Until Ronnie Spector escaped the clutches of her controlling husband Phil Spector, the voice behind some of pop’s greatest hits remained hidden. The singer talks to Fiona Shepherd about reclaiming her life and her love of performing ahead of her Celtic Connections gig
Head Beach Boy Brian Wilson, consistently acclaimed as the greatest pop songwriter of our times, told The Scotsman last year that he has never written a song to touch his all-time favourite track, The Ronettes’ Be My Baby.
Ronnie Spector, who sold that song with her raw, yearning lead vocal, is well aware that when the man who composed self-styled “teenage symphonies to God” falls into line behind your biggest hit, you are operating at the highest pop plane. She is rightly proud of this true teenage symphony from the pen of Brill Building partnership Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and visionary producer Phil Spector.
“It was different than any other record on radio at the time,” she says. “You know, a girl singing to a guy. Usually, it was a guy singing to a girl. And the production was so great that everyone had to stop and listen to that record.”
Be My Baby will feature – how could it not? – in Ronnie Spector’s set for Celtic Connections as part of the revue show she now tours, looking back at her eclectic career and telling her turbulent life story through the classic songs she has recorded, from stellar Ronettes hits such as Baby I Love You and Walkin’ in the Rain, via cult fan favourites such as I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine to her heartfelt covers of Johnny Thunders’ You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, which demonstrate her affinity with both the punk scene of her native New York and the British artists who have embraced her music.
Winehouse wore the Ronettes’ influence brazenly, copying the beehive hair and the dramatic eyeliner as well as updating their teenage romantic melodrama for a new generation. “She reminded me that what I did mattered,” says Spector.
“I feel like a grown-up now, but in the 60s I really felt like a teenager. We had to do upbeat songs because we danced. It was only when I sang Walkin’ in the Rain, that was my first song that was slow. I got that from the UK – the first time I was over there it would rain a lot. All my songs are stories that I tell to the people so it’s a different kind of show now, way different from the 60s – I had nothing to say back then, I was so young! Now I have things to say.”
Spector (rightly) reckons that what she has to say has particular relevance in light of the #MeToo movement’s encouragement to call out sexual harassment and abuse. She infamously suffered at the hands of her controlling first husband, Phil Spector, who sequestered her in his mansion, surrounded by barbed wire, forbidden from performing, coerced into adopting three kids and informed that he would kill her and display her corpse if she ever tried to leave him. After seven years of house arrest, she escaped barefoot because her shoes had been confiscated to stop her running away. Spector has already documented these horror stories in her 1990 autobiography Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, and now understandably prefers to emphasize her positive survivor credentials.
“Today, people want to hear from women like myself who went through hell back then,” she says. “Now they can speak up. And you couldn’t do that in the 60s, it was a man’s world back then. The producers, the writers, they were all men. Even the groups, they were guy groups – The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – everything was about the guys. I remember some of the lyrics on my songs that I would throw in there, I never got credit for that.
“Now they are so interested in a woman like me that has gone through hell and come out on top. People either go down or they go up. I took the high road, because I love what I do and when you love what you do it’s easy to say ‘screw all that other stuff, I’m going out to sing’ because that’s my passion and I can’t help it. I wish I was maybe not so anxious, saying ‘when is my next show?’ but I can’t help it, it’s a disease for me!” she says with a throaty chuckle.
Returning to recording and performing was a key part of the fightback, and in that she was facilitated by some of the biggest rock names of the 1970s.
“I left California because I wasn’t doing what I loved. I was walking round the streets in New York and I hear a guy say ‘Ronnie Ronette’ and it was John Lennon. He took me to a studio with Bruce Springsteen before he was famous and they went nuts. Bruce wrote a song for me right on the spot. So I give all that to John Lennon. He’s the one who got me started with going back into the recording studio.”
Spector has paid tribute to her mutual love affair with the British invasion bands of the 1960s on her most recent album, English Heart, covering songs by Keith Richards, Ray Davies and Dave Clark. But she has also been heralded closer to home, working with the late Joey Ramone on the She Talks to Rainbows EP, which also features a nod to her most ardent fan, Brian Wilson, with a version of The Beach Boys’ sublime Don’t Worry Baby.
To this day, Spector still flits effortlessly between such wide-eyed teen dream territory and her manufactured reputation as the “bad girl of rock’n’roll.”
It’s an attitude that comes from where I grew up,” she says. “In Spanish Harlem, you had Spanish girls, white girls, black girls. We were bad onstage because we wore tight dresses, slit up the side but it was only because we had to dance. They always said The Ronettes were different – not better, just different than any other girl group and that’s what I still am today. Fifty years later I’m still going out there knocking ’em dead.”
Ronnie Spector plays the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on 23 January as part of Celtic Connections