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Linda Ronstadt Songs: 20 Tracks The “Queen Of Rock” Made Her Own
Gijsbert Hanekroot
List & Guides

Linda Ronstadt Songs: 20 Tracks The “Queen Of Rock” Made Her Own

Covering country, rock, jazz and Mexican tunes, the best Linda Ronstadt songs prove her to be one of the most versatile singers of all time.

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Linda Ronstadt is one of the most versatile vocalists of all time; the best Linda Ronstadt songs prove that she excelled at singing country, rock’n’roll, big band, jazz, opera, Broadway standards and Mexican tunes. Her four-decade career produced sales of more than 50 million albums and earned her ten Grammy Awards, the National Medal Of Arts and membership in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Though Ronstadt, who was born in Tucson, Arizona, on 15 July 1946, was never a songwriter, she was one of the most astute artists ever when it came to picking the right songs to cover. She recorded brilliant interpretations of songs by Warren Zevon, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, James Taylor and Jimmy Webb, among many others.

In her late career, before Parkinson’s disease rendered her unable to sing, Ronstadt triumphed with albums of Mexican music and, later, records that honoured The Great American Songbook. At her peak, Ronstadt left an indelible mark on the classic-rock era with hits such as That’ll Be The Day and It’s So Easy.

Here is our guide to the 20 best Linda Ronstadt songs.

20: Sail Away (1973)

“You have to mark me down as a drooling, slobbering Randy Newman fan,” said Linda Ronstadt, who first cut one of the great songwriter’s compositions when she was just 22, when she covered Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad in 1969. She also recorded a moving rendition of Newman’s haunting love song Feels Like Home. Her splendid version of Newman’s masterpiece, Sail Away, a withering satirical song about the slave trade, was on her 1973 album, Don’t Cry Now. The track featured the brilliant drummer Russ Kunkel and Steely Dan guitarist Larry Eugene Carlton. Ronstadt often sang backing vocals on Newman’s albums – and she returned to work with him on his 1995 album, Randy Newman’s Faust. “Randy’s stuff is really hard to sing because it has so many layers, and his writing is doing the commenting, is doing the 19 layers that’s making a fool of the primary voice,” Ronstadt said. Newman in turn said her voice was so powerful that he affectionately nicknamed her “Mighty Mouse”.

19: Back In The USA (1978)

Though she was primarily a ballad singer, the best Linda Ronstadt songs include some blistering rock tunes, and she regularly performed Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA in concert. When she cut a studio version for her 1978 album, Living In The USA (which also contained a fine version of Elvis Costello’s Alison), she brought in jazz pianist Don Grolnick – famed for his work with saxophonist Michael Brecker – for a high-energy version of the song. “When somebody as masterful as Chuck Berry writes a song, it’s always fun to climb into the rigging or get a tour of the architecture of how the song’s constructed,” Ronstadt said. “That’s an interesting song, because it builds on a couple of different kinds of shuffles that roll and change as the song progresses. And his songs are based on a piano shuffle, not a guitar one. So once I figured that out, it was easier to figure out the phrasing.”

18: Desperado (1973)

After a brief spell at the University Of Arizona, Ronstadt moved to Los Angeles to begin a promising music career with the band The Stone Poneys (they had a minor hit with the song Different Drum) before going solo. Her first backing band included Glenn Frey and Don Henley, who went on to form Eagles. In 1973, for her first album for the Warner Music label Asylum, she recorded a haunting version of that group’s cowboy-themed hit, Desperado. She later said she was “depressed” during the making of the album Don’t Cry Now but tried to channel her emotions into a collection that boasts many of the best Linda Ronstadt songs. Ronstadt, who was a big fan of the novels of Edith Wharton, said she always enjoyed good writing and loved the idea she could “interpret” songs by great lyricists such as Frey and Henley.

17: Heart Like A Wheel (1974)

Ronstadt won her first Grammy for her silky version of Hank Williams’ I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You), which featured some great fiddle playing from David Lindley. That track was on Ronstadt’s 1974 album, Heart Like A Wheel, which was full of terrific songs, including Lowell George’s Willin’, Paul Anka’s It Doesn’t Matter Anymore and Ronstadt’s No.1 hit, You’re No Good. The title track was written by sisters Anna and Kate McGarrigle, and was a song Ronstadt had heard them singing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. “I was just ambushed by that song,” she told The New Yorker. “I just thought they were the most beautiful lyrics I’d ever heard. It was a huge song for me. I sang it all the way through my career.”

16: Love Is A Rose (1975)

During the sessions for her 1975 album, Prisoner In Disguise , Ronstadt covered Neil Young’s Love Is A Rose. (Ronstadt, who had sung backing vocals on some of the Canadian-born musician’s recordings, also cut Young’s songs Birds, After The Gold Rush, Look Out for My Love and I Believe In You.) She was a firm believer in the power of the human voice. In the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice, she was asked why people sing. “For the same reasons birds do,” she said. “For a mate, to claim their territory or simply to give voice to being alive in the midst of a beautiful day.”

15: Love Has No Pride (1973)

“I’ve always thought of myself as a ballad singer. I’m a ballad singer, and I don’t make any bones about it,” said Ronstadt. “I’m very happy to sing ballads. I think that’s where my voice finds its most expressive range, and I have room to stretch out musically and vocally.” She demonstrated this skill brilliantly on the lush ballad Love Has No Pride, written by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus, which appeared on Don’t Cry Now. Jimmie Haskell, who scored films and composed the music for the TV show Bewitched, arranged the string orchestration, helping it earn its place among the best Linda Ronstadt songs.

 14: Heat Wave (1975)

Ronstadt loved singing uptempo songs, and her spirited version of Heat Wave, a rock-style makeover of the 1963 soul hit for Martha And The Vandellas – written by the great songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland – peaked at No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100, further justifying its inclusion among the best Linda Ronstadt songs. The song came into her repertoire by chance, as multi-instrumentalist and longtime Ronstadt collaborator Andrew Gold recalled: “One night at a Long Island club called My Father’s Place we received six encores. We’d run out of tunes. One of us yelled out, ‘Heat Wave in D,’ and we did it. We were awfully sloppy but the crowd really liked it. So we kept the song in our set.” On the version recorded for the Prisoner In Disguise album, cut at The Sound Factory in LA, Gold played a key part, overdubbing two electric and two acoustic guitars, along with piano, percussion and an ARP String Synthesiser.

13: Tumbling Dice (1977)

Ronstadt was never keen on the “Queen Of Rock” label, and she said she hated playing in big arenas in the 70s, telling Yahoo in 2014 that the acoustics in these venues was “like the sound of a zombie that refused to die”. She also revealed that when Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger presented her with a Charlie Parker-Ben Webster jazz record, with a ballad medley on it, she began playing it during the intermissions of these concerts while fans yelled “Rock and roll! Rock and roll!” But though she may not have loved playing Stones-like auditoriums, she did like their music. In 1977, Ronstadt recorded a blistering version of Tumbling Dice, a song composed by Jagger and Keith Richards, for her Simple Dreams album.

12: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1982)

On her first two albums of the 80s – Mad Love and Get Closer – Ronstadt went for a slightly different sound. The best Linda Ronstadt songs of the era relied more heavily on electric guitars and synthesisers, as the singer covered some of her favourite songwriters, including Elvis Costello and Jimmy Webb. Ronstadt described Webb as “one of the greatest songwriters of the second half of the 20th century”. On Get Closer, she recorded his classic The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, which was inspired by a 1966 science-fiction novel by Robert A Heinlein. Ronstadt’s stirring vocal performance was accompanied by some delicate piano playing from Little Feat’s Bill Payne.

11: Tracks Of My Tears (1975)

Ronstadt was always ambitious in her choice of material. In 2017, Peter Asher, who had produced the eclectic album Prisoner In Disguise, paid tribute to the singer’s ability in this matter. “She’s brilliant at finding songs. Linda introduced me to John David Souther, to Lowell George, even Jimmy Webb. One of Linda’s remarkable abilities is finding songs that she can do and then wrestling a whole new meaning and intensity out of them. When she sings a song you can believe it.” As well as covering Lowell George on the album – with a version of the Little Feat star’s Roll Um Easy, on which George played slide guitar– she also delivered a stunning version of Smokey Robinson’s R&B classic The Tracks Of My Tears, which established itself among the best Linda Ronstadt songs after it became a hit in both the pop and country charts.

10: When Will I Be Loved (1974)

There is a great radio broadcast, recorded in 1974 at My Father’s Place, on which Ronstadt covers some of the classics that she learned in her childhood, including a version of Hank Williams’ I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You). She also performed a version of her hit single When Will I Be Loved, which was an Everly Brothers’ classic. “Phil and Don Everly were such good singers and they were one of the foundations, the cornerstones, of the whole rock’n’roll sound,” Ronstadt said.

9: I’ve Got A Crush On You (1983)

“I like to respect the song that the composer wrote, especially those that are brilliantly well-crafted,” Ronstadt once said. “It was a lesson I learned from Ella Fitzgerald, really, because she always addressed it before she takes off on a song… she’ll always establish whatever the composer had in mind first.” Jazz great Fitzgerald had recorded the 1928 standard I’ve Got A Crush on You – composed by George Gershwin with lyrics by his brother Ira – and Ronstadt took up the challenge of covering that delicate song on her 1983 album What’s New, which she said was a whole record of “little jewels of artistic expression”. One of the best Linda Ronstadt songs of the 80s, I’ve Got A Crush On You had actually been part of her repertoire for several years by this point. She even performed it to Kermit The Frog during her 1980 appearance on The Muppet Show.

8: Hay Unos Ojos (1987)

The 1987 album Canciones De Mi Padre (Song Of My Father) was a superb collection of traditional Mexican songs. It became the best-selling non-English-language album in American history, with nearly three million sales. The album also returned Ronstadt to her roots. Her grandfather was a Mexican bandleader, and her father serenaded her mother with Mexican folk songs in what Ronstadt called a sweet baritone voice. “I listened to a lot of Mexican music on the radio, and my dad had a really great collection of traditional Mexican music,” she said. The album earned Ronstadt a Grammy for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album. Thanks to Ronstadt’s passionate vocals, all 13 tracks could be contenders among the best Linda Ronstadt songs. The standout is arguably her gorgeous version of Hay Unos Ojos (There Are Some Eyes), written by Mariachi legend Rubén Fuentes.

7: That’ll be the Day (1976)

In 2019, Ronstadt told the LA Times that she keeps the National Medal Of Arts she received from President Obama under her bed. When asked what happened to her ten Grammys, she replied, “gone”, adding that she simply had no idea where they now were. She won one of those Grammys for her 1976 album, Hasten Down The Wind. As well as covering a Ry Cooder song (“He’s like a God to all of us musicians,” she commented) on the album, she also cut a thoroughly entertaining version of the Buddy Holly classic That’ll Be The Day. Ronstadt said she always included Holly songs in her live shows because it helped establish a good pace for her and the band.

6: Don’t Know Much (1989)

“Something magical happens when we work together,” said New Orleans R&B legend Aaron Neville about working with Ronstadt. “Neither of us can explain it – it’s a marriage of voices. That’s how we explain it. It’s just something that works.” Their gorgeously tender love song Don’t Know Much, written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Tom Snow, won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal after appearing on Ronstadt’s triple-platinum 1989 album, Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind. A standout duet among the best Linda Ronstadt songs, the track later appeared on the 2014 compilation album Duets, which amply showed off Ronstadt’s skill in featured collaborations with Ann Savoy, James Taylor, James Ingram, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris (the latter two were the country music stars with whom she recorded two celebrated Trio albums).

5: Silver Threads And Golden Needles (1973)

Silver Threads And Golden Needles, a song written by Dick Reynolds and Jack Rhodes, was a hit for Wanda Jackson in 1956 and it was a country classic Ronstadt grew up with. She recorded her first version on her 1969 solo debut album, and returned with another version on 1973’s Don’t Cry Now, forever cementing it as one of the best Linda Ronstadt songs. She played tambourine on that recording – something she always did when playing the song. In 1975, Rolling Stone magazine reported that Ronstadt was so angry at a photographer interrupting a version of Silver Threads And Golden Needles at the Civic Auditorium in Bakersfield, California, that she hurled her tambourine, Frisbee-style, at the man using a flash camera. She later said she was sorry – for her poor aim. “I hit some girl in the shin instead,” she said.

4: Poor Poor Pitiful Me (1977)

Ronstadt was a big fan of the complex, searching songs of Warren Zevon. She recorded several of his compositions over the years, including Hasten Down The Wind, Carmelita, Mohammed’s Radio and Poor Poor Pitiful Me, which appeared on her 1977 album, Simple Dreams. Ronstadt was introduced to Poor Poor Pitiful Me by Jackson Browne, who was producing Zevon at the time. Browne went to her house to teach her the song. “Warren never came to my house. I didn’t know him very well,” Ronstadt told Uncut in 2017. “He was incredibly shy. He was a heavy drinker, so he hardly lifted his eyes off the floor. But I just loved his songs. I’ve always wished I’d recorded Accidentally Like A Martyr; I just feel like it was a great opportunity I missed. I was intimidated by it at the time, and I loved the way he’d recorded it and I didn’t think I could beat it, but I think I could’ve if I’d worked at it.”

3: My Funny Valentine (1986)

In the 80s, Ronstadt showed how adventurous she was when it came to experimenting with her range. She played the lead in the Broadway Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates Of Penzance, and then began to extend her recorded repertoire, adding show tunes to the growing list of best Linda Ronstadt songs. In 1986 she recorded the gorgeous album For Sentimental Reasons, which featured songs from The Great American Songbook, along with guest musicians of the calibre of legendary jazz drummer Louie Bellson and bass player Ray Brown. The album was arranged by Nelson Riddle, the genius who had worked with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Nat King Cole. “Nelson was at the top of his talent when he wrote my charts. His string-quartet arrangement of My Funny Valentine is my favourite of any I’ve ever heard,” said Ronstadt, who delivers a scintillating version of that show tune composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart back in 1937.

2: It’s So Easy (1977)

Ronstadt’s powerhouse version of Buddy Holly’s It’s So Easy was a No.5 hit when it was released as one of the singles from 1977’s Simple Dreams. The singer said she wanted to capture the “vocal bloodlines” of a song that she described as “Texarkana”, adding, “it’s that area of the country (Texas/Arkansas). I grew up listening to that. It’s kind of country, it’s kind of rock’n’roll, it’s kind of blues. It’s a little bit of all those things.” Her version was helped by the slick drumming of Rick Marotta and the guitar playing of Dan Dugmore. The guitarist said that Ronstadt and the band always loved the acoustics at the Sound Factory recording studio, and praised Ronstadt’s “amazing feel” for fast country rockers such as It’s So Easy.

1: Blue Bayou (1977)

Roy Orbison’s beautiful melancholy hit Blue Bayou became Ronstadt’s signature song after she recorded it for Simple Dreams. Topping our list of the best Linda Ronstadt songs, the single sold more than one million copies and was certified gold. Ronstadt said JD Souther taught her the song, but because Souther was unavailable on the day of recording, she called in his Eagles bandmate Don Henley to sing the harmony vocals. The version, adorned with mandolin, marimba and a steel guitar solo by Dugmore, capture Ronstadt’s vocals at their sparkling, crystal-clear best. She said she drew on the inspiration of legendary Mexican ranchera vocalist Lola Beltrán for her version, particularly for the ending. “She was the main influence,” said Ronstadt. “Mexican music does that sort of belting thing and then goes into falsetto like I did at the end of the song. I liked Blue Bayou so much as a Mexican song that I had my dad write Spanish lyrics for it.”

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