In the second part of a revealing conversation, Ronstadt discusses her career and recent Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Singer Linda Ronstadt, Part 2Originally aired on September 26, 2013
Tavis: Linda Ronstadt’s impressive career has taken her from the small stage of the legendary L.A. club the Troubadour to arenas and even Broadway.
She’s written a new book about her life and musical journey, a memoir called “Simple Dreams,” which gives readers insight into the creative decisions that have informed her collaborations with artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Nelson Riddle.
Let’s take a look now at her singing with one of her great friends and music heroes, Smokey Robinson.
[Clip of live performance with Smokey Robinson]
Tavis: So how great a songwriter is Smokey Robinson?
Linda Ronstadt: Well full disclosure here – I had a terrible rush on Smokey Robinson, like every other female on the planet. (Laughter) Did you ever see those eyes? Oh my God. I was so nervous singing with him I thought I was going to drop dead.
Tavis: You sounded good.
Ronstadt: I mean, imagine singing a song that he wrote, with him? Oh my God. (Laughter)
Tavis: If I had to – I’ve done this many times. My friends and I play these games all the time, the top five this, the top five that. Smokey’s about as good a songwriter -
Ronstadt: He’s as good as it gets, and he’s a great singer. Because see, Smokey sings in that same tradition that Aaron Neville does, which is – and I’ll tell you what it is.
It goes back to that French Creole thing in Louisiana again, where they were very influenced by French baroque opera, where the tenor, when he would go up high, instead of singing really loud, belting like Caruso, they would go into falsetto.
They would sing a lot of embellishments, little ribbon-bow embellishments, like they do in do-wop. Do-wop is really more related to -
Tavis: That’s why Neville loves do-wop.
Ronstadt: Yeah, he’s great at it. He’s one of the purest, best, and the last of the great do-wop singers. But that’s – Smokey sings those little, he goes up in falsetto and he sings those little ribbon-bow embellishments. He’s much more related to French baroque opera.
Now Baptist music – and he’s more related to Catholic music. Baptists are belters, like Wilson Pickett.
Tavis: Oh, yeah.
Ronstadt: They go up high, they’re going to belt that note. Aretha goes up high, she’s going to belt that note.
Ronstadt: But those guys, they sang it in that beautiful falsetto. They finessed it and made it a beautiful thing.
Tavis: I want to come back to Neville in just a second. Before I do that, though, I was going to ask you this question last night, and we ran out of time because there was just so much to get to, and I can’t do justice to everything in this book.
But every time I talk to you I am always struck by your depth of music history. You didn’t have time, as you were forming your career, to go get a Ph.D. in musicology. (Laughter)
Ronstadt: But you have to know where things come from in order to know what it is.
Tavis: But nobody does these days, that’s my point.
Ronstadt: They do. I think you’d be surprised.
Tavis: You know all of this stuff. How’d you get so well-versed in all this music history?
Ronstadt: Well, I like to read, just to start with. I’m a reader. But most of it, mostly you get it from just going into the music and going farther and farther and finding out things about the lives of the people that sang it.
Like I always wanted to find out what was going on just before whatever I’m – whatever I was singing, I wanted to know what was going on before that. That’s why I started singing standards.
I wanted to get my phrasing better. I didn’t think my phrasing was very good. I was singing mainstream American pop music, and I thought, well, what was before that? Duh, standards.
Okay, study those a little bit better and see if I can get my phrasing better. That’s what started all of that. So when I went to New Orleans I started learning the history of New Orleans.
I was working with – I produced a record for Aaron Neville and I wanted to learn what was the history of his music. He sang the Mardi Gras Indian stuff he wrote, and just there was a whole bunch of different stuff. What went into the making of that music’s not just arbitrary.
Tavis: He was on this show not too many months ago. His first, as you know, his first do-wop album after all these years, he finally did, and we had a great time talking to him when he dropped the – and a book of poetry.
Ronstadt: I love that one, “Orchid in the Storm.” Oh, I’ve read his poetry, bless his heart. Yeah, I’ve read his – I love Aaron Neville so much.
Tavis: I know you do. Speaking of Aaron Neville, how have you known, artistically, who and who not to collaborate with? That is to say, how did you know, since you’re so good at this, that your voices would match and that you would get what you wanted from certain people?
Ronstadt: You just have to throw yourself at it and start doing it. I’m a chameleon. I can change my voice a lot. I always was able to, because in my family’s music I was a harmony singer, and harmony singing is really hard.
It’s just as hard as lead singing. People don’t realize that. Harder, in some ways, because you have to really listen. Ninety-nine percent of singing is listening and hearing, and so then 1 percent of it is singing.
So you’ve got to hear, you’ve got to listen, listen, listen, so you get really good listening, and you’ve just got to be able to shade in, move around. It’s like flying with the Blue Angels.
You just kind of – the wing guy goes like this, and everybody else sort of goes like that. That’s the way harmony singing is.
So in the case of Aaron, he invited me up on stage to sing with him. I never expected that to happen. I didn’t know if he knew me from Adam’s off ox, you know?
But I went to see him; I was in the audience one night. He invited me up on stage to sing, and that’s another thing – I’ll never go up on stage to sing without rehearsing, because I’m too shy. I don’t like to do it. (Laughter)
But I went – I’m not going to say no to Aaron Neville, I guess, so up I went. Then I got up there and I thought well, now what are we going to do? He said, “Well, we’re going to sing some do-wop.”
So I went, “Great,” because I’m a soprano and Aaron is like a counter-tenor. I just got in harmony way above Aaron and hung on for dear life. Whatever he did, I just shadowed him. (Laughter)
Then I went home and I got on my bed in the hotel and I went, “We sounded really good.” Then I thought you idiot, everybody sounds good when they sing with Aaron Neville.” (Laughter) Of course.
Then I didn’t think about it for a lot of months. Then he called me on the phone and he said would I come and do a benefit for him, a benefit with him, to come sing with him at this benefit.
I went, “I’ll be there in a minute.” So I just got on a plane, I was there really fast, and we got there, well, what are we going to sing? We both went to Catholic school, so we both knew Shubert’s “Ave Maria” in Latin, and that’s what we sang. (Laughs)
Again, him singing that counter-tenor, me singing soprano on the top of him like a voice (unintelligible) choir boy.
Tavis: Everybody who went to Catholic school has a litany of Catholic school stories. Give me one or two that you (unintelligible).
Ronstadt: Well, we had a really tough time. I’ve got to say, in compassion for those women, they were very, very unfairly trained. They were trained to not have any emotional support. They weren’t allowed to make friends, even within the order.
They’ve changed the way they train them now, but those poor women were very, very disturbed in that there were – in the eight years that I was in that school, I think three of them had nervous breakdowns, complete nervous breakdowns. One of them right in front of the class – we watched her come unglued.
They were wearing these black wool habits. They were made out of black wool serge. Do you know how hot it is in Tucson? It’s so hot, and you’d get in the full sun and it’s like being – it’s like wearing a solar collector. Those black habits are like solar collectors.
Meantime now the priests were wearing cotton shirts, short-sleeved shirts, and they could smoke and drink and do whatever they want. Not the nuns. They wouldn’t let them change their habits, even for white ones.
So they were just – they must have been miserable, and it was hard. They were taught to be very disciplined, be strict disciplinarians with us. There were large class sizes, and they were beating the children.
They really would have gone to jail for some of the things that they did to us. It was very frightening. So I was sorry, but there are a lot of nuns right now, like the nuns on the bus, the Liberation Theology nuns, they’re my heroes.
There’s a woman named Sister Jane Remson down in New Orleans that’s really close friends with Aaron. They don’t have any property tax down there in Louisiana, so there’s no money for the government to help poor people.
Sister Jane is the only person that’s down there feeding the hungry and homeless, dealing with hunger and homelessness, and she walks the walk. Every single day she just gets up and does it.
She helps people every single day. I have great respect for her. So my experience with those teachers, as badly as they frightened me, and they did some damage, doesn’t apply to all nuns.
There are a lot of nuns out there that are really – their heart’s in it and they’re really doing a great thing.
Tavis: How important, speaking of your Catholic upbringing, how important to you has your faith been? Have you wavered in that? Has that changed or shifted? Where do you find yourself now vis-à-vis your faith?
Ronstadt: Well, I call myself a recovering Catholic.
Ronstadt: I’m your basic atheist that believes in maybe – I’m a spiritual atheist. I call myself that. I don’t believe in a separate, anthropomorphized, conscious entity that is sitting there going, “I wonder what Tavis and Linda are doing today,” because I think that’s a kind of narcissism.
I think there’s mind in nature. There’s a power in nature, and there’s a universal power that you’d better not ignore. You ignore it at your peril, I think. I think there’s kinds of Christianity that gets very close to that.
There’s kinds of other religions that get very close to that. There are kinds of Christianity that’s just so excluding, it has absolutely nothing to do with faith or with God or whatever that divine – I believe in the divine. I think that’s what I’d have to say.
There’s some Christians out there these days, especially that seem to have taken over the right wing of the government, they don’t have a clue about what the divine is. I don’t think they get it. I don’t think they get it.
Tavis: To your point now – I want to circle back to the music in just a second, but if I can detour just for a second, because it’s obviously just public news, about your battle with Parkinson’s.
Tavis: We’ve been told that Linda Ronstadt will not sing again.
Ronstadt: Well, I can. I’ve been singing for years.
Ronstadt: I had it for years and I didn’t know I – I knew I didn’t feel well, but, and I knew I was really struggling with singing, and apparently it goes in your voice first. That’s one of the ways they can diagnose it now, is with an algorithm in your voice.
But I just didn’t know what was wrong. My back hurt, and I thought well, it’s just because I fell off my horse so many times, that’s why my back hurt. I kept going to the doctor and saying I’m really tired.
You ever go to a doctor and say you’re tired? They just look at you like, “You idiot, I’m tired too because I’ve got all these patients.” (Laughter) “Go away and leave me alone.”
It occurred to me to go to a neurologist, because I had so many other things wrong with me, so finally when I did he told me, and I was just completely shocked. Then I remembered that my grandmother had it, so the luck of the draw.
Tavis: The reason why I ask you that question following our conversation about Catholicism and your faith is I’m curious as to what you’re going to call upon to help you in this fight.
Ronstadt: Well, I hope my own good sense. I believe in the empirical wisdom of science, just to start with, so I hope that there might be some treatment out there that might be helpful.
The best promises with stem cells, and of course again, the religious right is not allowing that research in this country, and it shows such great promise for helping people not just with Parkinson’s disease; with diabetes, and all kinds of different cancers, and just there are a million things that it can help with.
I hope that that research will loosen up. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen in my lifetime, but we’ll see.
Tavis: You seem so – it’s my word here. You seem so calm about this. Not that I expected you to break down and cry on national television, but how are you dealing with it? Your whole life, you’ve been singing. How are you dealing with years now -
Ronstadt: I know.
Tavis: – being unable to sing?
Ronstadt: I miss it terribly. When my friend Emmylou Harris comes over and I think oh, we could just be sitting here singing, I miss that terribly. When I go home to Tucson, all my cousins and my brothers and my sisters, they all sing and play.
We always used to harmonize together, and I think I don’t want to talk to them about politics. Some of them are Republicans. (Laughs) I just want to sing with them, and I can’t do that now.
That makes me sad every day. But then I have to say to myself something’s going to get you. We’re all going to die. I’m 67 years old. I’ve had an unusual – I’ve already had a long life. I’m not going to die young, and I’ve had an unusually long turn at the trough.
I got to do things that other people weren’t allowed to do. I got to make a lot of my dreams come true, and I’m grateful for that. So I have to just be content with that. I have to find a way to make myself useful, and there are a lot of ways to participate in music.
Like I really believe that children should all be taught music at an early age. I work with a little group called (speaks in Spanish) in the East Bay, up in Northern California.
They work a lot with immigrant kids, and they teach them how to play, dance, and sing, and they teach them visual art also. I’ve been working with them for 20 years, and they do the best job I’ve ever seen with kids with art.
These kids, they love it. They’re not brought up to become – like they all learn to sing and dance and play, but it’s not necessarily for performing. They’re not up there to be little trained seals.
They’re to use it in their social life, in their emotional life to work out their problems. They can use music in a really organic way that we were meant to all of us use it, and I go to their rehearsals and I go to their little dance classes, and I go see their little painting class, and I have the best time.
Because it’s like going to rehearsal for me, and the music is so good. They teach them so well. So the kids are doing really well. They finish high school, they go on to college, there’s a huge reduction in teen pregnancy, and they get to locate themselves in this bewildering new culture that lots of times they’ve gone through terrible situations to get here.
Tavis: So even without being able to sing every day, there are still reasons to wake up.
Ronstadt: Yeah. I can go hear them sing and give them an “Atta boy,” you know?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned, and you’re right – thankfully, or we wouldn’t be here right now, if you had died young, so I’m glad you didn’t die young.
But there are a lot of people who did, a lot of folk hanging out at the Troubadour back in the day, a lot of folk who got caught up in the drug scene when you were coming up who didn’t make it. How did you avoid that particular fate?
Ronstadt: I’ve got this weird body chemistry that I don’t like to get high. I’m not going to say I never tried drugs. I tried most everything. I didn’t try injectables. But I didn’t like it. I was a person that my assistant, Janet Stark, said that when she smoked pot it made her want to hide under the bed with a box of graham crackers and not share. She’d get really paranoid and hungry. (Laughter)
Who needs that? Marijuana has a lot of very good medical uses, and I truly believe it should be legal, but for just recreational use it wasn’t my drug. I didn’t like it.
Cocaine made my nose bleed right away. I thought why do I need a nose bleed? It would make me real nervous and talk really fast. I’m already pretty good at talking too fast. I thought, “Why do I need that?”
What my true addiction is is reading. I love to read. If I’d get too loaded, I couldn’t remember the sentence I just read. So reading – like when I was on the road, we would travel for miles and miles and everybody would be bored.
I was never bored because I always had a book. So I had a doorway into another world or another universe. It was great.
Tavis: So that’s why you’re so -
Ronstadt: The guys in my band were readers too. The guys in my band were all very, highly literate, intelligent guys, well-educated, well-brought-up people. We had a pretty nice atmosphere there on the bus. It was good.
Tavis: Reading is one thing, writing is another. How did you find the notion of writing “Simple Dreams?”
Ronstadt: Well, I never thought I’d write, because I’d never written anything in my whole life but a thank you note. (Laughter) I never had – you know Cameron Crowe, the guy that wrote -
Ronstadt: You know, he’s a movie writer.
Ronstadt: Well, when he was a kid and just trying to make his bones as a reporter, and he was an aggressive little reporter about the age of 16, he went to Jackson Browne’s house to interview him.
Jackson left the room for a little while, and he went in his drawers and he found a bunch of lyrics that Jackson had written that weren’t published yet, and he printed them.
I was so shocked. My mother raised me to never, you don’t ever read anybody else’s mail, you don’t read their diary, you don’t mess in their drawers. So I thought I’m never writing anything down, because somebody like Cameron Crowe might come to my house, and they’ll find it and they’ll (laughter) print it in “Rolling Stone,” and I don’t want that.
I never wrote anything down. I never kept a diary, never kept a journal. I did write one letter home about touring with the Doors that I used as a reference for the book for some details there, and then I was glad I had that, but that was it.
So I was sitting next to this guy who wrote “The Botany of Desire,” which is a favorite book of mine. It was sitting next to him at dinner one night. He said (unintelligible) his name was Michael Pollan (sp). He said, “So you’re going to write a book?”
I said, “I can’t write. You’re a real writer. I’m a reader. I know how hard it is to write, and I know the difference of good writing.” So he said, “Well, I think everybody has one story that they can tell in an authentic way, and they can get that one story out.”
I thought hmm. Then I thought so many people have written about me and said stuff about me, that I said this or that I thought that, and so much of it was inaccurate. I thought well, I think I want my side of the story.
I read a book by Renee Fleming about her musical journey and how she had come to be a soprano and how she had developed as a singer, and I thought well, that would be a cool thing to do – tell my story, because I’m not the most important pop singer that ever was, but I’m the most diverse pop singer there was in that era.
So I thought it would be good to show how those musical choices were not arbitrary, they were very deliberate, and what the background of it, what the foundation was in my childhood of those different musical choices.
Tavis: Did Linda Ronstadt learn anything about herself writing about herself, researching herself?
Ronstadt: I learned what a lousy memory I have. (Laughter) I used to pride myself on my memory, because my father has an incredible memory. My uncle had total recall.
In my family we’ve got really good memories. But my brother, who was chief of police in Tucson, used to say to me, “Never trust an eyewitness, because they never remember it right.”
I had stuff in there that I thought – I’d written stuff down and I thought this is the gospel truth, I swear, and I’ve asked somebody else who was there, they say, “Oh, no, it didn’t happen like this, it was like this.” (Laughter)
Fortunately, I had a really good copy editor that checked dates and everything like that, because I had somebody dying like five years before they actually did, and then they wouldn’t have ever had children.
There were a lot of things like that I was shocked at how much my memory could trick me. But I checked, and I think most everything in there is true.
Tavis: What do you hope the takeaway will be for readers?
Ronstadt: I think to sort of understand why – what was going on when I was doing those songs, those songs that they liked. Maybe they liked a song, maybe they didn’t. I don’t know.
What I was thinking and how I approached doing that song, how I got there. How I got to Mexican music from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. I went country – I went folk music, country rock, then I went to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, then I went to American standard songs, then I went to Mexican music, then I went to Caribbean jazz standards.
I did a lot of different stuff. Then I sang an opera. I sang “Boehme,” not very well, but I did it. It was a lot of jumping around, but for me, it was all family music. I heard all of that stuff in my family home book before I was the age of 10.
Tavis: I’ve noted this last night, I’ve noted it again tonight, I’ve noted it, quite frankly, in every conversation I’ve been blessed to have with you, and I do mean blessed to have with you, over the years.
That is that you are so honest in your own personal critique. You know when you have killed it, and you also know, to your point about “La Boehme,” that when I’ve not done the best job or when I’m – I did better.
Ronstadt: I had some pretty stiff competition with that one.
Tavis: Yeah, (unintelligible).
Ronstadt: (Unintelligible) and Victoria de la Santa (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah, we’ve all got stiff competition no matter what we do. But all of us aren’t as honest with ourselves when we don’t measure up to that stiff competition. I just get the sense that one of the reasons why you are so brilliant at what you do is because you’ve always been, at the very least, honest with yourself.
Ronstadt: Well really, when I started, I wasn’t very good. I should have been way more prepared, I should have been better trained at music, I should have been all kinds of things when I started out.
I was 17, and I jumped in with both feet. But I was very good, and the good news is I got a little better. So, and that’s all you can do. Every day, you just try to make it better.
I’d fail over and over again, and I’d just be so discouraged. I’d think I’m just not a very good singer; I have to do this better. But I got better, so that was, that made me happy.
Tavis: I want to go back to the Troubadour before my time runs out, because we’ve talked about it, raised it a couple of times, at least. Maybe it’s just me, and I don’t want to over-state this, but I do want to get your take on it.
It just seems to me that you’re a part of a generation that was much more collaborative than this generation is. Rappers come together onto each other’s songs, and so I’m not saying that there aren’t collaborations.
But I’m talking about back in the day if James Taylor had written a song or Carole King had written a song or so-and-so had written a song and it didn’t work for this person, then they gave it to this person.
Or if it didn’t work for them, they would give it to somebody else. Maybe I’m over-reading this, and maybe it wasn’t that kind and charitable and generous, but there was just a lot of good collaborations going on.
Ronstadt: There was a lot of that, but see, I think musicians always want to do that. There was a lot of competition, too.
Ronstadt: But there was a lot of this kind of male posturing. But basically they all got down and helped each other out, and I don’t know – I imagine that happens now too.
I think it probably does. I saw Janelle Monae on YouTube the other day, and I was so impressed with her. I like the way that she performs. She’s a really, really fine performer. She’s got, like, she’s got the old moves like you’d see at the Apollo Theater. She’s really got them down.
But she also has this idea of respect for herself. She demands respect for herself. She’s got dignity. She has respect for her own body. She’s really sexy, she’s really beautiful, but she’s not throwing it out in the street.
It’s nice. I like that. So I think – I don’t know, I think musicians are always supportive of each other because they want the groove to keep going on. They just basically want to play music.
They’re pretty happy. They don’t mind whoever walks in. You could be a goat or a camel or some guy from some country they didn’t understand. It’ll be fine, as long as you play really well.
That’s what I think is the universal, wonderful thing about music, is that it’s very inclusive. So I think probably they do it now too. I don’t really know this group of people.
Tavis: Let me offer this as our exit question. If there were one word that came to mind or comes to mind whenever I think of you and your work, it would be “humanity.”
Ronstadt: Well, thank you. That’s a great compliment.
Tavis: Well, I mean that. There’s something about your work that at the epicenter of it is an appreciation, a reveling in the humanity of other people. Tell me why that is so.
Ronstadt: Well, I think there’s just a lot of compassion in art. Again, when you’re doing something that resonates with somebody else, you’re going through an experience another person has had, whether it’s been a painful experience or a joyous experience or a happy experience.
Compassion is kind of built in. It has to be. You have to be aware of what other people are feeling in order to resonate with them, I think.
Tavis: I could do this two nights and it’s still not enough. (Laughter)
Ronstadt: I can come back.
Tavis: Yeah, come back any time. (Laughter) What you doing tomorrow night? No, I love it. I always am inspired, and I am empowered, I am uplifted, every time we get a chance to talk.
Ronstadt: Thank you so much.
Tavis: I’m so glad you did this. I’m so glad you did this. The memoir from Linda Ronstadt is out now. It’s called “Simple Dreams.” Love that cover. Love that picture, man. (Laughter) “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.”
Ronstadt: I remember that day.
Tavis: You remember that day?
Ronstadt: I remember what I was thinking, as a matter of fact.
Tavis: What were you thinking?
Ronstadt: Well, I think somebody kind of hurt my feelings, so I had a reproachful kind of thought in my head. I was kind of like, “How could you do that?”
Tavis: Yeah. But those eyes are so – your eyes are so expressive, (laughter) then and now. Love those eyes. Thanks for doing this.
Ronstadt: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
[Clip of performance with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton]
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad.]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.