She wrote “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” which Linda Ronstadt recorded. Her “All My Life” was an international hit for Ronstadt and Aaron Neville, and it became a wedding day favorite. Wynonna Judd had a big country hit with her “Tell Me Why.”
The common denominator on all those songs is singer/songwriter Karla Bonoff. It’s fitting that a woman who wrote hits for others got her biggest hit with someone else’s song. That number was “Personally,” which Paul Kelly wrote. R&B singer Jackie Moore had cut it in 1978, but it barely made a dent in the charts. Moore’s single wound up in the hands of Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, who happened to be friends with Bonoff.
“He was a great collector of obscure R&B songs, and he played that for me one night at his house,” Bonoff said in a phone call last week. “I was like, wow, what a cool tune. Somebody should make a hit out of that. He said, you know, I was thinking I should send that to Bonnie Raitt. I was like, No! Don’t send that to Bonnie Raitt!”
Bonoff’s cover in 1982 got to No. 19 on the Billboard top 20, her only pop hit, and to No. 3 on the publication’s adult contemporary chart. For someone who wrote a lot of mellow, folk rock style music, it was more than a change of pace.
“That was kind of a strange hit for me,” Bonoff said. “I think some people know that song and don’t know a whole lot else about me, but the fans, it’s really not their favorite song. They like my other stuff.”
She still performs it live, so expect to hear it Saturday, when Bonoff plays Harvester Performance Center, in Rocky Mount.
Her good friend Frey died in 2016, but his death was only one of several in recent years among Bonoff’s peer group in the Southern California music scene that blew up in the 1970s. Two of her bandmates from a before-its-time outfit of folk-rockers called Bryndle. Kenny Edwards, who had founded The Stone Poneys with Ronstadt, then joined Bryndle, died in 2010. Andrew Gold died the next year. Singer, songwriter and producer Wendy Waldman remains active in the music business.
Edwards produced Bonoff’s first three albums. Frey was among the first people she met when she was exploring the folk rock scene of Los Angeles, which centered on The Troubadour.
“Unfortunately at this point, when you get to this age, that’s what starts to happen,” said Bonoff, 66. “It’s hard, because it doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. We are losing people, a lot of people. It’s sad, but you try to carry on.
“To lose these guys in their 60s, it’s really a bummer. They had a lot more music in them.”
Bonoff, who grew up in Santa Monica, California, said that music was her key interest, but given her location, she more of less “fell into” the business.
“I think the only thing I was really passionate about was music,” she said. “I didn’t care for school. I got through it. I always looked forward to coming home and playing guitar and putting on my Judy Collins record or whatever it was at the time, and learning the songs. That was the thing that I was passionate about from 14 or 15. That combined with that music scene that was just sort of growing around me, and gave me this incredible outlet to just be able to sort of fall into this singer/songwriter thing.
“I started out with my sister, writing, and we had a duo, sort of playing Joni Mitchell-type stuff that we were writing. We started doing those Monday nights at The Troubadour, which were open mic nights. That’s how we started meeting all these other people — Kenny Edwards and Wendy Waldman and Glenn and JD Souther. Everybody was drawn to the same couple of places where you could get up and perform.”
She tried a semester at UCLA, but by then, she was already immersed in the the music scene, and A&M Records signed Bryndle in 1970.
“You had to commit one way or the other. I think I was lucky I found my passion early. And I was one of the fortunate ones to have it work for me, and not have to go back to college and figure out another career. I think it was just meant to be for me.
Her sister, Lisa, who is three years older, did go back to school, got a PhD. She’s a professor of religion, Bonoff said.
For the most part, Bonoff has written her songs by herself. That’s how she prefers it.
For me, it’s about trying to dig deep and pull out something from inside,” she said. “It’s harder for me to do that with other people sitting around.”
Her latest project, “Carry Me Home,” is a mixture of some Bonoff classics and new numbers, plus Jackson Browne’s “Something Fine.” It’s available digitally (see website in info box) and at her shows.
“It started out I wanted to re-record me old stuff,” she said. The way we play it now is really good, and some of those records are really old. And as a technical thing, if you re-record your old stuff and you want to license it, you can do that, as opposed to if they want to go back to Sony and license something, it can be more difficult.”
The recordings turned out so well, she decided to add some new songs and make it a CD.
“I actually think I’m singing a lot better than I did on some of those albums a long time ago, and the arrangements that [accompanying guitarist Nina Gerber] and I do together are just very simple and unplugged. So it’s kind of a new take on a lot of old stuff. ... I think fans will really like it.”