The sweetest voice Allentown ever heard has gone silent because of the ravages of Parkinson's disease.
Linda Ronstadt revealed details of the problem to AARP last month, but most people did not become aware of them until a flurry of news stories in recent days. Somehow, for some of us, this is personal.
Ronstadt is as splendid a person as ever, but some of the nerve cells that regulate bodily movements, including those in the tiny muscles controlling her vocal cords, have died. She can sing no more and has other symptoms of the disease, such as exhaustion and hand tremors.
About 10,000 lucky souls heard that wonderful voice on Aug. 25, 1977, at the Allentown Fairgrounds, including me, my wife and two of our then teenage kids.
I had briefly visited Allentown before, pursuing a story when I worked for The Associated Press in Philadelphia, but this was the first time the family visited.
"This is a beautiful city. You should get a job here," my wife remembers telling me at the time, after seeing the parks, the canopies on Hamilton Mall, streets lined with magnificent trees and other delights.
As we were about to leave, we saw a sign advertising a Ronstadt concert that evening and our daughter, Cindy, now in California, remembers thinking how great that would be. I doubted our chances, but I got standing-room tickets and we put down our blanket 20 or 30 feet from the stage shortly before the show began. We did not know it until later, but our son, Neal, was also at the show, with friends up in the grandstand.
Ronstadt was adorable, in cutoff denim shorts, a bare midriff, charmingly crooked teeth and a big red carnation in her hair, the loveliest sight imaginable. But it was her voice — oh, that voice, sweet and powerful at the same time — that was stunning.
"Silver Threads and Golden Needles," "Blue Bayou," "Love Is a Rose," and her other pop hits at that time made it an evening of rapture and standing ovations.
On Monday, I reminisced about that evening with our son, confessing that I had fallen in love with Ronstadt right on the spot. "Were you smitten with her, too?" I asked him. "I was smitten before [the concert]," he replied.
In addition to being adorable, music experts have said she had perfect pitch, rare for pop singers at that time and all but nonexistent now. At the fairgrounds, perfect pitch combined with class and harmony for one of the best musical treats ever.
An article in the Allentown Chronicle the next day noted "grumbling" from city police officers, who thought concert security people "tried to throw their weight around too much." The story also said security guys typically "like to bully the press." That would hit home with me in 1980, when I next encountered Ronstadt, after the AP transferred me from Philly to Harrisburg.
She performed at a rally at the state Capitol, to observe the first anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident. See if you can get an interview, the AP told me.
A rally security guy tried to keep me from approaching her and there was a little scuffle, resulting in the security guy, um, losing his balance. Ronstadt seemed amused by that and gave me the interview.
It was a chilly and wet March day, however, and Ronstadt was used to the weather in Arizona. (She still has homes in Tucson and San Francisco.)
Despite a heavy coat, Ronstadt appeared to be freezing. She was shivering and talking to me through purple lips, but she was as patient and gracious as could be.
Our younger daughter, Kyomi, had missed the Allentown concert, but she was at the rally and got to meet Ronstadt in person. "I was with you when you interviewed her at the Capitol," Kyomi recalled this week. "You introduced me to her."
That, however, turned into an embarrassment for my daughter the following year, when I pulled one of my April Fool pranks.
With the help of a co-worker posing as Ronstadt's secretary, Kyomi was given a message (for me) that Ronstadt planned to visit Harrisburg again and was available for another interview at the airport. Kyomi quickly called, all excited, and I told her I could not make it, darn it. Then she told her friends about the chance to meet Linda Ronstadt, when I called to confess.
"That was a good joke," Kyomi put it generously this week. "I almost went to the airport. … We were getting ready to leave the house when you called."
Since those days, I have remained an unabashed Ronstadt fan, especially enjoying her "Canciones de Mi Padre" album of traditional Mexican folk music. (Ronstadt is partly of Mexican descent.)
Now, as revealed in news stories and an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, aired over the weekend, a wonderful era of American music is over because of Parkinson's. "I couldn't even make the notes," Ronstadt told Sawyer. "I'd aim for a C and I'd hit a G. … My elevator would go to the wrong floor all the time." It is even hard, she said, to comb her hair or brush her teeth.
Her spirits nevertheless seem high.
I am one of the lucky ones who have seen that wonderful spirit up close. I realize millions of others have seen it, too, including the 10,000 in Allentown in 1977, but it feels very personal and very precious, voice or no voice.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.