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Music / Ronnie Spector

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The Bad Girl of Rock and Roll

"The people need to feel the music. That's what's so important, and that's what is missing. You have to let the audience feel you, you have to let them feel the love, feel the rock 'n' roll, feel the energy."

Veronica Yvette Greenfield (née Bennett, formerly Spector; August 10, 1943 – January 12, 2022), known professionally as Ronnie Spector, was an American singer who was best known for being a member of the 1960s Girl Group The Ronettes, which she fronted with her older sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley singing backup.

Hailing from New York City, The Ronettes began performing as teenagers in the late 1950s and were a popular local act when they signed their first record deal in 1961 for Colpix Records. However, they achieved little success until they were discovered by producer Phil Spector, who signed them to his record label in 1963. Phil Spector was particularly impressed with Ronnie's singing ability and originally wanted to sign her as a solo act, but her mother told him that he could only get her by signing the whole group. Nonetheless, Spector singled Ronnie out to be the main star and creative force of the group; Ronnie was the only Ronette to sing on the studio recordings and stood front and center during live performances. Phil Spector had them record multiple songs which he declined to release. That summer, they had a more fruitful session in which they recorded what would become their breakout hit, "Be My Baby". "Be My Baby" is the song in which Phil Spector codified what became known as his signature "Wall of Sound". It was released in August 1963 to critical acclaim and quickly shot up to #1 on the charts. The Ronettes quickly followed up with their second hit, "Baby, I Love You". They then provided three songs for Spector's holiday album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector: "Sleigh Ride", "Frosty the Snowman" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus". While the album flopped largely due to it being released on the same day as John F. Kennedy's assassination, it is now considered a Christmas classic and "Sleigh Ride" has proven to be The Ronettes' most enduring song. The following year saw The British Invasion, but The Ronettes proved to be one of the few American acts whose popularity managed to endure. They released three more hits, "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up", "Do I Love You?" and "Walking In the Rain". They also released their first (and only) studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica. They then toured the UK with their opening act, an up-and-coming band called The Rolling Stones. Their popularity began to decline in 1965, as the two singles they released that year failed to crack the top 40. However, they toured with The Beatles and still continued to make media appearances. After their tour with The Beatles ended and their 1966 single "I Can Hear Music" failed to become a hit, the group broke up.

Ronnie Spector then tried to pursue a solo career. First she released "You Came, You Saw, You Conquered" in 1969, which was credited as a Ronettes record. It didn't garner much attention. After completing George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" in 1970, Phil Spector focused on trying to relaunch Ronnie's music career as a solo artist. He had her record the Harrison-penned single "Try Some, Buy Some", which was released as a single in 1971. It also failed, with music critics claiming that Ronnie's vocals didn't fit Harrison's musicianship. While a solo album was planned, it was shelved after "Try Some, Buy Some" flopped.

As The Ronettes rose to fame, Ronnie became romantically involved with Phil Spector, in which he began exerting tight control over her career and life in general. He intentionally began trying to suppress The Ronettes' popularity so he could continue to keep Ronnie under his thumb. He also prevented her from performing with The Ronettes during many of their concerts with The Beatles, instead having her cousin Elaine Mayes perform in her place. After The Ronettes broke up, she and Spector married in 1968. Ronnie claims to have endured extreme levels of abuse and psychological torment from Spector during their marriage. Spector kept her locked up as a prisoner in his mansion for years, confiscating her shoes and surrounding the house with barbed wire and guard dogs so she couldn't leave. He made her care for multiple foster children that he adopted without her permission, prevented her from performing, and sometimes refused to feed her. He also allegedly once took her down to the basement, where he showed her a golden coffin with a glass door and vowed to kill her and display her corpse to the public if she ever tried to leave him. Fearing for her life, she left Spector in 1972 by literally running away barefoot with nothing but the clothes on her back. Their divorce was finalized in 1974, though Spector continued to make her life difficult all the way until he died in 2021 (just a year before her own death of cancer).

Ronnie Spector then plotted her return to the music industry. She reformed The Ronettes with two different backup singers, but the project was short-lived and unsuccessful. She then recorded a duet with Southside Johnny and the Ashbury Dukes, then spent some time performing with both them and The E-Street Band. Spector made multiple other attempts to launch a solo career that ultimately never gained traction due to her largely being perceived as an "oldies" act. She released her first solo album, Siren, in 1980. After it garnered little attention, Spector stepped away from music. She finally received her Career Resurrection in 1986 by performing as a featured vocalist on Eddie Money's smash hit "Take Me Home Tonight". In the wake of this newfound success, Spector released her second solo album Unfinished Business in 1987. While it earned positive reviews, it wasn't a commercial success. However, interest in Spector as a legacy artist proved to be enduring, as her work with The Ronettes received newfound attention, particularly after "Be My Baby" was used first in Moonlighting (which had its leads played by Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd sleep together to the song) followed by Dirty Dancing when it used it as part of its dramatic opening sequence, both in 1987. In light of this, she released her memoirs Be My Baby in 1990. At the same time, she entered a protracted legal fight with Phil Spector for her share of The Ronettes' royalties. After a decade in court, she eventually won $1.5 million to be split three ways among her, Estelle and Nedra. Since then she remained in the public eye as both a performer and a public speaker, while occasionally recording new music and working as a session musician. She was frequently seen performing during the holidays, both due to the enduring popularity of The Ronettes' Christmas recordings and because they were the only Ronettes songs she could safely perform without having to deal with Phil Spector coming back out of the woodwork to give her grief.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest pop singers of all time, to describe Ronnie Spector as "influential" would be an understatement. Even if you've never heard of her until now, we can almost guarantee that at least one of your favorite musicians has been influenced by her: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Billy Joel, The Ramones, and Amy Winehouse (ok, Winehouse went a bit beyond being merely influenced by Spector...) are not even scratching the surface. "Be My Baby" is considered to be a milestone record in rock and roll history and perhaps the greatest pop song of all time. Brian Wilson is famously obsessed with the song and has made emulating its sound his life's ambition. Spector's appearance and general image was widely copied by subsequent girl groups and fictional portrayals of female singers, from the 1960s to the present day. Her 1990 memoir "Be My Baby" is also widely considered to be one of the greatest rock memoirs and essential reading for anyone interested in 1960s music history and the creative processes behind it. It is also currently being adapted into a biopic. Spector was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004, and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, all as a member of The Ronettes.


With The Ronettes:
  • Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, (1964)
  • Siren, 1980
  • Unfinished Business, 1987
  • The Last of the Rock Stars, 2006
  • English Heart, 2016

For every trope you give me, I'll give you three:

  • Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable: Was occasionally prone to this, partially as a side effect of her Harlem accent.
  • The Alcoholic: Be My Baby covers her battle with alcoholism which began as a response to Phil Spector's abusive behavior. She had multiple stints in rehab during this time, and she admitted that she would intentionally relapse as a means to use rehab and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to get out of the mansion and away from Phil.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Was a social outcast in childhood due to her unusual mixed-race lineagenote . She was dark-skinned enough to be subject to constant racial discrimination from both the Italian and Latino populations of her native Spanish Harlem but was unable to integrate into New York's African-American community, either.
    • She recounts in Be My Baby that she lost the chance to play Joey Dee's girlfriend in the 1961 musical Hey, Let's Twist! because when she showed up to the studio the producer remarked, "I can't tell if she's white or black!"
  • And Your Reward Is Edible: She honed her singing skills as a child by repeatedly singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the stands at baseball games which almost always prompted somebody nearby to give her a hot dog.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Eddie Money is portrayed as being aroused by her voice in the music video for "Take Me Home Tonight".
  • Artist and the Band: The mainstream success of The Ronettes was thanks to Ronnie's vocal performance on "Be My Baby" (in fact, she's the only Ronette who sang on that track). This was acknowledged when the band was revived in The '70s under the title Ronnie Spector & The Ronettes.
  • Band of Relatives: The Ronettes were Ronnie, her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra.
  • Beehive Hairdo: One of the first to popularize it in the early 1960s.
  • Big Entrance: Utilized this when performing with Eddie Money on "Take Me Home Tonight". In the music video, we only see a silhouette of her dancing backstage while Money performs, before entering in the last verse and joining him onstage. During live performances, she usually waited until the beginning of the chorus to make a splashy entrance on stage and begin singing her parts.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Says she first learned of Amy Winehouse by seeing her picture in a magazine and mistaking it for one of her younger self until she put her glasses on and read the caption.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Be My Baby recounts multiple brushes with death, including nearly driving her Camaro off the side of a mountain and accidentally setting herself on fire while drunk, as if she had tripped on a crack in the sidewalk or dropped her toothbrush in the toilet.
  • Christmas Songs:
    • The Ronettes recorded versions of "Sleigh Ride", "Frosty the Snowman", and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" in 1963 for A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Their version of "Sleigh Ride" was the first time the song was recorded as a pop song rather than a traditional standard and remains one of the most popular versions of the song. It has re-charted in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 multiple times - it is currently on a five year streak of doing so since 2018, making it The Ronettes' biggest hit besides "Be My Baby".
    • Ronnie Spector was a regular fixture on the holiday music circuit for decades thanks to a combination of her love of the holiday season, the enduring popularity of The Ronettes' Christmas songs, and that they were the only Ronettes songs she could safely perform without worrying about taking grief from Phil Spector. From 1988 until her death, she held an annual "Ronnie Spector's Christmas Party" at the B.B. King Blues Bar & Grill in New York City.
  • Cool Shades: A fixture of her appearance post-Ronettes.
  • Cover Album: English Heart is Ronnie covering 1960s British Invasion songs.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: It's pretty much impossible to discuss her life and career without the conversation at some point turning to the horrible abuse she suffered at the hands of Phil Spector. Ronnie herself seems aware of this and is willing to discuss it to a limited extent.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Very famously so, which comes through in Be My Baby's often irreverent tone. This was a common point of praise among critics, both in contemporary and retroactive reviews.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: Claims in Be My Baby that Phil Spector did this to her regularly.
  • Domestic Abuse: Her 1990 memoir Be My Baby describes horrendous levels of psychological abuse that Phil Spector allegedly put her through. The allegations are the stuff of legend today and may have helped to put him away for Lana Clarkson's murder.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Even though she was credited as "Veronica Bennett" during her time with The Ronettes, she fully disavowed her birth name and only referred to herself and answered to "Ronnie Spector" since the early 1970s.note  When a fan asked why she continues to use the name despite all the terrible things Phil Spector did to her during a 2019 Q&A, Ronnie answered that it's a combination of the public widely knowing her by that name and that she thinks Veronica Bennett is "a shitty name".
  • Ear Worm: "Sleigh Ride"'s enduring popularity can be attributed to how insanely catchy and instantly recognizable it is thanks to the constant "Ring-a-ling-a-ling, ding-dong-ding" in the background provided by Nedra and Estelle.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: She briefly appears as a dancer in the 1961 film Hey, Let's Twist!
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The Ronettes' appearance on a 1963 episode of American Bandstand may count, as Ronnie speaks with a relatively high-pitched, feminine voice rather than the husky Smoky Voice she became known for later in life.
  • '80s Hair: Sported it all the way until her death, though in fairness, she was wearing big hairbefore it was cool.
  • Fang Thpeak: Given that her Harlem accent is part of her distinctive singing voice, she sometimes displayed this trait. A prominent example of this is The Ronettes' cover of "Frosty the Snowman"; "Fwosty da showman waz a happy, jowy showl..."
  • Females Are More Innocent: As one of the first female singers to utilize sex appeal as a key part of her act, skewering this trope when it was still very prevalent in American society was a key part of her public image in the 1960s. At a time when female singers generally worked to maintain a wholesome image, The Ronettes happily squeezed into the tiniest skirts possible and deliberately acted provocatively.
  • Gender-Blender Name: While her birth name was Veronica, she's gone by the more masculine-sounding nickname "Ronnie" since childhood.
  • Girl Group: The Ronettes are a Trope Codifier that continue to be one of the most celebrated and influential.
  • Great Escape: Describes the one that she had to orchestrate to escape Phil Spector in Be My Baby. He had her locked up so tight in his mansion that she had to plan her escape with her mother for over three days. Once she had an opening and knew her mother was waiting in a running car, she ran away from the mansion barefoot with nothing but the clothes on her back.
  • I Am the Band: Once under Phil Spector's wing, Ronnie was singled out to be the main vocalist and face of The Ronettes. She was the only member of the group to sing on the studio recordings, stood front and center on stage when the group performed live, and with the other two Ronettes leaving public life completely post-breakup, Ronnie alone carried the torch of the group's legacy over the subsequent decades. She relaunched The Ronettes a couple of times with herself and two other backing vocalists.
    • Phil Spector himself tried to claim this for The Ronettes, insisting that he invented them from scratch and that Ronnie, Nedra and Estelle were just three singers he recruited to fit his vision. He used this same disingenuous argument to blockade The Ronettes from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for over 20 years. Ronnie pushed back in court when she sued Phil for unpaid royalties in 1988 and her prevailing may have helped them earn their Hall of Fame induction.
  • Improbable Hairstyle: The big, distinctive Beehives she and the other Ronettes wore in the 1960s. Even in later decades, she still sported big, elaborate hairstyles.
  • Ink-Suit Actor: Got the treatment in 2020 through the new animated music video for The Ronettes' version of "Sleigh Ride".
  • Jizzed in My Pants: Claimed a US Army soldier did this in front of her when The Ronettes performed at a base in Germany.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In "Girl from the Ghetto", she celebrates how she feels karma has finally caught up to Phil Spector.
  • Mama Bear: Her mother played a key role in helping her escape her abusive marriage to Phil Spector.
  • Modulation: A trademark of her singing style, most prominently displayed in her signature three-octave "OH-OH-OH".
  • Older Than They Look: Spector exuded a youthful energy and rock and roll attitude that defied her age. Upon seeing her, you'd be forgiven for not realizing that she was in her late 70s and instead thinking she's 10-15 years younger than she actually was. To that point, she was 73 years old when the page photo was taken.
  • One of Us: Ronnie was a fan of Jeopardy! and expressed amusement on social media when she was a question subject on an October 2021 episode.
  • Singing Voice Dissonance: Inverted. Her Harlem accent came through just as prominently in her singing voice as it did in her natural speaking voice and is a major part of its distinctiveness.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Was almost always seen with a lit cigarette in hand, even on her album covers.
    • The first time we get a glimpse of her in the music video for Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight", she's putting out a cigarette with the heel of her boot.
  • Smoky Voice: Her voice, particularly her natural speaking voice, became increasingly raspy and gravelly as she grew older as an inevitable result of her heavy smoking.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute:
    • On The Ronettes' last concert tour, Phil Spector often refused to let Ronnie perform with them and instead sent her cousin Elaine Mayes in her place.
    • Similarly, The Ronettes have occasionally re-emerged as Ronnie with two look-alike background vocalists.
  • Tomboyness Upgrade: Developed a more "rocker chick" persona post-Ronettes. Took an even bigger upgrade when she re-emerged in the late 1980s.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Girl from the Ghetto" is one directed at Phil Spector in the wake of his murder conviction.
  • Verbal Tic: Had a tendency to end verses or otherwise fill instrumental breaks with her trademark multi-octave "OH-OH-OH-OH-OH".
  • V-Formation Team Shot: When The Ronettes performed live, Ronnie Spector stood front and center with Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley standing in the background, one to Spector's left and the other to her right.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks:
    • Where she came from, which she celebrates on "Girl from the Ghetto".
    • The Ronettes were one of the first musical acts to openly embrace this trope and make it a key part of their public image, giving ghetto fashion mainstream popularity in the process.
  • You Should Have Died Instead: After Phil Spector went down for Lana Clarkson's murder, Ronnie stated her belief that she would have died had she not escaped him when she did and has wondered why he never tried to come after her and murder her.

"Just like Ronnie sang..."