(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
In September 1977, Linda Ronstadt released her eighth album, Simple Dreams. Although not her best work (Heart Like a Wheel is that), it’s a sublime masterpiece. It captures her at the peak of her creative powers, melding yesteryear classics and contemporary offerings into a delectable whole. In a sense, it follows the formula she and producer Peter Asher established with Heart Like a Wheel – but it strays from it, too, by expanding the palette several hues. There’s pop, rock and country, in other words, but also two songs from the dawn of true Americana music – the Carter Family’s “I Never Will Marry” (1933) and “Old Paint,” which dates back even further, to the late 1800s.
In some ways, the set epitomizes what I like to call Southern California soul – it’s tasteful and tuneful, emotive, and never slick. Linda is a singer in service to the songs. Oh sure, her voice is on full display – but every note she sings is aimed at putting the songs over; she doesn’t show off. Her rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” which topped out at No. 3 on the singles chart, is one example…
… and her cover of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy,” which topped out at No. 5, is another.
Because of my age and ignorance, I was unaware of Linda Ronstadt until the following autumn and Living in the USA, and didn’t become a fan in earnest until 1980, when I bought Mad Love. And as a kid on a tight budget, I didn’t pick up Simple Dreams until March 1st, 1983 – not because I didn’t want it, but because four of its songs were featured on her Greatest Hits Vol. II, which I got in October or November of 1980. These two, for instance:
But I quickly wished I’d bought it sooner. Its strength comes not just from the hits and those two radio staples, but such exemplary tunes as the aforementioned “I Never Will Marry” and “Old Paint,” not to mention the Eric Kaz-penned “Sorrow Lives Here.”
Here’s the track list of the album:
- It’s So Easy
- Simple Man, Simple Dream
- Sorrow Lives Here
- I Never Will Marry
- Blue Bayou
- Poor Poor Pitiful Me
- Maybe I’m Right
- Tumbling Dice
- Old Paint
Aside from its contents, the LP is notable for selling 3 1/2 million copies within its first year of release; knocking Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the top spot of Billboard’s album chart, a position that album had held for 29 weeks; and being home to two singles (“Blue Bayou” and “It’s So Easy”) that were in the Top 5 at the same time – a feat that hadn’t been achieved since the Beatles in the ‘60s.
So why spotlight Simple Dreams now? The Rhino label has reissued the album in honor of its 40th anniversary, that’s why. The set features remastered sound and three bonus tracks from Linda’s 1980 HBO concert – “It’s So Easy,” “Blue Bayou” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” I can’t speak for the CD, but the LP sounds great; and the bonus material is a delight – if you purchase the LP, they come on a separate 45-sized single (though it plays at 33 1/3 RPMs).