Ronnie Spector, singer and star of The Ronettes

Born: August 10, 1943;

Died: January 12, 2022

Ronnie Spector, who has died of cancer aged 78, was a singer whose early records fronting The Ronettes defined the sound of 1960s girl groups with something more provocative than some of their saccharine-laden peers. Spector’s euphoric vocals were key to the success behind The Ronettes’ run of hit singles; Be My Baby (1963); Baby, I Love You (1963); (The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up (1964); Walking in the Rain (1964) and more. In a pre-British invasion era, these bite-sized melodramas became the soundtrack to teenage yearning.

There wasn’t anything submissive or demure in Spector’s vocal style. She delivered every desire-filled line with pure joy. This was complemented by The Ronettes’ kohl-eyed beehived look and a more assured attitude than some other groups. “We weren’t afraid to look hot,” Spector wrote in her 1989 memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness. “That was our image.”

While Phil Spector’s bombastic Wall of Sound production on the Ronettes’ records sometimes receives all the credit, it was Ronnie Spector who brought the mini epics by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and other songwriters to life. Along with her fellow original Ronettes, Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley, she filled each song with instinctive heart and soul.

This was the case from the first time Spector sang Be My Baby in the studio, when all the musicians were stopped in their tracks. As she told Teddy Jamieson in the Herald in 2019, “It was like we were in the Twilight Zone. The musicians in the place were going crazy. You remember that feeling; how they looked at you and said, ‘Wow, that’s a different voice.’”

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys became obsessed with Be My Baby, which was later used over the opening credits of Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film, Mean Streets. In the UK, The Ronettes shared bills with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

Spector dropped out of view towards the end of the 1960s after marrying Phil Spector. As recounted in her book, the litany of abuses heaped upon her destroyed both her life and career. She left him in the early 1970s, and regained control of her life enough to return to singing and performing. She later married again, to Jonathan Greenfield. Following her former husband’s death in 2020 in a prison where he was serving a life sentence for murder, Ronnie wrote how “He was a brilliant producer, but a lousy husband.”

Spector’s solo career saw her championed by artists such as Billy Joel, as her singular talent was recognised by the generations of singers and artists who drew inspiration from her. The Ronettes were inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. By the time she visited Glasgow in 2019 to play a Celtic Connections show, Spector was an elder stateswoman of pop, who sang her own hits alongside versions of songs she helped inspire.

This included Joel’s song, Say Goodbye to Hollywood, which Spector released as a single in 1977, backed by Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. On her 2006 album, The Last of the Rock Stars, Spector sang Johnny Thunders’s mini epic, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.

Veronica Yvette Bennett was born in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, New York City, to Louis and Beatrice Bennett. Her father was Irish American, and her mother African-American Cherokee.

Growing up in a large family, music was all around. Her father was a drummer, and groups of aunts and uncles formed vocal trios and quartets. Spector remembered in The Herald how, aged five, she got up on the coffee table and sang.

“My family would applaud and that stuck in my mind forever,” she said. Aged eight she would sing after school with her cousins at her grandmother’s house. She and her sister Estelle, cousin Nedra Talley, and male cousin Ira played an amateur night at the Apollo theatre. Ira was supposed to sing lead on their version of Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love, but froze at the microphone. Spector stepped forward, and would take the lead thereafter.

The female trio formed with her sister and cousin were known at various points as The Darling Sisters and Ronnie and the Relatives before becoming The Ronettes. The group released a couple of singles before approaching Phil Spector for an audition. Within a few months, Be My Baby had sold two million copies. It went to number two in the American Billboard chart, and number four in the UK. The next few years were a whirlwind of hits, touring and recording before The Ronettes called it quits in 1967.

Once free of her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Spector formed a new version of The Ronettes before embarking on a fully-fledged solo career. While her cover of Say Goodbye to Hollywood was a minor hit, she didn’t release her debut solo album, Siren, until 1980. Her real resurgence came in 1986 when she sang lead vocal on Eddie Money’s Take Me Home Tonight. Unfinished Business (1987) and The Last of the Rock Stars followed.

In 2016, Spector released English Heart, an album of covers of songs by the likes of The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones. As with her revue-styled live shows that looked through her back pages, Spector reclaimed the past she survived to make it her own enough to sound reborn.

She is survived by her husband, Jonathan Greenfield, and their sons, Jason and Austin.

Neil Cooper