Family Affair: The Ronstadts get together to celebrate rich musical history

Featuring several acts, the Ronstadt musical dynasty will be celebrated this October at the Fox Theatre. (Jonathan Frahm/Submitted)

By Jonathan Frahm

From “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou” to the traditional mariachi and ranchera of 1987’s “Canciones de Mi Padre,” chances are that if you know 20th century hits, you know Linda Ronstadt. 

Still one of Tucson’s brightest stars, she has celebrated an illustrious career that spans decades of worldwide acclaim. Most recently, she returned to the Old Pueblo to celebrate the naming of The Linda Ronstadt Music Hall. 

The Ronstadt family began sinking their roots in Tucson nearly a century before Linda’s mainstream breakout. In 1880, Federico Ronstadt founded the Club Filarmónico de Tucson, one of the region’s first social orchestras. Luisa Espinel, his daughter, would become known for her glamorous performances as a singer, dancer and actress. 

Today, a slew of Ronstadts is still committed to a life enveloped in the arts. Several of them pay homage to their musical roots as songwriters and bandleaders in their own rights. 

This October, Tucsonans have a unique, potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch many of them perform at the same show. On Sunday, October 23, the Fox Theatre hosts “The Ronstadt Family in Concert: An Evening Celebrating a Musical Dynasty.” Presented by the Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona, proceeds from this concert help to fund their mission of bringing critical community services to people across different backgrounds and belief systems. 

The show will feature several Ronstadt family acts, with a special welcome message from Linda to kick things off. Performers include: Kiko Jácome Trio, Mindy Ronstadt and the One-Bill Band, the Ronstadt Brothers, PD Ronstadt & the Company and Never on Time. Toward the end of the show, Ronstadt family members will flood the stage to perform together.

Local pianist, accordionist and singer-songwriter Bobby Ronstadt is fronting the charge on making this special show happen. 

“This whole thing is derived from our family get-togethers from over the many years and many generations,” Bobby says.

“I have old recordings of my aunts and uncles gathering and singing traditional Mexican songs that my grandfather, Federico, brought to all of us. At the concert, we’ll be doing one of his favorite Mexican songs and one of Michael J. Ronstadt’s original songs.”

Affectionately called “Papa Mike” by many, Michael J. died in 2016 at 62 years old. Linda’s younger brother, Mike was a prominent member of several bands throughout a long-spanning career. Most recently, he fronted Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses. It was a multigenerational family band that also featured his sons, Peter Dalton Ronstadt and Michael Gilbert Ronstadt, and accomplished musicians such as Alex Flores, Sam Eagon and Aaron Emery.

Bobby recounts that Mike was the first to champion this vision of a “Ronstadt Family Concert.”

“He had tried to put this together with the Ronstadt Generations project,” Bobby says.

“He brought me in and asked if I could talk to my side of the family. When he passed away, I wanted to model this show after the idea that he had for it 10 years ago.”

This family concert finally coming together was nothing short of serendipity for Bobby. Previous plans were snuffed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but JFCS kept the Ronstadts in mind for when venues reopened. Despite a cancer diagnosis this last November, Bobby has since been hard at work to gather his family and make the show happen. 

After some shuffling of the backroom planning — like availability schedules for featured artists — the concert as it is being presented was born at last.

Regarding the Ronstadts’ rich family history, Bobby admits with a chuckle, “It’s not a family tree. It’s a family forest. The family here in Tucson are basically all the descendants of the four sons from Federico’s second family. Gilbert Ronstadt and my dad both wound up running the Ronstadt Hardware Store in the ’40s.”

Before ACE Hardware and Home Depot built across the country en masse, the Ronstadt Hardware Store was a Downtown Tucson establishment. It would be run by Papa Mike through the 1980s, closing in 1986 just before the store’s 100th anniversary. Besides the history, Tucson is still rife with current Ronstadt family landmarks like the aforementioned music hall, the Downtown Ronstadt Center and Jácome Park.

The hardware company was one part of the F. Ronstadt Co., founded by Federico in 1886. 

“The store had a number of locations over the years, and its last location was where the transit center is now,” Bobby says.

“My great-grandfather, Frederick August, brought Federico to Tucson in 1882 to apprentice under the wagonmakers Dalton and Vasquez. After opening the F. Ronstadt Co. at the age of 18, he had gotten all of the merchants around Tucson together and they all got instruments. He taught some of these guys how to play.”

They would become the Club Filarmónico de Tucson. 

“This was one of the first philharmonic bands in Tucson,” Bobby says. “It’s like a marching band-type thing. They toured the West Coast and played anything and everything here in Tucson through the late 1800s and early 1900s.”

Bobby was taught by his Uncle Alfred to play the piano. 

“He played it like a madman with one arm that he had lost in a hunting accident. One day I was tinkling with the piano, and he comes over and kind of pushes me off the bench and says, ‘This is the way you play.’”

“He started playing really impressive ragtime stuff with one hand, and I was amazed.”

More recently, Bobby put out a CD of original music called “Out of the Blue”. He calls the release “fulfilling” and finds that his next steps might well be forming another band of his own once more of his health returns.

In the meantime, he will be celebrating the Ronstadts’ rich musical history on-stage at the Fox. Each act on-stage is a descendant of Gilbert and Edward Ronstadt, two of Federico’s sons. 

“We’ll have a short introduction with a little audiovisual history lesson. Then, each artist will play four songs with history — Kiko and his trio, Mindy with Bill Martin, the Ronstadt Brothers, the Company, then my little brother Tim’s band, Never on Time. At the very end, we’re inviting our siblings up and we’re going to sing as a family.”

Teasing a bit more of what will be performed at the show, Bobby says, “You know we’re going to have to honor Linda with a couple of her songs through the evening. We’ll be doing one of Petie’s songs that he wrote with Michael J., too.”

“This will probably be a one in a lifetime journey, since we all have our own lives — busy lives, at that. If you’ve got time, come on and check us out. The Ronstadt family is getting together to entertain.”

Ronstadt Family in Concert – Presented by the Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona

WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday, October 23

WHERE: Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress Street, Tucson

COST: Tickets start at $46