Ronnie Spector, Who Brought Edge to Girl-Group Sound, Dies at 78

Ronnie Spector, lead singer of Ronettes, the 1960s vocal trio who brought a passionate, bad girl side to the sound of pop girl groups with hits like “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You” , died on Wednesday. She was 78 years old.

She died after “a brief battle with cancer,” according to a statement from her family, which gave no further details.

With tousled hair, tight outfits and seductive looks, the three young women of the Ronettes – Ronnie, née Veronica Bennett; his sister Estelle; and their cousin Nedra Talley – transformed the virginal model that had defined female pop groups since the 1940s.

“We weren’t afraid to be hot. It was our gadget, “Ms. Spector wrote in her 1990 memoir,” Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Mini Skirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette.

“When we saw the Shirelles walking on stage in their loose evening dresses,” she wrote, “we went in the opposite direction and hugged our bodies in the tightest skirts we could find. Then we would take the stage and take them up to show our legs even more. ”

In songs like “Be My Baby”, a No. 2 hit in 1963, they sang with powerful vocals of street-smart romance (“We’ll make them turn their heads wherever we go”), over the ” wall of sound ”production by Phil Spector.

“Be My Baby” was a 1960s pop classic that seemed to reveal both innocence and courage, and it garnered the lasting admiration of fellow musicians. He appeared in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, the 1987 hit television “Moonlighting” and the title sequence of “Dirty Dancing”. The look and sound of the band has made them a touchstone for women in rock music, from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders to Amy Winehouse.

Ms Spector later detailed the abuse she suffered while married to Mr Spector. When the band were inducted into Rock Hall, they conspicuously didn’t mention their former producer. Phil Spector, who was sentenced to prison for the 2003 murder of a woman in his home, died aged 81 last January.

The Ronettes racked up a string of hits until 1965, including “The Best Part of Breakin ‘Up” and “Walking in the Rain,” and for a time they were ubiquitous stars. They were part of the Beatles’ American tour in 1966, and Estelle Bennett, Mrs. Spector’s older sister, was dating George Harrison and Mick Jagger.

The Ronettes dissolved in 1967 and Mrs. Spector married Mr. Spector the following year. In her memoir, she wrote that he had essentially detained her during their relationship, surrounding her with guard dogs and removing her shoes, among other erratic and psychologically abusive behaviors.

“I was getting drunk so I could go to rehab, just to get out of the house,” Ms. Spector told The New York Times in an interview in 2000.

In the late 1980s, the Ronettes sued Mr. Spector for royalties, arguing that they had been paid less than $ 15,000 when they signed with Mr. Spector’s Philles Records in 1963 and that they didn’t have never seen another payment. The legal battle will last 15 years.

During the trial, Ms Spector said her husband stifled her singing career and threatened her with signing a divorce deal in 1974 that waived all future record profits. “He said to me, ‘I’m going to kill you’ and said, ‘I’m going to have you killed by a hit man,'” she testified.

The group won a prize of $ 2.6 million in 2000, but the decision was overturned on appeal two years later, and their families later said they ended up earning much less.

“I was so controlled by Phil, and now I have my own ideas,” Ms. Spector said at the time. “With this trial over, I only wait for the future: towards my future, singing rock’n’roll. ”

Veronica Yvette Bennett was born in New York City on August 10, 1943 and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

As a teenager, she sang with her sister and cousin, inspired by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Estelle, who worked at Macy’s and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, helped design the group’s look of beehive hair, tight dresses and thick makeup.

In an era of segregation, the racial and ethnic origins of young women set them apart. The Bennett sisters were of black, American Indian and Irish blood, while Mrs Talley was black, Indian and Puerto Rican.

In 1961, the Ronettes were signed to Colpix Records, which released “I Want a Boy” and other singles under the name Ronnie and the Relatives. After an audition in 1963, Mr. Spector signed the group to Philes. “Be My Baby,” written by Mr. Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, was released that summer.

Throughout the 1970s, in an attempt to rebuild her career without her ex-husband, Ms Spector collaborated with Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. But she did not meet with major success again until 1986, when her duet with Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight,” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Singles Chart and earned a Grammy nomination.

Ms Spector went on to release music as a solo artist, most notably for underground independent label Kill Rock Stars, and staged a one-woman biographical show, “Beyond the Beehive”, in 2012.

She performed a regular Christmas show at the BB King Blues Club and Grill in New York City, and she released a Holiday EP in 2010. For longtime fans, it was a throwback to the classic Holiday album by Phil Spector from 1963, “A Christmas Gift for You,” on which the Ronettes sang “Frosty the Snowman”, “Sleigh Ride” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.

Estelle Bennett died in 2009; after her death, Estelle’s daughter revealed that she suffered from mental illness and was homeless for a time.

Ms Spector is survived by her nearly four-decade husband Jonathan Greenfield, who also served as her manager, and two grown sons, Jason and Austin.

His last two cover albums – “The Last of the Rock Stars” in 2006 and “English Heart”, with renditions of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” in 2016 – have been received quietly. But she was happy to be the one choosing her material.

“Every song is a little piece of my life,” she said in 2007. “I’m just a ghetto girl who wanted to sing.”

Leave a Comment