I spoke to a small group of high school students. In one of my
presentations, I provided examples of two people I knew in high
school who were true whiz kids. One was a child prodigy, and the
other was a nationally ranked athlete. Both attained stupendous
achievements, but both eventually faded, the athlete within a
couple of years after graduation and the prodigy a quarter century
later by suicide. Both were examples of the hare in the story
of the tortoise and the hare. That story has remained popular
for about 2,500 years.
role models have proven their case by now. I began observing all
of them in the mid-1960s. None of them conforms to either the
tortoise or the hare. Their careers illustrate the same career
strategy or, if not a strategy, then at least a pattern.
AT THE BEACH
It was the
summer of 1967. I was off to the beach. I didn't go to the beach
often. I grew up at the beach, and I didn't much like it or the
lifestyle associated with it. But I had been invited to visit
my friend Steve, who had just bought a home about two blocks from
the water. I think it was somewhere close to Newport Beach, but
I forget. It has been a while.
What I have
not forgotten was how that day played out. When I arrived, two
others were already there, Steve's partner Tom and Tom's girlfriend.
The girl was a stunner. She had the biggest eyes I had ever seen.
She had a turned-up nose and long black bangs. For some reason,
she looked familiar.
me, first to Tom, whom I had not met before, and then to Linda.
. . Linda. Click! I knew where I had seen her.
I was a part-time
disk jockey in those days. I specialized in folk music, bluegrass
music, and a little country-western, the latter two not being
normal fare in California in 1967, at least not on FM radio.
a Stone Poney, aren't you?" She said she was. "I don't
remember your last name," I said. "Ronstadt," she
there were two Stone Poneys' albums, but I had only seen the first,
which had been released early in the year.
those days, she was officially Linda Marie Ronstadt. She was
the key to the group. Her voice, then as now, was spectacular.
The album covers featured her in the middle, because she was photogenic,
although nowhere near what she was like in person, close-up.
his wife, Tom, Linda, and I went to the beach that day. That evening,
we went to a local coffee house, as folk music clubs were called
back then: the Cosmos. Steve was the featured performer that night.
He sang mainly songs written by him, Tom, or both of them as a
Poneys' second album, released a couple of weeks earlier, featured
two of these songs. One of them, "Back on the Street Again,"
became a top-40 hit that year for the Sunshine Company. The album
also had the song that launched the next phase of Linda's career,
"Different Drum," written by one of the Monkees, Mike
Nesmith, the son of the inventor of White-Out, back in the days
before self-correcting IBM typewriters. It became a huge success
in 1968, hitting #13 for the year on the Billboard chart.
was a step ahead of Linda's in 1967. He and Tom in 1965 had written
what would become a classic, "Darcy
Farrow." He had opened for Ian and Sylvia in 1965, at
the peak of that Canadian couple's popularity. They put "Darcy
Farrow" on their latest album. His guitar work was as spectacular
as Linda's voice, and he sang well, too.
A few years
later, I heard one of the Stone Poneys, Bob Kimmel, introduce
Steve at a performance. He said that someone had come up to him
and told him that the best thing he ever did as a Stone Poney
was his vocal back-up for Linda on "Back on the Street Again."
Kimmel admitted to the crowd that the back-up singer and guitarist
THE GROUND RUNNING
I met Steve
in 1960. We were in college together. I was a year ahead of him.
I was a folk music buff, and I introduced him to the records of
Pete Seeger and other folkie types. He began playing the banjo
a little. At the 1962 Spring Sing at UCLA he and a group sang,
although he was not a student at UCLA. He played the banjo. Earl
Scruggs was not threatened.
this because, three years later, he opened for Ian and Sylvia.
Somehow, in about 36 months, he had so completely mastered the
guitar, singing, and songwriting that he could make a living at
it. Three years after that, in 1968, Vanguard released his album:
Vanguard was the dominant record label in the folk music world
at the time.
Stone Poneys' album was released in January, 1967. Exactly a year
later, Linda became a star because of "Different Drum."
By the end of 1968, she made her first solo album, "Hand
Sown, Home Grown." That marked a first, or something like
a first: a pop star deliberately crossing over into country music.
I contend that there has never been a country music album featuring
a more versatile pop singer, except for her next album, "Silk
Purse." That's a safe statement, because Linda Ronstadt became
the most versatile pop singer in history over the next two decades.
I'll get to this later.
for anyone who hits stardom or at least profitable celebrity status
early in a career is that public tastes keep changing. This year's
pop-sensation can become a trivia question fairly fast. What seems
like the wave of the future to the spending public becomes a distant
memory when the next fad rolls in.
This is not
a tortoise/hare problem. Whether you're a tortoise or a hare,
Andy Warhol's estimate applies: your 15 minutes of fame run out
before you notice. But it didn't for Linda.
people can stay ahead of the crowd. A few performers sense the
change and do change. Bobby Darrin had this ability. In Linda's
case, she carried her fans with her after the mid-1970s, when
she was unquestionably the queen of rock. She recorded albums
that nobody would have thought could sell, and nobody else did
sell anything like them, yet hers sold.
it really big in the mid-1970s: "Heart Like a Wheel,"
"Prisoner in Disguise." "Trio," her legendary
country music CD with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, was over
a decade away. She never stopped performing.
THE CHEERING STOPS
performing, too, but the folk music phenomenon faded in the early
1970s. He wrote some fine songs, but there were no more hits to
match the sales of "Back on the Street Again." Other
artists began recording his songs: John Denver, Anne Murray, Waylon
Jennings, Garth Brooks, and a lot of others. But there were no
crowds at his concerts.
partial to his songs and his guitar work.
He and his wife, Cindy Mangsen, perform together. They do mostly
traditional songs and traditional-sounding songs, with the exception
of "Mr. O'Reilly," a clever song about Neil Armstrong's
next-door neighbor as a boy. You can't beat these albums.
he spoke for all white-haired American men of our generation when
he said, "I always wanted to grow up like Hoppalong Cassidy.
I just didn't think I'd look like him."
are relatively small. The two are on the road a lot. As his wife
says, "We work by driving all day, and then get to play music
in the evening." Not a bad way to make a living.
a long time ago to pursue his talents as a songwriter and performer
of traditional sounding songs, but demand has not been massive.
He is faithful to his original artistic vision, which he established
four decades ago, despite the fact that there has not been a lot
of money in it. He has seen his occupation as a calling, i.e.,
"doing the most important work you can do in which you would
be most difficult to replace." Callings rarely pay very much.
to Steve, Linda has a different calling. Her calling is her voice.
She is not committed to a particular style or type of song. It
is not that she shifts when the market shifts. She shifts and
creates the market.
She has sold
more records with more seemingly sealed-off styles than any female
singer ever has. Pop, folk, country, light opera (Gilbert &
Sullivan), 1940s ballads, Mexican: the money rolls in. (Her father
is of Mexican extraction.)
she appeared at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Tickets were $100 each. She filled the place. A month later, Steve
and Cindy played three blocks up the street in a private home
that is a part-time folk music performance center. There were
maybe 50 people. Admission was $15.
two performers whose career paths crossed almost four decades
ago, with both doing what they love doing. Linda has succeeded
in keeping a lot of her original fans and has picked up hundreds
of thousands of new ones. She has that rare something that cannot
be imitated or even predicted that keeps people coming back for
more, ticket money in hand. As they say, nice work if you can
THEN THERE WAS BOB
I met Bob
Warford at a radio station. I had a bluegrass show on Saturday
nights, when most people were watching TV or were out on the town.
He walked in and introduced himself. We were both students at
the University of California, Riverside. I was a grad student.
He was an undergrad. It was 1966, I think.
me some bluegrass records to play. He said he had a large collection.
We got to talking. It turned out that he was the banjo player
for the Kentucky Colonels, which had been the first bluegrass
band in southern California, beginning a decade earlier as the
Country Boys. A couple of years later, I heard him sit in with
Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Monroe told the audience,
"This boy plays like greased lightning." And so he did.
To pay his
way through college, he had switched to electric guitar. He played
in a country music band in a tavern located at least 100 miles
away. It was a hard way to make a living. Then, in 1970, he became
lead guitarist for the Everly Brothers when they toured.
His old partner
in the Kentucky Colonels, Clarence White, had joined the Byrds
in 1968, which had switched from rock to a new musical form, country
rock. White, a master of the acoustic guitar, was just as creative
on electric. He had long been a studio musician for West Coast
country bands. Then, without warning, in 1973 he was killed by
a drunk driver in a parking lot after a show.
begun playing electric guitar in a style similar to White's, yet
independently of White. When White was killed, studios began hiring
Warford to do the kind of back-up work White had done. A search
of the Web for Warford produces a lot of hits.
unlike everyone else in the bluegrass field and probably also
in country-rock, was a scholar. He kept going to school. Eventually
he earned a Ph.D. in neurophysiology. Not satisfied with a Ph.D.,
he went on to earn a law degree. He still practices law. His email
address reflects his two careers, guitar and law: guitlaw@[his-isp.com].
he told me a great story. He and Steve had taken a music composition
course together at the university. Steve had just written "Darcy
Farrow," which was eventually to sell over four million copies,
performed by many singers. Bob was supporting himself in school
with his music. A decade later, Steve hired Bob to do back-up
guitar work on one of his albums. Here is the kicker: they both
flunked the course.
who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can't teach get
Why is he
one of my career models? Because for him, performing was not his
calling; it was his job. He used the spotlight as a means to an
end. He knew that his greater gifts had to do with ideas, not
music. He was not seduced by the applause. The money was good,
but it was not his calling.
find your calling, stick with it. If it pays well, so much the
better. If it doesn't pay well, find a way to support yourself,
and self-fund your calling.
fortunate, career-wise. Her voice was her greatest gift, and her
voice could be converted into money. The stream of money has not
stopped. She has switched styles and formats to be able to bring
her voice to new listeners. Millions of people started listening
in 1968, and they have not stopped. She has sold over 50
million albums. I don't recall anyone saying that she sold
out when she abandoned rock and filmed The
Pirates of Penzance. She crossed over: from fame and money
to Gilbert & Sullivan. It was hardly selling out when she
teamed up with Nelson Riddle's orchestra to produce the "What's
New" Gershwin/Porter album in the early 1980s. It sold a
million copies. Who would have guessed that there was a market
for three Ronstadt/Riddle albums filled with 1940s-era ballads?
not departed from his original vision. His material is mostly
traditional, but there is not a large market for this kind of
music. His talent vastly exceeds his market. His calling is his
job, but his job is not the production of gold albums. Too bad.
Bob did not
find his calling until after he had completed his Ph.D. Some people
take longer to figure this out than others do. He did not hit
his ground running. He just hit the spotlight running, and young.
He got out of the spotlight when he found his calling. He did
play like greased lightning, but he used this ability to grease
his skids through academia and law school.
hope you have found your calling. I hope it's your job. I hope
it pays well. The important thing is that you don't sacrifice
your calling for the sake of your job.
is your calling, not your job. Don't get them confused.