Singer Linda Ronstadt was honored with the National Medal of Arts on Monday, presented at the White House by President Barack Obama, but the crowd present was not able to hear that “one-of-a-kind” voice, as Parkinson’s disease has left the superstar unable to sing. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer was one of 12 recipients of the nation’s highest award for artists and their patrons.
The 67-year-old singer revealed in 2013 that she has Parkinson’s disease, and said she thinks she may have had it for seven or eight years before that. Her hands were trembling and then she became unable to sing. She has said that she is truly not able, not even Happy Birthday, not a note. Ronstadt was known for performance anxiety, and those close to her initially thought her vocal problems were just nerves. Unsteady hands and continued problems singing led a friend to insist that she go to the doctor.
Those remembering the 11-time Grammy Award winner’s strong, clear voice belting out such hits as When Will I Be Loved and You’re No Good , or crooning Hasten Down the Wind or Heart Like a Wheel may find it hard to believe that she is unable to sing at all. Parkinson’s disease can cause dysarthria (difficulty speaking) as the progressive disease slowly becomes worse over a period of years. Approximately 90 percent of people with the condition experience changes in speech, often talking in a monotone or with a hoarse voice.
Although Ronstadt was unable to attend her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last April because of limitations in her ability to travel, the singer was able to walk to the stage to receive the National Medal of Arts from the president. Her citation honored her for paving the way for generations of women artists.
The superstar’s first band was the folk trio Stone Poneys, formed with Bob Kimmel, whom she met at Arizona State University, and Kenny Edwards. The group released two albums in 1967, but by the end of the decade Ronstadt had become a solo act. Her Heart Like a Wheel album was released in 1974 and went platinum, selling over 1 million copies. Throughout the ’70s she frequently appeared on the record charts. In the ’80s she began to experiment with different musical styles, including pop and Cajun varieties.
Since becoming unable to sing, Ronstadt has written an autobiography entitled Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, which follows her journey to becoming a music superstar, but does not touch on her disease. She was recently able to go on a promotional tour for the book despite her limited ability to travel. The book also does not go into depth about personal aspects of her life, such as her long romance with then-California governor Jerry Brown. She has never married, and ironically one of her hit singles was I Never Will Marry, released as a duo with Dolly Parton on the Simple Dreams album.
Ronstadt has faced some financial difficulties as her ability to sing has disappeared. She says although she had many successful albums she was not a songwriter, so her royalty checks are small. Most of her best-known hits were written by others. She has not released an album since 2006 or appeared in concert since 2009.
During the presentation of the National Medal of Arts honors, President Obama whispered in Ronstadt’s ear that he had once had a crush on her. Although the singer is now silent, she was definitely part of the group the president said has added “texture to our lives,” a central part of the American experience.
By Beth A. Balen