Best Songs with Ronettes, Phil, Ramones
Her work, with and without Phil, remains a vital resource.
Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images
The first time Ronnie Spector, who died this week at the age of 78 after a short battle with cancer, changed the course of music history was as the central voice of the staple girl group of the 1960s, the Ronettes. With sky-high teased hair, dramatic black eyeliner and skin-tight outfits, the Ronettes – the name with which the family act remained after stints as the Darling Sisters, then Ronnie and the Relatives – transcended the art of hitmaking. They create trends. What was originally a gadget that girls developed to help them get noticed has become a defining and definitive image. that would be lovingly emulated and borrowed for decades to come.
Born Veronica Bennett on 151st Street in Spanish Harlem, Ronnie’s distinctive vocal style, characterized by the clarity and range of her instrument combined with her ability to imbue each note with tangible emotion, surfaced from the age of 4 or 5 years; soon, she was climbing onto the coffee table in her living room – with her older sister Estelle and her cousin Nedra Talley – to perform in front of her extended family. Ronnie wanted to be a star and the girls jumped at every possible opportunity to make it happen, whether it’s performing at a bar mitzvah, smashing your way through a slot machine at a fan night out at the Apollo Theater, or dressing up and hitting the Peppermint Lounge, where they were mistaken for go-go dancers, and twist their peppermint way to an official gig at the famed rock-and-roll nightclub.
The girls had already made a few singles for the Colpix label, but it wasn’t until a gig opening the Peppermint Lounge outpost in Miami that they met influential disc jockey Murray “Murray the K ” Kaufman, who organized epic rock and roll packages. , soul and R&B in all-day extravaganzas at Brooklyn Fox. The Ronettes started under Murray as eye candy, dancing in the background and serving as straight women for Murray’s lively patter between sets, but their talent and fussiness were undeniable; quickly, they made their way into back-up vocals for bands without backing vocals (or whose backing vocals weren’t very good).
In 1963, they teamed up with the inventor of the Wall of Sound, producer Phil Spector, in the most prosaic way: they cold-called him. While Spector (who loved a gadget) gave the impression that they or they had hit the jackpot, the truth was of course that he had seen them at Fox several times. During their audition, Spector asked them to sing the kind of thing they would do for fun. Ronnie didn’t read the first line of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” – the 1950s hit doo-wop wonder Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, which Ronnie adored and strove to reproduce standing on that coffee table in the living room all those years ago – before Spector interrupted them. “Stop! That’s it. That’s it! This is the voice I was looking for,” he shouted, as Ronnie recounts in his 1990 memoir, Be my baby. The rest is a tumultuous story.
The Ronettes went on to have nine top ten hits in collaboration with Spector, and also sang on the producer’s now classic A Christmas present for you. Ronnie and Phil were married in 1968 and the marriage lasted four years, during which time Spector was infamously violent and abusive, subjecting her to physical and emotional torment and threats, refusing to let her go. She finally managed to escape from their home, barefoot and with the clothes on her back, with the help of her mother. Spector kept trying to hurt her, both professionally and personally, for decades afterwards. Upon his death in January 2021, she wrote, “As I have said many times during his lifetime, he was a brilliant producer, but a bad husband.”
Ronnie Spector’s work, with and without Phil, remains a vital resource. Despite the struggle and hardships, she never lost the qualities that made her voice wrap around your heart, and no one has ever been able to emulate her unforgettable tone and delivery. It’s no surprise that such talent inspired her peers and future generations to try to match her impact, or that the people who grew up with her music and then became musicians themselves wished to return the favor. what they had gained from his work by helping him to regain center stage. which she rightly deserved, but which her ex-husband had relentlessly tried to diminish.
Here are some of the best moments from Ronnie Spector’s historic career.
There are endless elements that make this song timeless – the arrangement! The production! The performance! Words! — but there’s only one reason there’s no good cover version, because of the way Ronnie’s voice conveys the unconscious beat of a heartbeat. It’s a blend of love, adoration and longing in its purest sense, and it’s topped off with the unforgettable whoa-oh-oh-oh which has become his trademark. There’s usually an understandable focus on Ronnie’s vibrato, that vocal modulation in the whoa-oh-ohs, but it’s not the existence of the vibrato that makes her voice so captivating. It’s more the way she uses it to convey emotion, to express the inexpressible – and for a song written for teenagers and about young love, there’s a lot of things you don’t have to. no words yet. Here, Ronnie gives him a voice.
Billy Joel wrote it with Ronnie in mind and tried to sing it like her, and that was going to be the end of it, until Epic Records fan and executive Steve Popovich found it in a pile of tapes. demo (Joel’s turnstiles hadn’t been released yet) and realized it would be just the thing to revitalize Ronnie’s career after her acrimonious split from her ex-husband, as well as give some much-needed work to Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, themselves sidelined as their boss was tied up in a lawsuit against his former manager. Ronnie said she wanted it to be the best record she had ever made; if it was successful, she thought, she could revive her career, now that she was no longer married to Phil Spector. It was produced by Steve Van Zandt, who knew best how to work effectively with Ronnie’s voice; she’s backed by a band that’s completely thrilled to perform with one of their idols, and you can hear it. It should have been a success; it’s a match made in heaven, the kind of Wall-of-Sound-But-Make-It-Our-Own production that this group of individuals excel at, and Ronnie sells it beautifully and with utter precision.
Ronnie recorded this in one take! A take! As a singer, she embodied so much prowess that she could walk into the studio, put on the headphones, and immediately focus on the quality of emotion required of the performance. It’s loose and dreamy but endlessly hopeful, perfect for the song. As Ronnie told the story. when she came to the studio to lay down the vocals, she was surprised to hear how Phil Spector and Larry Leine mixed the rumble of thunder and the sound of rain in the song’s intro, and how that made her helped her get into the song — “I was in a whole different world,” she recalls. She thought she was just singing a rough demo to get a feel for the song, but when she finished the song and opened her eyes, Spector said, “We can go home now.” She wanted to do it again, but after listening, agreed with his assessment: It was indeed a perfect take.
The original is canon, opening with this whoa-oh-oh-oh; it sounds softer, because Ronnie, at this point, is now more comfortable in the studio; it’s less a teenage desire than a delicious statement of intent. Hear how she increases the emotional intensity of her plea as the song progresses – it’s a masterclass in voice control and modulation. Anecdote: Nedra and Estelle are not on this one (it’s complicated) so you hear Darlene Love, Cher and Sonny Bono on backing vocals.
Here, Ronnie sings the duet Ike & Tina Turner with Keith Richards, and it’s a pleasure to hear the two old friends working together as the teasing banter set up by the song’s lyrics is utterly believable. The Ronettes took care of the Stones when they first tried to travel to the United States – there are stories in Ronnie’s memoir of them coming to her home for breakfast in Queens and how his mother made them eggs — and Keith had to do the honors of inducting the Ronettes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. (He even penned a new foreword to a reissue of the memoir, which will be published later). late in 2022.)
Joey Ramone produced this five-track EP for Ronnie as a labor of love. She covers two Ramones songs, “Bye Bye Baby”, a duet with Joey, and the title track, a marvel on which she takes the original composition to a deeper level of pathos. As they both sing in third person, Joey’s perspective is from the outside, while the pathos in Ronnie’s voice is almost tangible: “She’s a little girl lost in her own little world / She looks so happy but she looks so sad” always felt like it came from her time in Los Angeles after her wedding, where she no longer sang and was stuck in her husband’s mansion. She also covers The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” the song Brian Wilson wrote in response to the first time he heard “Be My Baby,” and delivers a heartbreaking version of “You Can’t Put by Johnny Thunders. Your Arms Around A Memory”, one of those deeply emotional songs about loss and survival where there is an almost supernatural vibe. For any other singer, that would be a challenge to perform – but she does it and it lands just as deep as the original. His version here just proves that Ronnie Spector could sing anything.
No, it’s not a Ronnie Spector song, but is one of the greatest rock-and-roll cameos of all time, and whether you like Eddie Money or not, his songwriting and intent is utterly brilliant: “Take me home tonight / Just like the Ronnie says,” Money sings, before switching to Spector herself, “Be my little baby.” She reappears later in the song, for a few more lines, and to unleash that glorious whoa-oh-oh a few more times as the song draws to a close.