Safely tucked away inside her grandmother’s house, a young Veronica Yvette “Ronnie” Bennett, the future Ronnie Spector, had a birds-eye view of the tough-looking girls that loitered on the sidewalks smoking cigarettes.
The Ronettes would be made in their image.
“We couldn’t go outside, so we looked at the black girls and the Spanish girls — even some of the white girls you’d throw in there — but we looked at them and that’s how we got our look and stuff,” says Spector. “We wore slits up the side and we wore high hair. We got everything from the street, even though we weren’t allowed in the street (laughs).”
That didn’t matter. With their exotic looks, provocative clothes, and sugar-and-spice vocals, as sultry as they were sweet and full of sass, The Ronettes were the anti-girl group of the early 1960s. They were bad girls, made even badder by the mascara they wore, at a time when all the rest looked and sounded pure and innocent.
Spector, her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley gave off a much different vibe, one that gave them a lifetime of street cred, which Ronnie cashes in on her new album The Last Of The Rock Stars (issued Nov. 10 on Bad Girl Sounds/RED).
Assisted by the likes of Patti Smith, Keith Richards, The Raveonettes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, Spector has fashioned an LP that owes much to her past while pointing to a bright, productive future for one of the greatest singers in rock ’n’ roll history.
To Spector, “ … just getting back in the studio, co-producing and doing what I love” made the project a joy. “All the songs I picked out myself, in getting from my roots, my inspiration, like Frankie Lymon, all the way to Joey Ramone, punk rock … so I covered every area,” says Spector.
“Ode To L.A.” is a track Spector did with The Raveonettes, the Danish duo known for drowning ’60s girl-group sounds and early rock ’n’ roll elements in corrosive feedback and distortion. It’s reminiscent of The Ronettes’ biggest hit “Be My Baby,” the 1963 single written by Ronnie’s future husband Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Though it only rose to #2 on the U.S. Billboard Pop Charts, “Be My Baby” is generally considered to be the greatest example of Phil Spector’s famed “Wall Of Sound” production technique.
Ronnie believes there was another reason for the song’s popularity.
“I think it was because it was the first time a girl asked a guy to be their baby,” says Spectors. (She sings the line) “‘Every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three.’ That is so sexy (laughs).”
So was The Ronettes’ stage show. Ronnie remembers audiences being shocked by the trio’s smoldering, in-your-face sexuality.
“With guys, you were sort of used to that,” explains Ronnie. “But to be girls and walk out there like that, it was amazing. And then we’d turn around, and we’d have these fringes on the back of our dresses … and when we turned our backs [to the audience] and started shaking, they saw the fringe going. They thought we were going faster than we were (laughs), because the fringe helps give you movement.”
But The Ronettes were naughty and nice. Innocently enough, the three began singing as teenagers at the behest of their grandmother, who got them to harmonize. As for their clothes, “ … one of my aunts … she sewed, so she made our first couple of outfits until we started making a little money,” says Ronnie.
Ronnie was just 15 when the group began, startiing out as The Darling Sisters, and she had distinct ideas of what The Ronettes were going to look like and how they were going to sound.
“If you want to be different in this business — I’ve heard that since I was a kid — that you have to be different,” says Ronnie. “And then the three of us, we looked different because we were all, you know, half-breeds, basically. Because my mother is Indian and black and her sisters also are Indian and black, which is Nedra’s mother, also of The Ronettes, and her father was Spanish and my father was Irish.”
As for their sound, Ronnie was influenced by, and smitten with, Frankie Lymon. Living in Spanish Harlem, Ronnie had occasion to go past Lymon’s home.
“There was a swimming pool on 171st Street,” says Ronnie. “We went there because I passed Frankie Lymon’s place. And he lived on 155th Street. That’s how much I loved him. We would have to pass his house to get to the swimming pool, you know, so I would do that just to think I would get a glance or look at him.”
Lymon’s records were always playing in Ronnie’s bedroom, and his singing inspired her.
“It was just records and his voice, his diction, and he was so innocent and real, you know,” says Ronnie. “And that’s how I felt when I was that age, too, because he was only a few years older than me. And the way he sang things, you would say, ‘What?’ Everything — his diction, his vibrato … everything he sang, and I would come home from school, and before I could set my books down and get my coat off, I had a little 45. I would have it set up before I left for school, and I’d have it right on Frankie Lymon.”
Her family couldn’t afford to give Ronnie piano or guitar lessons, but Lymon’s records gave her all the musical education she would need.
“I would learn through listening to the records,” says Spector. “I’d put the record on just a little bit, write the lyrics down, get them from the beginning, listen to the second line, and that’s how I learned. That’s how I learned to sing and everything.”
Singing was only part of The Ronettes’ package. Their dancing won them an Apollo Theater amateur talent contest. Then came the first of a series of big breaks. One night in 1961, while waiting in line to perform at Joey Dee’s Peppermint Lounge on New York’s 45th Street, the three girls were mistaken for a singing trio that had not arrived. They were hustled on stage, where they performed Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” and the crowd went wild for them.
They got another break when, while performing at the Miami Peppermint Lounge, they were discovered by legendary disc jockey Murray The K. He hired them as Murray The K’s dancing girls for his Brooklyn Fox Shows.
Though they appeared in the movie “Twist Around The Clock,” the girls’ singing career was going nowhere. Despite being signed to the Colpix label, they released a number of singles that failed. They would go from being The Darling Sisters to Ronnie & The Relatives and finally, to The Ronettes.
Then they met Phil Spector and everything changed.
“When he first heard my voice, I remember he came to one audition to see if I sounded as great as he thought I did, and he saw us at this little club, and when he came to a rehearsal, and I sang one of Frankie Lymon’s songs, he knocked the bench over from the piano and said, ‘That’s the voice I’ve been looking for,’ says Ronnie. “I’ll never forget that, and that’s just before they went in and wrote ‘Be My Baby.’”
Lifted to the heavens by Phil Spector’s lush, orchestral arrangements, “Be My Baby” became The Ronettes’ highest-charting single. Other hits included 1964’s “Baby, I Love You,” “(The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up,” “Do I Love You?,” “Walking in the Rain,” and “Is This What I Get for Loving You?” “Walking in the Rain” received a Grammy for Best Sound Effects. It is Ronnie’s favorite.
“It was my favorite, because it was the first song that I sang in a slow … so people could really hear my voice,” says Ronnie. “I was singing it in the studio with my eyes closed. I didn’t know they had turned out the lights. I’ll never forget that.”
Nor will she forget hanging out with The Rolling Stones.
“we were headliners over in London, and … the Rolling Stones, they were our opening act,” says Ronnie. “So that’s how we met them actually. And we all traveled together. They were great guys. And I loved Keith. He loved me. My sister was usually with Mick … and Nedra was with Brian, you know. But we all were together, you know what I mean? Like, having dinner together and eating. There was not a lot of sex and all that kind of stuff going on with us. I think that came later on with the groupies and all that, but with us, there was none of that … unfortunately (laughs). My mother toured with us everywhere, so I didn’t get really a chance to do anything, but I didn’t want to then.”
In a way, The Rolling Stones patterned themselves after The Ronettes.
“They were the opposite, and they did it on purpose, because they didn’t want to be like The Beatles,” says Spector. “There were The Beatles with their suits. You know, when they came to Shea Stadium, and all that. And the Rolling Stones … Andrew [Loog Oldham], he said, ‘I want you guys to do what The Ronettes did. They were nothing like other girl groups. And that’s what I want you guys to be. So I don’t want you to be anything like The Beatles.’ So they changed their look completely. They had this black stuff under their eyes (laughs). I thought they were one of the Ronettes.”
In the liner notes to Ronnie’s new record, Patti Smith recounts how she and her sister used to fight over who would get to be Ronnie when they pretended to be The Ronettes.
Perhaps The Last Of The Rock Stars will inspire a new generation of girls to be like Ronnie.