By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 14, 2019)
It always gave me a chuckle that singer-songwriter Barry Manilow did not write his hit “I Write the Songs”, which zipped to #1 in 1976. The song was in fact composed by ex-Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who wrote it for David Cassidy. Here’s where it gets interesting.
While Cassidy released it as a single in 1975, it was originally recorded by Captain and Tennille for their 1975 album Love Will Keep Us Together (but never a single). Alas, Cassidy’s version went nowhere fast, despite his pop idol status at the time.
David Cassidy and Captain and Tennille were highly popular acts in the mid-70s. So what gives…why did Manilow’s rendition win out in popularity? Speaking in purely technical terms, is Barry Manilow a “better” singer than David Cassidy or Toni Tennille?
Must be that elusive “x factor”.
There’s a venerable “chicken/egg” conundrum regarding this sort of thing. It goes something like this: What’s more important, the singer, or the song? Given that this is all subjective to begin with…it depends.
For example, the Beatles were not only superb songwriters, but singers as well; I prefer their original versions of their own material. I even love their covers of songs by Buddy Holly, Burt Bacharach, etc. Bob Dylan is a superb songwriter, but I’d much rather listen to the Turtles’ hit version of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, since Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman manage to sing it, oh, you know-on key?
Which brings us to one of the most successful singers of the last 50 years, Linda Ronstadt…who didn’t write her own hits either. Reminds me of a funny story. In preface to singing “Desperado” at a 2016 tribute concert to Ronstadt, Don Henley had this to say:
The song I’m about to do for you didn’t get much love or attention when it was released on [The Eagles’] second album in April of 1973. In fact, the executives at the record label freaked out… [feigning shock] “Oh god, they’ve made a fucking cowboy album!” And then Linda Ronstadt recorded the song [knowing laughter from audience] and put it on her album “Don’t Cry Now” that came out in September of 1973…and everything was different after that.
In the case of Linda Ronstadt, sounds like it’s the singer, not the song… n’est-ce pas?
Ronstadt (and that truly wondrous voice) is the subject of an intimate documentary portrait by directing tag team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl, Lovelace). Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is narrated by Ronstadt herself (archival footage aside, she only appears on camera briefly at the end of the film).
Bad news first (this is a matter of public record, so not a spoiler). While Ms. Ronstadt herself is still very much with us, sadly “that wondrous voice” is not. In 2012 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (she mentions in the film that it runs in her family), which has profoundly affected her ability to sing. That said, she remains sharp as a tack; in turns deeply thoughtful and charmingly self-effacing as she reflects on her life and career.
For those of us “of a certain age”, Ronstadt’s songbook is so ingrained in our neurons that we rarely stop to consider what an impressive achievement it was for her to traverse so much varied musical terrain-and to conquer it so effortlessly at each turn.
Name a genre, she’s likely mastered it and moved on: rock, pop, folk, country, country-rock, hard rock, soft-rock, new wave, torch, Latin pop, mariachi, light opera. Not to mention the 10 Grammy Awards, 3 American Music Awards, 2 Academy of Country Music Awards, etc.
What struck me most is her humility in the wake of prodigious achievement. I don’t get an impression the eclecticism stems from calculated careerism, but rather from a genuine drive for artistic exploration.
For example, when Ronstadt shares memories of growing up in Arizona singing Mexican canciones with her family, her decision to make an all-Spanish language album in 1987 makes perfect sense (record company execs fretted it was tantamount to career suicide, but when it went on to become the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. music history, I’m guessing they sang…a different tune).
Ronstadt is candid about her “rock chick” image, particularly in context of the music business environs of the 1970s, when it was considered “uncool” among many male musicians to play backup for a female singer. She notes that since she didn’t really have any role models, she had to carve her own way in dealing with “the boys in the band”, as well as the inevitable performance pressures that arise from playing packed arenas night after night, weeks on end. She certainly learned how to hold her own, but it wasn’t easy.
Despite her health condition, there’s no self-pity; Ronstadt comes across as pragmatic, forward-thinking and impressively resilient. There is a moment where the filmmakers gently coax her to appear on camera, while she is visiting with family in Mexico. She sings a traditional Spanish-language song with two of her relatives.
At one point, she stops and asks they start again; she isn’t happy with her harmony (ever the pro). She takes pains to insist what she is doing is “not singing”, because she feels she has lost control of her instrument (not to my ears). They complete the number, and it is beautiful. It’s a bittersweet coda for the film, but I’d wager Linda Ronstadt’s song is far from over.