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‘Swimming in cream’: Linda Ronstadt comes to Wharton

Grammy winner Linda Ronstadt, whose career spans five decades and whose music ranges from folk, rock, country and Latin to the American Songbook, will perform two shows with the MSU Orchestra this weekend at the Wharton Center. Ronstadt was interviewed on “City Pulse on Exposure” (a weekly program on WDBM-FM, 88.9, Wednesdays at 7 p.m.) by co-hosts Berl Schwartz and Meegan Holland. She will perform American standards. Here are excerpts.

Berl: You’re coming here to perform with the MSU Orchestra. …

Linda: My mother’s from Michigan. She was born in Flint, and they had an experimental dairy farm out in Metamora. My grandfather invented the electric stove, and he invented the rubber ice tray and the pneumatic grease gun and the electric milking machine.

Linda Ronstadt and the MSU Orchestra

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 12 and 13, at the Wharton Center. $30.50 to $50.

Meegan: So, what happen to you?

Linda: I invent things around the house.

Berl: Your album “What’s New” brought me out of the closet, musically speaking. (People who listen to this show regularly know I also came out of the closet in another way.) I’m a baby boomer who grew up in the ’50s. When everyone else was listening to Elvis and later the Beatles, I was listening to Sinatra and Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis. …

Linda: So was I.

Berl: … and then in the ’80s you came along and you did some of the classic songs from the ’20, ’30 and ’40s, so I want to thank you for that. What inspired you?

Linda: I remember when that first Bob Dylan record came out – “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan” was I think the first one I heard – and my boyfriend at the time had that record and he also got the Frank Sinatra record “Only the Lonely,” and those were the two records we were listening to kind of back to back for weeks, and then I got a different boyfriend when I moved to L.A. and he also loved that the Sinatra record, and so that became a real special thing we listened to. I just memorized those Nelson Riddle charts. I loved him so much. I really wanted to sing those songs. When I moved to Los Angeles to live I was 17 years old, it was 1965, and there was just no support for that, you know you might as well just try to fly to the moon. Everybody just wanted rock ‘n’ roll. I was doing folk music, and you could barely make a living doing a folk music. I liked rock n roll, I was interested in it, you know I learned that also, starting from 1955, but I really loved the standards, they were wonderful, highly literate, sophisticated, urbane, beautifully crafted pieces of material, and I wanted to sing them. I just kind of tucked them away. But later when I went to New York to sing operettas because I was desparately trying to get away from the kinds of performing I had to do in rock ‘n’ roll, where we had to play in the big hockey stadiums, I didn’t consider those musical environments. They were very lucrative, but they weren’t good places for music. You go into those hockey arenas and you’d still be hearing the band echoing….

Berl: I remember seeing you at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

Linda: Yeah, the Spectrum is the best example. That is the ringiest, most unmusical place, and we used to come out there with our ears screaming and just going, “Was that music? I couldn’t tell? Was that good for you. It wasn’t good for me.” We’d come out of there thoroughly confused. And the audience—I don’t know what their experience was. I used to feel bad for them because they got charged money.

So I did “Pirates of Penzance,” and when I was there I was having a conversation with Jerry Wexler, a famed, wonderful legendary record producer, who did Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, etc., etc., and I was talking to him about how I loved standards and how I wanted to learn them. The next thing I knew we were sort of making a record, but as we started to make a record with a small jazz group I realized what I really wanted to do was make a record with Nelson Riddle and his orchestrations, I didn’t know whether he was alive. I called him up, and he was alive, and no he hadn’t particularly heard of me. He had to ask one of his kids who I was and if they thought he should be working with me. And fortunately I guess his kids liked me, so I asked him very tentatively if he’d make a record, if he’d just do a couple of songs, and he said very dryly that he didn’t do songs, he did albums. I said, ‘Great, let’s make a record!’ The next thing I knew we were in the studio with a full orchestra and I was learning the songs literally on the date because I don’t play piano so I couldn’t rehearse at home and you can’t rehearse with an orchestra because an orchestra is too expensive to hire for weeks of rehearsal. So I stepped into the studio and opened my mouth and in some cases, like “What’s New,” (the first song on the album) – I think we did three takes, and we used the first take, so the first time I sang it through was what you hear on the album.

Meegan: Can you tell us some of things we can expect to hear at the Wharton Center?

Linda: I am singing songs by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. It’s great to give these kids (in the MSU Orchestra) a chance to play these wonderful charts. Nobody wrote like Nelson Riddle, nobody has before and nobody has since. He was simply the best there was, and he put jazz into the orchestra without compromising either genre.

Meegan: It’s amazing to me, we’ve talked a lot about jazz, but you’ve won Grammy awards in rock and poop and country and Latin music, and the Latin Grammies are tonight. I’m curious – what do you think of the fact that of the Latin Grammies being separated out strictly for Latin music?

Linda: I don’t pay very much attention to shows that give prizes. I’m always very happy to be acknowledged for my work, but I never did it to win prizes. I’m sorry there’s such an attitude toward the Cubans among the Miami Cubans. I think their attitude is immature and intolerant and kind of fascist.

Meegan: Explain that attitude to me.

Linda: Gloria Estefan’s husband was saying if any of these (Cuban) acts come on, I’m going to walk out, and I just thought, God, have some respect for talent. There’s wonderfully talented people … jazz is especially alive and well in Cuba. It’s an amazing country. I’ve been all over Latin America. And it’s the only Latin American country I’ve been in that didn’t have armed troops on the street, there weren’t homeless people everywhere, and kids had school uniforms and had schoolbooks paid for and had their health paid for. There’s things going on in Cuba that we don’t know about, and that’s mainly because of the Miami Cubans, they just absolutely won’t – they are absolutely closed-minded. They hate Fidel Castro, they won’t even hear about some of the good things he’s done, and they don’t want anyone else to know about it, either. It’s a total propaganda device and they’ve blanketed this country with propaganda about Cuba, huge amounts of which are untrue.

Berl: For anybody who is traveling south, you’re going to be headlining the 5th annual Rosemary Clooney Festival in Maysville, Ky., which is just along the Ohio-Kentucky border on the Ohio River. Was she an influence or a friend?

Linda: Tremendous. I remember hearing her when I was 5 years old playing on the floor of my mother’s bedroom, live on the radio. Rosemary in age was somewhere between my mother and my older sister, and I met her at the end of the ‘80s. We became very, very close friends. She and Nelson were an item for a number of years, and when Nelson died I had a letter from Rosemary and wrote her back right away and said I was dying to talk to her and tell her things Nelson had told me, and she called me right away and invited me to dinner. So, I went over for dinner. I was sitting there eating my salad and we were talking, and all of the sudden she said to me, ‘You’re going to be in my life for the rest of it,’ and I was. She was like a mother. She was a real advocate for girl singers, for singers like me or Diana Krall, who was also very close to her. We all said she was like the patron saint of girl singers. She was a brilliant, wonderful, kind, generous-hearted woman and a great, great singer. God, could she sing.

Berl: We’re looking forward to having you here in Lansing, Sept. 12 and 13. … Linda Ronstadt, I know you don’t do a lot of live interviews and I want to thank you very much for doing this one tonight.

Linda: It’s my pleasure, and I am really looking forward to coming back to Michigan! It’s part of my roots!

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