The Ronettes were the quintessential girl group; a larger than life force of nature, with the beehives to match. Their look and sound became the hallmark of the 60’s and helped to define the girl group era. They stamped the pages of history with unforgettable classics like “Baby, I Love You”, “Walking in the Rain”, and Billboard’s Greatest Girl Group Song of All Time “Be My Baby.” Their voices immaculately captured what it felt like to fall in love, get your heart broken, and fall in love again. The trio from Spanish Harlem became one of the most recognizable groups in the world and a major influence in not only the music industry, but pop culture as well. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, an honor well deserved and long overdue.
Ronnie Spector riveted the world as the charismatic lead singer of the Ronettes but became a prisoner in her marriage to infamous record producer Phil Spector. She was secluded from family and friends and endured years of both physical and emotional abuse at the whim of a man who had given her his last name and taken everything else. In 1972, with the help of her mother, Ronnie was able to escape and reclaim her life and career. Not one to look back, Ronnie didn’t let her past define her; as a result, she became an inspiration as not only an artist, but as a survivor.
Earlier this year, Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes’ answered our collective prayers and joined forces once again to release their first single in decades. “Love Power” is as catchy as it is uplifting and further proves that they really don’t make ‘em like they used to. Forever embedded in the fabric of music history, Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes will always be synonymous with the sound of a decade that changed the world.
In the midst of her (very) busy schedule, Ronnie took the time to answer our questions about her life, her music, and her message of love.
Your career in music has spanned decades and shows no signs of slowing down. Was music something you always felt you were meant to do?
When I was three years old, I jumped up on my Grandma’s coffee table and sang “Jambalaya” for my aunts and uncles. My Uncle Charles made a spotlight out of an old Maxwell House coffee can, just for me! That was where I got my first applause, that was my first audience. When I was nine, I organized a group of cousins, and we would sing in the lobby of my Grandma’s building. It had this amazing echo cause of the tile and high ceiling. My sister and all my cousins would do the “oohs and ahhhs” and I would sing lead. It was in that lobby that I thought, “Wow, I think I can do this.”
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a female artist starting out in the 50’s and 60’s?
Just about all the doo- wop groups were male singers, so our very first chance to perform on a real stage was at amateur night at the Apollo Theatre. I was 11 years old and a huge Frankie Lymon fan. So I figured we’d have my boy cousin Ira sing lead, to make us more like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. There we were waiting to go on. My cousin who worked at the Apollo warned us if they didn’t like you, they’ll throw shoes, eggs, tomatoes, anything! We get on stage, ready to sing. The band starts. Ira opened his mouth…and nothing comes out. “Oh my God,” I thought. “I can’t believe my cousin is going to destroy my career in rock and roll before it even gets started.” So I grabbed the mic from Ira and start singing, and the audience starts cheering me. That was it, I was on my way.
That’s sort of how it continued for a while. If there was an opportunity, be ready. When we were waiting on line at the Peppermint Lounge and they mistook us for the house dancers, my sister started to tell the manager we weren’t the dancers. I quickly shut her up with an elbow to the ribs, and we walked straight into the club and started dancing and singing on stage backed up by Joey Dee and the Starlighters!
Being a woman in the music business in the 60’s sort of limited things a bit in your career. Most of the time they didn’t take you seriously as an artist. You were often seen as creations of genius men. And in our case, we created our own look and style. Many times I would come up with a title or an ending, a lyric or two, and they would use it in the recording, never giving credit. I came from very humble beginnings, was taught to be honest and do the right thing. I gave everything I had when I was making those recordings. Sure it would have been nice to be credited for what I did. But those were the times, and we didn’t know any better. You have to move on. You don’t think about it, otherwise, you’ll be bitter.
Girl groups ruled the airwaves in the 60’s and really came into their own. What was it about girl groups during that time that made them so popular?
Girl groups were pretty innocent and were sort of an extension of the doo-wop era. Lots of those groups were lead by young boys and the closest you could get to that sound was a female voice. I recorded the Students’ “So Young” as Veronica, and I can still sing it, but the Students’ lead singer couldn’t after he grew up, cause his voice had changed. It was an age of innocence and hope with JFK, and I think that was a part of the girl groups’ success. It was fun and not threatening.
What was it about the Ronettes in particular that made them such a massive success?
There were a few differences between the Ronettes and other girl groups. For the Ronettes, we had amazing writers: Cynthia and Barry, Ellie and Jeff, Carole and Gerry. They wrote songs just for my voice, so I got spoiled. As I like to say, the Ronettes weren’t better, just different. We were a family group. We had our own look, then we took the style we saw in the streets of Spanish Harlem, mixed it with our fashion, and brought that to the stage. And of course, we exaggerated everything, like who could get their beehive the highest. We were a rock and roll group; we danced and shook a lot! We had slits down the side of our skirts, mascara out to there. Plus the Ronettes were my sister and cousin, so we had a blood sound. When we left the stage, I was pretty messy!
At what point in your career did you feel like you really made it?
I would like to tell you it was when we were watching Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and he played “Be My Baby” for the first time, but it was when we left New York and flew into London in early January 1964. That was a dream come true. Kids were waiting for us at the airport, just wanting to take pictures or touch you. And the next night we performed on the TV show “Tonight at the London Palladium.” Oh my God, as a teenager in the 50’s my favorite album was Frankie Lymon’s “Live from the London Palladium” and now we’re there! Wow! They even made outfits for us! That was when I felt I had made it.
I read somewhere that John Lennon (among many other musicians) had a crush on you. What’s your fondest memory of him?
Probably of us hanging out in London before they became what they became. It was a magical time there. We could talk all night. I could tell John anything. We first met before it all got nuts, so we remained true to that time. Years later, when we would see each other, it was still that time in January ’64, kids from two different places, sitting on a window pane together at night, looking out over the lights of London.
One of the things that I truly admire about you is that you left an abusive marriage and rebuilt your life and career. So many women stay in abusive relationships because they’re too afraid to walk away. When was the moment you knew you had to leave, and how did you find the strength to do that?
Probably when he showed my mother a glass coffin in the basement to keep me in. I was living in a fancy prison, a 23 room mansion, but trust me, it was still a prison. The emotional abuse had gotten to the point that I didn’t say a word the entire last year of our marriage. My mother came to stay with us. That was the only person I could see. You know when you are in the middle of it, you can’t really see just how crazy things are. You try and pretend this is normal, or he just loves me so much he can’t help himself. And he had totally cut me off from everyone. I was completely isolated. After an incident that happened which is too bizarre to get into here, I told Mom, “If I don’t leave here now, I am going to die here.” So Mom and I planned my escape. I know if it wasn’t for my mom, I wouldn’t be here today.
When you wrote your memoir Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette, why was it important for you to share everything you’ve been through with the world? What do you hope people take away from your life story?
I was emotionally and psychologically tortured for years by someone I loved and trusted. The physical stuff was nothing, it was the mental abuse. It’s haunted me for years. And always will. But you can rebuild your life, and in my case reclaim your identity. I fought back. I want every woman and man to know that you can go through hell and still survive. Don’t give up. Writing the book helped me. No matter who or what stands in your way, keep moving forward. Keep your eyes open.
Your latest song “Love Power” is about love and acceptance. How important is that message, especially considering what’s going on in the world right now?
That’s why we did it. It’s crazy out there. All I can do as an artist is put love out there. And my producer, Narada Michael Walden, and I discussed what message we needed to send. The Ronettes always sang about love. To me, that is what it’s all about. Today it’s like we took a giant step backward. I always try and keep it simple, like the song says, “Love is the greatest power of them all and together we can’t fall.” I believe that. And it’s so cool I recorded Love Power the day before I performed at San Francisco Pride. So love, acceptance, and understanding were in the air.
You’re currently performing again with the newly revived Ronettes. What has been the reaction from fans and how much do those fans mean to you?
My fans mean everything to me because they allow me to do what I love; rock. The new Ronettes are wonderful. It was at the Glastonbury Festival last year when I felt this feeling on stage, and I looked over at them, and they were doing their routines. And I sort of knew it was time to take a look at what I really wanted to do now. The answer was, have as much fun as possible when I am on stage. So we created a new Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes show. People love it!
Your career has spanned decades and you show no signs of slowing down. What keeps you going?
When my manager tells me something positive that just happened, I say, “Don’t tell me about last week, tell me about next week.” Performing to me is like a disease, and the only cure for me is getting on that stage to rock!
You’ve been such an inspiration to so many as both a musical icon and a style icon, including artists like the incredible Amy Winehouse. What does it feel like to have that kind of impact?
Mostly I pay no attention to it. I never read or watch anything I do. Amy Winehouse was different. Although I inspired her, she really helped me believe that what I did mattered. I was really upset when she passed away. I was once a little-lost girl. Since her passing, every show I perform a tribute to her. She’s that important to me. Her mom Janis has become a close friend to me, and we always see each other whenever I am in London. That’s another gift Amy gave me.
What would be your words of wisdom for new female artists trying to make a name for themselves?
Do not do it unless you absolutely love it. It’s a heartbreaking business. But if you need to do it, like I needed to do it, get a very, very smart attorney.
When I was a kid, I used to sing “Be My Baby” into a hairbrush in front of my stuffed animals. What does it mean for you to see people sing along to that song now, decades after it was first released?
I love it, and it makes me smile.
Look out for Ronnie’s rockin’ multi-media show Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Party Ever and visit www.ronniespector.com for info on upcoming tour dates.