Eden Casteel

Rhode Island Based Voice and Piano Teacher

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Simple Dreams

The great American singer, Linda Ronstadt: The Lovely Linda

Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 1: 

Dorky/adorkable Zooey Deschanel, often compared with Linda Ronstadt. (www.cheezburger.com)

 

 Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 2: 

The dorky sophomore Eden, about to sing from the Great American Songbook at the high school talent show, 1985

While I was learning how to ride a bike, Linda was enjoying a multiplatinum rock career and dating Gov. Moonbeam. She had even sung operetta on Broadway to good reviews, around the time I convinced my mom to let me get my ears pierced. I memorized "Blue Bayou" because my dad played it over and over on the 8-track in his Lincoln Continental. Occasionally I'd try to sing like her. I got kind of good at "Silver Threads And Golden Needles."

The Lovely Linda, singing a standard from the Great American Songbook, 1985

And one night, while I was asleep with Clearasil on my face, Linda appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" in a vintage dress, singing "I've Got A Crush On You" supported by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Some viewers thought it was an elaborate joke -- a rock singer, crooning a Gershwin ballad from 1928? But it wasn't a joke, it was a revelation. No other rock singer had so successfully crossed such a wide musical divide. (If this music is all new to you, watch this wonderful concert from beginning to end, just like I did for most of 1984! Thanks early HBO!) Ronstadt's three albums with the legendary Riddle -- "What's New?," "Lush Life", and "For Sentimental Reasons" were all surprise hits, and resulted in the following life-changing occurrences for a teenager living in Dublin, Ohio:

1. I was introduced to Frank Sinatra. Before Linda, I thought he was just the guy who sang "New York, New York." I rooted through my parents' old LPs to find more versions of the songs I first heard on Linda's albums, and discovered the genius of Sinatra (who had worked with Riddle), Julie London, Keely Smith, and Peggy Lee.  Sinatra's Where Are You? is the finest suicidally lovesick album you will ever hear. 

2. I discovered fake books. They're everywhere now, but in the mid 20th century fake books were illegal due to copyright restrictions. I had never seen one until my dad, intrigued by my interest in the "oldies" in the age of Madonna, dug into a box in his closet and produced several thick notebooks of yellowing lead sheets. He described buying them 'under the counter' at a music store in the 1950s. He played piano and organ in bars and restaurants to make money during his college years, and used the books to take requests and lead sing-alongs. I tore through them, learning novelty songs, ballads, and tunes from the Great American Songbook. I also learned that having music in a singable key is really important and most fake books totally fail in this regard, legal or illegal.

3. I learned to read lead sheets. Thanks to the sketchy, incomplete music in the fake books, I learned how to read chord symbols for the first time. My musical reading began to pick up speed, and I found a reason to stick with piano lessons. 

4. I learned I am not very good at arranging a tune. Riddle's masterful arrangements (he died before the last album was completed) were published as piano/vocal songbooks; I still have them and still use them. That dorky photo from the talent show?  Ronstadt had sung My Funny Valentine supported by a string quartet arranged by Riddle. I re-arranged it for three clarinets. Because my fellow sophomores Terri, Missy and Shelly were all good clarinet players and agreed to serve as my musical guinea pigs, that's why. They endured one Saturday afternoon rehearsal as I wrote and re-wrote. This was before Sibelius and Finale! It went so well I sang "I Only Have Eyes For You" instead, because the music was already in print and I had a pianist to play it. (And, now that I think of it, I sang it in the dorky key of C. Should have lowered it, but that was the key on the printed page. See No. 2.)

I just finished reading Simple Dreams, Linda's new musical memoir, and I eagerly read and re-read the few pages she devoted to her vocal technique! I hoped she would talk about how she did what she did, so I could pass on that wisdom to you, my eight blog readers. Well, she did, kind of. Linda was raised in a very musical home in Tucson but had no training for her pure rock singing. She always identified herself a soprano who sang rock and roll. But when she took on the role of ingenue soprano Mabel in a rock-tinged, mash-up version of The Pirates Of Penzance (a production and movie that spawned many other pop-style reboots of classical music), she knew she wasn't vocally prepared.

Linda as Mabel in "The Pirates Of Penzance," singing "Poor Wandering One" in the keys of her choice.

Linda: "Until I went to work in Pirates, I had never had any formal voice training. The show's vocal demands were considerable  . . ."The girls' chorus {was} belting high notes that had originally been written to be sung in the upper extension of the voice -- where an operatic soprano sings. It sounded funnier that way, and more like the contemporary pop style that Wilford Leach had envisioned for the show. Eight performances a week of belting high notes could have created serious vocal problems for the chorus. . ." 

Yes, Linda. Yes it could. I think your chirpy, high-pitched, head-dominant speaking voice actually helped to balance your chest-dominant singing voice for all those years and probably saved you from sounding like Yoko Ono. The music director of "Pirates" also lowered a lot of the keys for you (which you readily admit helped) so you could belt with gusto in the range you knew best.

"From all those years of screaming over a rock band, I had an overdeveloped belt range and an underdeveloped upper extension. [I hear it all the time, Linda! It ain't just you!]  . . . my high voice sounded more like a choirboy's than that of a grown-up lady opera singer. Rex [Smith, who played Frederic] and I, coming from rock backgrounds, had developed the unfortunate habit of muscling our way through difficult vocal territory and, for lack of a better word, yelling."

"Vocal coach to the stars" Marge Rivingston came to help Linda and the rest of the cast bring some balance to their belting, so they could survive eight shows a week, and they survived well enough to make a movie of the production. But the existence of the movie -- and its role in adding pop elements to opera -- means that almost everyone who sees (or produces) a live production of "Pirates" now expects to hear at least a little chest voice somewhere in the 2 1/2 hours. They don't realize the popera version has lower keys, shortened scenes, and rock instruments. They think that's the way it was originally written. It can make things . . .difficult.

Me as Mabel, trying to think of how to belt in original Gilbert and Sullivan keys

When I played Mabel a few years back, I knew I was expected to try to add a little Ronstadt somewhere, but soon I realized it was vocally impossible for me in the original keys, and we weren't going to be rewriting. It's only possible to belt "Go ye heroes, go and die!" if you're in a lower key, like she was. So, when I got to that scene, I did my best to act tough and belty, since my voice was going to have to stay right where it was, in head and mix range. Sorry. But, in honor of Linda, I transcribed her exact cadenza for the end of "Poor Wandering One", gave it to our flutist, and we performed it together for every show.

Linda's singing career ended several years ago due to the advancement of recently diagnosed Parkinson's Disease. This year she'll be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but she may not be able to travel to the ceremony. I'm glad I saw her perform live in the late 1990s, when her voice was as strong as ever. Oh, that voice! 

(Depending on how you look at it, you can also thank her or blame her for The Eagles.)

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