As the effervescent lead singer of the Ronettes, one of the most popular “girl groups” of the 1960s, Ronnie Spector enlivened the group with her powerful voice and distinctive, sultry vibrato. Under the watchful genius of her record producer, Bronx-born Phil Spector, Ronnie Spector, along with her sister, Estelle Bennett, and their cousin, Nedra Talley Ross, left an indelible mark in the annals of rock and roll through their recordings and performances as the Fabulous Ronettes.
Veronica “Ronnie” Spector was born Veronica Bennett in New York City on August 10, 1943. She grew up along with her sister, Estelle, on 151st Street in the Spanish Harlem district of New York City. Their father left the family when Spector was still in grade school, yet despite the painful loss she bore little ill will. Most of her elementary school career was spent at PS 92, and she later attended George Washington High School. Her father, Louis Bennett, was Irish, and her mother, Beatrice Bennett, was African American and Cherokee, which resulted in identity confusion for Spector as a child. Although she turned briefly—and with little success—to tanning lotion in her attempt to resolve the adolescent crisis, she ultimately learned to appreciate her unique heritage and exotic appearance. Indeed her facial features and coloring combined to enhance her media appeal, and her affinity for flashy clothes and exotic hairdos, reminiscent of the street life in Spanish Harlem, evoked a bad-girl image that served her well as “Ronnie Ronette,” the lead singer of the Fabulous Ronettes.
As a young child, Spector loved to perform for her family. Little Frankie Lymon was her idol, and she strove to imitate his girlish falsetto, singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” persistently. By early adolescence she had taken to re-arranging the family’s living room furniture into an imaginary auditorium and standing on the coffee table for a stage, after school and whenever else she had the opportunity to be at home by herself. She sang in a group with her sister, Estelle Bennett, and various cousins. For a time they called themselves Ronnie and the Relatives, until eventually she established a routine with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley Ross as the Rondettes—a combination of all three girls’ names. They played amateur shows at the Apollo Theater and as teenagers showed promise. They worked with a singing coach and by 1961 the three girls were singing locally at social functions and elsewhere. The trio renamed themselves the Ronettes and signed with Colpix Records that year. The Ronettes first release was a double-sided single, “I Want a Boy”/“What’s So Sweet about Sweet Sixteen.” A second double-sided single released that same year was called “I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead”/“My Guiding Light.” Several singles followed in 1962, including an old favorite, “Silhouettes.”
Born Veronica Bennett on August 10, 1943, in New York, NY;daughter of Louis and Beatrice Bennett; married Phil Spector, 1966; three sons; divorced, 1974; married Jonathan Greenfield, January 16, 1982; two sons: Austin, born 1981, Jason, born 1983.
Formed the Darling Sisters with sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Taylor, 1959; signed with Colpix Records, 1961; made first records, including “Be My Baby,” as the Ronettes on Phil Spector’s Philles label, 1963; group broke up, 1966; Spector signed with Apple Records, 1970; Buddha Records, 1974; Columbia Records, 1987-90; published autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, 1990; released She Talks to Rainbows, Kill Rock Stars Records, 1999.
In addition to recording for Colpix, the Ronettes continued to work locally. Eventually, through a case of mistaken identity combined with pluck, the girls secured a regular stint as dancers at New York City’s popular Peppermint Lounge. Although they were underage, they stuffed their brassieres with tissue in an attempt to look older and maneuvered their way discretely through the 46th Street club. Through a chance meeting with a popular New York disc jockey, Murray the K, they secured a job performing with his weekly rock and roll revue at the Brooklyn Fox Theater, and they appeared every evening after school on a local radio show.
The early Ronettes recorded for Colpix with little success through 1962. By early 1963 the group determined to find another producer and called Phil Spector “cold,” without introduction. Phil Spector, who produced many of the greatest rock and roll hits of the 1960s, agreed to audition the Ronettes at Mirasound Studios. Already familiar with the girls’ dancing, he wanted to see and hear more.
Phil Spector recognized immediately that Ronnie Spector’s voice was a good match for his recording technique, called the “wall of sound,” an immensely popular special effect involving the vocal overdubbing of orchestral recordings. Wall of sound involved multiple voices singing in harmony and “exploding” through the elaborate orchestral track. Phil Spector employed the wall of sound to create some of the greatest hit records of the 1960s, including “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide” by the Righteous Brothers. Upon hearing the Ronettes, he set to work and wrote songs explicitly for the trio to sing, and by the fall of 1963, the Ronettes’ signature hit, “Be My Baby,” was written, recorded, and released on Philles Records. Dick Clark picked up the song on his perennial American Bandstand, and he introduced the song as the “record of the century.” The song was immensely popular; the Ronettes became a sensation overnight, and their lifestyle approached fantasy level. The girls traveled to England early in 1964 and performed on Sunday Night at the Palladium with the Beatles. Another band, called the Rolling Stones, who were unknown at the time, opened for the Ronettes; and the late Beatle, John Lennon, developed an infatuation for Ronnie Spector.
The Ronettes, and Spector in particular, developed a close personal bond with the two English groups, and the musicians all visited back and forth whenever their touring engagements brought them to the same city. Phil Spector continued to write hit songs for the Ronettes, and the group cultivated a street-wise image that evoked its Spanish Harlem roots. The girls teased their hair and painted heavy black mascara on their eyes in emulation of the exotic women of the streets. They shortened and tightened their skirts until they could go neither shorter nor tighter and then added a slit for movement and more sex appeal. As the classic 1960 “girl group” soared to fame, a romance bloomed between Spector and the masterful young producer of her records. Ironically, Spector and her singing partners retained a wholesome quality off stage, as Beatrice Bennet kept a watchful eye over the girls and their activities. Spector remained naïve and failed to succumb to the shallow and tawdry lure of show business, even as she traveled the world as a major rock and roll star at a time when rock and roll reigned supreme.
The Ronettes recorded 28 songs with Philles Records prior to Phil Spector’s unofficial retirement in 1966, after which the popular singing group faded into rock and roll history. The pace of Spector’s life slowed. Many of the Ronettes’ later recordings were never released; and otherswere released but inexplicably credited to other girl groups. On April 14, 1968, “Ronnie Ronette” unassumingly married Phil Spector, and within hours, her life plunged into an abyss of loneliness that she endured for nearly ten years. Both she and her husband turned increasingly to alcohol and drugs as a means of coping with daily life, and by the age of 25 she had become for practical purposes a has-been and a drunk.
The Spectors, unable to conceive a child, adopted a baby named Donté, born March 23, 1969. Spector, who saw the bi-racial child on television, felt a kinship with the infant because of her own mixed heritage. Additionally, Spector in her naivete hoped that her fractured marriage would improve with the presence of a child, but the situation worsened. In 1969, still fraught with depression and overwhelmed by chronic drug use, she inadvertently drove her car to the edge of a cliff, where it teetered ominously. She was rescued in an unconscious state. Overwhelmed and frightened by the thought of the near disaster that she escaped so narrowly, Spector sought professional help for her depression and substance abuse.
In 1970 she signed with Apple Records, at the request of the Beatles who presented her with a song written by George Harrison. The song, released in 1971, was called, “Try Some, Buy Some” but failed to revive her waning career. Upon her return to the United States, she immediately resumed her self-abusive lifestyle, suffered a seizure, and underwent detoxification treatment at St. Francis Hospital. Ironically, Spector found comfort in the atmosphere at the hospital, and for months thereafter she subjected herself to bouts of drug abuse for the purpose of returning to the hospital as an escape from the overbearing lifestyle forced upon her by her husband. In 1971, a desperate Phil Spector coerced his wife into adopting six-year-old twins, in attempt to revive the marriage. The ruse failed, and in 1972 Ronnie Spector joined Alcoholics Anonymous and summoned the courage to leave her husband permanently. In her desperation she left behind all of her personal belongings in the couple’s 23-room mansion, and although she tried at a later time to recover her possessions, she met with no success.
Ronnie Spector filed for and secured a divorce. The settlement awarded her partial custody of her son, Donté. She set out to revive her shattered career, and the music world was receptive. In 1973 she worked with Alice Cooper and spent some time on tour as a solo act. After she settled her divorce in 1974, she returned to New York City and successfully revived the Ronettes with new backup singers. Her following grew, and her colleagues in the music world—including disc jockey, Murray the K, and popular teen host, Dick Clark—presented her with opportunities to gain exposure. She played at Madison Square Garden, and in 1974, Buddha Records signed her to a short-lived recording contract. Her prospects improved steadily until a series of mishaps instigated by her ex-husband—including a telephoned death threat—that caused Ronnie Spector to retreat once more from the public spotlight. With encouragement from Steven Van Zandt, she maintained a limited performance calendar, and in 1975 released a single, “You’d Be Good for Me,” with Tom Cat Records. She toured for over a year with Johnny and the Asbury Jukes as the opening act for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and in 1977 Van Zandt produced her recording of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” Her efforts met with little success.
As her reprised career slumped, she focused her attention on gaining full custody of her son. Around that same time, in 1978, she became acquainted with a theater worker named Jonathan Greenfield at Hurrah disco in New York City. Greenfield, a long-time admirer of Spector and the Ronettes, proved to be a positive influence and a highly supportive friend. Spector and Greenfield married on June 16, 1982. The couple has two sons, Austin and Jason. With her confidence restored, Spector published her autobiography, Be My Baby, with Harmony Books of New York in 1990.
Career-wise, Greenfield successfully arranged for Spector to fill a headline bill at the prestigious Bottom Line nightclub in 1981, and she resumed her professional singing career for a third time. In 1986 Spector accepted an offer from Eddie Money to sing on “Take Me Home Tonight,” a hit single of 1986. The record led to a recording contract with Columbia Records and resulted in her subsequent release of Unfinished Business in 1987. In 1999, Spector performed on Born Again Savage, on Van Zandt’s label, Renegade Nation. She released a second alburn that year, a Kill Rock Stars production called She Talks to Rainbows. The album features one of Spector’s own songs, “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine,” and “Don’t Worry Baby” written by Beach Boy Brian Wilson for Spector two decades earlier. She made personal appearances and was on the bill to perform with the new Ronettes at a national, White House backed economic summit in Denver in June of 1997. In July of 1998 she joined with approximately 300 musicians in the Intel New York Music Festival, hosted on the Internet across 20 locations in New York City. She appeared with Tommy James in the CBS Oldies Concert on the Central Park Summer Stage in June of 1999. She also performed in the Columbia Media Journal (CMJ) Music Marathon, along with Willie Nelson, the Foo Fighters, and other popular stars. When cable television network VH1 aired “VH1 100 Women of Rock and Roll,” Ronnie Spector appeared at number 67 on the list.
During the late 1990s, in a well-publicized court action in the State Supreme Court of Manhattan, Ronnie Spector brought suit against her ex-husband for millions of dollars in past due royalties from the sale and other use of the Ronettes recordings. Her sister and her cousin joined her in the lawsuit alleging that Phil Spector employed coercive tactics to withhold royalties from the singers, since 1964. The members of the Ronettes revealed in court that they received a collective total of $14,000 following the release of “Be My Baby,” and received no further payment for subsequent recordings and royalties. The Ronettes maintained their right to the royalties and disputed the ownership of the master tapes of their recordings in an involved court battle.
“Try Some, Buy Some,” Apple Records, 1971.
“You’d Be Good for Me,” Tom Cat Records, 1975.
“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (with E-Street Band), 1977.
“Take Me Home Tonight” (with Eddie Money), Columbia, 1986.
Unfinished Business, Columbia, 1987.
She Talks to Rainbows (includes “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine,” and “Don’t Worry Baby”), 1999.
With the Ronettes
“Sweet Sixteen,” Colpix, 1961.
“Silhouettes,” May 1962.
“Be My Baby,” Philles Records, 1963.
A Christmas Gift for You (with others), Philles Records, 1963.
“Baby I Love You,” Philles Records, 1963.
Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes, Philles Records, 1963.
“The Best Part of Breakin’ Up,” Philles Records, 1964.
The Ronettes Sing Their Greatest Hits, Vol. II, Philles Records, 1965.
“Walkin’ in the Rain.”
Spector, Ronnie, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, Harmony Books, 1990.
Entertainment, September 17, 1999, p. 80.
Independent, June 27, 1989, p. 1-2; December 12, 1998, p. 12.
Magnet, October/November 1999, p. 26.
Newsday, September 20, 1999, p. B9.
Rolling Stone, October 28, 1999, p. 104.
USA Today, July 16, 1999, p. 5E.
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