September 24, 2013

"When I bend my ear to a singer's performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her."

Linda Ronstadt: The Best Singers and Songs


When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponsell in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse…

Linda Ronstadt in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.

This is fun. Linda Ronstadt, the multi-platinum queen of crossover singing — country and folk rock to Puccini’s “La Boheme” to Gilbert & Sullivan on Broadway to flamenco to Mexican wedding songs to the Great American Songbook and duets with Sinatra — throws out the line in her memoir Simple Dreams that the American popular song is the greatest gift this country ever presented to the world. So for a Coolidge Corner movie house packed with loving boomers, we’re just riffing here about singers and songs — the personal favorites, the masterpieces, the ones we called “pop” and “love songs” that may last as long as Schubert and Brahms. It is touching to hear this modest star say that she was never competitive, didn’t chase hits, but realized at midlife that she’d always aspired to raise the best material she could find to the distinction of “art songs.” So, doubtless, did Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Rosemary Clooney, Marvin Gaye, Frank Loesser, Sarah Vaughan… Judgment takes a while, even among the principals — as in Ira Gershwin’s famous line that “we never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” But Linda Ronstadt was a sport when I asked: could we close with a fast baker’s dozen of pearls in the pop music of our times — songs we could send to Mars to show what’s possible. 13. Someone to Watch over Me, from the Gershwins, Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle. 12. Little Girl Blue, from Rodgers and Hart, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. 11. Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, the song Sinatra couldn’t handle but Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane immortalized. 10. What’s New? by Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke. This is the Linda Ronstadt version with Nelson Riddle. And then there’s Coltrane. 9. The Londonderry Air, the melody of “Danny Boy,” which my mother sang every day of our young lives to the words: “Would God I Were the Tender Apple Blossom.” “The most beautiful melody ever,” as Linda said, but it’s Irish! at least till Ben Webster found it and wouldn’t let it go. 8. George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” the Sarah Vaughan version with Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes. 7. A Frank Loesser threesome: Marlon Brando singing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” in the movie Guys and Dolls.  “Never never will I marry,” a Linda choice.  Betty Carter and Ray Charles singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” my pick, and “one of my favorites of all time ever, ever, ever,” Linda said. 6. Al Hibbler singing Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing till you hear from Me.” 5. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen’s song. 4. Estrella Morente, singing “En el alto del cerro de palomares.” 3. Lola Bertran singing Paloma Negra. 2. Trio Calavera, singing “almost anything.” 1. Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going On?”  “O my God, I kissed Marvin Gaye one night… He was vocalist extraordinaire,” Linda said, at the crossroads of jazz, R’n’B and pop.  “And he was a good kisser. No question, this is an art song!”

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  • nother

    Great lady in a great interview. Linda is cool. We hear that word “cool” thrown around a lot, but for Linda is sticks. I love her story about Emmy lou Harris and the epiphany she had about it. It reminded me of Emerson’s line, “envy is ignorance.”
    I have the feeling that there are a bunch of songs out there that were written by men who were inspired after knowing LInda. If I could write, I’d write one right now.

  • Joel Cohen

    Joel’s list, in no particular order:

    Everyday, Basie/Williams
    I Can’t Get Started, Bunny Berrigan
    September Song Weill/Walter Huston
    Come onna my house, Rosemary Clooney
    Easy Living, Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson
    Me, myself and I, Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson/Pres
    I must have that man, Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson/Pres
    A sailboat in the moonlight with you, Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson/Pres
    Love for sale, Dinah Washington
    Empty bed blues, Bessie Smith
    The Wheel of Fortune, Kay Starr
    Saint Louis Blues, Bessie Smith/Louis Armstrong
    Saint Louis Blues, Louis Armstrong and allstars ca 1955

  • Not a song with lyrics but Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” is probably one of the most beautiful melodies of the 20th century.

  • “I’ll be seeing you” is my number one.
    And then I discovered that the theme is from my other number one, Mahler’s 3rd last movement. Ironic. Honest.

  • Jim Salman

    Classy lady. Intelligent and eloquent.

  • Tommy Udo

    John, that sounds like a coincidence, but it’s not ironic.

  • Potter

    I listened over and over to Only the Lonely as a teen until it became part of me forever, Frank Sinatra at his best. And every song on that album is just wonderful. It is not only the song writers but the interpretation that puts it in that certain category. Though I love “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” only Betty Carter does it for me. That one is at the top of my list.

    Another: “Last Night When We were Young”- Frank Sinatra again. Sinatra did them all unforgettably… and Ella Fitzgerald.

    Nina Simone: “Mississippi God Damn”

    My almost 100 year old mother just remembered and started singing (with tears) “Among My Souvenirs”. She loved Bea Wain and Billie Holiday. And too we are passing the best of the songbook on to our grandchildren who respond to it too.

    YES the American Songbook, and their singers! And Joni Mitchell
    and absolutely Bob Dylan the poet, the bard/musician, an artist.

    Kate and Ann McGarricle from Canada.

    What a wonderful career she has to reflect upon, seems happy to share stories. I love that she blends and connects so much music, especially the singers, through time genre and place.. it all being from the human heart connecting back to it (and thankfully through recording, over and again.)

    I don’t understand what she meant by (was it?) the distortions in mp3’s versus what she can hear on Youtube of a much lower quality which she prefers.

    What a treasure trove we have been left.

    Thanks you for this.

  • Bryon

    Love the lists. Lots to explore. Thanks. Here’s a tune from one of my favorites these days:

  • Potter

    Sorry for my typos. But I really want to pass this on too:

    Tony Rice, one of our great guitarists, did “An Olde Irish Aire” (that is, “Londonderry Aire” or London Derriere, whatever) “Danny Boy”. He came out at the Newport Folk Festival one year, at the end, and it was goosebumps on the goosebumps. He does have a version in his album (on iTunes)

    There are many popular songs that came at from classical compositions at least in part, but one other that I am thinking of is “It’s All in the Game” a composition by our past VP of the US ( to Coolidge), Charles Dawes, which he titled “Melody in A”. It’s so much better as an instrumental with Keith Jarrett. Beautiful.

  • Linda Ronstadt is truly one of the most overrated singers of modern times. Simple rock songs fit her nicely, but her work with Nelson Riddle on the great American songbook was an embarrassment. A mouth full of caramel. She was out of her league. Why would anyone want her opinion on great songs?

  • Pingback: Big Ben and Danny Boy | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium()

  • greatest vocal ever,Ella singing These Foolish Things, every verse of the song

  • Manny Lorenzo

    The more I listen to Ronstadt’s singing voice the more I love her. Warm, powerful, wet and heartbreaking. Interesting woman. An unusual humility even for someone so celebrated. Her book was very reticent on her private life but an interesting, smart, quirky read. Glad I caught her in the 70s and 80s live – natural beauty in popular song doesn’t get delivered better than Linda’s singing.

  • What took so long?

    Richard’s a moron . Ronstadt is a peer with Sinatra, Ella, Sara Vaughn, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Patsy Cline, Rosemary Clooney and all the truly great post WWII pop interpretive singers. And she was a damn fine Rock n Roller. The tragedy here is that she became the critics’ whipping girl for so long, despite enormous across the board respect from her industry peers and the general public. It’s a tragedy that morons llike Rick above were able to prevent her from being inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall if Fame until 46 years after her first hit. so long in fact that she couldn’t even attend her own ceremony due to poor health. Better late than never I suppose. Glad that good taste is finally prevailing in regard to overcoming pop music history revisionism. Ronstadt is a gift