To many people, the voice of Ronnie Spector defines Rock ‘n’ Roll. She represents a mix of street tough New Yorker and school girl vulnerability with the occasional flirtatious giggle, her voice provided the heart, soul, and swagger of the iconic ‘60s group the Ronettes.
Ronnie Spector and Her Influence
Spector, her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley scored hits with songs like “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain.” According to People, “the cat-eyed siren bewitched the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie – all of whom vied for her affections – and served as a mascara’d muse for Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and even punk pioneers the Ramones.”
Her live performances provided the blueprint for generations of front-women to follow. Her fashion set the trends for an entire era. Now, decades later, her beehived influence lived on in Amy Winehouse, who has frequently stated that Spector is her idol on multiple occasions.
In 2017, Spector resurrected the Ronettes name with a new single, “Love Power,” and schedule tour dates in Spain, Napa, and beyond. She marveled, “It’s blowing my mind because I get more of an audience now than I did with the original Ronettes. I’m talking 18-year-old girls with beehives!”
In December 2018, Spector will be traveling across the United States for a holiday tour. She will be revisiting the Christmas classics she recorded with the Ronettes in 1963.
Her triumphant return seemed unimaginable during her “stormy” marriage to Phil Spector, who was a troubled record producer who launched her to stardom, according to People. Their professional relationship became personal when she was barely out of her teens. After they were married, the jealous producer kept her sequestered in their California mansion and subjected her to years of psychological torment.
With her mother’s help she was able to escape, barefoot and broke she began to rebuild her life. Today, Phil Spector is in prison for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, while Ronnie Spector tours the globe, singing her music and telling her inspiring story to packed houses.
She told People,
I made every negative a positive. Back then, I couldn’t go out and I couldn’t sing. Now, I go on stage and get to see the audience go crazy over me.
Her reputation as become a beacon for female empowerment rivals her status as a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer in the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
I was determined that nobody would ever keep me down again, and that’s what I’d tell any woman.
The Beginning for Ronnie and the Ronettes
Ronnie Spector was born Veronica Bennett. Her father was Irish-American and her mother was of African and Cherokee descent in Spanish Harlem. She began singing when she was 5 years old at weekly family gatherings. A coffee table was her stage and a coffee tin for a makeshift spotlight. “It was amazing. That’s what started my fire, when I got that applause from my aunts and uncles.” At the age of 11, Spector made her first public appearance at the legendary Apollo Theater. She was supposed to sing background vocals to her cousin Ira, however, when he was overcome by nerves, Spector took center stage. “He opened his mouth and nothing came out! So I went out there and grabbed the mic. The audience went nuts.” Then, she was hooked.
In the early ‘60s, Spector recruited her older sister and cousin to sing and dance with her at local clubs. They put in late nights before waking up a “Some mornings I couldn’t make it to class, but I wanted to be in show business so bad.”
They called themselves the Ronettes and they honed their act as the resident “dancing girls” at WABC DJ Murray the K’s legendary music revues at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater. They shared the stage with legends such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. It was on this stage the Ronettes developed their trademark fashion.
We wanted to be different, because there were all these other girl groups with wide dresses. When the Supremes came on, they had on gown. I said, ‘Uh uh. That’s not our look.’ My aunt made us our first outfits, and I told her, ‘I don’t want anything wide, we want something tight,’ because we’d dance.
The idea for Spector’s beehive was inspired by French bombshell Brigette Bardot.
I loved the way she did her hair, even though she was blonde and I have black hair, I could tease it up and do the bangs. In the streets, a lot Spanish girls would [also] tease their hair, and they have than makeup. We had the street clothes, and that’s why the kids liked us: because we looked like them. A little exaggerated, of course…
The Ronettes releases early singles such as “What’s So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen,” and “My Guiding Angel,” however, their career remained still until they met Phil Spector, who was the hottest producer in the country. He was only in his mid-twenties, crafting teenage symphonies with his bombastic “Wall of Sound” style, according to People. Phil wanted to bring the Ronettes to the top of the charts and make Ronnie his latest star. “Be My Baby,” a love letter to his protégé, would do just that. The album went to No. 2 in the fall of 1963. The Ronettes became instant headliners and Ronnie became his new love.
A few months later, the trio was in England and the Rolling Stones served as their opening act. It was while the group was in England Spector began her friendship with guitarist Keith Richards that continues today. “He and I weren’t dating but we would go out after the show to Wimpy Bars to have hamburgers. Everything back then was so innocent. We didn’t think about drinking – you had soda backstage.”
Additionally, the Ronettes hit it off with the Beatles.
They had seen us on ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ and they said, ‘We have got to meet these girls with the black long hair and slits up the side.’
John Lennon made a major move at an industry party, however, Spector turned him down. “I was young then, and I was seeing Phil. I didn’t want to kiss other guys and stuff.” The Beatles remained close friends with the Ronettes and became their official guides whenever they visited London, taking them shopping and treating them to dinner – with the ever-watchful eye of Ronnie and Estelle’s mother Beatrice.
She was not the only one who was watching Ronnie. Phil became more controlling as her fame grew. When the were in the studio, he would insist she stay by his side in the control room, separated from everyone else by soundproof glass.
I would bring my comic books, because I couldn’t be with anybody. Then, after everybody was gone, I’d sing my part. I was never around people. He made sure of that. The only person I was close to was Cher.
Cher began dating Phil Spector’s assistant Sonny Bono, who was working as a teenage background singer. “Cher and I really became close. We’d tell each other secrets.” In her own way, Ronnie tried to warn Cher about Phil’s destructive tendencies. “One time she said, ‘You know, Phil’s not a very attractive man…’ and I said, ‘Well Cher, Sonny ain’t no prize, sweetie!’”
Though studio sessions were sometimes tense, the results were amazing. With Phil at the helm, the Ronettes accomplished four more Top 40 hits in the next year: “Baby, I Love You,” “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” and “Do I Love You?” The Ronette’s influence was everywhere. Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, became obsessed with “Be My Baby” – often listening to it over a hundred times a day – and composed some of his most famous in an effort to equal its grandeur.
According to People, “Their bold fashion made them mainstays in the nation’s biggest magazines.”
We were on the cover of Jet, the cover of Ebony, and Mademoiselle magazine. That was the first time a biracial girl could be in there. Everybody liked us – every race liked us – and that was so important because we communicated with all the kids out there.
The Ronettes made an “electrifying appearance” in the 1966 concert film “The Big TNT Show.” They sang alongside Ray Charles Ike & Tina Turner, Joan Baez, Bo Diddley, and they Byrds. This cemented their status as members of the pop elite.
Additionally, the Beatles offered the Ronettes a spot as a support act on their world tour. Two members of the trio were on board, but Ronnie was given an ultimatum by Phil: “Marry me of go on tour with the Beatles.”
She was barely 23, but the choice was clear to her. “She would stay with her first boyfriend, the man she loved, the producer who made her famous.” It was made official with a brief ceremony two years later in 1968. “We didn’t have a wedding, we just went to the Beverly Hills Courthouse. I didn’t have a white dress, I just had on a blue suit and a white shirt! My mother had to sign the wedding certificate. She said to me, ‘I just signed your death certificate.’”
The End of the Ronettes
The marriage was the death of the Ronettes. Phil stopped releasing their new music and eventually stopped recording them all together. They were still under contract, but they had no choice but to watch their career wither away. The new bride became confined to the gloomy Beverly Hills mansion.
He wouldn’t let me go anywhere. I never went to dinner, because we had a cook. I never went out that door after I got married. Maybe six times in all those years. The doors were locked so I couldn’t even go outside to the fountain and walk a little bit. And we had a gate, too. ‘No Trespassers!’ There were so many signs, even the cops were afraid to go up there. I didn’t get dressed because I wasn’t going anywhere. Every day was the same thing.
Imagine being a Ronette, with the Rolling Stones as my opening act and all this greatness, to all of this darkness, with no singing.
A Prison in the Mansion
Phil became more controlling. He supervised her phone calls and installed intercom system in every room, including the bathroom. Even her television shows were monitored. “The Partridge Family” was on the forbidden list, because David Cassidy was too cute.
The couple adopted a child, a mixed-race infant named Donte. Not long afterward, Phil brought home 6-year-old twins, named Gary and Louis. He did not talk to Ronnie before adopting the twins.
She could not help but wonder if she would ever sing again. After years of assurances, he brought her back to the studio in 1969 to record a song Phil wrote, “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered.” That message was not lost on Ronnie’s mom.
She would say, “Ronnie, don’t you know what he’s doing?’ And I would say, ‘Not exactly.’ And she would say, ‘He came, he saw and he conquered you. He’s got you in this mansion. You can’t even go outside!’
Then, the red flags began to add up. She realized that Phil’s behavior, which would swing from overprotective doting to cruel outbursts, came from a dysfunctional place. “I knew I was going to die there. It’s a feeling you get. He was so obsessed, and he always said, ‘Before I let you go, you’ll be dead, honey.’ And he wasn’t kidding.”
Freedom From Phil Spector
Ronnie turned to her mother for help.
She was smart, powerful and intelligent. My whole survival was through my mom’s strengths. She laid it on me and she gave me that strength to keep going.
Together the mom and daughter team hatched an escape plan. The front door was locked, so they examined the service entrances.
We did all this planning for three days. We had everything timed.
Phil would hide Ronnie’s shoes, so she could not leave, so she would have to escape barefoot. Finally, she escaped only to come face-to-face with Phil on the lawn. He eyes dropped to her bare feet.
He said, ‘Mrs. Bennett, don’t let Veronica step on anything sharp.’ Her mother played it cool. Oh, I won’t let anything happen to her.
The two sauntered away as if they were going for a stroll, until they got to the driveway and started running.
The Story That Encourages
Ronnie recognizes that, although decades removed, her story mirrored that of many women who are trapped in abusive relationships, whether through fear, guilt, or financial necessity.
People don’t understand why I stayed so long. But when you’re in love – and that person made you famous – there are a lot of reasons. I feel free now to tell other women: if you are in a bad relationship, you have to find someone. If it’s not your mother, your best friend. One person has to help you. It’s so important for women to know, if you want to go, pick yourself up and just figure a way out and get the hell out and save your life.
After Ronnie divorced Phil in 1974, she moved back to New York to rebuild her musical career.
That’s where so much of my strength came from: I would not leave the stage. It was my love since I was 5 years old, so when I wasn’t performing, I felt like a nobody. And I was a nobody out there.
Ronnie said it was slow going, but she made a call to her old friend Murray the K and that helped her score some gigs.
During one of her comeback shows at Madison Square Garden, in the mid-‘70s, Jonathan Greenfield, a teenager who was smitten by her stage presence, would meet her in person a few years later while he was producing a stage play called “Women Behind Bars.”
Ronnie said, “I went because of the title. That’s how I felt my whole marriage. I saw this guy and he came over and said to me, ‘I’ve been your biggest fan forever. Can I just give you a hug?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
Touched, Ronnie returned to the play every night that week. “To see him, not the show.” In January, the couple will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. “He’s 15 years younger than me. That’s why I married him, he can take care of me when I get older!” They have two sons, Austin Drew (36) and Jason Charles (35). “My mother was getting sick at that time, but she knew that he was the guy for me. She got sicker and sicker until we had to take her into a nursing home, But as long as she saw Jonathan and her two grandchildren, that made her say, ‘I can rest in peace.’ Before Beatrice died in 1998, Ronnie lovingly sang “Be My Baby” in her ear for the last time.
For decades she has lived a double life as Ronnie the Rock Star and suburban mom in rural Connecticut. In 1983, she climbed the charts again with a featured appearance on Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” Her onetime opening act Billy Joel wrote “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in her honor, and she recorded a cover of the song backed by the E Street Band, on loan from Bruce Springsteen.
In 2007, Ronnie Spector was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reuniting her with her sister and cousin onstage after decades apart. Even with all the accolades, Ronnie makes time to go to the grocery store, the local steakhouse, and even Bed Bath and Beyond. “A lot of the women there tell me, ‘You are the beyond girl!’” Ronnie jokes.
Ronnie said when she hears one of her songs in the store, it brings back a flood of memories. Some are good, some are painful, but she is at peace with the beautiful music she made with her ex-husband years ago. “He was a great producer and I love my records, and I love what we did together – in the studio. So when I hear my records even today, I get excited.”
Ronnie felt vindicated and liberated when Phil was given a sentence of 19 years-to-life for his 2009 murder conviction. “It’s like, ‘I won, because he’s where he is and I’m out here going all over the world.”
During her show, Ronnie pays tribute to late artists like John Lennon, Amy Winehouse, and George Harrison. To most, they are legends, but to her they are friends and family. She honors them in song while she thinks about her mother and her sister Estelle, who succumbed to cancer in 2009.
I thank God I got Jon, and two kids that I love. I’m a mom and a wife and above all, I’m a singer and a performer and that’s what I love. I have to give my mother credit, but I give myself credit. My past made me strong and it made me want to do more. It makes me stronger and stronger, the more I even talk about it, I’m sitting here and I’m saying, ‘WOW!’
By Jeanette Smith
People: ‘My Past Made Me Strong’: Ronnie Spector’s Journey from ’60s Pop Icon to Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor
Featured Image Courtesy of j-No’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License