Saying goodbye to a New York Original and an American Treasure
Ronnie Spector was a supernatural force, designed to bring men to their knees, and to inspire girls to go to Woolworth’s for eyeliner and Aqua Net.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
She left a trail of admirers sprawled across the years, from The Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Brian Wilson and Joey Ramone and the whole E Street/Asbury Jukes crowd, all angling for proximity, all eager to pay homage, all quaking at the quiver in her voice that streamed out of the radio, expressing romantic desire and unconditional surrender.
“For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three,” she promised, and that seemed like a fair exchange to boys who sat in the balcony of the Brooklyn Fox (and the RKO Fordham, in the case of this pre-adolescent) and were hypnotized by the mechanics of anatomy that, it seemed, made the fringe at the bottoms of the Ronettes’ dresses shimmy one way while the hips of The Ronettes moved in another. Would we ever understand sex? There were girls like Ronnie, Nedra, and Estelle in the neighborhood. Girls who knew the score, we guessed, who looked tough; and we couldn’t imagine that their hearts could melt, or that we could make ourselves known to them.
The Ronettes had only one top 10 single in their career, “Be My Baby,” which stalled at #2 in Billboard, but no one I know believes that it was anything but the most popular song on the planet from the second in the late summer of 1963 when Hal Blaine’s drum intro was the loudest, most insistent thing ever to test the limits of the transistor radio, and Ronnie’s voice came oozing through the swirl of the strings. You can tell me that it wasn’t a #1 hit, but that statistic is simply meaningless, as is the fact that none of their seven subsequent chart singles on Philles Records ever got into the Top 20. I mean, yes, I can read the facts on paper, so I don’t dispute them, but there are facts that are irrelevant and ones that are misleading, and the significance of The Ronettes goes beyond the three or four songs that the casual pop fan might recognize.
VIDEO: The Ronettes perform “Be My Baby” on Sha Na Na
They weren’t the first important Girl Group: Arlene Smith of The Chantels had a voice of such power and emotion that it made most other girl singers sound like timid children, and The Shirelles’ records were filled with warmth and teenage anguish. But the combination of Ronnie’s yearning voice and those arrangements and mixes where castanets were as prominent as however many pianos and guitars were in the room at Gold Star Studios was daringly assertive. And Ronnie was the girl we knew by name, the one we focused on. Everything Beyoncé is, Ronnie was first.
This is getting personal, but from what I can tell from my social media input over the last 24 hours, everyone felt that their relationship with Ronnie was personal. We crossed paths a few times. I interviewed her for an unpublished CREEM article when her collaboration with the E Street Band, the terrific single “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” was coming out (she kissed me on the cheek when it was over, a lifelong wish fulfilled); sat with Dion when Ronnie was doing an East-meets-West show at the Algonquin, when Dion shouted out from the audience, “Was ‘Be My Baby’ written about me?” I saw her sing Johnny Thunders’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” from her project with Joey Ramone, She Talks to Rainbows, and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” which fit her like a slinky sheath dress. The last time I saw her live, in 2016, was (fittingly, in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, where I used to go the Brooklyn Fox) at the Kings Theater, where she opened for Dion and promoted her then-new album English Heart.
AUDIO: Ronnie Spector and the E Street Band “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”
Artists like Ronnie Spector are usually stuck in a bind, thrown on multi-artist oldies bills where they get to do a handful of their most popular tunes, trigger the memory endorphins for ten or fifteen minutes, then scurry to the wings. You don’t get the scope, you only hear the singles, so a career is reduced to what was on the radio. I’m sure Ronnie did those gigs all the time, sang “Be My Baby,” “Walking In The Rain,” “Baby I Love You,” and maybe one or two other songs, but she also put together a 90-minute show, Ronnie Spector Sings The Fabulous Ronettes, that came to NYC’s City Winery in 2015, when I caught it, and had the kind of breadth that the devoted yearn for and rarely get. It was part spoken reminiscence—Ronnie introduced each song, talked about the songwriters (not the producer, for obvious reasons)—part visual retrospective (clips of the girls on American Bandstand, The TNT Show, etc., and stunning still photos), and it covered nearly the entire Ronettes repertoire, starting with “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love,” ending with “I Can Hear Music,” and including things that stayed in the vaults for years, like “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” and “Woman In Love (With You).” So if you never thought you’d be at a show where Ronnie sang “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” or “Is This What I Get For Loving You,” surprise. And “You Baby,” “Paradise,” “So Young”…
In her show she also reclaimed “Chapel of Love,” which she had dibs on and cut first, but when her producer decided not to release it as a single, its co-writers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich picked it up and recorded it for Red Bird Records with The Dixie Cups (whose singer Rosa Lee Hawkins also just passed away). The implication is that it was a blown opportunity for another big hit single, and it was, but the opportunity was blown in the recording studio. I know this is an “A&R” thing to say, but The Ronettes’ version missed the mark; it’s kind of draggy and muddled, Ronnie sounds restrained, the background vocals are distracting. It’s not a hit record, just a curious footnote, the album cut it wound up becoming. Ronnie did it better at the Winery gig, so in a way, it was making things right.
The whole show was about making things right, claiming her legacy, showcasing songs like “The Best Part of Breaking Up” that should have climbed higher on the charts, letting the body of work speak. And and if there were a few songs I missed (“Everything Under The Sun,” “Born To Be Together,” “Girls Can Tell”), it was more than I’d have ever expected more than five decades after she became my first musical crush.
VIDEO: Ronnie Spector on Letterman 1983 – 2010