ronnie spector, the original bad girl of rock 'n' roll, on why she'll never quit
We've crossed over to the over side. Sitting in the lobby of a West London hotel, Ronnie Spector is explaining the moment The Ronettes recorded "Be My Baby," perhaps the most perfect distillation of pop music of the last 60 years. She pounds a fist on the sofa, mimicking the great Hal Blaine "boom-ba-boom-cha" of the opening and suddenly that familiar voice fills the room: "The night we met I knew I, needed you sooo."
It is one of the most distinctive sounds in the history of modern pop. Clean, high, direct, heavily accented with that thrilling New York twang. The backdrop to a thousand and one breakups and makeups, this is the song that caused John Lennon to almost faint when she sung it in his ear on The Ronettes' first visit to the UK in 1964; caused Bruce Springsteen to spend an entire six months trying to ape its "Wall of Sound" on Born to Run; caused the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson to listen a thousand times in an attempt to crack the formula (only to find out there isn't one).
Produced by her ex-husband, Phil Spector, The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" is as close to bottling actual, genuine magic as human beings have ever come. And now, Ronnie Spector, the group's leader and one of pop music's greatest conduits, is preparing to take to the stage at Glastonbury for the first time and singing with that voice you've heard a hundred times before. Wha-oh-oh-oh, indeed.
Born in Spanish Harlem to an African-American and Cherokee mother and an Irish-American father, Ronnie formed The Ronettes in the late 1950s as a family act along with her sister, Estelle, and their cousin, Nedra. The group got its break a few years later when the manager of New York's Peppermint Lounge mistook the girls for a trio booked to dance behind the club's house band.
"The Ronettes were so different from most girl groups," says Ronnie today. "We had interracial parents, long hair. We wore slits up the side, like the Chinese dresses. I remember groups like The Shirelles and The Chiffons would come out with these flared skirts and we would come out in skin tight dresses. We didn't have a hit record at the time but the guys went nuts over us more than the groups that did! Girls too. And I loved that."
The hit records would come following a call by Estelle to Phil Spector's Philles Records, winning the group a much-coveted audition with the producer in 1963. "The musicians almost passed out," she recalls. "All of Phil's singers were mostly gospel. Darlene Love… I was the only pop singer. And I had this different New York sound."
In Veronica Bennett, as she was known then, Phil Spector found the final ingredient of his all-consuming barrage of noise, which would later become known as the "Wall of Sound." A world away from the lightweight disposability of teen idols such as Frankie Avalon or Bobby Vee, The Ronettes were an intoxicating mix of sex and heartbreak, and Spector, already completely in love with the then 20-year-old Ronnie, ensured the group had hits on both sides of the Atlantic: "Be My Baby" (US No. 2, UK No. 4 in 1963) and "Baby, I Love You" (US No. 24, UK No.11 in 1964).
"Our first UK tour, we were the headliners and the Rolling Stones supported," Ronnie remembers of the group's initial success. "The Beatles came to see us and I remember John [Lennon] and George [Harrison] coming to pick my sister and I up. We were staying at the Strand Palace Hotel and of course my mother's there so, being polite, they said, 'Mrs Bennett, would you like to go with us for dinner?' thinking she would say, 'No, you kids go along, have fun.' My mother said, 'Wait I'll get my purse!' We were devastated."
When The Beatles arrived in the States for the first time later that year, it was The Ronettes who would return the favor amid the ensuing Beatlemania: "I'm talking about girls climbing up the hotel to try and get in the windows, to get in their room. That's when they called me, 'Ronnie, we're stuck, we're prisoners! Come get us out!' And I did. I took them to Harlem. They had BBQ ribs, played the jukebox. And you know what was the best thing? Nobody came over and asked them for autographs. They just looked like the rest of the Spanish dorks in my neighborhood!"
Ironically, it was The Beatles sound that would supersede that of the 60s girl group. The Ronettes' career began to stall as Ronnie's relationship with an increasingly jealous Spector developed and the pair married in 1968. Questions about that relationship are strictly off-limits today — the producer was sentenced to 19 years in prison following the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 — but it becomes clear that as the singer's own fame grew, a paranoid Spector became more and determined to withdraw Ronnie from the spotlight, reducing the number of releases by the group and essentially trapping her at his home in California.
"As soon as I married him, I never went on the stage again for seven years," she says, quietly. "I remember being in the house in California. You couldn't go in or out. You were locked in. I was allowed to go every month to get my feminine stuff but if I was over twenty minutes, he'd send the body guards. I had no free time at all."
The couple divorced in 1974, by which point The Ronettes, due to their years away, had seen their standing eclipsed by contemporaries such as The Supremes. "When I came back from California, I actually had to start all over again," she describes. "I went to this gay club, The Continental Baths. Bette Midler would sing, Barry Manilow. And I just kept going."
While Ronnie had seen her career nosedive in a commercial sense, back in New York she began to discover the indelible impact the group had had on other musicians, most surprisingly on the burgeoning punk scene, lead at the time by The Ramones, who would famously enlist Phil Spector to cover the group's "Baby, I Love You." "Joey was the most genuine rock and roller I ever met," she says of The Ramones lead vocalist, who passed away of lymphoma in 2001. "I remember I was doing a session with Keith Richards in New York and this is when Joey was really, really sick. He came to the studio and Keith and I are over here behind the glass recording and Joey was sitting right there and he didn't say a word the whole way through. His favorite girl singer and his favorite Rolling Stone, Keith. He just got up and left. He died right after that."
And, of course, The Ronettes' influence also spread to the UK, most notably through both the look and sound of Amy Winehouse. "I loved her and she loved me," says Ronnie of the late singer. "Her mother told me a story. She said, 'You know, Ronnie, Amy died at 27, but she was 27 and she had a husband. I couldn't tell her what to do.' And I had to calm her because I knew that feeling. My mother was the same way with Phil. All of a sudden I'm being shipped to California. And that was to take me away from everybody, you know? He had problems, my ex, and so did Amy. You get with these guys and they can fuck you up. She loved performing, she loved singing, and she loved her husband. Same with me."
Thankfully today, Ronnie is back performing, on tour in the UK promoting her latest album, English Heart, her first new material in ten years. "I wanted it to be all about the English groups," she says of the record, featuring songs by the likes of The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Stones. "It took me five months just to narrow it down. And I changed a lot of stuff, which I wasn't allowed to in the 60s. That's why today I feel so much better, so much greater."
Fifty years on from those initial releases, what is it that she still loves about performing? "I love the audience," she replies. "I love that they come to see me. I have a passion for it. It's like a disease. It's there all the time. I can think of other things, what I'll make for dinner… But in the back of my head is what I'm going to do next on stage."
Then she pauses with all the dramatic timing of that great opening drum beat again. "I'll never quit rock and roll. It has to quit me."
Ronnie Spector performs on the Park Stage at Glastonbury Festival this Friday.
Text Matthew Whitehouse