Linda Ronstadt’s 1989 return to pop was a surprise smash — and surprisingly great
In 1983, Linda Ronstadt, one of the biggest women in pop/rock music (country, too) for almost 10 years at the time, turned her back on it.
From 1974-78, she became the first female artist to notch five consecutive platinum studio albums in the U.S. — and all five of those made the top five on both Billboard’s pop and country album charts. A sixth, 1980’s new wavish Mad Love, didn’t chart country but made it to #3 on the pop chart and extended Ronstadt’s platinum streak to six. (1976’s Greatest Hits also went platinum, getting to #6 pop/#2 country as well.) 1982’s Get Closer was a rare commercial wobble, only going gold and making it to #31 pop/#19 country. (It’s one of my favorites of hers.) And then came a series of artistic hard left turns.
1983 saw Ronstadt release an album of standards (what we now think of as “American songbook”) by the likes of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn, made with orchestrations and arrangements by the great Nelson Riddle. What’s New was a surprise smash, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Top LP’s and Tape chart (as their main all-genre album chart was then named), only prevented from climbing higher from a pair of album you may have heard of, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down. A follow-up, Lush Life, came at the end of ‘84, followed by 1986’s For Sentimental Reasons. All three albums went platinum.
Next came 1987’s Trio, a collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, with whom Ronstadt had been friends and occasional singing partners since the mid-’70s. (There’s a great segment in the recent Ronstadt documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice about the musical and personal relationships between the three.) The album hit #6 pop and #1 country, and reeled off a quartet of top 10 country singles, including their chart-topping cover of “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” And then — and then — Ronstadt really swung for the proverbial fences, releasing an album of the beloved mariachi songs of her youth (her father had partial Mexican ancestry), Canciones de Mi Padre. In an appalling two-star Rolling Stone review, David Browne snidely called the album “a risky commercial move at a time when Ronstadt could use a Top Ten hit.” But whatcha know: the album became the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. history (a title it still holds, 32 years later). Once again, Ronstadt’s instincts served her well.
All that said, when Ronstadt made her return to pop music with 1989’s Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, there was no assurance that it would be a hit. Her last such record, remember, wasn’t much of a hit, and had been released seven years prior. But she teamed back up with her long-time manager and producer Peter Asher, commissioned a bunch of songs from the likes of Jimmy Webb (who contributed four) and Karla Bonoff (who wrote/co-wrote three), and — this was Ronstadt’s masterstroke — called in Aaron Neville to duet with her on four of the album’s eventual twelve songs. The album was even released credited to “Linda Ronstadt featuring Aaron Neville.” The album’s first single, the Ronstadt/Neville duet “Don’t Know Much,” hit #1 Adult Contemporary, which wasn’t all that surprising. What was surprising was its pop success: on the final Hot 100 of 1989, it climbed to #2, sandwiched between Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” And this wasn’t a “payola hit,” either; I distinctly recall hearing it on top 40 radio, and friends in other parts of the country have said the same. “Don’t Know Much” was an honest-to-goodness smash. It dragged its parent album into the top 10 with it, getting Cry Like A Rainstorm… to a peak of #7.
“Much,” a Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil/Tom Snow co-write, is an okay song improved upon greatly by Neville and Ronstadt’s vocals — especially the former’s. Follow-up single “All My Life,” another duet, also topped the AC chart, while making it to #11 pop. It’s a Bonoff composition that towers above “Much.” The way the strings swell in and out, especially on the bridge, is grand, and both singers sound much more free and easy on “Life” than they do on “Much.” The album’s third single, a cover of the Sam & Dave soul classic “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” (again, a Ronstadt/Neville duet), is fine but frankly a little unexciting. (Well sung, though, as you might expect.) Jimmy Webb’s “Adios” was the final single released from the album, and it’s an unqualified knockout. Arranged and with backing vocals by Brian Wilson, a/k/a Mr. California (love or hate him, that’s what his voice so instantly evokes), this “goodbye” song is of a piece with its setting, “on the California coast.” Ronstadt had by this point lived in the Golden State for many years, and is so associated with it, that this song sounds tailor-made for her. (On 1982’s Get Closer, she beautifully sang another Webb-penned California song, “Talk to Me of Mendocino.”) Ronstadt makes “Adios” marvelous, and Wilson makes it perfect.
And there are more highlights, too. Webb’s album opener, “Still Within the Sound of My Voice,” is a hopelessly uplifting slice of Adult Contemporary pop — which in this case should be heard as a compliment. “Trouble Again,” co-written by Bonoff and Ronstadt’s former colleague in the Stone Poneys, Kenny Edwards, moves her back to her ‘70s rocking; by 1989 it sounds a little bit like an oldie, but that’s not always a bad thing. And Ronstadt hits a note at 1:24 that she holds — no studio trickery — for a full, glorious 10 seconds. It’ll stick with you. One more rocker (okay, near-rocker) needs mentioning, “So Right, So Wrong,” which was co-written by five men, including Paul Carrack and Nick Lowe! Really! And features the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. Really! Ronstadt sings it with such ease and comfort, like slipping back into an old pair of jeans.
Ronstadt, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 and will be one of the 2019 class for the Kennedy Center Honors, had to stop performing almost a decade ago, due to Parkinson’s disease. She recorded other fine pop albums before her forced retirement, but none as big — both commercially (it’s one of her three best-selling albums in the U.S.), and in its sound (take a moment to praise Peter Asher) — as Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. If you only remember it for its big hit duets with Aaron Neville, spend some time with it; you may find yourself delightfully surprised by its warmth and superb song selection. And if you remember it as a whole, by all means pull it out again and glory in its brilliance. We’d never get Ronstadt on quite this level again; thank goodness we got it at all.
AUDIO: Linda Ronstadt feat. Aaron Neville Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind (full album)