Album of the Week, March 5: Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesLinda Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, AZ, the daughter of pioneering Arizona ranchers of mostly German and Mexican descent. Her whole family loved music, and she absorbed a wide array of styles by the time she was 10. She credits significant influence from artists as disparate as Hank Williams and Maria Callas. At 14, she and two of her siblings formed a folk trio. She grew increasingly interested in merging folk and rock, eventually dropping out of college to join friend Bobby Kimmel in L.A. They hooked up with Kenny Edwards and formed the Stone Poneys, whose Different Drum gave Ronstadt her first hit. After three Poneys discs, she went solo, recording a series of albums blending pop, country, and folk and touring with artists ranging from the Doors to Jackson Browne. Her albums met with limited success, but she gradually developed a distinctive style and a significant circle of like-minded musical friends and collaborators. Her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now found her working with J.D. Souther, future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and — significantly — British pop singer and producer Peter Asher. They meshed well in the studio, with Asher understanding Ronstadt’s broad tastes and talents. He signed on as producer for her next album, which proved to be her breakthrough.

Title Heart Like A Wheel
Act Linda Ronstadt
Label Capitol Release Date November 1974
Producer Peter Asher (with Andrew Gold)
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You’re No Good [#1]
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like A Wheel
  6. When Will I Be Loved? [#2]
  7. Willin’
  8. I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)
  9. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  10. You Can Close Your Eyes

Heart Like A Wheel set up the formula that launched a superstar career. Asher and Ronstadt rounded up a collection of classic rock and R&B covers, songs written by her friends and contemporaries, and new songs suited to the country-pop flavor of the album from a variety of writers. The result was a smart, cohesive adventure in music. It was also a showcase for Ronstadt’s vocal power, showing off more range and depth than her previous solo work. Asher also brought in multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold — who assisted with production on some tracks — and engineer Val Garay; the three would be mainstays of Ronstadt’s music for nearly a decade.

Things kick off in high fashion with a song Ronstadt and her band frequently used to close her live shows. You’re No Good is a smoldering song of romance gone wrong, a classic R&B track written by Clint Ballard and recorded a handful of times before Ronstadt perfected it. A very different sound than her previous more country-tinged tracks, it’s a smart choice and a great introduction to the disc. It also became her first big hit and her only Hot 100 chart-topper.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore — another classic cover written by Paul Anka and made famous by Buddy Holly and the Crickets — is more like her earlier work, but sounds fresh and inviting after the strong lead-in. Souther’s Faithless Love is a great country-pop torch song with a charming arrangement and a passionate vocal. Pop chestnut Dark End of the Street finds new life with Ronstadt’s restrained vocal and sudden, urgent surges of sorrow. The title track is and inspired choice, a quirky, literate look at the challenges of love written by Anna McGarrigle. Ronstadt channels the distinctive energy of the song, adding a pop standard vocal that differs completely from the McGarrigle version, working just like a good cover should.

Side two opens with another classic song that became another big hit. The team transform the Everly Brothers’ quietly wistful When Will I Be Loved into a demand for the love the singer deserves. Short and powerful, it works nicely and shows of the clever sequencing of the album. Lowell George’s Willin’ is an even odder choice than the title track, a song about trucking written from a very masculine point of view. Ronstadt mines the essential humanity of the song, however, and the production is flawless. Up next is a tribute to one of her main influences, a solid cover of Hank William’s I Can’t Help It. Ronstadt offers a respectful interpretation, crafting an homage rather than a surprise, and it works well. Keep Me From Blowing Away is a lovely song of loss written by fellow Williams fan Paul Craft. It makes for a solid pairing.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous You Can Close Your Eyes. Written by James Taylor about his relationship with Joni Mitchell, it’s a modern lullaby of aching beauty. Taylor himself has recorded it solo and with both Mitchell and Carly Simon, and dozens of other artists have interpreted the song over the years. Ronstadt’s may be the finest approach, however, with the production discovering the hope in the sorrow, the possibility in the leaving. It’s a perfect way to wrap up a stunning album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Heart Like A Wheel matched the chart success of its lead single, becoming the first of Ronstadt’s three #1 albums. It propelled her to stardom, and over the course of the following decade she became one of the best-selling pop artists in the country. Her next six discs were fairly similar in approach, gradually taking on a more New Wave flavor as she entered the 80s. Since then, she’s offered up a variety of sounds, ranging from traditional Mexican music to pop standards to country-pop gems (often in collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). She stopped recording in 2006, revealing in 2013 that Parkinson’s disease made singing difficult. All of her albums offer something charming. Besides Wheel, her most consistent album (and a sentimental favorite of mine) is 1982’s Get Closer. Hasten Down the Wind is a good showcase with some strong tracks, and Simple Dreams is her second-best pop-rock set. With 21 Top 40 hits, her chart career distills nicely. If you’re mostly interested in her radio material — which is solid but misses many of her finer moments — The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt is a solid collection.

Song of the Day, February 27: You’re No Good by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtnogoodToday’s song launched Linda Ronstadt’s career as the queen of the chart cover hit. After a solid start with the Stone Poneys, Ronstadt released a string of country-pop albums with moderate success. Her breakthrough album, Heart Like A Wheel, featured a broader mix of sounds tied together by the smart production work of Peter Asher.

As they were wrapping up the disc, Asher suggested that Ronstadt include a song that regularly closed her live shows. You’re No Good was written by Clint Ballard, Jr. in 1963, a soulful takedown of a no-good lover, with the singer recognizing the error of her ways taking up with such a cad. It was originally recorded by Dee Dee Warwick; Betty Everett had a Top 5 R&B hit with the song, and the Swinging Blue Jeans went Top 3 in the UK with their interpretation.

Asher and Ronstadt struggled to find the right sound for the song, scrapping the original recording in favor of a dark, haunting rendition. Regular collaborator Andrew Gold layered in moody guitar and keyboard work, and engineer Val Garay made the most of brooding strings arranged by Gregory Rose. Ronstadt turned in a much grittier vocal than usual, nicely suited to the lyrical content. The combined effort resulted in the finest version of the song and Ronstadt’s first Top 10 hit.

It went all the way to #1, setting the stage for a series of well-chosen covers released as Ronstadt singles over the years. In fact, 14 of her 21 Top 40 hits were chart singles for other artists first, although her versions often out-performed the originals.

Enjoy the magnificent moment of classic pop today.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending March 15, 1986

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Sara Starship 1
R & B Your Smile René & Angela 1
Country I Could Get Used to You Exile 1
Adult Contemporary These Dreams Heart 1
Rock All the Kings Horses The Firm 4
Album Whitney Houston Whitney Houston 2

WaxUKRBtEThis week sees a Transatlantic duo with deep roots enter the Hot 100. Graham Gouldman started his musical career in England in 1963. He was a member of the Mockingbirds, for whom he wrote For Your Love, later a Top 10 hit for the Yardbirds. He joind the Mindbenders in their later years, and wrote a string of hit songs for bands like the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. While working as a house writer for bubblegum producers Super K, he reconnected with Mockingbird Kevin Godley and Mindbender Eric Stewart. The trio added old friend Lol Creme and formed 10cc, going on to international success (and two US Top 5 hits).

Andrew Gold grew up in Burbank, the son of stealth movie musical singer Marni Nixon. He started his own musical career, including the short-lived Bryndle with Kenny Edwards, Wendy Waldman, and Karla Bonoff. He arranged and played most of the instruments on some of Linda Rondstadt’s biggest 70s albums while notching his own Top 10 with Lonely Boy [#7, 1977]. He also hit with Thank You For Being A Friend, later the theme song for the sitcom Golden Girls.

Gold participated in the 10cc recording Ten Out of 10, and was invited to join Stewart and Gouldman as a permanent member of the band. He demurred, but when Gouldman and Stewart split, Gouldman invited him back to London just to hang out. They hit a musical groove and formed Wax, later known in the States as Wax UK. This week their lone US hit, Right Between the Eyes, entered the Hot 100 at #97. In a decent 13-week run it just missed giving Gouldman and Gold another Top 40 each, peaking at #43.

Wax lasted until 1990, landing a couple of solid hits in the UK and finding big success around Europe. Gouldman continues to write and record, currently with Kevin Godley after a brief 10cc reunion with Stewart. Gold died in 2011.

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