Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ailing Ronstadt reluctantly heading to rock hall of fame

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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 fuelling 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. Highlights of the ceremony will be broadcast by HBO in May.

As if to mark the occasion, Linda Ronstadt Duets comes out 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, travelling 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 San Francisco. 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 honour, 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. "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.

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.

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 of Fame 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."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2014 D6

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