Family Ties

John Ronstadt Reminisces About His Family's Long Musical History In The Old Pueblo.

By Chelley Salmon

WHEN FRED RONSTADT started Club Filarmónico Tucsonese, Tucson's first philharmonic band in 1896, he began a musical legacy that continues in Tucson today. Most famous, of course, is Fred's granddaughter Linda; but Tucsonans may not be aware of all the other musical members of the Ronstadt family. The gift of music has been passed down through the generations. Linda's father, Gilbert, played guitar and was considered the best singer among Fred's four sons.

Music After Linda recorded the song "High Sierra" (on Feels Like Home) with her cousin John, she was quoted in a Weekly article as saying, "John's the one now who's generally considered the 'prettiest' voice in the family. He's really in tune. He's a good harmony singer."

John recalls stories of their Aunt Louisa, better known as Louisa Espinel, an internationally renowned singer and performer in the 1930s. "She was the half-sister of my father, Edward," he remembers. "She opened for the Temple of Music and Art in 1927. Around that time she'd been performing all over the country, then she went to Spain and studied music of all different regions. In her performances, she would come out in the native costumes of each region that she was singing about. She traveled all around the world doing concerts like that...she was the first major star in the Ronstadt family." He notes that in her time, she was comparable to Linda. In 1946, Louisa published a collection of Mexican folk songs, Canciones de Mi Padre, as a tribute to her father Fred. Forty years later, her niece Linda followed suit by performing and recording a similar collection for her father, Gilbert.

Music has been in the Ronstadt family as far back as John can remember: "My father played sousaphone, piano and organ. Music was always in the house from a very early age. There was a lot of influence from Mexican music...and classical. My father loved classical--he played Beethoven and Bach all the time. I can still remember my grandfather playing guitar and flute...I can almost remember the sound of his voice."

Just as other members in his famous family, John, 48, has also demonstrated his musical versatility. In addition to singing with 'Round Midnight, a well-known local jazz group, he also plays guitar and sings with the Ronstadt Cousins. The singing trio of cousins was formed about seven years ago with Michael, who also plays guitar, and Bill, on bass. Prior to that, Bill and John played for several years in a group called Sunshower.

The Ronstadt Cousins, known for their rich, three-part harmonies, play enough musical variety to please any audience. Although a large part of their repertoire includes the regional cowboy and western ballads, as well as the Mexican songs of their fathers and grandfathers, they also sing classics and standards of all generations, not to mention Latin, classic rock and roll, country, bluegrass and folk.

"We do a lot of the Mexican trio songs with the (Ronstadt) Cousins," explains John. "I love singing the Mexican songs. The harmony and just the mood are so haunting to me. My dad and I sing them together...they are really special to me."

After Linda's brother Michael was hired as an elementary-school music teacher, the Cousins recorded a children's album, Little Song A-Singing In My Heart, in 1995. It was a labor of love for John and Michael, who've been entertaining their children's classes for several years.

John smiles as he speaks of the experience: "Playing for the kids was really a treat. Elementary school kids are some of the best audiences you'll ever find."

The Cousins also recently recorded a tune for Linda's next album, along with Linda's sister Suzy, brother Peter and his daughter Mindy. Somewhat hesitant to describe the song, John hints instead, "It's called 'The Dreams of the San Joaquin'--it's a very simple song, but hard to label. It sounds like a Spanish song but it's not, although some lyrics are sung in Spanish."

John still remembers the early days of listening to Linda sing in the New Union Ramblers, with her siblings. Did he ever suspect that Linda would become the star she is today? "When I heard Linda singing with the Stone Poneys in the mid-1960s, I knew they were great. I guess one of the last times I heard her singing in Tucson was at Sanders, a little coffee house on Sixth Street. She had just gotten together with this new guitarist, Kenny Edwards. He was just an incredible guitar player. I never heard anyone play finger-picking style that way before. Actually, right after that they went over to the Troubadour and played their night there, and they got signed (with Capitol in 1966). I thought they could make it easily at that time." But he didn't think Linda was the only one: "When I first heard them singing together, I always thought that Suzy was going to be the one to become a big star. Suzy has a great timbre to her must be in the genes."

John, one of 12 children, notes that half of his siblings play at least one instrument. He tells of Ronstadt family gatherings that typically include 40 to 60 people, where "everyone in the family can carry a tune, some playing piano or different instruments.

"At Christmas, we pass out words for carols and we all play and sing." He continues, "Whenever there's any group of us together, the instruments will come out. It's like a free-for-all...the family blend is outrageous. That's the special thing, the blend."

The Ronstadt Cousins perform Thursday and Friday nights at Kennedy's Pub, 9155 E. Tanque Verde Road.

'Round Midnight (Jed Paradies, saxophone and flute; Doug Martin, keyboards; Gil Rodriguez, drums; and Jim Carr on bass, with Ronstadt as vocalist) often fills the Saturday night slot at Café Sweetwater, 340 E. Sixth St. Their CD Maiden Voyage, a collection of jazz standards, is available at local music stores. TW

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