“I was driving [the first time I heard it],” Brian Wilson once said of Ronnie Spector and her signature song, The Ronettes‘ 1963 single, ‘Be My Baby’. “I had to pull over to the side of the road – it blew my mind. I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song, and I never did. I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.”
Madonna’s tribute to Ronnie Spector, who has died from cancer at the age of 78, was rather more succinct. “I want to look,” said the pop icon, “like Ronnie Spector sounds.”
Born Veronica Yvette Bennett to an African-American-Cherokee mother and an Irish-American father, on August 10th, 1943, in Washington Heights, Manhattan, Ronnie – along with her older sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley – started young; the trio performed locally as the Darling Sisters while still at high school.
“At eight years old, I was already working up whole numbers for our family’s little weekend shows,” Ronnie said of the regular get togethers that would take place at their grandmother’s. “Then Estelle would get up onstage and do a song, or she’d join Nedra or my cousin Elaine and me in a number we’d worked out in three-part harmony.”
Obsessed with the American doo-wop group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, by 1957 she’d added cousins Diane, Elaine and Ira to the group and formed the first iteration of The Ronettes. After an early show saw Ira stuck with stage fright, unable to sing, the band floundering behind him, Ronnie took over. “I strutted out across the stage, singing as loud as I could,” she recalled. “When I finally heard a few hands of scattered applause, I sang even louder. That brought a little more applause, which was all I needed…” Ira, Elaine and Diane subsequently left the group.
After a brief name change to Ronnie and the Relatives – to whom their first two singles, ‘I Want A Boy’ and ‘I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead’ are credited – a residency at The Peppermint Lounge on New York City’s 128 West 45th Street saw the group performing a few songs each night. This being the height of the Twist craze, they were pushed out on stage to do some dancing too. Unfortunately, Ronnie and Nedra were too young to legally perform, and so, with the assistance of their mothers, the teenagers framed their eyes with heavy kohl and teased their hair as heigh as it could go in a successful attempt to appear of age. One of pop’s most iconic looks was born.
The group – now The Ronettes – enjoyed modest success on the now defunct Colpix label, but wanting more, in an event that can, with hindsight, be reframed as a scene from a horror movie, Estelle called producer Phil Spector and asked if they could audition for him. He agreed. The trio performed ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ by Ronnie’s beloved Teenagers, with the producer at the piano. Minutes into the song, Spector rose from his stool. “That’s it!” he exclaimed. “That’s the voice I’ve been looking for!” Spector wanted said voice on his Philles label – specifically Ronnie – though her mother told him it was “all or nothing”. He compromised, agreeing to sign the group in its entirety. First, in order to release them from their contract, Ronnie and Estelle’s mother had to call Colpix and tell them that the girls had given up on showbiz.
Ronnie and Spector, who was then married, soon began an affair. Infatuated, he divorced his wife in 1965 and bought a 23-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion for them both to reside in, before getting married to Ronnie in 1968. They adopted a son, Donté Phillip, a year later. Two years after that, Ronnie woke up on Christmas morning to learn that her husband had adopted twins, Louis and Gary, as a Christmas gift. Spector’s controlling, unhinged – terrifying – behaviour wouldn’t be common knowledge until the release of Ronnie’s astonishing memoir Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness in 1990, but – as is often the way, tragically – the signs were there early.
Spector flew the women from New York to record their first single – then declined to release it. They recorded covers of 60’s dancefloor staples such as ‘The Twist’, ‘The Wah-Watusi’ and ‘Mashed Potato Time’, before Spector credited the recordings to fellow New York girl group The Crystals. When The Ronettes were booked to tour with The Beatles in 1966, Spector refused to let Ronnie leave home (cousin Elaine took her place). Ronnie had made it to the UK with the group in late 1963, where The Rolling Stones would open for the girls. Ronnie met John Lennon and they became close friends. Estelle dated George Harrison for a time. But it was Keith Richards who left the biggest impression on her.
“The first time I ever went to heaven was when I awoke with Ronnie (later Spector!) Bennett asleep with a smile on her face,” the Rolling Stones hellraiser wrote in his 2010 autobiography Life. “We were kids. It doesn’t get any better than that…”
Though they released just one studio album, 1964’s ‘Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica’, the group placed nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became Top 40 hits. ‘Be My Baby’ marks the first appearance of Cher, on backing vocals, on vinyl. ‘Baby, I Love You’, their only Top 10 hit, was later covered by the Ramones, whose singer Joey Ramone would become a friend of Ronnie, as well as acolyte and collaborator until his passing in 2001. ‘(The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up’ and ‘Walking In The Rain’ were also songs that helped Spector to perfect his lauded ‘Wall Of Sound’. It’s true that The Ronettes needed Spector. But it’s not said enough that Spector desperately needed them too.
“No one as cool, talented, sassy and smart as Ronnie should be defined by the abuse she endured from Phil Spector”
A maestro in the control room, a monster outside of it, Spector was convicted of the 2003 murder of actor Lana Clarkson in 2009. He spent the rest of his life in prison and died last year. No one as cool, talented, sassy and smart as Ronnie should be defined by the abuse she endured during their time together (and thereafter – it took until 2001 for Ronnie and The Ronettes to see the vast royalties Spector owed them).
Ronnie’s memoir describes a torment that’s remarkable in its cruelty. Before she fled their barbed-wire, guard dog-patrolled mansion (she was barefoot as Spector had banned her from wearing shoes to prevent her leaving) without belongings, Ronnie had experienced true horror; on the rare occasions she was allowed out alone, she was instructed to drive with a life-sized dummy of her husband in the car. Once Spector took his wife down to the basement and showed her a gold coffin with a glass top, saying if she ever left him, he would kill her and exhibit her body inside. “I knew that if I didn’t leave, I was going to die there,” she wrote.
Ronnie – who kept the name Spector for fear that nobody would know who she was without it – battled with alcoholism for years afterward. The ’80s and ’90s were largely a blur, though she appeared on Eddie Money’s Top 5 hit and MTV staple ‘Take Me Home Tonight’ in 1985, while the yearly Christmas shows she kicked off at New York City’s B. B King Blues Club in 1988 became legendary. By the ’00s, spearheaded by the patronage of the aforementioned Ramone, any rocker who understood the glory and glamour of rock‘n’roll flocked to her. She want a favourite of the late Amy Winehouse and latter day collaborations took place with Patti Smith, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Misfits and The Raconteurs. In 2020 it was announced that the megastar Zendaya will portray Ronnie in a forthcoming biopic based on her memoir.
Survivor, icon, a voice like a tiger slurping cocktails: nobody will ever forget the great Ronnie Bennett.