This was originally written as two separate articles on The Toppermost website:
The idea of Toppermost is selecting the ten best songs, by first the Ronettes, then Ronnie Spector solo. I’ve removed that here … see Toppermost for the selection … and I have added illustration as befits a record collecting website, plus brought it up to date.
The Ronettes picture was stuck on the wall above my Dansette record player. The only artistes awarded that distinction in my teens.
The Ronettes started out as Ronnie & The Relatives: Veronica Bennett, her sister Estelle Bennett, and her cousin Nedra Talley. They took a job dancing with Joey Dee & The Starliters at the Peppermint Lounge in New York, then in Miami. They had blagged their way in past door security claiming to be go-go dancers with their bras stuffed with Kleenex, and Joey Dee went along with it. They performed as dancers until David Brigati was singing What’d I Say and handed the mic jokingly to Ronnie, who tore it up and brought the house down. From then they sang backing as well.
They missed out on Joey Dee’s film Hey, Let’s Twist. The casting director opined, “They’re too light to play black girls and too dark to play white girls. We can’t use them.”
After their first two singles with Colpix in 1961 (What’s So Sweet About) Sweet Sixteen and 1962 on Colpix subsidiary, May, (I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead / My Guiding Angel), they changed their name to The Ronettes. Veronica was always the focus and lead singer. The Colpix / May singles flopped.
Listening to those songs today, I can see why they didn’t make it. Colpix had no idea what to do with us. Stu Phillips just didn’t know what rock ‘n’ roll was. He had us in the studio backed up by two fake McGuire Sisters. And with the strange songs he picked for us, it’s no surprise our recording career was going nowhere.BE MY BABY: RonnIE SPECTOR
The Colpix sides were released on an LP in 1965, after their Spector hits, now on CD as The Ronettes Featuring Veronica.
Ronnie’s largely right, What’s Sweet About Sweet Sixteen is an abysmal song, and the overall style is girl group without the attitude and soul edge that The Ronettes had with Spector. Ronnie had revised her opinion by the notes for the 2004 CD, and says that Recipe For Love was rescued, and went back into her live act in 2001, and the start of the song lends itself to their later sound. It has a punchy feel like later Spector tracks.
Nestling in among those early poppy sides like I Want A Boy, are some worthwhile tracks. In Good Girls, Ronnie can suddenly get funky and roar, so we get a pretty rendition of Always be a lady … then a roaring I’ll mashed potato but forget the gravy… which may not make sense, but the way she sings it you think it does.
Silhouettes is The Rays song, later to be a major hit for Herman’s Hermits. It’s an earworm of a song, like it or love it, and The Ronettes track from April 1962 is the best version. I’m On The Wagon rocks, though it sounds like Brenda Lee rather than The Ronettes, an illusion increased by the honking sax. And you can hear those fake McGuire Sisters.
Enter Phil Spector.
Sonny Bono had multiple roles with Phil Spector … assistant producer, apprentice, gopher, percussion, backing vocals.
Sonny Bono Like a spoiled child,Phil needed to be the centre stage, the focus of everybody’s attention. He stood in the centre of a chaotic session like no one I’d ever seen. He was dressed entirely in black. Sunglasses shielded his eyes. His longish hair was a variation on a beatnik’s bowl cut. Physically, he was short and unimposing, but he gave off a heavy vibe that warned you not to screw with him.sonny bono, the beat goes on, 1991
Read her book for the story. Estelle simply phoned Philles Records, asked to speak to Phil Spector, and got an audition for the next day. Just like that. However Nedra Talley claims Phil had been told about them, and came to see them at a Murray The K Show at the Brooklyn Fox, then invited them to audition. He advised them how to get out of their Colpix contract, by saying they were giving up singing altogether.
They signed for Philles Records in March 1963, and he had them rehearse daily with him, without recording. Ronnie says “We became his obsession.” Then Ronnie became his obsession, then his possession.
He flew Ronnie and her mother to California to record Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love, but had Estelle and Nedra travel five days cross country by car to add backing. Ronnie says she always got preferential treatment. But Phil declined to release the track. It was not, he said, a number one. When it finally came out in 1964, it was credited to just “Veronica” as it is on the Back To Mono Spector box set.
Ronnie Spector: When he first heard my voice, I remember he came to one audition to see if I sounded as great as he thought I did, and he saw us at this little club… [W]hen he came to a rehearsal, and I sang one of Frankie Lymon’s songs (Why Do Fools Fall In Love), he knocked the bench over from the piano and said, ‘That’s the voice I’ve been looking for.’… I’ll never forget that. And that’s just before they went in and wrote ‘Be My Baby.’”
They then did four songs in June 1963: The Twist, Mashed Potato Time, Hot Pastrami and The Wah Watusi, all stuff they did on their live shows – they were already a popular live attraction. Hot Pastrami was one left over from backing Joey Dee.
Phil Spector regarded the sessions as mere warm-ups, and used them to fill out The Crystals Sing Their Greatest Hits, credited to The Crystals. This was not unprecedented, as Darlene Love sang the first two Crystals hits.
Sonny Bono: The flip side to Phil’s strange behaviour was his willingness to put just about anybody on a record. If Darlene Love wasn’t available, he substituted Ronnie. If the Crystals weren’t available he used Darlene, which is exactly what happened on the group’s only number one, He’s A Rebel. Billed as The Crystals, the song actually featured Darlene singing lead and backed by a group of L.A. session singers called The Blossoms. The point wasn’t lost on me. Phil was the star – the song was his vehicle. The artist- be it Ronnie or Darlene or The Righteous Brothers – was merely a passenger on Mr Spector’s Wild Ride.Sonny Bono, The Beat Goes ON, 1991
Current versions credit the four “Crystals” tracks to The Ronettes. They’re definitely not given the full wall of sound.
A lot of work and preparation and obsessive rehearsal went into Be My Baby before they even recorded. Ronnie was flown out to California ahead of the others, who were to put their parts on later. They spent three days in the studio on Be My Baby, with Spector telling everyone that Ronnie was the voice he had been looking for.
Ronnie Spector: It took just about three days to record just my vocals for Be My Baby. I was so shy that I’d do all my rehearsals in the studio ladies room because I loved the sound I got in there. People talk about how great the echo chamber was at Gold Star Studio, but they never heard the sound in that ladies room. And between doing my make-up, and teasing my hair, I practically lived in there anyway. So that’s where all the little “whoah-ohs” and “oh-oh-oh-ohs” you hear on my records were born, in the bathroom at Gold Star.
Phil Spector later said it took him the time Motown spent on ten hit songs. He may have intended to add Estelle and Nedra later or not, but in the sessions Be My Baby was backed by Darlene Love and Bobby Sheen (Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans), Sonny Bono, Cher, Nino Tempo, and Fanita James (The Blossoms). It was Cher’s first ever session. Hal Blaine’s drums were huge at the centre, then there were four pianists, playing in unison with four different types of piano.
It was a #1 US hit (on Cashbox) and a #4 UK hit. Phil was right in that The Ronettes had image with the hair, mascara and looks in a way other interchangeable girl groups did not, and Ronnie has that special thing: the signature voice. You can have ten great singers, but the important ones will be instantly recognizable.
The Ronettes were touring with Joey Dee & The Starliters when the record took off, and had to drop the tour immediately to follow up the promotion.
Be My Baby is a classic, often said to be Brian Wilson’s favourite song.
Billy Joel said:
Billy Joel: It just oozes sex, that record. It’s got this Latinesque string line that practically throbs. And Ronnie’s voice – I mean it sounds almost lubricated. It’s got a smell to it, like sweat and garlic. There’s an urgency to that voice, a sexuality that screams street to me. Ronnie’s sound is like the neon glow that hits the streets under the elevated tracks on a hot summer night. She’s got that natural vibrato that sounds like it’s coming straight up from her gut – and there’s no one else who sings like that. Ronnie can wring more emotion out of one long phrase than most singers can from a whole song.Forward to “Be My Baby” autobiography
She also has a slightly soft ‘r’ sound, and that lends just a touch of vulnerability.
Mick Brown: It took three days to record her vocal, but her performance struck a perfect balance between teenage innocence and sexual precocity – sweet, seductive and totally irresistible. Jack Nitzsche would later declare himself amazed at the vibrato in Ronnie’s voice. “That was her strong point. When that tune was finished, the speakers were turned up so high in the booth that people had to leave the room.Mick Brown, Tearing Down The Wall of Sound, 2007
Baby I Love You was the follow up, also written by Spector with the Barry-Greenwich team. To a degree, it was formulaic in following Be My Baby, but it was also equally good.
It’s the one they chose to open with when Keith Richards inducted them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Keith introduced them as “Veronica Bennett and The Ronettes” having said that “in spite of Jack Nitzsche’s beautiful arrangements, they could sing it without any wall of sound.” No mention of Phil Spector from Keith.
At this point, Spector had The Ronettes tour with Ronnie’s cousin Elaine singing lead, plus Nedra and Estelle. Ronnie stayed in the studio recording. Ronnie says she always recorded her lead vocal alone, and that the backing singers are the usual studio crew, often just Darlene Love and Cher. She says if Estelle and Nedra were around their voices got added to the mix later, but often they’re not on the records. They’re not on Baby I Love You. I was unsure about later songs credited to “The Ronettes” after Estelle and Nedra had left, but it’s clear that much of their output is only Ronnie anyway.
Phil Spector also put instrumental B-sides, basically quick studio jams on the B-sides, though credited to The Ronettes, who did not perform on them at all. They had the sole writing credit ‘Phil Spector’ because the B-side attracts the same royalty as the A-side.
All three Ronettes do appear on A Christmas Gift For You, aka the Phil Spector Christmas Album in December 1963. They were assigned Frosty The Snowman, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and Sleigh Ride. Having played the album through many Christmases, Sleigh Ride is far and away the best of the Ronettes contributions, as well as the second best song on there. Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) has no competition for first place.
Record Collectors beware. Before it was re-issued (which it has been several times) it was a valuable secondhand disc, and pirate copies from the late 1960s and 1970s are extremely common. The sleeves and labels look perfect, but they sound like shit.
The Ronettes toured England with The Rolling Stones in 1964, and Phil flew over with a new song (The Best Part Of) Breaking Up. If I could only choose one, this might just edge past Be My Baby as the definitive song. In this case Ronnie says Phil spent hours working on the harmonies with Estelle and Nedra, so it really is a group song.
Ronnie and the Ronettes couldn’t understand why The Rolling Stones wouldn’t talk to them on the tour bus. Then they discovered Phil Spector had set their silence as a pre-condition for the tour.
Phil arrived just after Ronnie had rejected John Lennon’s sincere advances. we have to assume that when John later was recording with Phil who had a revolver on the mixing desk, that this was not a topic they discussed.
Ronnie Spector’s Be My Baby s a fascinating book, and while she might have missed out on a John Lennon romance, she had ample compensation with a very busy night with David Bowie in 1974 (an explicit and funny description).
More singles? This was a singles group. Most of Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes was singles. Phil Spector went to obsessive lengths selecting the songs, working with three writing teams: Greenwich/Barry, Poncia/Andreoli and Mann/Weil.
Phil knew well in advance what the singles were going to be and they were the ones that got the full treatment. He didn’t record a bunch of stuff, and then select. He didn’t devote much time to the throwaway instrumental B-sides.
The next singles were Do I Love You and Walking In The Rain.
So Young, which had been released as “Veronica” again, still features in Ronnie 21st century solo shows.
What’d I Say is on the album and purported to be live. It was a song they used to sing with Joey Dee and continued to perform on shows. It’s fake. The audience was dubbed on, and it’s recorded to sound like Joey Dee’s Starliters with a ton of echo. Chapel of Love is a typical cover as album filler.
1965 saw less successful releases of two brilliant songs: You Baby, and Is This What I Get For Loving You?, the second was a particular favourite of Phil’s (mentioned on Back To Mono) and tries out some ideas that are similar to The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Then there are comparative rarities, songs which didn’t come out until ten years later on Spector compilations. There are several on the 1990s Back To Mono box set: Soldier Baby Of Mine, Keep On Dancing, Woman (In Love With You), Paradise. Then there’s Here I Sit, Everything Under The Sun. All are excellent, and they all emerged, and are now on the main compilations.
Woman (In Love With You) was issued when Philles Records briefly had a mid-70s UK label, and re-issued most everything from the catalogue.
Spector was so intent on keeping Ronnie to himself that they got recorded but not issued. Here I Sit was a Nilsson/Spector composition, as was Paradise, and I love the way Ronnie floats above the massive chorus in Here I Sit. This is a Great Wall of China sized wall of sound. Its only issue is the repeated line Here I sit broken-hearted the start of a crude popular couplet often written on toilet walls in Britain in the 60s (sat on the seat, and only farted). Paradise is laden with sound effects.
Ronnie Spector and Cher bonded. Cher wrote the introductory note to Ronnie’s autobiography., Both had older, jealous, controlling partners in Sonny Bono and Phil Spector. Sonny Bono stops at those three adjectives. For Phil you can add manic-depressive, threatening, dangerous. Ronnie was confined to home, locked up even, though she says he never actually hit her. His rages were such that he didn’t have to.
I Can Hear Music in 1966 was another Spector/Greenwich/ Barry composition, much more famous in The Beach Boys hit version from 1969, revealing the Brian Wilson obsession with Phil Spector, though brother Carl produced this one. What is amusing is that Carl Wilson took the basis, layered it in Spector style and produced something that sounds more Spector than Spector (apart from the a cappella section). An interesting combination of the two can be found on YouTube, Ronnie Spector singing it with Brian Wilson and his band in 2000. Ronnie’s voice interprets the words rather than reciting them, and the horns are lovely. It was an unissued single, then on the Greatest Hits Volume II album before being issued on the B-side of the 1969 A&M single You Came, You Saw, You Conquered which was only Ronnie.
Philles Records went belly-up in 1966. Ronnie was more or less confined to the house for a full two years, recording nothing, not even listening to music. Then Phil Spector did a deal with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records in 1968. Phil Spector had his logo overprinted on his A&M productions, and they didn’t record as normal at Gold Star, but at A&M’s newer state-of-the-art facility. Ronnie says Phil was over-awed by the new equipment so permanently angry to compensate.
It wasn’t a happy session.
Ronnie Spector: These guys at A&M didn’t depend on Phil for their jobs and treated him like the nut that he was.
The release was a major flop. It’s on the compilations now. I always liked it, possibly because it was refreshing to get Ronnie Spector back after a long gap.
There were two singles on Buddah in 1973 and 1974, credited as Ronnie Spector & The Ronettes. Three of the four sides were written by Stan Vincent. The fourth was a re-recording of I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine, originally done in 1966 and left unreleased. That was a Barry / Greenwich / Phil Spector song.
The 1966 version is on many compilations. Ronnie says the other Buddah single, Lover Lover, was an awful song. The only images on line are promo copies, with the same song on both sides. This may be a case where promo copies are more common than actual sell-through copies.
The Ronettes had been asked to reform for shows in 1974. Ronnie said that Estelle had become extremely overweight and could no longer do the moves, while Nedra was a born-again Christian, married to a minister, and refused. Chip Fields and Denise Edwards replaced them, for a tour with Billy Vera as bandleader. It foundered under Ronnie’s then alcoholism. She was divorced from Phil in 1974,
Ronnie Spector solo
Great singers who are interpreters, but not composers are at the mercy of songwriters, song selection, and also producers. Solo Ronnie Spector definitely goes for a rock sound rather than a soul sound, with a tendency to not only big backings, but stadium glory. When the band is great, as both Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and The E-Street Band are, the combination is magic. Some other stuff suffers from 80s synth rhythms and a touch too much white-boy guitar heroics. I’d love to have heard her do something with the likes of The Dap Kings.
Ronnie Spector’s first solo material was with Apple in 1971, three years before The Ronettes finally disappeared. Phil Spector wanted her to become “Veronica” (as on a Ronettes re-release) but she hated the name. “Ronnie Spector” was chosen by John Lennon and George Harrison, and she’s stayed with it.
Try Some Buy Some was written by George Harrison, and was a 1971 single on Apple, co-produced by Phil Spector and George Harrison. Harrison later did the song himself. It was designed to be a teaser for an album, mainly written by Harrison, that never happened. It was a rarity for years until the Apple Come & Get It CD compilation in 2009. Ronnie hated it. She said she didn’t understand the words, and it was in the wrong key so she couldn’t hit the notes. The B-side, Tandoori Chicken was wildly unsuited to her. It was written on the spot after a very stoned session when John Lennon had turned up to watch George Harrison producing and they sent out for an Indian takeaway. Phil Spector was discombobulated at having two Beatles on the session.
Ronnie Spector: When I heard my voice fighting that droning melody all through the song, I knew my first impression was right. The record stunk.
The date and Beatles association made me spend so many years trying to find a copy that I had to like it when I finally did.
Ronnie Spector: My big comeback at Apple Records turned out to be nothing but a joke … It drove me crazy. My husband produced My Sweet Lord for George Harrison, and Instant Karma for John Lennon but when it came time to record me, what did he pick? A song about Indian chicken.
After that disastrous last tour with The Ronettes in 1974 she was in a bad way. Her 1975 record was You’d Be Good For Me on a tiny label, Tom Cat. That was a Gerry Goffin- Barry Goldberg song.
She had sung with Alice Cooper in 1973, on Muscle of Love, including Teenage Lament ‘74, and her carer revived when Southside Johnny asked her to duet on You Mean So Much To Me, written by Bruce Springsteen. It’s on the Southside Johnny I Don’t Want To Go Home album.
She went on tour with Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes for eighteen months, with a solo spot, sometimes supporting Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.
Steve Van Zandt recorded her with the E-Street Band on Say Goodbye To Hollywood. Billy Joel had written it three years earlier, with Ronnie’s voice in mind. He saw Mean Streets where Be My Baby features and went straight home and wrote the song. Ronnie has said it was like singing her autobiography. E-Street fans will love an outstanding Clarence Clemons contribution throughout. It said on the 45 that it was from a forthcoming album, but it never appeared. It was tacked on to reissues of 1987’s Unfinished Business as a CD bonus track.
Ronnie Spector: People have told me that my singing on that record is as strong as it’s ever been, and I’m not surprised. Say Goodbye to Hollywood is all about a girl who picks herself up and all the people who’ve let her down. It was the story of my life, and I rally got behind the emotion on that one. I wanted ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’ to be the best record I’d ever recorded because I knew that fit hit, I really would be able to say goodbye to Hollywood- and Phil Spector – forever.
Another strong record was It’s A Heartache, in 1978, a one-off single, but Bonnie Tyler got the hit.
1980s Siren was produced by Genya Ravan and suffers from submerging Ronnie’s voice under layers of over guitars. Genya Ravan (formerly Goldie, of Goldie and The Gingerbreads) wanted her to embrace punk, and Ronnie found her as demanding, controlling and bossy as Phil had been.
As so often, song quality will out, which is why Anyway That You Want Me, a Chip Taylor song originally cut with Evie Sands, then a hit for The Troggs was so good.
Ronnie Spector I got so tired of Genya’s weird demands on me that I was happy to be rid of her after we finally finished the Siren album … Genya tried to turn me into a punk singer which is something I’m not. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you’re doomed the minute somebody tries to make you into something that you aren’t.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow (with Joey Ramone) and Darling from the Siren albumwere issued as singles on Red Shadow Records in 1980.
Eddie Money had her duet on Take Me Home Tonight in 1986, a US #4 hit. Ronnie sings the Be My Baby chorus, but it’s mainly Eddie Money.
Unfinished Business in 1987 has that big stadium AOR feel to it. Mostly it was the Letterman house band, led by Paul Shaffer. When it deviated into the full synth approach on the Elvis hit, Burnin’ Love, and Dangerous (with Susanna Hoffs), it now sounds extraordinarily dated, but no doubt 80s synth tracks will be the next thing. When the band is conventional, it improves. The outstanding songs are Who Can Sleep (duetting with Eddie Money), and Love On The Rooftops.
They were both singles. The sax emulates the sound of her E-Street session.
The CD has the wrong titles on the tracks when imported into iTunes. Easily sorted, but a warning. e.g. Burnin’ Love is Track 4, but labelled as track 6 on the CD. On the CD, you get Say GoodbyeTo Hollywood as a ‘bonus track.’
From the She Talks To Rainbows 5 track CD EP, Bye Bye Baby is a duet with Joey Ramone on the classic Crewe-Gaudio song for The Four Seasons. She also does Don’t Worry Baby, which Brian Wilson wrote specifically for her, and submitted it to Phil Spector who rejected it. There’s a 1998 clip of her performing it.
Something’s Gonna Happen was released in 2003, another five tracker, or EP length release, four songs were written by Marshall Crenshaw, plus Owen Paul’s 1986 hit My Favourite Waste of Time. The Crenshaw tracks date back to 1989 and are somewhat swamped by the synth heavy backing. Whenever You’re On My Mind is the best arrangement and match to her voice. I know the Owen Paul song backwards (having used an instrumental version on a project) and prefer his original. Great song.
You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory was written by Johnnie Thunders, ex-New York Dolls and covered on the 1999 She Talks To Rainbows set with assistance from Joey Ramone, and then reappears on The Last Of The Rock Stars. She produced the album herself, and guests include Keith Richards and Patti Smith.
The centrepiece of The Last Of The Rock Stars (2006) is Girl From The Ghetto. The lyric was modified by Ronnie. Read her autobiography to see why. It’s directly to Phil Spector. It reads:
All the things you said I’d never do
All the things you said that were untrue
All the times you made me feel alone
Said I’d never make it on my own
Things are looking up for me now
Seems like kharma’s making its rounds
I won’t be held down, no, no
Kharma’s going to visit you too
For all the things you put me through
I hope you do, I know you will, yeah, yeah
I hope your hell is filled with magazines
And on every page you see a big picture of me
And under every picture a caption will read
Not bad for a girl from the ghetto like me
Ronnie sings that twice, but the song is so triumphantly autobiographical that the third time, with Phil Spector on trial, she changes the words to:
I hope your CELL is filled with magazines …
Good one, Ronnie. She finished in triumph Spanish Harlem, yeah! Girl from Spanish Harlem! It’s magnificent, it’s her life, it’s one of the best things she’s ever done.
The promo CD single (with Keith Richards on guitar) was All I Want.
The same year, Ronnie sang the title track, Brace Yourself, on the Various Artists tribute to Otis Blackwell, Brace Yourself.
In 2010, Ronnie decided to go for Christmas, as the Phil Spector Christmas Album had become a perennial and produced the 5 track Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever.
That’s three five track CD – EP in her career. Excellent production and backing throughout on good new seasonal songs. My Christmas Wish is terrific.
A cover of Back to Black was part of an Amy Winehouse tribute in 2011, after all Amy Winehouse had modelled her hair on Ronnie.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood was a 2014 Record Store Day reissue:
The Very Best of Ronnie Spector is the CD to get if you’re new to her work. It came out in 2015, and its scope is indicated by the row of four record label logos on the back … Sony Music, (Columbia) Legacy, Philles Records and EMI.
In 2018, Ronnie recorded English Heart, an album of British 60s classics. The CD itself is a Who style Mod roundal, and the inner case has an advert for the 1964 Rolling Stones tour. The covers … Beatles, Kinks, Fortunes, Animals, Sandie Shaw, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Bee Gees, Dave Clark Five … is a tribute to the era. Track 3, I’d Much Rather Be With The Girls, is credited to The Ronettes … written for them by Andrew Loog Oldham and Keith Richards. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart breaks into the 70s, but she says she couldn’t miss it.
Ronnie Spector When I stepped off the plane at Heathrow Airport and was met by photographers and fans, that was the first time I felt like a star. Then it all happened for us – and we fell in love with the UK. And no matter what happens in my life, those days spent in the British Isles in the 60s will always remain a magical time, filled with fun. The happiest of my life. Let me tell you going shopping in Carnaby Street with John Lennon was a lot of fun… this album is my stepping back into that time, that place.Sleeve notes to English Heart, 2018
It was one of my favourite albums of 2018. Favourite track? Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
Ronnie Spector died at the age of 74 in January 2022. RIP. Think of those happiest times.