Linda Ronstadt's ability to mine the rich veins of rock's songbooks was unparalleled in the 1970s. Starting with 1974's Heart Like a Wheel, the powerful singer issued six consecutive platinum-selling Top 5 albums - three of them reaching No. 1 - and resurrected songs by The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison to the heights of the pop charts. Many were appreciative of her interpretations, but one was markedly less pleased: Elvis Costello, rock's angry young man of the '70s.
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Ronstadt's ninth album, Living in the U.S.A., was stacked with classic rock and soul favorites: a cover of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' "Ooo, Baby Baby" reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100; versions of Doris Payne's "Just One Look" and Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" were also fan favorites. But the album's first side closed with a decidedly more modern interpretation: "Alison," released a year earlier on Costello's debut My Aim is True.
Costello, who'd already made waves for a dramatic Saturday Night Live performance where he switched songs on the air, was reportedly not pleased by what he felt was a middle of the road version of his song, calling it "a waste of vinyl." (Other than the saxophone, Ronstadt's "Alison" is not too tonally different than his.) But Ronstadt was nonplussed: not only was she seen in the audience of his celebrated 1978 set at Hollywood High School, but she had her people reach out to his management for more songs she could cover. When she came back with the New Wave-inspired Mad Love in 1980 - her third No. 1 album - three of the songs were Costello covers: "Party Girl," "Talking in the Dark" and "Girls Talk."
READ MORE: December 1977: Elvis Costello Pisses Off "Saturday Night Live"
As Costello aged (and arguably mellowed somewhat), he took a different perspective on her interpretations of his work. "The thing is I was snooty about the recordings, but I wasn't so snooty about the money," he told NME in 1995. "I wasn't under any pressure from my own record company because I was getting money from her covers. The record that 'Alison' was on sold four million copies. That was a lot of money, probably paid my bills longer than any record of my own."
He atoned even deeper in 2019, after watching an acclaimed documentary about Ronstadt - by then retired from the business due to complications from Parkinson's disease. "The film tells us that Linda Ronstadt had to persuade her label boss at the WEA record group to bankroll her album with Nelson Riddle in a way that I was never obliged to wrangle with Warner Brothers, regarding the funding of The Juliet Letters," he wrote, "but then my pop and rock and roll records weren't selling triple platinum, so they had less to lose...I urge you to see this wonderful documentary, whether or not you regard yourself a fan of the singer or her musical choices. Perhaps there are human qualities that endure beyond the fashionable poses we may have once affected."
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