TUCSON —Sitting on a swivel bar stool near the kitchen of her home outside Tucson, Suzy Horton Ronstadt listened to the familiar words of songwriter Jimmy Webb’s pop-rock classic “MacArthur Park.” Ronstadt smiled at first, then had to blink as her blue eyes welled up at the line “After all the loves of my life, you’ll still be the one.”
But unlike countless listeners who’ve shed a tear or two over the anguished romanticism of that sentiment since actor-singer Richard Harris took it to the top of the pop charts in 1968, Ronstadt has a special attachment to the song.
She’s the reason Webb wrote it.
Ronstadt — then Suzy Horton — was the flesh-and-blood muse Webb immortalized for “the yellow cotton dress foaming like a wave on the ground around your knees” that she wore one afternoon while the couple ate lunch in L.A.'s MacArthur Park.
“I don’t know who gets worse killed by this stuff — you or me,” said her husband of nearly two decades, Bobby Ronstadt, dabbing away some tears of his own as he listened to the song one more time with his wife. “I asked her when we first got to know each other, ‘How could you not see what this guy’s got for you?’ And she’d answer, ‘Well, I liked his songs.’”
Even as a teenager Jimmy Webb had written many songs before and after his family moved from Oklahoma to Southern California in the early 1960s. But it was his romance with Horton, which bloomed when both were high school students in Colton, Calif., that resulted in many of Webb’s most important hits: not only “MacArthur Park” but also “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Where’s the Playground, Suzie,” “Didn’t We” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” among them.
Suzy Ronstadt — who became a relative of Linda Ronstadt after marrying Linda’s cousin, Bobby, in 1993 — looks back on the on-again, off-again love affair with Webb during the 1960s and early 1970s with sweetness and humility for all the widely cherished music that came out of it.
She’s also happy to point out, “I’ve written several answer songs with my side of the story, and hope to make an album of my own someday” — songs that have never attained the widespread exposure of Webb’s contemporary pop classics.
She also holds the distinction of being the first singer to record any of Webb’s songs — well before he first hit the jackpot with “Up, Up and Away” for the Fifth Dimension in 1967. She and three friends from the San Bernardino Valley College Choir formed a female vocal group called the Contessas, and with Webb along for the ride, took their shot at being discovered by recording a single with two of her then-boyfriend’s songs, “This Is Where I Came In,” and “Keep on Keepin’ On.”
But Webb was more smitten with her at the time than she with him. “It was unrequited love,” said the woman who once held the title of Miss Colton — and who today sings in a pop-folk vocal quartet I Hear Voices!, which brings her back to Southern California for a performance Sunday at McCabe’s in Santa Monica.
After high school, she and a girlfriend landed jobs working for Aetna Life Insurance, which had an office adjacent to MacArthur Park. Webb, then a struggling songwriter who lived nearby in Silver Lake, would meet Horton for lunch there regularly.
Both longing for lives in show business, Webb scored a low-paying job for Jobete Publishing, an offshoot of Motown Records, while Horton became a dancer and moved to Lake Tahoe to work in the casino showrooms.
There she met and married her first husband, and when word reached Webb, one result was the song “The Worst That Could Happen,” the 1969 hit for the Brooklyn Bridge that begins, “Girl, I heard you’re getting married, heard you’re getting married…. maybe it’s the best thing for you, but it’s the worst that could happen — to me.”
That marriage was short-lived, and Horton returned to Los Angeles and reconnected with Webb, who had been riding high on hit after hit and traveling in rarefied circles and subsequently fell in love with Rosemarie Frankland, a model and actress who once held the title of Miss World.
Horton later wrote “Miss Small Town,” in which she sings “I was Miss Small Town, but she was Miss World,” about trying to compete for a man’s affections with someone she perceived as out of her league.
“Jimmy’s songs have followed me my whole life and we are still friends to this day,” said Ronstadt, her wavy golden blond hair flowing just past her shoulders. “Jimmy has a lovely wife and I have a wonderful husband. They have both had to deal with our histories. I mean no disrespect to anyone but I have to say, I have loved Jimmy for 50 years and I always will.”
She noted that Webb called her recently to help him reconstruct events during their time together for the autobiography he’s working on. The version of “MacArthur Park” she listened to was his own, from his forthcoming solo album “Still Within the Sound of My Voice,” in a new recording for which longtime Webb admirer Brian Wilson created vocal accompaniment.
Suzy and Bobby Ronstadt, a keyboardist and songwriter who also spent nearly two decades in Southern California fitfully pursuing a career in music, moved to the outskirts of Tucson in 1996 following the Northridge earthquake that literally and figuratively rattled them both. (Their first date, as it happens, was a Linda Ronstadt concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, on a tour in which she was featuring several songs written by Jimmy Webb.)
About 18 months ago, to land themselves a slot at the annual Tucson Folk Festival, they started I Hear Voices! with friends Bobby Kimmel, who was a member of the Stone Poneys band that launched Linda Ronstadt’s celebrated career, and singer Kathy Harris.
For the McCabe’s gig they’ll be singing originals and some choice cover songs on the bill they share with L.A. area singer-songwriter Tracy Newman. It’s something of a homecoming for Kimmel, who started the series of live performances at McCabe’s in the late ‘60s, a tradition that continues today.
So does the emotion Ronstadt experiences hearing Webb’s music, despite Ronstadt’s complete absence of the slightest hint of regret or rancor about the love affair that couldn’t survive.
“Everything we went through then,” said Ronstadt, who now works with her husband in a local hospice facility, “has just prepared us for the lives we live now.”
Listening to Webb’s new version of “Where’s the Playground, Suzie” with country singer-guitarist Keith Urban, Ronstadt smiles and proclaims, “That’s the best version I’ve ever heard.”
A moment later, she has no words for “MacArthur Park,” a song that appears destined to outlive them all. As Webb sings, “There will be another song for me, for I will sing it/There will another dream for me, someone will bring it,” Ronstadt pulls her hands to her heart, closes her eyes and smiles knowingly.
I Hear Voices!
With Tracy Newman & the Reinforcements
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica
Information: (323) 828-4497 or https://www.mccabes.com