While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inexplicably remained immune to her charms, few artists have had the career of Linda Ronstadt. She’s racked up 38 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including ten that went Top Ten. On the album chart, she’s placed 36 entries, including ten that reached the Top Ten there too (her magic number!) and three that hit pole position. And consider this: after playing a vital role in the country-rock scene with the Stone Poneys and their hit recording of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” on which she sang lead, Ronstadt embarked on a solo career definitively interpreting some of the greatest songs of the California rock genre. Laurel Canyon’s songwriters couldn’t wait to get a song recorded by Ronstadt, but even early in her career, she didn’t limit her scope. First at Capitol and then at David Geffen’s Asylum, Ronstadt brought wide recognition to songs by Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Neil Young, J.D. Souther, Randy Newman, Lowell George, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb and many other now-famous, diverse names. Two more such songwriters championed by Ronstadt were Glenn Frey and Don Henley; along with Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, they once backed the singer before forming Eagles and going on to write the next chapter in the California saga.
Ronstadt never could stay in one place for long, though, which may account for her great longevity as a vital artist and performer. While she kept racking up hits from both her contemporaries and the voices of an early generation – think of “When Will I Be Loved,” “It’s So Easy,” “You’re No Good” or “That’ll Be The Day,” and chances are you might think of Ronstadt over those songs’ originators – she was looking for new directions and new challenges.
After a brief flirtation with new wave on her seventh platinum album, Mad Love, Ronstadt explored an area unknown to most rockers: operetta. First in Central Park and then on Broadway and the big screen, the singer threw herself into the role of Mabel in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, first produced in 1879. Alongside such theatre veterans as Kevin Kline and George Rose, Ronstadt more than acquitted herself in the role, garnering a Tony Award nomination and wide praise when the musical (produced by the legendary Joseph Papp) opened for a Broadway engagement in 1981. What avenue to conquer next? While 1982’s return to pop/rock, Get Closer, had a disappointing chart placement (perhaps reflecting the seismic shift in musical style that dawned in the 1980s), she had a new idea that remains much-emulated today. How about the Great American Songbook?
In 1983, Linda Ronstadt teamed with Nelson Riddle, the man responsible for many of Frank Sinatra’s most famous orchestrations, for What’s New, the first in a series of three albums that celebrated the songs collectively known as The Great American Songbook. LIM (Lasting Impression Music) is revisiting What’s New as a 24K Gold audiophile CD to be released tomorrow, April 19. For the full story of What’s New plus the track listing and details on this new release, just hit the jump!
Ronstadt had first contemplated standards on a Jerry Wexler-helmed project circa 1981, Keeping Out of Mischief. She abandoned the sessions, telling Time that “the tracks weren’t right, the way they were recorded wasn’t right, the way I sang them wasn’t right…but I could sing them in the shower, so I knew there was something wrong with the arrangements.” So, riding high on the success of Penzance, Ronstadt turned to someone who defined the sound of standards for an entire generation. Nelson Riddle blazed new trails musically with Frank Sinatra, so why couldn’t the arranger, orchestrator and conductor, then 62, work his magic on Linda Ronstadt? The result, 1983’s What’s New, remains one of the most successful efforts in Ronstadt’s catalogue. It spent 81 weeks on the Billboard chart and held a steady No. 3 for one-and-a-half months, topped only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down. She revisited a number of the songs tentatively explored on Mischief (including “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You”) but with Riddle’s pristine arrangements and production by Ronstadt’s longtime collaborator Peter Asher, all of the elements were in place.
Critic Stephen Holden wrote, What’s New “isn’t the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of the pop, but is…the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LPs for teenagers undid in the mid-60s.” Ronstadt was duly nominated for a Grammy; she successfully toured with Riddle and reunited for two more albums of romantic, lushly arranged ballads before the bandleader’s untimely death in 1985.
Since What’s New, Ronstadt has continued restlessly jumping from genre to genre, making each indelibly her own: country (two acclaimed Trio albums with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris), Spanish-language folk and pop (Canciones de Mi Padre and its follow-ups), jazz with a small combo (Hummin’ to Myself) and Cajun (Adieu, False Heart). She even sang opera in an English-language, Papp-produced production of La Boheme! While it didn’t repeat the success of Penzance, Frank Rich described her as a “hugely talented pop singer” and noted that a Gershwin or Rodgers musical might have been a more logical follow-up to Penzance, seeing as how she “serves [them] so splendidly” on disc. There were later pop hits in the 1980s, though, most notably “Somewhere Out There” with James Ingram, from the film An American Tail, and “Don’t Know Much” with Aaron Neville. (Both songs came from the pens of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who teamed with James Horner on the former and Tom Snow on the latter.) But Ronstadt will be remembered for her three collaborations with Nelson Riddle above all of her other accomplishments in that decade, and they’re still among the most cherished albums of her entire career.
DCC, Mobile Fidelity and Audio Fidelity have all released Ronstadt’s classic rock output on 24K Gold CDs, and in 2002, Warner Bros. released a DVD-Audio version of What’s New in high resolution stereo and surround. Now, the little-known label LIM is restoring What’s New to the audiophile catalogue with the April 19 release of its 24K Gold UD, or “Ultimate Disc.” This CD features a “pure analog 32-bit 192kHz capture.” The label describes the UD as “a combination of a 24k Gold disc with Resonance Control Coating (RCC), directly burnt from the master disc/hard drive one at a time, then, washed by de-ionized water and finally dynamically balanced and tested and certified to be under 10 Averaged Block Error Rate (Industry standard is 220).” That said, this is a standard CD and not high resolution like the DVD-Audio release.
In any format, What’s New is a classy excursion into timeless pop teaming one of the most familiar voices of all time with arguably the greatest arranger of them all. For those interested in this new mastering, it’s available tomorrow at the link below!
Linda Ronstadt and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, What’s New (Asylum 60260, 1983 – reissued LIM PA 046, 2011)
- What’s New
- I’ve Got a Crush on You
- Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry
- Crazy He Calls Me
- Someone to Watch Over Me
- I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance Without You
- What’ll I Do
- Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)