Born: August 10th, 1943
Died: January 12th, 2022
Ronnie Spector, the lead singer of the Ronettes, a 1960s vocal trio that gave a passionate, bad-girl edge to pop’s girl-group sound with hits such as Be My Baby and Baby, I Love You, died on Wednesday. She was 78.
She died after “a brief battle with cancer,” according to a statement from her family, which gave no further details.
With high-piled hair, tight outfits and seductive looks, the three young women of the Ronettes – Ronnie, born Veronica Bennett; her sister, Estelle; and their cousin Nedra Talley – transformed the virginal model that had defined female pop groups since the 1940s.
“We weren’t afraid to be hot. That was our gimmick,” Spector wrote in her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or, My Life as a Fabulous Ronette.
“When we saw the Shirelles walk on stage with their wide party dresses,” she wrote, “we went in the opposite direction and squeezed our bodies into the tightest skirts we could find. Then we’d get out on stage and hike them up to show our legs even more.”
In songs such as Be My Baby, a No 2 hit in 1963, they sang with powerful voices of street-smart romance (“We’ll make ’em turn their heads everyplace we go”), over the swelling “wall of sound” production of Phil Spector.
Be My Baby was a classic of 1960s pop that seemed to reveal both innocence and grit, and it earned lasting admiration from fellow musicians. It appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the hit 1987 television show Moonlighting and the title sequence of Dirty Dancing. The group’s look and sound made them a touchstone for women in rock music, from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders to Amy Winehouse.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, in his speech inducting the Ronettes into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, described hearing the group warming up backstage when they shared touring bills in the 1960s. “They could sing all their way right through a wall of sound,” he said. “They didn’t need anything.”
Later, Ronnie Spector detailed the abuse she endured while married to Phil Spector. When the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock Hall, they pointedly did not mention their former producer. Spector, who was sentenced to prison for the 2003 murder of a woman at his home, died at 81 in January 2021.
The Ronettes racked up a string of hits through 1965, including The Best Part of Breakin’ Up and Walking in the Rain, and for a time they were ubiquitous stars. They were part of the Beatles’ 1966 American tour, and Estelle Bennett, Spector’s older sister, dated George Harrison and Mick Jagger.
The Ronettes disbanded in 1967, and Ronnie Spector married Phil Spector the next year. In her memoir, she wrote that he had essentially held her prisoner during their relationship, surrounding her with guard dogs and taking away her shoes, among other erratic and psychologically abusive behaviour.
“I’d get drunk so I could go to rehab, just to get out of the house,” she told the New York Times in a 2000 interview.
In the late 1980s, the Ronettes sued Phil Spector for royalties, arguing that they had been paid less than $15,000 when they signed with his Philles Records in 1963 and that they never saw another payment. The court battle would last 15 years.
During the trial, Ronnie Spector said that her husband had stifled her singing career and threatened her into signing a 1974 divorce settlement that forfeited all future record profits. “He told me, ‘I’ll kill you,’ and said, ‘I’ll have a hit man kill you,’” she testified.
The group won an award of $2.6 million in 2000, but the decision was overturned on appeal two years later, and their families later said they wound up earning substantially less.
“I was so controlled by Phil, and now I have my own ideas,” Ronnie Spector said at the time. “With this lawsuit over, I’m only looking forward: to my future, to singing rock ’n’ roll.”
Veronica Yvette Bennett was born in New York on August 10th, 1943, and grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. By her teens she was singing with her sister and cousin, inspired by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Estelle Bennett, who had a job at Macy’s and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, helped devise the group’s look of beehive hair, tight dresses and heavy makeup.
In a segregated era, the young women’s racial and ethnic backgrounds made them stand out. The Bennett sisters had Black, American Indian and Irish blood, while Talley was Black, Indian and Puerto Rican.
In 1961, the Ronettes were signed to Colpix Records, which released I Want a Boy and other singles under the name Ronnie and the Relatives. After an audition in 1963, Phil Spector signed the group to Philles. Be My Baby, written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, was released that summer.
Throughout the 1970s, in an attempt to rebuild her career without her ex-husband, Ronnie Spector collaborated with Jimi Hendrix, Harrison, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. But she didn’t find major success again until 1986, when her duet with Eddie Money, Take Me Home Tonight, reached No 4 on the Billboard singles chart and earned a Grammy nomination.
She later released music as a solo artist, including for the underground independent label Kill Rock Stars, and staged a biographical one-woman show, Beyond the Beehive, in 2012.
She played a regular Christmas show at the BB King Blues Club and Grill in New York, and she released a holiday EP in 2010. For longtime fans, it was a throwback to Phil Spector’s classic 1963 holiday album, A Christmas Gift for You, on which the Ronettes sang Frosty the Snowman, Sleigh Ride and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.
Estelle Bennett died in 2009; after her death, Estelle’s daughter revealed that she had mental illness and been homeless for a time.
Spector is survived by her husband of nearly four decades, Jonathan Greenfield, who also was her manager, and two adult sons, Jason and Austin.
Her final two albums of cover songs – The Last of the Rock Stars in 2006 and English Heart, with renditions of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, in 2016 – were received quietly. But she was happy to be the one choosing her material.
“Every song is a little piece of my life,” she said in 2007. “I’m just a girl from the ghetto who wanted to sing.”
This article originally appeared in the New York Times