Linda Ronstadt sings, if briefly, for USA TODAY – USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — Linda Ronstadt can no longer sing, which is about as cruel as an irony can get.
“I wish I could,” says Ronstadt, 67. The 10-time Grammy Award winner is coping with the onset of Parkinson’s, the degenerative brain disease that also afflicts Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali. “Not even in the shower.”
So it is with some surprise that, for a fleeting moment during an expansive conversation covering everything from past loves to her passion for YouTube, the voice returns.
In the middle of a detailed discourse on the roots of American popular music, she mentions that singers who emerged from the African-American Baptist tradition were “belters, you know, like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.”
Then suddenly she sings the opening line to Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come: “I was booorn by the river …”
It is high-pitched and a little wobbly, but beautiful. And like a rare bird, the music vanishes. “I try to send my voice to another place, but it doesn’t go there,” she says. “It’s like calling the elevator. You’re on the third floor and your voice, the elevator, keeps going to the 13th floor, and it doesn’t come to your floor, ever.”
But Ronstadt’s echo carries. Packing one of the pre-eminent voices in pop — after fueling Los Angeles’ 1970s country-rock sound, she went on to embrace Broadway musicals, the American songbook and Mexican standards — the Tucson native is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame April 10 at New York’s Barclays Center along with Cat Stevens, Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates and Kiss.
As if to mark the occasion, Linda Ronstadt Duets bows Tuesday, featuring previously released musical liaisons with Frank Sinatra (Moonlight in Vermont) and Aaron Neville (All My Life). Ronstadt will not, however, make it to the induction ceremony.
For starters, traveling is difficult because the most comfortable position for her these days is either lying down flat or sitting in an overstuffed chair with an ottoman, as she is today in her neatly appointed house on the western edge of town. It looks like the home of a retired schoolteacher — tidy and bright — not a music legend.
“To go anywhere, to fly anywhere, even to drive down to San Jose (an hour south) is a big deal,” she says, adding that at this stage Parkinson’s causes her to tire quickly if she overexerts herself. “I have to make sure there’s a place like this, to lie down. Or I have to take a wheelchair, but I can’t last that long in a wheelchair.”
While she is pleased by the Rock Hall honor, Ronstadt makes it clear that she doesn’t consider most of her early work to be that good.
“I’m grateful, but it’s astounding to me that people like (the early hits, such as You’re No Good or Blue Bayou),” she says.
So she really can’t turn on When Will I Be Loved and enjoy it?
“No. It would probably ruin my month. I’ll hear it and go, ‘I don’t know why I thought I could sing, I never could sing, I never should have been singing,’ ” she says, then laughs. “I hear all kinds of things wrong. I could write you a long list.”
Atop that list would be her conviction that in those early days her sense of rhythm was subpar. “Rhythm was a problem for me, so phrasing was a problem,” she says. “When I learned to sing Mexican music (she released Canciones de Mi Padre in Spanish in 1987), that helped me learn how to phrase.”
And besides, she’s not really big on awards, she says.
“I just don’t think about music in that way, I never have and I’m not going to start now,” she says resolutely. “The first Grammy I got, I left in a rental car. I’m happy to have it, but it’s not something I need. And now I can’t really go collect these things because I don’t have the strength. I need to save it for other things, like going to see (the ballet) Giselle again. I love that.”
Ronstadt has always been “a feisty sort, so perhaps at a moment when most people are dutifully respectful, she’s taking an edgier approach” to the Rock Hall news, says Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor at Rolling Stone.
“She’s never felt entirely comfortable in the rock world, though her induction certainly is for her contributions to a whole range of music,” he says. “In the ’70s, she had a string of hits that were both commercial and artistic successes. But she’s an adventurous singer, and I’m not sure she’s ever really been given credit for all that.”
Ronstadt grew up in a musical family in Arizona, “where you couldn’t bring a book to the table for dinner, but you were allowed to sing,” she says, one of many memories detailed in her recent memoir, Simple Dreams.
“My father would play everything from flamenco records to Frank Sinatra to mariachi music,” she says. “My childhood was packed with music.”
Ronstadt says she doesn’t listen to much music today. She hates the way digitally processed music sounds and hopes Neil Young’s new ultra-high-quality music player, called Pono, “is going to save us.”
But she takes great joy in trolling YouTube for old clips of flamenco and opera singers. “It’s amazing, I can find five great women singing the same aria and compare them right away,” she says, her big brown eyes opening wide.
Speaking of those eyes, they still mesmerize, dominating a round face that is framed by a short bob of dark brown hair. Ronstadt lounges on a white chair in a pink sweatshirt, sweatpants and purple Ugg boots.
These days, she doesn’t go in for photo shoots, but you can clearly see the woman who set some famous hearts swooning, from George Lucas to Jerry Brown, the once and current governor of California who “just came over Christmas Eve,” she says. “We don’t agree on everything, but he’s very nice and I like his wife (Anne Gust) so much.”
Speaking of beaus, there’s no talk of who’s in her life now beyond her two adopted children, who were the reason she left Tucson for the Bay Area (“I didn’t like what Arizona was becoming, politically”). But she has lots of fun stories about J.D. Souther, the country-rock songwriting icon who helped the Eagles’ career take flight.
“We had a passionate relationship, which we saw we couldn’t keep under one roof, but our musical friendship remained intact,” she says, noting that two recently met for dinner in Washington, D.C., during her book tour. “We really like each other. I want to know what he’s reading, what songs he’s writing, what he’s thinking about.”
Ronstadt has equally kind things to say about the Eagles, who formed as a band while serving as her backing musicians. In the recently released documentary, History of the Eagles, Don Henley thanks Ronstadt — who appears in the film often — for letting the band leave her employ with good wishes.
“I knew they were good, and you don’t stand in the way of somebody’s dream,” she says. “They were our buddies.”
She hasn’t seen the movie and seems surprised that archival interviews of her are in it. “I wonder where they got that? I certainly don’t have any,” she says. “I have a TV, but I don’t really know how to work it.”
But what she does have are great tales by the crate-load.
Ronstadt can go on: About seeing Bonnie Raitt, “who was certainly a better singer than me,” make her debut. Just a girl and a guitar and a huge voice “that laid us all out flat.”
About meeting Jackson Browne “when I was 18 and he was 17, and he showed me a song he’d written, These Days, and I thought, ‘Whoa, they’ve got some pretty good songwriters here in California, maybe I need to move here.’ “
About watching Joni Mitchell perform “for two weeks straight, just seeing her work those (guitar) tunings and craft those songs and voice what she was thinking” at L.A.’s iconic Troubadour club, the same place she caught Elton John’s breakout. “He was just amazing,” she sighs.
Ronstadt pauses for a moment, then giggles, as she does often.
“Those were just fun days,” she says simply. “All these people were just our pals. Fun days.”