“I want to be one of those voices like Ruth Brown,” she proclaimed in this epic interview
Ronnie Spector’s life had more than its share of ups and down, mostly due to her tumultuous relationship with her husband Phil.
But in all my conversations with her, she always maintained a positive, upbeat demeanor, always looking forward to the next time she could do what she loved the most; perform on stage.
This Q&A is compiled from two interviews, in 1999, when she released the EP She Talks to Rainbows (co-produced by Joey Ramone and Daniel Rey) on the Kill Rock Stars label, and 2011.
The music industry’s quite different now than when you released your first record.
Oh God, it was so different. In the ’60s, girls didn’t have any say-so. You went into the ladies room while the men figured out what they wanted to do next. It’s so different today. I’m so happy the way it is in the ’90s, where women are sort of equal now. Women can produce, women can do things that you just couldn’t do in the ’60s. It was a man’s world. Completely!
Who were your influences?
Oh my God, that’s so easy! It was Frankie Lymon of course, Frankie and the Teenagers. And the Schoolboys, the Students, and Frankie Valli. I was singing Frankie Lymon songs at the Apollo Theater when I was 11 years old, and I just stuck with it. The boys, their voices got low. But I could still sing their songs after they got around 16, 17, and couldn’t sing ‘em anymore. So I said I’ll take ‘em! And I kept ‘em. I still sing ‘em in the same key and everything.
How did that performance at the Apollo happen?
My mom worked right next door as a waitress at King’s Donuts. So that’s how we got the chance to do that. Because Bobby Schiffman owned Apollo Theater, and my mother was the only one he let make his lunch. And he was always flirting with my mother. She said “Can you maybe have my girls do Amateur Night at the Apollo?” And my sister and I were sitting at the counter, and he looked around and he said “I think I’ll give ‘em a shot,” ‘cause we looked so pretty and were so innocent and everything. And we always had to stay in the employees’ lounge; we weren’t allowed to be out on the street.
I was 11 years old. We had a cousin, Ira, that was supposed to sing lead because back in the early ‘60s it was all guys. So I had like five other girls, cousins, with me to sing, but he was the only boy. So I said “You sing lead.” He got out on stage at the Apollo Theater, at Amateur Night, and he opened his mouth and nothing came out. I grabbed the microphone and I just started, “Why do birds sing so gay….” And they loved me. I didn’t win Amateur Night mind you. I’ve gotta let people know that! But when they applauded me, that little applause I got made my future. You know how they say if you make it in New York you can make it anywhere? I say that about the Apollo Theater. After I did that, that’s when our career started taking off a little bit.
We were on Colpix Records when I was like 15. Of course, it was intimidating. We recorded at a huge studio. And they had these two girls looking the McGuire Sisters in there to sing background with the two Ronettes, Estelle and Edra. And the first thing that Stu Phillips said was, “Ronnie, don’t follow them in there. You’re in a different room.” I was in like a glass booth, not with the girls. And that’s the first experience I really had of a studio, a real studio. And real musicians. And it was amazing. But everything on Colpix Records sank like a rock.
VIDEO: The Ronettes “Be My Baby”
What did you think the first time you heard “Be My Baby”?
I absolutely adored it. Because most of “Be My Baby” was talking about me. Because I was so sheltered as a little girl. I had seven aunts, and my mom and dad. I never went to school by myself. So I was always sheltered. And I think that’s why they started writing “Be My Baby,” because I was such a baby! I didn’t know anything. I’d never been on long trips. I was never allowed to have sleepovers. Absolutely not! Because being born mixed race, and I lived in Spanish Harlem, you just couldn’t walk out on the street with long hair, light skin. So I was very sheltered.
So by the time I did meet Phil [Spector], I was over at the penthouse and [songwriters] Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and Phil were in the other room writing this song. And I’m saying, “I wonder if that’s for me?”” So when I finally heard the lyrics and stuff, it was like “That’s me!” And they were writing it for me. So it was great.
I love the music from the girl group era; there was something special about the girl groups.
I think so too. You know why? Before that, they were all male, whether it was the Cleftones, the Four Seasons, Frankie Valli. So when the girl groups came about, it was like Wow! You know? It was like a man’s world back then. Other than like Sarah Vaughn and people like that, that didn’t sing rock ‘n’ roll. So when the Shirelles came along, Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles, the Marvelettes, that sort of opened the door for the Ronettes.
Do you ever get tired of singing “Be My Baby”?
Never. Every time I’m getting ready to sing it, and I get the drums — bum, bum-bum, bum; bum, bum-bum, bum — it’s just like I sang it in the studio, some 40-odd years ago. It never changes. I never get tired of it. And that is amazing, because a lot of performers I’ve spoken with, “Oh, I’m so tired of singing my hit song.” And I say, “Hey, you should be happy you have that song to sing and it was a hit and stuff!” Some people, and I understand that too, they want to move on with their careers. But I’m the type of person, I have to sing my hits. And I’ve gone to see other performers that don’t sing their hits, and oooh, I’m devastated, you know? So I’ve learned my lesson by seeing other people. And I’ve always sung my hits.
And I love it. Most people don’t even have that. They don’t have one record that people can identify you with. I’m so happy and lucky that “Be My Baby,” even today, people still love it. And that’s very important. They may remember the name of the group, but not their songs. But with me they remember the Ronnettes, Ronnie Spector, and the song. So I’m very lucky, actually. Today you don’t identify the song and the artist.
AUDIO: Ronnie Spector “Try Some Buy Some”
After the 1960s you made some interesting records, like George Harrison’s “Try Some Buy Some” for Apple Records.
I will never forget that day. Because I had to fly over to London. And you know Apple Records is like, the ceilings are way high. It’s like the pre-war buildings I grew up in. Way high. That’s how I learned to sing, the echo in the hallway downstairs at my grandmother’s. And that’s when I knew I could sing, when I was 11, and I would go to my grandmother’s and she had that tall pre-war building she lived in; she lived on the top floor. And we couldn’t go out because she was very strict, because we were very pretty. And she said, “You can go downstairs in the lobby and sing. Not outside.”
So at Apple, when I went into the studio, I go in there, and there’s one guy in there, sitting at the piano. And his hair was so long, I couldn’t see the side of his face. And they said, “Go and sit down next to him, that’s the guy that’s going to be teaching you the song.” So I sit down at the piano, and he slowly turned around, and it was George Harrison! And I knew the Beatles, they came to my party at Decca Records over in England in 1963, when the Beatles hadn’t hit big in America yet. I was with John Lennon, my sister dated George Harrison. And so when I got to Apple and saw it was George Harrison, we broke out laughing and hugging and kissing, we just were so happy to see one another. Because I hadn’t seen him in ten years or maybe more.
“Try Some Buy Some,” I wasn’t really into. But it’s the Beatles, I’m in London, I had such a ball when I was there in the ‘60s, I said Why not? And it took me a long time to get into it. I said George, what does it mean? You tried what? You bought what? I didn’t know. ‘Cause I didn’t know about drugs and all that stuff. So I really didn’t know about what he was talking about until he explained it to me. And then he would explain about the Maharishi, and how they tried things and drugs and it didn’t work. I said, “But George, I never did drugs. I can’t sing a song like this!” He said, “Ronnie, you can sing any song.” So they convinced me, I went in that booth, and I cut it right out. But another thing about that particular record, I made him take out the “Once” in the opening line, “Once way back in time….” I said, “I don’t need ‘Once.’ ‘Way back in time’ is going to tell the story.” And he was listening to me. Not like the other producers did. And it was such a pleasure to be with someone that listened to you and took your advice.
And Genya Ravan produced your solo album Siren.
Genya Ravan was one of the few women producers back then. But they still weren’t giving the women the power. The record didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know if it was because she was a woman. That’s what so great about today. Women are writing their own songs, Sarah MacLachlan’s Lilith tours — all of that’s great. All this girl power stuff to me means nothing if it doesn’t help the average girl. Then it’s just another marketing tool created by the industry. Where’s the girl power for the women who created the industry? I’ll tell you where — nowhere.
I’ll give a better example. Ruth Brown has more girl power than anyone, because she fought hard against people like Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, who were ripping her off. She was a maid after she made all those big hits and had no money. And then said, “I’m gonna go back out there.” She set up the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. That’s girl power, compassion after going through hell. The girl power’s there now. We know that. But where’s it gonna take us? I want to be one of those voices like a Ruth Brown.
She Talks to Rainbows is your first new record since 1987.
It wasn’t that it was so long. I didn’t want to go with just any record company. Say, for instance, the bigger record companies, because I’ve been there, done that. And they don’t pay much attention to your records, because you’re like this oldie act. So your record ends up being up on the shelf with all the dust gathering. Because people are looking for the groups that they can create. All these groups today are created, and they’re not real. Like with me, I made my own act, I did my own singing. Now everything is packaging and getting people out there to stay a couple of years, and then they’re gone and you never hear of them again. Because they didn’t probably love it in the first place. See, I love what I do. I’ve loved it for so long. That’s a lot of what’s missing today, with video. Bands and singers don’t go out and learn how to perform live. Their label spends half a million dollars to create this image of the band. And you go see them live and there’s nothing happening.
Stage performing, to me, is a dying art form. And I’m afraid with all this technology and stuff that people are going to wake up one day and not know what rock ‘n’ roll feels like. The sweat, the energy, the sexual tension. There’s nothing like it in the world. As long as I can feel that, I know I’m alive. The energy, the sweat, the sex, the feeding off the audience, them feeding off of me, that energy and all that real stuff. Not just doing these routines, like N’Sync, all these groups are made up. Manufactured. They’re not real. And that’s why they don’t last long today.
Like the Spice Girls.
Exactly. The Spice Girls, another packaged group. They actually showed clips of the Spice Girls, how they had to audition to be a Spice Girl. And they got the five girls, they told them what to do, what to wear, how to have all this choreography. And then one of the girls is gone and they’ve only been out for a couple of years! So they don’t last. I’ve been in the business over 30 years. And I’m still around. I don’t go out there and have a routine. I just go out there and whatever the audience, I do whatever I feel. It’s not a routine. And that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is to me. To go out there and rock ’em and roll ’em! Make them happy. They pay to see you. A lot of groups don’t even think about what the audience thinks. I think about, I’ve gotta go out there and please these guys. They paid whatever it is, ten dollars, fifteen dollars, to see me. So I’m gonna really give them their money’s worth. And I’ve always felt that way since the ’60s. I was so amazed at people actually paying to see me, I thought, “Dammit, I’d better give ’em a good show!” And I think groups today don’t even think like that. And I only think about the audience. That’s all.
How did you get together with Joey Ramone?
He called me to be in a video he was doing downtown. And I went down there. And here’s this huge tall tall guy, handsome. And we hit it off right away. And then I was thinking, “Who could I go to that I want to make a record with?” As a matter of fact, my husband [Jonathan Greenfield] was in the car, and he heard this song, “She Talks to Rainbows.” And Joey Ramone happened to be the one that wrote it. So I called Joey when I heard it, I called him the next day. We got together, we went down to this club, and I met him, and we just clicked. Because he was so now, and so not worried about, “Does she want to change it?” As a matter of fact, he encouraged me. He said, “Do what you feel. If you don’t like a certain thing, tell me.” I said, “I’ve met the man that I want to make records with!” The
So I didn’t make records for a long time because I wasn’t comfortable with being packaged. That just wasn’t me. And so when I met Joey and he said, “Ronnie, you want to change a lyric, you want to change the ending, go ahead,” that alone made me say, “Yes! Yes! He doesn’t mind!”
VIDEO: Ronnie Spector visits Brian Wilson
The EP also features “Don’t Worry Baby,” which Brian Wilson wrote for you.
In the ’60s, I didn’t think about publishers. I didn’t do “Don’t Worry Baby,” which Brian Wilson wrote, because Phil Spector didn’t write it. He was thinking about getting the money from publishing and writing. I didn’t even think about all that stuff. And Joey Ramone doesn’t think about that. He’d say, “Ronnie, let’s start writing. You don’t know, you could be a good writer.” And that was so not selfish, not so money, greedy money, wanting all the glory. And right away, I said “Joey Ramone, I want you to do my songs. You’re not selfish, you’re not like the guys from the ’60s.” And that’s really how it all came about.
How did you choose the Johnny Thunders song? (“You Can’t Put Your Arm Around a Memory”)
We were playing different songs at Joey’s place, just playing different songs. And when I heard that, “It doesn’t pay to try/Every smart girl knows why,” I loved it! It reminded me of my whole life, that I tried so hard. You had to be like a little 16-year-old in the bathroom while all these men put you together. And Johnny Thunders was at my show, like twenty years ago. And every song I sang, he was crying! And here he is gone, and I feel so great, just sort of carrying on his legacy. And the lyrics were just perfect. I loved that song.
AUDIO: Ronnie Spector “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”
It’s such a melancholy record.
Right. And that’s what we wanted, because it was sad. My life, I’ve been in litigation for fourteen years, I was stopped from doing so much stuff, because of my ex. He would write to the record companies and say “She’s still married to me,” and this and that. And so I had such a hard time for ten years after my divorce. I couldn’t get arrested because he would write to the record companies, and they would just get afraid of the whole thing, because he was a big figure in the record business.
And so now I feel I really have the right people behind me, that really want to see me make it, and not themselves make it. Because people know my name as well as they know Phil Spector’s. And I have people behind me now that just are interested in me, in my voice, and how I am on stage. And I think that’s so great. Daniel Rey, Joey Ramone, and my husband Jonathan; we’re all sitting there collaborating together. And that’s something I never did, not with Phil, even with Genya Ravan. And then with CBS Records [in 1987], I just felt like this outsider. But when I met with Daniel and Joey, I was right in the same room when they were writing. And the same room when we’d make up ideas. It was so refreshing.
How did you choose Kill Rock Stars as your record label?
I think it was Joey and the others. They knew the label to pick for me. And I like Kill Rock Stars as a label. Because Slim Moon, the owner, is his own person, truly independent. And he puts out music that he believes should be heard. And that’s what it’s all about. And at this point in my career, I’m not interested in making people rich, such as publishers, writers, producers. I’ve done that. I’ve done that already! I’m interested in making rock ‘n’ roll records. And that’s what Slim Moon and Kill Rock Stars is all about. He’s not interested in making big bucks. He’s interested in people that are interesting, and that he likes. And he loves my voice, and he loves the EP. What more could I ask for? And he’s not out there for the money! He’s out there for people to be heard. And I think that’s so necessary today.
I can’t complain. Because when you complain, that becomes a whole way of life, and a way of looking at things. And it stops you from being positive. Have I been victimized? Absolutely. But who wants to be a victim? Get on with your life.
I love talking about the music business, I love talking about songs, I love talking about performing. And that’s my whole life, is performing. I’m really free to just go out and do my songs and do my shows and loving every minute. And I have never changed, I still love it. Every time I walk out there.
That’s the secret.
That’s the secret. And it’s a passion. You have to have love and passion for what you do, the work. If you don’t have that love and passion for it, you’re just going to go out there and not really care. And the people you see still standing today, from the ‘60s, they really care. People like me. But I’m still here, and I’m still singing good, and having a ball out there. That’s my best fun ever is being on stage.
VIDEO: The Ronettes perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony 2007