By Gillian G. Gaar
RONNIE SPECTOR HAS LONG BEEN CALLED A “ROCK ’N’ ROLL SURVIVOR” due to the ups and downs she’s experienced over the course of her career, both with The Ronettes and as a solo artist. But what’s often overlooked is how cheery and optimistic she’s managed to remain through all those years.
“I love talking about the music business!” she exclaims, her enthusiasm bubbling down the phone line. “I love talking about songs; I love talking about performing. That’s my whole life, performing.”
Ronnie will always be most associated with The Ronettes classic “Be My Baby.” But the excitement of performing has never dimmed for her, and she’s still giddy when she talks about her most recent performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s spring benefit concert this past May.
“I introduced Cyndi Lauper,” she says, “and then Cyndi asked me and Darlene Love and Mavis Staples to come out and sing ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I can certainly do that!’ I love having fun. And it was a blast — I can’t tell you how much fun I had. And I had never met Mavis Staples before; she’s cutest thing I’ve ever seen, and she’s so tiny! I’ve always loved her voice. And she was so nice, I couldn’t believe it. And we just carried on and had a great, great time backstage, talking about the old days.”
Ronnie also performed at a Friday night concert the same weekend, in honor of the opening of the Rock Hall’s “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” exhibit, singing The Ronettes’ hits “Baby, I Love You” and “Be My Baby,” a song she says she never gets tired of performing. “Never!” she says. “I never get tired of it. And that is amazing, because a lot of performers I’ve spoken with, they go, ‘Oh, I’m so tired of singing my hit song.’ And I say, ‘Hey, you should be happy you have that song to sing and that it was a hit!’ I’m the type of person, I have to sing my hits. When I’ve gone to see other performers that don’t sing their hits, oooh, I’m devastated, you know? So I’ve learned my lesson by seeing other people. I’ve always sung my hits.”
Ronnie’s influence as a singer and performer has been acknowledged by the accolades she’s received over the years, including The Ronettes’ inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Hall of Fame. But who influenced Ronnie Spector?
“Oh my God, that’s so easy!” she says. “It was Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love.’ And The Schoolboys, The Students. I could still sing their songs when they no longer could; after they got around 16, 17, their voices changed and they couldn’t sing ’em anymore. So I said I’ll take ’em! And I kept ’em. And The Drifters, The Flamingos — I can go on and on about the great, great voices.”
Spector’s first experience with performing came from impromptu shows she’d give at her grandmother’s house at family gatherings.
“And that was my first applause too, seeing my uncles say, ‘Ah, sing it, honey!’ And my aunts going, ‘All right!’”
By age 11, she’d made it to the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night.
“I had five other people, girls, cousins, with me to sing, and a cousin, Ira, that was supposed to sing lead,” she recalls. “He was the only boy, so I said ‘You sing it.’ And another of my cousins worked backstage, and he would say, ‘Now don’t forget, if they don’t like you, they’re gonna throw anything they can get their hands on to get you off.’ I was scared, but I was so eager to get out on that stage.”
More eager than cousin Ira, who suffered a severe case of stage fright when the big moment came.
“So I grabbed the microphone and I just started singing, ‘Why do birds sing, so gay…,’” Ronnie says. “And they loved me. I didn’t win Amateur Night, mind you. But when they applauded me, that little applause I got made my future. You know how they say if you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere? I say that about the Apollo Theater.”
“Ronnie and The Relatives” — Ronnie, her sister, Estelle, and cousin, Nedra — began recording for Colpix Records in 1961. The group’s singles were unsuccessful.
“Everything sank like a rock,” Ronnie says bluntly.
There was no shortage of girl groups making records, and Ronnie was determined that her group would stand out.
“I would see The Shirelles, The Cupcakes, The Marvelettes,” she says, “and they all had these wide dresses. So I said, ‘We have to do something different.’ And we could, because we were half-breeds [Spector’s father was Irish, her mother Cherokee and African-American]; we had long hair, so we could look different. And my sister was going out with this Chinese guy, and that’s also where we got some of our look from, we put slits on each side of our clothes. So we did everything to be different.”
But they still needed a hit song. It finally came with “Be My Baby,” which reached No. 2 in 1963.
“It was a difference between day and night from when I was on Colpix Records,” Spector says. “To have ‘Be My Baby’ come out and be an international hit, it was like ‘What?’ We had a hit record all over the world. What a feeling that was! It was the greatest time of my life back then.”
The Ronettes also had a great image to go with their hit songs: massive hair-dos, heavy eyeliner and tight clothes that had them dubbed as rock’s original “bad girls.”
But their reign was relatively brief; The Ronettes last Top 40 hit, “Walking In the Rain,” came out in 1964. After that, producer Phil Spector’s increasing domination of The Ronettes, and Ronnie, in particular, split the group.
“I didn’t go on The Beatles tour, for instance,” she says, referring to the 1966 US tour where The Ronettes were an opening act. “It’s ‘You marry me, or you go on The Beatles tour.’ So I guess you know what one I picked! [a cousin filled in for Ronnie on the road] And what a fool. But anyway. I didn’t leave the group, I was just sort of taken away — not knowing I was being taken away, thinking I was going to have a solo career and have a hit bigger than The Beatles. And so I went for it.”
Ronnie married Phil Spector, and the couple was together from 1968 to 1974, a turbulent period she describes in her 1990 autobiography “Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness.”
“I was a lot of years not in the business,” she says. “And it sort of destroyed me emotionally, because I was born to sing; I was born to be on that stage. And to be in that mansion for seven years….”
She was still able to work on occasion, as when she recorded “Try Some, Buy Some”/“Tandoori Chicken,” released on Apple Records in April 1971 (the A-side was reissued on last year’s “Come And Get It: The Best Of Apple Records”).
“I will never forget that day,” Ronnie says of the session. “I flew over to London, and I get in the studio. And you know, Apple Records is, like, the ceilings are way high. It’s like the pre-war buildings I grew up in. Way high. That’s how I learned to sing, the echo in the hallway downstairs at my grandmother’s.
“Anyway, when I went into the studio, there was one guy there, sitting at the piano. And his hair was so long, I couldn’t see the side of his face. And they said, ‘Go and sit next to him, that’s the guy that’s going to be teaching you the song.’ So I sit down at the piano, and he slowly turned around, it was George Harrison! And we broke out laughing, we just were so happy to see one another.”
Though “Try Some…” has a laid back dreaminess that’s perfect for Ronnie’s voice, she admits she “wasn’t really into” the song initially.
“It took me a long time to get it,” she says. “I said ‘George, what does that mean? You tried what? You bought what?’ I really didn’t know about what he was talking about. So he explained about the Maharishi, and how they tried things, and drugs, and it didn’t work. I said, ‘But George, I never did drugs. I can’t sing a song like this!’ He said, ‘Ronnie, you can sing any song.’ So they convinced me. It’s The Beatles, I’m in London, I had such a ball when I was there in the ’60s, I said, ‘Why not?’ And I went in that booth and I cut it.”
But not before she made a slight alteration to the opening line, which was originally “Once, way back in time.”
“I made George take out the ‘Once,’” she laughs. “I said, ‘I don’t need “Once.” ‘Way back in time…’ is going to tell the story. Take the ‘Once’ out.’ And he was listening to me. It was such a pleasure to be with someone that listened to you and took your advice.”
Harrison ultimately used the same backing track for his own version of the song.
By the mid-’70s, Ronnie and Phil had finally split.
“I couldn’t be around a crazy environment,” she says. “When I got out in California and I don’t have any family, friends, I’m 3,000 miles away from my mother, my father, my sister, I was freaking out. I said, ‘Well, I gotta go home.’”
Ronnie was now free to create new work at last. In 1977, she covered Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” a song inspired by her own life, and in 1980 released her first solo album, “Siren,” produced by Genya Raven, a member of one of the first all-female bands, Goldie & The Gingerbreads. And she finally returned to the Top 10 in 1986, when she sang on Eddie Money’s No. 4 hit “Take Me Home Tonight.”
Some of her most interesting work has come out since then. In 1999, alternative rock label Kill Rock Stars released the EP “She Talks To Rainbows,” an excellent recording co-produced by Joey Ramone.
“I met Joey years ago, at one of these places downtown in the Village that we always used to play,” says Ronnie. “The Ramones were adorable!”
The five-track EP has a warmth and a richness that pulls you in from the first note, with Ronnie’s voice as mesmerizing as ever. There’s also an underlying sadness to the record, undoubtedly due in part to Joey’s struggle with cancer at the time (he died in 2001).
“Joey was very sick,” says Ronnie. “I didn’t know how sick. What he would do is come to [co-producer] Daniel Rey’s apartment, because Daniel had a studio there. And he would come in with his little lunch, ’cause he couldn’t eat regular food. And he’d sit on the couch and put the headphones on to listen to my voice. And then he would guide me; he would say ‘Stay low on this part’ or ‘Go higher on that part.’ This guy was dying, but he was dying to record me before he died.”
The EP has two of Ramone’s songs, “Bye Bye Baby” (which he also sings on) and the title track, as well as The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” —“I did that to please Joey,” Ronnie says — and “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine,” which Ronnie originally had recorded with The Ronettes. There’s also a cover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” which has an additional poignancy for Ronnie.
“Joey was giving me a message,” she says. “‘You ain’t gonna be able to put your arms around me anymore, ’cause I’m gonna be gone.’ He was referring to himself! He was letting me know that by saying ‘You can’t put your arm a memory, Ronnie, I’m gonna not be here.’ I know that was why he was trying to make me sing that song.”
The song was also featured on her 2009 album “Last Of The Rock Stars,” which drew on work she’d recorded over the previous decade. Though he had a less active role, Joey Ramone made sure he was in the studio on the day Ronnie recorded “All I Want” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “Work Out Fine” with Keith Richards.
“Joey got out of his bed, because he knew that Keith was going to be there,” Ronnie recalls. “He was there, and he just stared through the main window into the studio; I cried like a baby when I saw Joey just staring through the window. And he didn’t move. He left the studio, and a few days later he was dead. And I was devastated, because I didn’t know he was going to die that soon. I loved that guy. He had so much compassion.”
The Ramones receive further tribute on the album via Ronnie’s cover of “Here Today Gone Tomorrow,” and there are other guest appearances, as well. Patti Smith’s distinctive voice can be heard on “There Is An End.”
“Let me tell you a little story about Patti,” says Ronnie. “In 1974, I came back from California. I go down to, I think it was the Continental, and Patti Smith was playing there. She got word that Ronnie Spector was in the audience. She was about to sing ‘Be My Baby,’ and she got under the piano, ’cause she was shy of me; she’s singing ‘Be My Baby’ and the real Ronnie Spector’s there; oh no! She just would not face me. And then I met her a couple of years later and we talked, and then we became really good friends.”
The album also has a defiant statement of independence in “Girl From The Ghetto,” a track co-produced by Ronnie, with a few lyrical changes making the song relate more directly to her own life. And the last song on the album, “It’s Christmas Once Again,” offered a clue to the theme of her next release, last year’s holiday EP, “Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever.”
“I’ve never stopped loving Christmas,” she says. “I love it so much. And I’m in my sixties! I still get the tree, and we put presents underneath, just like when I was a kid. Every year, Christmas reminds me of when I was young, you know — wanting to see the presents, and leaving Santa his cookies and milk; I did all that. And I couldn’t wait to get up Christmas morning. I was a Christmas freak! I really love Christmas.”
The Ronettes contributed three tracks to the classic 1963 album “A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records” (later retitled “A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector”), and Ronnie also performs an annual Christmas show at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill in New York City (“I have to be on stage at Christmas time!”). But her EP features new songs, not holiday standards.
“That’s exactly what I wanted,” she says. “Something up to date. And something without so much background music in it and ‘wall of sound.’ I just wanted my voice out there to give a message.”
“Light One Candle,” a song about Hanukkah, was chosen to give a very specific message.
“I did that because my kids are half Jewish,” she explains. “And they were brought up more or less Jewish. And they loved lighting the Hanukkah candles. So my psychiatrist’s wife wrote ‘Light One Candle’ and sent it over to me. And I said, ‘This is a perfect song for my kids.’ And it’s the only Jewish song out there! Adam Sandler has one out too, talking about Hanukkah, but it’s a jokey song. Mine is very serious.”
Work on the holiday record interrupted her next planned project.
“I’m doing a doo-wop album,” she says. “I did a few songs this past summer, when I was doing my Christmas record, but we had to stop because Christmas was right around the corner, and they had to get the record done. But I’m going back into the studio and doing more doo-wop stuff. I love doo-wop; I think it’s just the most pure music.”
“Be My Baby: The Very Best Of The Ronettes” was reissued earlier this year, and in August, the box set “Phil Spector Presents The Philles Album Collection” will feature more Ronettes recordings beyond the standard greatest hits.
And you can certainly expect more live performing from the woman who loves to be on stage.
“I’ll tell you what the whole thing is,” she says. “If you love it, that’s the key. You have to love it. And some of these groups, they come out with one record, and it’s a huge hit, they start drinking and drugging, and they’re gone. That’s because they don’t love it. I love it. I’ve never missed a show in 30 years, ’cause I love them so much. I love shows. I love singing. I love performing. I love entertaining. It’s just as simple as that. Just hand me my mike, and I’m out there!”
For Ronnie Spector, loving what you do is the best revenge.
“I’m really free to just go out and do my songs and do my shows, and I’m loving every minute,” she says. “I have never changed; I still love it, every time I walk out there. That’s the secret. You have to have love and passion for what you do, for the work. If you don’t have that love and passion for it, you’re just going to go out there and not really care. And the people you see still standing today, from the ’60s, they really care. People like me. ’Cause you can tell on stage when a person really loves what they’re doing. I’m still here, and I’m still singing good, and having a ball out there. That’s my best fun ever is being on stage. That’s the main thing in this business. If you can’t have fun with the work you’re doing, don’t do it.”
For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
- 45 RPM: The History, Heroes and Villains of a Pop Music Revolution
- Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector