Monday, May 30, 2016

"What's New?" by Linda Ronstadt

Song#:  1673
Date:  10/29/1983
Debut:  84
Peak:  53
Weeks:  14
Genre:  Pop, Standards, Adult Contemporary

Pop Bits:  After her 1980 new wave influenced album Mad Love, Ronstadt's next project was to be an album of pop and jazz standards done in collaboration with famed producer Jerry Wexler. With the working title of Keeping Out of Mischief, Ronstadt recorded ten songs over a four day period with a small jazz combo. Both during and after the sessions, Ronstadt sensed that something was not right with the songs, the arrangements, and even her vocals. It just wasn't adding up. So she shelved the project and moved on to her next pop album Get Closer. Still, she longed to do the standards album and she set out to find the right collaborator for the project. That person turned out to be famed conductor and orchestration genius Nelson Riddle. It all was finally making sense and coming together. However, it wasn't making sense to Ronstadt's label Elektra. They were (rightfully) concerned that an album like this would alienate her rock fans (not to mention younger fans) and bring her career to a screeching halt. It was an uphill battle for Ronstadt, but in the end her adamant dedication to the project swayed the label and they okayed the album. The sessions took place and the results were what Ronstadt had hoped for. To announce the arrival of this unique album, this title-track song was issued as the first single. Of course, AC jumped right on it and the tune easily reached #5. At Pop, the song wasn't really expected to do much, but it ended up doing surprisingly well getting near the Top 50 mark. The album certainly made a splash and instead of warding off fans, it helped gain a whole new set of fans that perhaps had not been familiar with these classic standards. The album spent five weeks at #3 on the album chart and would eventually be certified triple-platinum, her first to achieve that level since 1977's Simple Dreams. The album was a bold move by Ronstadt, but it paid off quite well for her and Riddle.

ReduxReview:  I remember the hubbub around this album. Lot's of "what the hell is she doing," Ronstadt's Folly, and elevator music comments. The pop standard had pretty much disappeared since rock really took hold so why on earth would she do these moldy oldies? Little did Ronstadt (or anyone) know that her album would be the one to start a trend that continues through to today - that of the superstar standards album. Of course, she was not the first rock star to dabble in standards, but the scope of the project, the fact she was still a top pop/rock artist, and the high-selling results made the album a definitive notch on a music trends timeline. It still goes on even now. As it happens, the day I'm writing this post is the same day that Bob Dylan released his second Frank Sinatra tribute album. I wouldn't say that this is all due to Ronstadt, but I would say that because the album was a major hit, it made it okay for other major stars to branch out and do similar projects. I, of course, loved this album. Thanks to my parents' love of standards, I knew most of the songs already. But it was her voice and the impeccable arrangements that made the album a near-classic. Oddly, this title track was a tune I had not heard yet and I really fell for it. Kudos have to go to Ronstadt for following her vision and to her label for taking the chance, which is something they don't often do.

ReduxRating:  8/10

Trivia:  Triple Shot!  1) If there was a sad side to all of this success, it is that this song would serve as Ronstadt's final solo single to hit the Pop chart. She would have hit duets in the coming years, but she was never able to land a single on her own again.  2) The project would earn Ronstadt another Grammy nomination. She would earn one in the Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female category. She would not win, but Riddle would get handed a Grammy for his arrangements.  3) This song was written in 1939 by Bob Haggart (music) and Johnny Burke (lyrics). Haggart had actually written the song as an instrumental the previous year with a trumpet solo doing the melody. It was recorded by Bob Crosby and His Orchestra with the title "I'm Free." Lyrics were added the next year by Burke and the Crosby orchestra recorded it again under its new title with vocalist Teddy Grace. It was a hit as were versions by Hal Kemp, Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby.



  1. I was in the same boat as you when it came to this release. At first I thought she was desperate to try something different after the endless number of rock remakes (which I confess, I was getting tired of). When I heard this song on my parents' radio station, I was floored; it was so beautiful. Ronstadt's voice was so angelic, and Riddle's arrangement was impeccable. I never did hear it on any pop stations, but for weeks I listened to my parents' station, solely to hear this song. It is tragic that Parkinson's has robbed her of her voice, but we can all take comfort in the fact that recordings like this will be around forever.

    1. It is so heartbreaking that we won't get to hear her voice again. I can't imagine what it feels like for someone to have such a great voice and career and then suddenly it all stops. It has to be devastating. But as you say, we have recordings like this that we can treasure forever.