When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponsell in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse…
Linda Ronstadt in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.
This is fun. Linda Ronstadt, the multi-platinum queen of crossover singing — country and folk rock to Puccini’s “La Boheme” to Gilbert & Sullivan on Broadway to flamenco to Mexican wedding songs to the Great American Songbook and duets with Sinatra — throws out the line in her memoir Simple Dreams that the American popular song is the greatest gift this country ever presented to the world. So for a Coolidge Corner movie house packed with loving boomers, we’re just riffing here about singers and songs — the personal favorites, the masterpieces, the ones we called “pop” and “love songs” that may last as long as Schubert and Brahms. It is touching to hear this modest star say that she was never competitive, didn’t chase hits, but realized at midlife that she’d always aspired to raise the best material she could find to the distinction of “art songs.” So, doubtless, did Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Rosemary Clooney, Marvin Gaye, Frank Loesser, Sarah Vaughan… Judgment takes a while, even among the principals — as in Ira Gershwin’s famous line that “we never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” But Linda Ronstadt was a sport when I asked: could we close with a fast baker’s dozen of pearls in the pop music of our times — songs we could send to Mars to show what’s possible.
13. Someone to Watch over Me, from the Gershwins, Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle.
11. Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, the song Sinatra couldn’t handle but Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane immortalized.
9. The Londonderry Air, the melody of “Danny Boy,” which my mother sang every day of our young lives to the words: “Would God I Were the Tender Apple Blossom.” “The most beautiful melody ever,” as Linda said, but it’s Irish! at least till Ben Webster found it and wouldn’t let it go.
8. George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” the Sarah Vaughan version with Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes.
7. A Frank Loesser threesome: Marlon Brando singing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” in the movie Guys and Dolls. ”Never never will I marry,” a Linda choice. Betty Carter and Ray Charles singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” my pick, and “one of my favorites of all time ever, ever, ever,” Linda said.
6. Al Hibbler singing Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing till you hear from Me.”
5. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen’s song.
4. Estrella Morente, singing “En el alto del cerro de palomares.”
3. Lola Bertran singing Paloma Negra.
2. Trio Calavera, singing “almost anything.”
1. Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going On?” ”O my God, I kissed Marvin Gaye one night… He was vocalist extraordinaire,” Linda said, at the crossroads of jazz, R’n'B and pop. ”And he was a good kisser. No question, this is an art song!”