed at our shows at the time) actually brought tears to my eyes. It takes a lot to move me to tears. Two years later, it happened again when Ms. Ronstadt announced that she had Parkinson's Disease and would never sing again professionally. I mourned the loss of hearing that voice again, and consider myself very, very fortunate to have heard her sung that one time. Now, ten years after her sad announcement, I was moved so yet again, when at the end of The Sound Of My Voice she sang a traditional Mexican song with two of her relatives in the comfort of her own home. When someone off-camera pointed out that she was indeed singing again, she made it clear that it wasn't "real singing", that she had indeed "lost the colors" that her professional voice once had, and this was just filling in a harmony part for the benefit of her family members. In effect, she was saying she was just carrying a tune. She did appear to be concentrating very intently, possibly having difficulty making the connection from her brain to her vocal cords. I wouldn't know. But she sang. I heard her voice again. And that was good enough for me.

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