Obituary: Ronnie Spector, ’60s icon who sang pop classic Be My Baby

Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Spector, singer. Born: 10 August, 1943 in New York City. Died: 12 January, 2022 in Danbury, Connecticut, aged 78.

Ronnie Spector relished her reputation as ‘the bad girl of rock’n’roll’
Ronnie Spector relished her reputation as ‘the bad girl of rock’n’roll’

Only a precious few artists can claim to have created an all-time classic song. Ronnie Spector, who has died aged 78 following a brief battle with cancer, was in that exclusive club. Be My Baby, the debut hit by her group The Ronettes, is an immortal song of teenage longing and devotion, the benchmark of the 60s girl group movement, guaranteed to energise any room where it is played. Beach Boy Brian Wilson, another member of the club, considers it to be the greatest song ever written. And there was more from the brilliant creative mind of Ronettes producer and first husband Phil Spector, whose self-styled Wall of Sound found its powerful yet vulnerable vocal match in Ronnie but whose sinister controlling behaviour was later exposed in her memoir Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness.

From the exquisitely heartfelt girl group torch songs Baby I Love You and Walking In the Rain via their celebratory Christmas covers to later fan favourite I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine, Spector was justly proud of her back catalogue. She also relished her reputation as “the bad girl of rock’n’roll”, which was cultivated as carefully as that of her good girl contemporaries. Instead of sparkly voluminous gowns, The Ronettes wore figure-hugging dresses with hemlines above the knee. Their backcombed beehives and heavy eyeliner were adopted wholesale by Amy Winehouse, who Spector recognised as a soul sister.

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This Harlem native also found favour with New York’s downtown punk scene, particularly the Ramones, who had their biggest UK hit with a lavish cover of Baby I Love You (produced by Phil Spector). Their mutual appreciation was not as unlikely as it might at first seem. According to Spector’s contemporary Darlene Love, “the way she sang and moved onstage, that was rock’n’roll.”

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Spector was born Veronica Yvette Bennett in Washington Heights, Manhattan to African-American-Cherokee mother Beatrice and Irish-American father Louis, enduring neighbourhood taunts of “hey half-breed, get back to your reservation”. Instead, she struck out as a performer, wowing the Harlem Apollo amateur night audience with a rendition of Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love and gigging around town with older sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley as the Darling Sisters, while still attending George Washington High. The trio took jobs as dancers at the Peppermint Lounge club and changed their name to The Ronettes in 1962.

Their first singles, released on Colpix Records, were not successful but their fortunes changed when they secured an audition with production ace Phil Spector, who instantly proclaimed Ronnie’s was the voice he had been looking for. They quickly hit paydirt with their debut release on Philles Records. The immortal Be My Baby – featuring a young Cher on backing vocals – remains the prime example of Spector’s patented Wall of Sound with its huge crashing drum intro, epic musical melodrama and bittersweet lyrics. This was a record to turn heads, its impact only heightened by The Ronettes’ striking image. Rising superstars The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were among their newfound fans. John Lennon and George Harrison even arranged a double date with Ronnie and Estelle – which became a triple date when their mother gatecrashed the party. Spector would go on to record a solo Harrison track, Try Some, Buy Some, but a jealous Phil had forbidden her from touring with the Beatles in 1966 – the other Ronettes played without her.

Her troubled personal relationship with Phil Spector began soon after The Ronettes signed with him, but the couple didn’t marry until 1968, after The Ronettes had split and their charismatic lead singer had launched a solo career. In her memoir, Spector recounts that she was effectively imprisoned in their Beverley Hills home, deprived of contact with the outside world and only allowed out to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a dummy in the car passenger seat to deter male attention.

Spector claimed her husband kept a coffin in the basement, threatening to kill her if she ever left him. In the end, she fled barefoot in 1972, after he had confiscated her shoes so she couldn’t run away. “He has a brilliant producer but a lousy husband,” she understated on several occasions. The couple divorced in 1974.

By this point, Spector had reformed The Ronettes with new members Chip Fields Hurd and Diane Linton but with her ex-husband denying permission to sing the old hits, success was elusive. Solo once more, she fell on the goodwill of the rock fraternity, recording the Bruce Springsteen-penned You Mean So Much To Me with his Asbury Park buddy Southside Johnny, working with members of The Heartbreakers and The Dead Boys on her 1980 album Siren, collaborating with Joey Ramone on the 1999 She Talks to Rainbows EP and singing backing vocals for punk band The Misfits in 2003. Her final album, English Heart, released in 2016, was her affectionate tribute to the British invasion groups of the sixties.

Formal recognition of her artistic legacy came in 2007 when The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; recompense came after a lengthy battle with Phil Spector to recoup unpaid royalties.

She spent her last decade touring the autobiographical show, Beyond the Beehive, sharing songs, stories and images from her life. Her memoir is currently being adapted for film, with Spiderman star Zendaya on board to play Spector.

She is survived by her second husband and manager Jonathan Greenfield, her cousin Nedra and her five children, Donte Phillip Spector, Garry Phillip Spector, Louis Phillip Spector, Jason Charles Greenfield and Austin Drew Greenfield. Estelle Bennett died in 2009, Phil Spector in January 2021. “I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will,” said Ronnie. “The music will be forever.”

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