Tucson's First Family of Music

Linda Ronstadt and her grandfather, Federico, join the Tucson Area Music Awards Hall of Fame

No lifetime achievement award seems more appropriate than this year's Tucson Area Music Awards Hall of Fame recognition of singer Linda Ronstadt and her grandfather, Federico Ronstadt.

We all know Linda Ronstadt as the superstar country-rock artist who branched out to do everything from American standards with Nelson Riddle to a pair of mariachi ranchera albums that revived interest in that music around the world.

But the Ronstadt family in general has had an inestimable impact on our city's musical landscape since the day 14-year-old apprentice carriage-maker Federico Ronstadt arrived in 1882.

Federico Ronstadt's is an exemplary American-immigrant story. The son of a mining engineer, Federico grew up in the small village of Bonomici, Sonora. He was a master metalworker and woodworker who became one of the most-popular carriage-makers in the Southwest, and his work was highly sought in Mexico as well. Early in the 20th century, he moved from carriage-making into the hardware business and, later, automotive sales. He also was active in the city's political scene.

But what he is likely most remembered for is his love of music. He grew up on a mix of Mexican folk music and classical music, and learned the guitar, flute, clarinet and piano along the way. Linda Ronstadt still owns the 1890 Martin guitar he played for her when she was a child.

In 1888, Federico founded the first classical-music ensemble in the city's history—the Club Filarmónico. Initially, it had just eight to 10 members, but it became one of the most-important ensembles of its type in the entire Southwest. It had a rough start. Few of its members could read music, and Federico, with his brother Ricardo, taught the members how to play their instruments, along with sight-reading. The first group consisted of winds and strings, with Federico playing clarinet and Ricardo on flute.

The Club Filarmónico debuted at Carrillo's Gardens in 1890 and became immediately popular. The group raised money for brass instruments and drums, and was soon playing weekly around town. It was especially popular around patriotic holidays.

Federico was also a composer, and there is a story that one of his pieces got into the hands of renowned bandleader John Philip Sousa, who wrote about the piece. That's roughly like having Paul McCartney write about your song at the height of the Beatles' popularity.

In 1896, the much-larger group traveled to California by rail. Federico wrote about it in his diary, which later became the book Borderman. He wrote about the difficulties in getting there and the various reactions at the venues where Club Filarmónico played. Of those passages, Linda says, "He could as easily been talking about my own first trips to California, or those of my brother Michael (also an accomplished musician, fronting the Ronstadts and Ronstadt Generations bands)."

In 1897, Club Filarmónico merged with its competitor, the Banda Militar, and Federico was chosen to lead the group. Most of the players in the combined group joined the National Guard during the Spanish-American War, after which Ronstadt gave up the baton to pursue his business interests.

But in 1929, he was back at it again, this time as one of the founding board members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra—the longest continuously operated orchestra in the western United States. Federico was among those who insisted it perform only a classical repertoire, rather than including dance-band music, as Club Filarmónico had done.

Federico had two families, with seven children by his first wife, and four by his second. His first family included a very special musical daughter, Luisa Espinel, who was Arizona's first opera star. She was a world-renowned interpreter of Spanish art songs, as well as a field collector of folk songs. She starred in Tucson's first production of La Traviata and had a bit part in the Marlene Dietrich film The Devil Is a Woman.

In 1946, Espinel notated and assembled a folio of all of the Mexican folk songs her father had sung to her as a child. Titled Canciones de Mi Padre, it is the sole source of Sonoran folk songs of the 19th century known to be in existence. In the 1980s, Linda Ronstadt would borrow the title for her own first recording of mariachi repertoire.

Federico's second family included Linda's father, Gilbert Ronstadt, whose own love of music was formative in Linda's development. In fact, with the exception of the rock music she made, virtually everything else she recorded has its origins in his record collection, which was the soundtrack to family life every Sunday afternoon.

There is no doubt that Linda Ronstadt is our city's biggest musical superstar. She earned her accolades through hard work, perfectionism and a curious musical spirit.

As a child, Linda grew up singing harmony with her siblings, Peter, Gretchen (Suzy) and Michael, as dishes were washed in the evening. Peter had been a prized soloist in the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and it is from him studying The Pirates of Penzance that she picked up that later recording role.

As a young teen, she sang with Peter's folk group, the New Union Ramblers, at coffee shops around the University of Arizona. She quit Catalina High School in 1964, attended the University of Arizona for a semester or two, then headed off to California, where she partnered with Tucson musical buddy Bobby Kimmel to seek her musical fortune. They teamed up with guitarist/vocalist Kenny Edwards in a group called the Stone Poneys and scored a major hit with Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum."

After three albums with the Stone Poneys, Linda went solo. A long string of hits followed, including "You're No Good," "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," "When Will I Be Loved," "Alison," "Crazy," "Blue Bayou," "Poor Pitiful Me," "Long, Long Time," "Adios," "I Don't Know Much" and "Ooh Baby Baby." The backup band she assembled for her early recordings eventually also went out on its own, as the Eagles.

During a career that ended just two years back, Linda Ronstadt earned 10 Grammys, two Academy of Country Music Awards, an Emmy, and an Alma Award. She recorded gold and platinum records (certified sales of half a million and a million copies, respectively) as a solo artist and with such partners as Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Nelson Riddle.

In the 1980s, she defied her record label and teamed up with the best mariachis on the planet to release Canciones de Mi Padre and the subsequent Mas Canciones. The project was hatched at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, where Ronstadt got to meet the musical heroes she'd heard for years through her dad's record collection. Her recordings catalyzed a revival of interest in mariachi music around the world, and propelled the mariachi-conference movement in the U.S. and Mexico.

From the 1990s through the early 21st century, Ronstadt's recordings were sporadic but golden. She chose beautiful jazz standards for the bulk of them, and learned to use the studio to enhance what she considered to be her declining voice. Even in decline, her artistry was far greater than 90 percent of what made the airwaves on radio and television.

The last performance of her career was in 2010 in San Antonio with the group she says she enjoyed playing with more than any other—Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano. Today, she lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she continues to support music education and political causes.

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