See Retired Music Legend Linda Ronstadt Now at 75
The star, who rose to fame in the '70s, had to quit performing 15 years ago for health reasons.
Dubbed "the Queen of Rock," Arizona-born Linda Ronstadt was, for a time in the late 1970s, one of the highest-paid women making music, according to The New Yorker. Throughout her five-decade, chart-topping career as a performer, she released more than two dozen top-selling albums filled with original hits and timeless covers, landing 21 Top 40 singles and helping to define the country-rock sound—until a medical diagnosis led her to retire from recording and, eventually, from performing altogether.
Though she's been out of the spotlight for more than a decade, Ronstadt remains passionate about music. Read on to see what she's been doing since her days as a hitmaker and where she is now at 75.
Ronstadt ruled the airwaves for decades.
Making a living as a musician is tough, but, to paraphrase her 1977 hit, Ronstadt make it look as easy as falling in love. Already a veteran musician at age 20 as part of The Stone Poneys, who had a hit with "Different Drum," she scored her first No. 1 album in 1974 with Heart Like a Wheel. By the end of that decade, she was selling out stadiums across the world on the strength of hits like "Desperado," "When Will I Be Loved," "You're No Good," "It's So Easy," and "Blue Bayou."
The '80s and '90s proved to be just as busy for the performer, who began to explore new sounds—including new wave influences on the album Mad Love and a swerve into the operatic with a Tony-nominated role on Broadway in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance—and charting more hit songs, including the Oscar-nominated "Somewhere Out There."
She released Trio, a collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that sold more than 2 million copies, in 1986, and a Spanish language album, Canciones de Mi Padre, a tribute to the Mexican folk songs she loved as a child, in 1987. In the '90s, Ronstadt continued to explore more musical genres, from pop to country-rock to folk and roots music.
As The Washington Post sums up, "Between 1969 and 2009, [Ronstadt] released more than 30 albums, won 10 Grammys, had 21 Top 40 hits."
An unexpected diagnosis cut her career short.
Beginning around 2000, Ronstadt began to notice that her voice was changing and she was having trouble hitting notes that had once come easily to her. Unwilling to release music she didn't think was good enough, she took a step back from recording, releasing her final solo album in 2004 and performing on stage for the final time in 2009.
A 2012 diagnosis gave her the answer she'd been seeking for more than 10 years: She has progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative neurological disease similar to Parkinson's.
"I'd start to do something, and it would start to take the note, and then it would stop," she told The New Yorker. "What you can't do with Parkinsonism is repetitive motions, and singing is a repetitive motion."
Other symptoms of the disease have affected her mobility, so these days she mostly sticks around her San Francisco home, according to a 2019 profile published in the Los Angeles Times. She never married—though her relationship in the late '70s with Jerry Brown, then the governor of California, was noteworthy enough to make the cover of People, and she was, for a time, engaged to Star Wars creator George Lucas and dated comedian Jim Carrey, 15 years her junior, before he was famous. (He appeared in one of her music videos.) Ronstadt is a mom, however, having adopted two children when she was in her 40s: Mary Clementine and Carlos. She told the New Yorker that she leans on them for support—her son lives with her, and her daughter visits often.
But she's found other pursuits to stay fulfilled.
Though she misses singing, Ronstadt told Anderson Cooper on his CNN show she hasn't spent her years offstage feeling sorry for herself. "I'm pretty happy to just sort of lie down and read a book and to look out the window, whereas before I was running all over the place," she explained.
But she's still deeply in love with music and spends hours a day tracking down new material everywhere from YouTube to NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series. Not being able to sing anymore herself poses some personal challenges too, however.
"It's a little frustrating when my family comes over from Arizona, because we would all sing together. That way we don't have to talk about politics," Ronstadt told The New Yorker. "It makes for harmonious—I don't mean the pun—relations. But I can't do that anymore, so I just invite the ones who are Democrats."
She still appears in public for various events, including presenting her friend Parton with the MusiCares Person of the Year award in 2019 along with Harris and being honored herself by the Kennedy Center.
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Two recent films explore her life, then and now.
Over the years, several directors and documentarians have approached Ronstadt with offers to turn her life into a movie. They were all turned down until award-winning filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) and Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) proved too persistent. But the star only agreed to let them tell her story on two conditions: that they not focus on her illness and that she would not be interviewed on camera, per the LA Times.
The making of 2019's Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice led to the 2020 documentary short, Linda and the Mockingbirds. The short documents a trip she took to Banámichi, Sonora, Mexico—the birthplace of her grandfather—as part of her work with Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, a Bay Area cultural center that teaches its young students about the traditional music, art, and dances of Mexico.
For Ronstadt, the work is a connection to her early days. "I loved canciones from Mexico," she told AARP back in 2008. "We sang a lot of those as a family growing up."
In fact, Ronstadt credits those traditional songs with sparking her love of rock music. "Most people in rock 'n' roll come from blues or from traditional Black church gospel, but I learned rancheras," she told The Guardian in 2020.
Her legacy lives on.
Though Ronstadt hasn't performed on stage in nearly 15 years, she's remained a vibrant part of rock history. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 and saw her life's work honored in 2021 with the full-throated musical tribute The Linda Ronstadt Experience starring former American Idol finalist Tristan McIntosh.
Her influence is still felt, even on Twitter, where her name was trending earlier this week. After a tweet resurfaced a controversial 2011 Rolling Stone list of the 10 best lead singers of all time, fans all over the world were protesting that she wasn't included. As one Twitter user put it: "Not a list without #LindaRonstadt."