The “Listen Again” series went over well enough here in the L.A. area that your favorite rockin’ record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some Los Angeles TV executives and do a spin-off. In this series we once more peruse previously-released albums but the platters we shall peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) five-star albums. An old family friend by the name of Hager turned me on to Linda Ronstadt while I was still in high school. So this edition we discuss Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel.
For those not up on their music history, Linda (Marie) Ronstadt, born on July 15, 1946, is an American singer-songwriter and record producer. She has thus far garnered eleven Grammy Awards, two Academy of Country Music awards, an Emmy Award, an ALMA Award, many gold, platinum and multi-platinum platters and even Tony Award and Golden Globe nominations. She is considered by some to be “a definitive interpreter of songs”.
Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel is her fifth solo LP and her final Capitol Records release. Considered by critics to be her “all-time high watermark masterpiece” as well as “a pioneering blueprint” of the then up-and-coming country rock genre, it was recorded from June through September 1974. Ronstadt, who sang lead and background vocals, was assisted by an assortment of other artists including: arranger Andrew Gold (guitar, percussion, piano, drums, keyboards, electric piano, tambourine, ukulele and background vocals), producer Peter Asher (guitar, percussion, background vocals and cowbell), Ed Black, songwriter John Boylan and Paul Craft (guitar),founder of the Stone Poneys’ Kenny Edwards (bass and background vocals), Flying Burrito Brother Chris Ethridge, Richard Feves, Eagle Timothy B. Schmit, ex-Elvis Presley bassist Emory Gordy and Tom Guidera (bass), Eagle Glenn Frey, John Starling and Bob Warford (guitar), Jimmie Fadden (harmonica), singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris (harmony vocals), Eagle Don Henley (drums and background vocals), Dennis Karmazyn (cello), Flying Burrito Brother Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Danny Pendleton (pedal steel guitar), Russ Kunkel, Lloyd Myers and Dennis St. John (drums), California native multi-instrumentalist David Lindley (fiddle), David Campbell (viola and string arrangements), Native Californian Herb Pedersen (banjo and background vocals), singer-songwriter J. D. Souther (guitar and background vocals) and gospel singer Cissy Houston, L.A. native Sherlie Matthews, Maria “Midnight at the Oasis” Muldaur, Clydie King, Wendy Waldman and Joyce Nesbitt (background vocals).
The 10-track album opens on Rondstadt’s cover of Clint Ballard, Junior’s “You’re No Good”. It was actually first a hit for Dee Dee Warwick in 1963 (and would go on to be a bigger hit for Ronstadt too). It’s followed by a slow Paul Anka tune titled “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”. Buddy Holly had covered this back in 1958 and it became a posthumous hit for him after his death in 1959.
J.D. Souther contributed one of his own songs to Ronstadt’s cause: “Faithless Love”. The song is highlighted by Souther’s harmonizing vocals. (Souther himself did not include it on an album until two years later.)
“The Dark End of the Street”, written by Chips Momanand Dan Penn follows here. This is the longest cut on the album—running just short of four minutes– but Ronstadt makes it work according to critics. It’s quickly overshadowed, however, by the title track, Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel” and the memorable “When Will I Be Loved” written by Phil Everly and first recorded in 1960 by The Everly Brothers. This is the shortest song here—barely over two minutes long—and yet it packs a punch nonetheless.
Also included is “Willin'”—a Lowell George composition—a noteworthy cover of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” and “Keep Me from Blowing Away” by Paul Craft. The closing cut is her version of James Taylor’s tune “You Can Close Your Eyes”. Perhaps what truly made this project work was the tuneful team-up of Asher and Gold who chose just the right arrangements and managed to finally match Ronstadt’s voice with generally ideal material and great production values.
With a running time of over 34 minutes, the end result was a streamlined, refined combination of both rock and country and would make a name for Ronstadt. The LP hit the record racks in late 1974. It would give birth to the Billboard Hot 100 number 1 single “You’re No Good”, the flip-side’s of the single “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” which reached number 2 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart and her rock cover of “When Will I Be Loved” which took the number two slot the Hot 100 and topped the Hot Country Songs chart. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” would also prove to be chart worthy.
The album itself would be the first of her releases to make it to number one on the Billboard album chart. In early 1975 it would go gold and also top the Billboards Country Albums chart. It was also nominated for Album Of The Year but lost to Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. In 1991 it would also go platinum and double platinum.
Not to be forgotten in the new millennium, 2003 would witness Rolling Stone magazine slotting Heart Like a Wheel in at number 164 on the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. More recently, Allmusic seconded the five-star rating originally given by Rolling Stone.
It would be reissued more than once including in 2009. “When Will I Be Loved”, “You’re No Good” and the touching titular tune among the true gems on this consistent, opulently recorded record. Considered by critics to be a true landmark of 1970s mainstream music, Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel/Cap. SW-11358 has withstood the test of time.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.