A GREAT POP SINGER HAS PARKINSON’S
AND A MUSICAL ERA IS RECALLED
The recent announcement by Linda Ronstadt that she has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer sing brings a pang of sorrow and remembrance. She was one of the shining lights of that especially creative era in pop music — spanning the mid ’60s to the early ’80s — that was dominated by wonderful female vocalists who defined a style fusing folk, country and rock with touches of soul and jazz.
That style evolved from other strains already present in the music of the 1950s, in particular Rockabilly and what was then called Country & Western. But I would argue that it got its real kickstart from the Urban Folk Revival of the early-to-mid ’60s.
To that extent, Joan Baez would have to be seen as a forerunner, followed closely by Judy Collins. Other female performers of importance working in or around the new hybrid genre included, Karen Carpenter, Roberta Flack, and Bonnie Raitt. Also Mary Travers, though it took her awhile to step out from between Peter and Paul.
All of these women were blessed with God-given vocal instruments of depth, range and subtlety. They were extraordinarily expressive artists who could slam you against the wall with musical passion one minute and, the next, put tears in your eyes with their breathtaking girlish tenderness.
There were other fine women vocalists of that era, of course, including Cass Eliot — who died young and, therefore, left a truncated musical legacy — and even Cher — whose life offstage has been such a circus that it’s easy to overlook what an excellent singer she was. They both had the range, though their voices weren’t as milky mellow.
I think Linda Ronstadt was the all-’round best. While any singer must adapt to shifting musical tastes in order to keep a career going, Ronstadt had them all beat when it came to versatility.
She started out in the bubble gum trade, as lead singer of the Stone Ponies (“Different Drum”), then became the queen of country rock (“When Will I Be Loved?” “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”). She explored the Great American Songbook, giving performances of ’30s jazz classics, World War II-era big-band tunes, and ’50s pop standards that hold up respectably well against those of the actual singers from the periods.
Finally, when everyone assumed she’d pretty much exhausted her stylistic options, she had a career rebirth singing the Mexican canciones that reflected part of her Arizona family’s background. She also explored so-called roots music, and even tried her hand at Gilbert & Sullivan.
For my money, no musical niche better suited her emotive presentation than the torch song. If you want to have your heart broken, listen to her sing Gary White’s “Long, Long Time.”
There are still some excellent female artists around. Sarah McLachlan and Celine Dion come to mind — maybe others as well (I don’t keep myself focused on the cutting edge of pop music anymore).
But it seems to me that the era of the great women vocalists has pretty much been eclipsed by the power chanteuses, whose over-the top, out-of-breath, hyped-up sexiness is the stock-in-trade of most chick singers one hears these days. Just watch “American Idol” or any of the other latter-day Major Bowes TV extravaganzas. The sameness is wearying.
(Of course, one mustn’t forget the self-parodying Lady Gaga, ever trying to wreak vengeance on her wicked stepmother, Madonna.)
The one thing which ’60s-to-’80s women singers had in common was that they could sing. And that’s not as silly as it sounds. Women vocalists were held to a higher standard of technical excellence than their men counterparts. How many male pop singers of that period can you point to as legit vocalists? For the most part, guys made their mark in groups, where individual vocal flaws were absorbed in the sound — the comprehensive aural effect created by arrangers and producers.
There’s no question Linda Ronstadt could sing. And while her politics and her personal life were as complicated as those of most entertainers (she was once linked romantically with California Governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown), I just want to remember a great pop artist as she steps off the stage.
May the Lord give Linda Ronstadt courage and strength to bear the heavy cross of Parkinson’s. And I hope she finds gratification in the knowledge that her now-silenced singing voice has brought untold pleasure to millions of pop music lovers. Me included.
My list of outstanding female vocalists is by no means exhaustive. In fact, it’s probably pretty quirky. If you’ve got favorites of your own — or if you wish to dispute my picks — use the Comments function or the Contact page.
And take a few minutes to watch a video clip of her 1970 performance of “Long, Long Time” on the “Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour.” You can tell she was fighting a cold when she was doing this gig. But the show must go on — and her performance was barely effected by a stuffy nose…
How could I have overlooked Anne Murray, whose heartrending “You Needed Me” (words and music by Randy Goodrum) topped the 1978 singles charts in both the U.S. and Canada (her homeland) and won her a Grammy?
If you’d like to reflect on great vocalists working in another musical genre dominant during the same time period, check out a black-oriented entertainment website called Radio Facts. You’ll find a listing of their picks for “The Undeniable Top 12 Best Black Female Singers of All Time.”
Be sure to scroll down through the reader comments, which demonstrate how passionate people can get about their favorite artists. One mentions somebody on my list, Roberta Flack. She’s perhaps best remembered for her rendition of “Killing me Softly” (by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel). But I think the real gem of her repertoire was the wistful ’50s ballad, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” by British folksinger Ewan MacColl…