September 1978: Linda Ronstadt Releases LIVING IN THE USA
By the year 1978, Linda Ronstadt was nothing less than a music superstar. The singer's 1977 release, Simple Dreams, was a massive success, big enough to knock Fleetwood Mac's monster record Rumours from the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 in December of that year, holding the top position for the rest of '77. The LP spawned a string of hit singles, including "Blue Bayou," "It's So Easy," and Ronstadt's take on the Rolling Stones' classic, "Tumblin' Dice."
When it came time for Ronstadt to record a followup to Simple Dreams, it didn't seem that she could get much bigger. Her then-boyfriend, politician Jerry Brown, had been elected Governor of California, throwing the singer into the tabloid whirlwind of rock 'n' roll and politics. Heading into Hollywood's famous Sound Factory studios with a cast of ace studio musicians including guitarist Waddy Wachtel and saxophonist David Sanborn, Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher pulled together a clutch of inspired cover songs to populate her ninth studio album.
It was August 1978 when Ronstadt released the album's first single, a cover of Chuck Berry classic "Back in the U.S.A." She was moved to record the tune after hearing it on a mixtape made by Glenn Frey of the Eagles while cruising around in his car and reminiscing about how far they'd come in the world of music.
"We used to sit around the Troubadour bar and go: 'Oh it's so horrible and I can't get a record deal.' We were so broke and so miserable and we'd feel so sorry for ourselves and we were so precious about it," Ronstadt remembered in the book To the Limit: the untold story of the Eagles by Marc Eliot. "Then all of a sudden I looked at him and I went: 'Boy, life's really tough. We're going off to ski [at Aspen] with all this money in our pockets, we're going to have a good time, and we've got great music on the tape player.' Just then "Back in the U.S.A." came on and I went: 'Boy that would be a great song to sing. I think I'll do that one.'"
Ronstadt's version of "Back in the U.S.A." went to peak at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of October 14, 1978. The album's second single, a version of Smokey Robinson classic "Ooh Baby Baby," reached #7 on the same chart in January 1979.
Linda Ronstadt released Living in the USA on September 19, 1978. Music retailers were just as excited about the prospect of a new album from the singer as her fans, with the LP being the first to go double-platinum just on pre-orders alone. The album marked Ronstadt's first take on a song written by Elvis Costello, "Alison."
"I've never communicated with him directly, but I heard that someone asked him what he thought and he said he'd never heard it, but that he'd be glad to get the money," Ronstadt revealed to Playboy in 1980. "So I sent him a message: 'Send me some more songs, just keep thinking about the money.' And he sent me the song 'Talking in the Dark,' which has not been released here, and I love it. I also recorded 'Party Girl' and 'Girl Talk.'"
Featuring songs by Little Feat ("All That You Dream"), Warren Zevon ("Mohammed's Radio"), and ending on Elvis Presley standard, "Love Me Tender," Living in the USA was another smash hit for Linda Ronstadt. The album climbed the charts to take the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for the week of November 4, 1978.
FUN FACT: The Living in the USA album cover featuring Ronstadt in a pair of roller skates is often cited as a strong factor in the roller-skating craze that swept America in the late 1970s.