THE BALLAD OF LINDA RONSTADT

Times Arts Editor

Billy Daniels, I read some years ago, estimated that even then he had sung "That Old Black Magic" 25,000 times. That sounds extravagant until you multiply two or three shows a night by the days and years of Daniels' long career. It was a very big hit for him, but along about Performance 17,422 I have to believe you would be singing it through clenched teeth, gratitude notwithstanding.

The Glenn Miller band must finally have wanted to play "In the Mood" upside down, just for a change. I keep wondering if Frank Sinatra wants to sing it somebody else's way for once. Do the Stones still get satisfaction from "Satisfaction"?

Linda Ronstadt, who has had a long string of hits in a career that is getting on to 20 years, said the other afternoon that doing them endlessly can become a drag.

"I admire people who can do one thing very well and love to do it, but it can be stifling. Roy Orbison would be a disappointment to me if I went to a concert and he didn't do my favorites of his. But when we're putting together one of my shows, I think, 'Boy, I'd really like a rest from that song.' It's oppressive to me, bothers me a lot."

Ronstadt was 40 in June but she retains the wide-eyed, round-faced, enthusiastic verve of a cheerleader who can't be a bit earlier than the Class of '85. She is beloved of music journalists for her honesty and her directness, as well as for her talent and her dislike for staying in one groove as a singer.

Elektra/Asylum has recently issued a three-record set called "Round Midnight" and collecting all three of the ballad albums Ronstadt did with Nelson Riddle commencing in 1982: "What's New," "Lush Life" and "For Sentimental Reasons," There are eloquent liner notes by the New York entertainer Jonathan Schwartz.

The albums revealed another side of Ronstadt, who began in folk-rock. In these best-selling albums she emerged as a fine and expressive singer of the best standards ever written, all taken slowly, lovingly, with respectful attention to the lyrics.

Now, heard again, the albums are a tribute to Ronstadt but an homage to Riddle, who died last year at the age of 64, before he could conduct the last three orchestrations he had begun to prepare.

The notion to sing standards in front of a large orchestra was another maneuver to avoid that oppressive repeating of previous hits--the same urge that has taken Ronstadt into "The Pirates of Penzance" and "La Boheme" on Broadway.

"Most pop songs aren't very interesting musically," Ronstadt said. "And even complex songs sound syrupy when you give them a big orchestration. But not so with Nelson. I'd been listening to some of the albums he did with Frank (Sinatra) for years. They were a refuge for me."

Initially, she wanted Riddle to do one or two songs for her. Riddle said that he did albums, not songs. He had orchestrated for Judy Garland ("Zing Went the Strings of My Heart"), did "The George Gershwin Song Book" for Ella Fitzgerald and scored "Swing Easy" and "Songs for Swinging Lovers," the albums which gave Sinatra's career a fresh impetus in the '50s. For Ronstadt, albums sounded even more exciting, and so began the last, great musical collaboration of his life.

Riddle did create a lush life for string sections, but his work was never schmaltzy. There is a wistful and melancholy thoughtfulness in the slow ballads that is extraordinarily beautiful, and the settings become an impeccable and affecting showcase for Ronstadt's clear, warm voice.

"I felt as if I'd been let out of a cage," Ronstadt says. "It was just like being set free. Phrasing was always my weakness; I'd been less than satisfied with it, always frustrated by what I'd been doing. I wanted to learn more."

Riddle became mentor as well as arranger. "I learned a million things about singing. The records were also the hardest things I've ever done." She doesn't read music, but learns by listening.

They argued over "For Sentimental Reasons," a song she wanted to record. "Nelson objected. He'd show me the weakness of the musical structure. He said the orchestra couldn't shine. He thought it was too simple."

But Ronstadt wanted it as a tribute to the late singer Sam Cooke and as a link from the musical past to the musical present. Riddle gave in, but died before the recording was finished. Terry Woodson conducted it, and it is very pretty indeed.

Growing up in Tucson, where her grandfather and father were ranchers, Ronstadt listened to a real musical potpourri. "My grandmother loved opera. Mom loved operetta and Gilbert & Sullivan. Dad loved Louis Armstrong and Mexican music. The rest was American radio--R&B;, gospel, everything they played on XERF in Del Rio, Tex."

She started singing in coffeehouses with her brother and sister, just to be around music, never imagining, she says, that she would ever be a musical star. "We were a success if we got paid to sing. I still feel that way. We'd have been happy to sing for free."

Ronstadt has lately performed at a tribute concert in St. Louis for Chuck Berry, which was filmed by director Taylor Hackford as a documentary special like "The Last Waltz." She has taped a music video to "When You Wish Upon a Star," with Cynthia Gregory dancing. She's been recording a country album with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

"All you can do," Linda Ronstadt says, "is follow your instincts and refine your talents so you can support your instincts."

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