How Parkinson’s put an end
to a glorious singing career.
By Allan Richter
If you tuned into a radio in the 1970s, chances are you heard Linda Ronstadt belting out “It’s So Easy,” “When Will I Be Loved” and other rockers that made you want to crank up the volume. But Ronstadt’s supple voice could also take you back to sleepy sunrises over the coastal wetlands of Louisiana in Roy Orbison and Joe Melson’s “Blue Bayou.” And if you weren’t accompanying her to the Louisiana marshes, the chameleon-like singer could transport you to vibrant Mexican villages as she sang the traditional Mariachi music of her heritage or bring you to the hip, smoky jazz clubs of the 1930s as you listened to her croon and swing with bandleader Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra.
The private Linda Ronstadt, we now learn, was even more immersed in music. When she returned home from a concert tour, Ronstadt wasn’t likely to tuck her guitar into a closet until the next time she hit the road. Her living room hosted jams and singalongs with musical pals like J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne, whom she had befriended at the Troubadour, the popular West Hollywood nightclub that spawned many a music career. She sang whenever the mood hit her, and that was often. “Ninety-eight percent of the singing I did was private singing—it was in the shower, at the dishwater, driving my car, singing with the radio, whatever,” she recently told Vanity Fair. Sometimes she would sing harmonies on the phone with her friend, the country singer Emmylou Harris.
Indeed, for much of Ronstadt’s life, music—and singing, in particular—was a constant. As she grew up in her Tucson, Arizona, home, the radio dial would get plenty of use as it spun its way to almost every style of music, Ronstadt recalled during a recent program on her musical life at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts on the Brookville, New York, campus of Long Island University. Music was a constant companion. “You couldn’t go down the block and play with friends because there was no block,” Ronstadt said, a black-and-white photo of a house along a dirt road projected behind her. “The radio was my best friend.”
That music and singing has been so ingrained in Ronstadt’s daily routine makes it all the more somber that Parkinson’s disease, with which she was diagnosed in 2013, has silenced her singing voice.
Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder, takes hold as the brain slowly stops producing the neurotransmitter dopamine, a kind of chemical messenger that lets neurons communicate, which in turn helps people coordinate their muscle movements smoothly. Dopamine is produced by neurons that reside in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, and the chemical relays messages between the substantia nigra and other areas of the brain to control body movements.
The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease appear when roughly 60% to 80% of the cells that produce dopamine are damaged, resulting in a dopamine shortfall, according to the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA). Among these symptoms are tremors; rigidity; slow movement, or bradykinesia; balance problems, or postural instability; and walking or gait problems, though all of these symptoms may not appear.
In her appearance at the Tilles Center, Ronstadt, 70, did not appear to have any of the tremors typically associated with Parkinson’s disease, but she did appear to show some stiffness in her face and lacked affect. “Having seen Parkinson’s up close—my mother-in-law had Parkinson’s for 18 years—I was able to see how it affected a person,” said John Pratt, who interviewed Ronstadt on stage and is host of “Sunday Supper” on WFUV at New York’s Fordham University. “There is a kind of, sometimes they call it a mask, that a Parkinson’s patient has, where there’s not as much facial expression, and I think to some extent that’s true of Linda. But she still has those beautiful big brown eyes that sparkle and such a ready smile that’s warm and makes you feel comfortable in her presence.”
Bradykinesia is behind the mask-like facial expression, according to the APDA, as well as decreased blinking of the eyes and problems with fine motor coordination that would make it difficult for someone to, say, button a shirt. Ronstadt has said that she has had difficulty brushing her teeth. Bradykinesia is also marked by slow, small handwriting, called micrographia, and can make it difficult to turn over in bed.
On the surface, bradykinesia, or “slow movement,” may sound like a phenomena restricted to someone’s limbs or body movements in general, but it is also behind the loss of volume in the voice of someone afflicted with Parkinson’s, explains David G. Standaert, MD, PhD, the John N. Whitaker Professor and Chair of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.
“Just like they lose the speed of movement in their arms and legs, they lose the speed of movement in the vocal chords and vocal machinery, and it makes the voice soft,” says Standaert, who is also chairman of the APDA’s Scientific Advisory Board.
Though she showed an intact healthy sense of humor—joking, for instance, that Kermit the Frog broke her heart, a reference to her appearance on the Muppet Show—Ronstadt delivered her Tilles Center presentation with little apparent emotion, in a soft monotone voice that is one hallmark of Parkinson’s.
In addition, the voice of someone with Parkinson’s may start off with some power but then fade. And in more advanced stages, people may speak rapidly, leading to stuttering or making their words sound crowded together.
Parkinson’s doesn’t actually make people weak, “but things that used to be automatic, now you have to think about them,” Standaert says. “A lot of people don’t swing their arms when they have Parkinson’s, but if they focus on it they can do it.”
Similarly, someone with Parkinson’s can train him or herself to have a louder speaking voice. Several vocal exercises are geared to Parkinson’s, including the Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT), which involves repetitions of sustained sounds like “ah” and exercises reciting progressively more challenging words and phrases.
But those exercises are limited to a speaking voice. “If you’re a singer I don’t think it’s going to work,” Standaert says. “It doesn’t work to that degree where you’re going to restore it to performance level. Medicines can help but they’re all imperfect, and in singing you want perfection.”
Ronstadt sang her last concert in November 2009, at the Brady Memorial Auditorium in San Antonio. Without a hint of sadness or resentment, she recalls the evening fondly in her 2014 book Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (Simon & Schuster). That evening, she got to sing with her treasured Mariachi Los Camperos and the dance troupe Ballet Folklorico Paso del Norte. After the concert, she spent the evening back at her hotel laughing and reminiscing with friends. In Simple Dreams, Ronstadt does not even mention her Parkinson’s.
Similarly, Ronstadt shows no bitterness or self-pity during her Long Island presentation about her life in music. She is matter-of-fact when she mentions Parkinson’s for the first time, deep into the presentation, as if it is an afterthought, just another detail as she tells of her decades-long friendship with singer Harris. She loved singing harmonies even more than singing alone, she discloses. “I really miss that,” she says before quickly moving on.
These days, when she’s not traveling on her speaking tour, Ronstadt is largely living a domestic life. “I don’t do a lot of running around,” she says. “I do a lot of reading.” Though she lives in San Francisco and sold her Tucson house last year because the commute between the two homes became too difficult, she said she spends time working with young people at a
Spanish-heritage community center in Los Angeles.
In Simple Dreams, Ronstadt reflects that her voice began to change after she turned 50, “as older voices will.”
I recrafted my singing style and looked for new ways to tell a story with the voice I had.”
But Ronstadt has said elsewhere that her Parkinson’s may have started as early as age 51, based on the changes in her singing voice. That somewhat contradicts her theory, put forth in Simple Dreams, that routine aging changed her voice.
For her final solo album, 2004’s “Hummin’ to Myself,” she recorded standard songs with a jazz ensemble that included cello and violin.
The music holds the kind of intimacy that she sought throughout her career. When she broke out and became a country rock star, she bemoaned the large venues that made the ballads she loved lose their crispness and dissipate in the air. So, she pushed back against the record company executives and rock promoters that sought higher ticket volumes. She sought out the musical styles that were companions wafting from the radio in her childhood home.
In Simple Dreams, she says she did not pursue a musical style in her adulthood unless she remembered it from before she was 10. “I always thought to go forward you had to go back,” she said at Tilles, describing the process by which she learned old songs to move her singing ahead. “And when I was finished again I didn’t want to go back to the rock-and-roll stuff.”
Though Ronstadt has lost her singing voice, Pratt, the radio host, believes she has recrafted her communication in the form of the kind of presentation she made at Tilles. “Some people say, ‘what can I still do to be creative?’ My take is that writing her memoir and going out and doing these presentations is a way of maintaining her creativity,” Pratt says. “I think she likes connecting with an audience, but just in a different form. I think she’s a trooper.”
And, for her audience, there will always be the treasure trove of her recorded music.
Ronstadt last sang on “All I Know,” a song on the 2010 Jimmy Webb album “Just Across the River”:
When the singer’s gone/Let the song
go on/It’s a fine line between the
darkness and the dawn/They say
in the darkest night/There’s a light beyond.