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Remembering Ronnie Spector

Remembering Ronnie Spector

To probably two generations now, the name Ronnie Spector might not mean much, but for a few years in the 1960’s Ronnie, who died last week at age 78, was the queen of pop. Born Ronnie Bennett, the daughter of an African-American-Cherokee mother and Irish–American father, she along with sister, Estelle Bennett, and their cousin, Nedra Talley. formed the trio the Ronettes in 1957. They started out singing at dancing at the Peppermint Lounge in Manhattan backing Joey Dee and the likes of Bobby Rydell. They were signed to the Colpix label without much success, but then teamed up with record producer Phil Spector who signed them to his label Philles Records in 1963. Their relationship with Spector brought chart success with “Be My Baby” (1963), “Baby, I Love You” (1963), “The Best Part of Breakin’ Up” (1964), “Do I Love You?” (1964), and “Walking in the Rain” (1964). Spector perfected his “wall of sound” production techniques using the studio musicians known as the ‘wrecking crew” to back the group. The arrangements were marked by the drum work of Hal Blaine and layer upon layer of overdubbed guitars and strings. A little dangerous, with their beehive hairstyles and liberal use of mascara, the multi-racial group caught the attention of record producers while performing in New York clubs. They were the first “bad girls” of pop, and their look was emulated by teenaged girls everywhere in the 60’s and revived decades later with the stage persona of Amy Winehouse.

The Ronettes, Ronnie, Centre

That was really about it for big hits, but they enjoyed success, particularly in the UK where they toured with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. By 1967 the group had broken up and a year later Ronnie Married Phil Spector who even then was showing signs of the very troubled personality that would end decades later with a life sentence for murder. Phil subjected her to years of psychological torment and sabotaged her career by forbidding her to perform. He surrounded their house with barbed wire and guard dogs, and confiscated her shoes to prevent her from leaving. On the rare occasions he allowed her out alone, she had to drive with a life-size dummy of Phil. Spector stated that Phil installed a gold coffin with a glass top in the basement, promising that he would kill her and display her corpse if she ever left him. So desperate to get out of the house, she actually began drinking which in turn allowed her to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She finally fled the Spector mansion (barefoot) and divorced Phil in 1974. From then on she spent the next decade trying to revive her career

In 1986, Spector enjoyed a resurgence of popular radio airplay as the featured vocalist on Eddie Money’s Top 5 hit, “Take Me Home Tonight”, in which she answers Money’s chorus lyric, “just like Ronnie sang”, with, “be my little baby”. The song’s music video was one of the top videos of the year and in heavy rotation on MTV. During this period, she also recorded the song “Tonight You’re Mine, Baby” (from the film Just One of the Guys). Also around this time the Ronettes received a $1 Million settlement from Phil Spector for back royalties.

Ronnie in later years

In 1988, Spector began performing at the Ronnie Spector’s Christmas Party, a seasonal staple at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City.  It was at one of these shows that this writer saw her perform. Working with an all-female band, she sang all of her hits, including the ones on the Phil Spector Christmas album, her voice only slightly diminished from her teen glory days. In a tough city, where nonetheless, people go sappy over the oldies, one over-enthusiastic fan summed it up for the rest in the crowd when he jumped up and shouted, “we still LOVE you Ronnie…”

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