That hair, those hips, the eyeliner, but above all: that voice. It was her voice that made Ronnie Spector, born Veronica Bennett, who passed away on January 12 at the age of 78 after a short illness from cancer, who was legendary during his lifetime.
Her voice was like a siren that could even rise above the bustle of New York – shrill, loud and tough. For although Spector became famous with lovely-looking songs (‘Baby, I Love You’), she was fearless, both in sound and attitude to life. Thanks to that voice, every song became a statement, who would have dared to contradict her ‘Be My Baby’?
It was this voice that excited her future producer and husband Phil Spector at the first note. “That’s the voice I’ve been looking for all along,” Spector said one evening in 1963 when Veronica Bennett, sister Estelle and niece Nedra Talley sang a piece.
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Raised in Washington Heights, Manhattan, Veronica was both African American and Cherokee through her mother. She looked ‘different’ from her neighbors and she was bullied. That made her fearless, she said. It was her dream to sing, she practiced with her sister and niece in her grandmother’s hall, where it reverberated beautifully. In the early 1960s, the three started a singing group, first as Ronnie and The Relatives, then as The Ronettes. They performed at parties with covers. But they wanted their own songs. Spector would write and produce it, in his characteristic style with lush instrumentations and reverberation effects – a ‘wall of sound’ – which Ronnie still excelled.
The kick-off was ‘Be My Baby’ in 1963, which was played by radio DJs to song of the century was proclaimed. Hits like ‘So Young’ and ‘Walking In The Rain’ followed and the three singers with their identical mini dresses, beehives (torpedo-shaped haircut) and Cleopatra-esque eye makeup became international stars. In England, The Ronettes were as popular as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, with whom they toured: the Stones supported The Ronettes.
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Ronnie’s marriage to Phil Spector, with whom she moved to California, coincided with the end of The Ronettes in the late 1960s. The jealous Spector didn’t let Ronnie sing and she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. In 1972, she escaped the country house, which was secured with cameras and barbed wire, barefoot. Spector had hidden her shoes just in case.
Once free, Spector—she kept the name—singing again wherever she could. She collaborated with George Harrison and Bruce Springsteen, in 1999 Joey Ramone produced her album She Talks To Rainbows. She no longer achieved great commercial success, but she continued to perform and collaborate. Younger artists were inspired by her. Amy Winehouse based her haircut and makeup on Spector; after Winehouse’s death, Spector sang a version of ‘Back To Black’ as a tribute.
Ronnie Spector had remarried and lived with her husband in Connecticut, near Keith Richards. When she went to visit Richards, he always asked her to sing. ‘Be My Baby’, together at the piano.