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'Heart Like A Wheel': 7 Facts About Linda Ronstadt's Album | GRAMMY Hall Of Fame
"And it's only love, and it's only love/That can wreck a human being and turn him inside out" — "Heart Like A Wheel" by Anna McGarrigle
Linda Ronstadt's fifth studio album, Heart Like A Wheel (1974), was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame among other recordings receiving the special award in 2018. Like other seminal records on the list that swept into popular consciousness, this particular hit had an impact that changed the game and opened up a new musical period, especially for American pop and what came to be known as "country rock."
A great live performer and song stylist, surrounded by some of the world's greatest rock and country musicians, Ronstadt's voice carried a heartfelt urgency that could slide expressively from pure ringing tone to emotion so thick it threatened to saturate the microphone. At times on Heart Like A Wheel, Ronstadt's passion and authenticity soars in a belt out of her phrasings or even holler. Let's go for a spin around Linda Ronstadt's life in the '70s, and deeper into Heart Like A Wheel, with these seven fascinating facts.
1. The Eagles Take Flight
Commercial success versus artistic culture is barely a conflict if, at the time, success can't help but follow the artists creating the culture. This was the case with Linda Ronstadt's legendary backup band, the Eagles.
This phenomenon was especially apparent at the 18th GRAMMY Awards (1975) as the Eagles won their first GRAMMY the same year Ronstadt did, in Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus for "Lyin' Eyes." With the Eagles' Glenn Frey and Don Henley both backing up Ronstadt on Heart Like A Wheel, they enjoyed side-by-side commercial success while making a cultural impact.
At Linda Ronstadt's Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2014, her Parkinson's condition left her unable to attend. Frey's acceptance speech on her behalf summarized events that led to their musical partnership, beginning at The Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970. "Linda and I, we became friends, and in the spring of 1971, she hired me and a singing drummer from Linden, Texas named Don Henley to play in her backup band. From the first rehearsal, I felt we were working on a style of music none of us had ever heard before," said Frey. "While touring with Linda that summer, Don and I told her that we wanted to start our own band, and she, more than anyone else, helped us put together the Eagles."
2. The Song That Put Country Rock On The Map
Described in the contemporary Rolling Stone album review as a "soulful wail," Ronstadt's vocals on "You're No Good" took American pop music to a place it hadn't quite been before. With a strong lyric to a rocking beat, it combined soul and country flair.
On the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated Feb. 15, 1975, "You're No Good" was No. 1. A triumph for her producer Peter Asher as well as Ronstadt, it led the album's ascent to double-platinum status. But the song wasn't always an obvious choice for a single. In fact, it had started as the song Ronstadt always used to close her live sets. Putting it on the album was recalled as an afterthought.
3. Romantic And Musical Partner, J.D. Souther
In that same speech, Frey said he loved Ronstadt "at first sight" but "a guitar-slinging, love-rustler from Amarillo, Texas, named John David Souther … beat me to the punch." A romantic figure, especially as a true country singer/songwriter, author Marc Eliot said Souther was considered for the Eagles but one of the other members objected. He performed with Frey as a duo on their 1969 self-titled album Longbranch Pennywhistle, and he produced Ronstadt's 1973 album Don't Cry Now and wrote "Faithless Love" for Heart Like A Wheel. Years later when Glen Campbell covered it as his lead single on Letter To Home, the classic brought J.D. Souther a GRAMMY nomination for 1984 for Best Country Song.
The Rolling Stone review described "Faithless Love" as "perhaps the strongest ballad he's written to date," and it praised Souther's singing harmony as well as Herb Pedersen's banjo. "I don't think I realized how world-class J.D. was because everybody that I knew was writing good songs," Ronstadt said in a recent interview. "I didn't know how good they were going to be." This GRAMMY Hall Of Fame induction provides lasting recognition of that level of excellence.
4. The Title Track's Folksinging Sisters
The album's title track was penned by Anna McGarrigle, who was part of Montreal's folk scene. The lyric quoted above, that love "can wreck a human being," was called out by Rolling Stone because it "distills the themes of the album [and] … underscores the essence of Ronstadt's vocal personality."
With her sister, the album Kate & Anna McGarrigle was released in 1976, and Ronstadt's enthusiasm with the sisters is evident in their many filmed appearances together. Kate McGarrigle had married Loudon Wainwright III in 1971 and they are the parents of Rufus Wainwright.
Also appearing on the title track was Maria Muldaur, whose hit "Midnight At The Oasis" had been nominated for Record Of The Year for 1974 at the 17th GRAMMY Awards. Muldaur was also an enthusiastic singer of other compositions by the McGarrigles.
5. Topping The Everly Brothers' On The Charts
It is a quality of great interpreters that they can take somebody else's hit and make theirs even bigger. The Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" went to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960 but Ronstadt took it to No. 2 in 1975, rearranging the verses for her version.
The winner of Record Of The Year at the 18th GRAMMY Awards, "Love Will Keep Us Together" by the Captain & Tennille, dominated the year and also kept Ronstadt's No. 2 version of "When Will I Be Loved" from hitting No. 1. The record was considered alongside "You're No Good" as Heart Like A Wheel's lead single.
6. Her First GRAMMY Win Goes Country
On the B-side of Ronstadt's No. 1 hit "You're No Good," a more dignified song by Hank Williams, "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)," showed the country side of her abilities, which won her Best Country Vocal Performance, Female at the 18th GRAMMY Awards. The woman singing angelic harmonies against Ronstadt on the album version is Emmylou Harris, who went on to win that same category at the 19th GRAMMY Awards for Elite Hotel. The two ladies joined with Dolly Parton at the 30th GRAMMY Awards to win Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for their 1987 album Trio.
7. Powerhouses Behind The Scenes: James Taylor And Peter Asher
With so many legends around her during her ascent in music, Ronstadt was a magnet for the best. A close look at other GRAMMY winners associated with Heart Like A Wheel shows one name that already had one GRAMMY win and many more nominations going into the project, before her album turned so many people's careers for the better. James Taylor's lullaby "You Can Close Your Eyes" closes Heart Like A Wheel, and his star status was in a sense hovering over the album. Taylor won Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male at the 14th GRAMMY Awards for "You've Got A Friend," a huge success as a single, and its B-side was Taylor's lullaby.
It's also worth noting that Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor had also served as the background singers on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" from Young's bestselling album of 1972, Harvest.
Heart Like A Wheel's producer Peter Asher had quit running A&R for the Beatles' Apple Records in order to manage Taylor just a few years earlier. By the mid-'70s, Taylor, with the help of Asher, was leading a powerful soft rock sound that grew mighty with Ronstadt and the Eagles' first wins and then spread, for example with Emmylou Harris' win the following year.
Other personnel on the album who went on to win GRAMMY Awards are singer Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney; instrumentalists John Boylan, Jimmie Fadden, Timothy B. Schmit, and John Starling; engineers Dennis Ferrante, Val Garay, and George Massenburg who also received the Technical GRAMMY Award in 1998. Two of Peter Asher's later wins were Producer Of The Year at the 20th and the 32nd GRAMMY Awards and he is credited with having a significant hand in crafting the California soft rock sound.
Reflecting on Linda Ronstadt's legacy and the tragic event of her voice being silenced by Parkinson's disease in 2013, The New Yorker wrote, "The sound of Ronstadt's voice — invincibility, bravery, emotion channeled into intelligence and art — is the sound of overcoming anything." For diehard fans and newcomers alike, Heart Like A Wheel remains some of her career's most compelling evidence of what makes Ronstadt so special.