In appreciation of Ronnie Spector (August 10, 1943-January 12, 2022), one of the pioneering artists of the ’60s whose career spanned six decades, renowned music historian and essayist Larry Flick offers his personal reflections and reminiscences of the distinctive, influential and much-loved entertainer…
(Photo, Larry Flick & Ronnie Spector)
“Laaaaarrrrrrrreeeeeeeeee, baaaaaaaabbbeeeeeeeee! I’m heeerrrrrrrrrre!” I often heard Ronnie Spector before I saw her. That distinctive, slightly nasal rasp always announced her presence with a loud and raucous laugh. Her joy preceded her everywhere she went. It filled every corner of the room – as did her massive signature beehive hairdo, thick cat eyeliner, and bright red lips. Ronnie Spector loved being RONNIE SPECTOR.
Over the course of our decade-plus friendship, I often asked her for the secret to such unbridled happiness. Her answer was always the same. “Baby, ya gotta own and embrace your history, even the bad parts,” she would say. “All of it is what makes you special. If you can remember that, then you can celebrate. You celebrate having the good, and you celebrate surviving the bad. That will give you peace and a feeling of pride for the rest of your life.”
I meditated on those words on January 12th, as news of Ronnie’s passing at the age of 78 from cancer-related illness broke. There was no doubt in my mind that she left this realm with ample peace and pride at having embraced the kind of history from which legends are made. Her legacy is rich as she rose from her position as the “original bad girl of rock’n’roll” into a touchstone of creative influence to fellow icons that include Brian Wilson, Billy Joel, and Amy Winehouse.
Ronnie savored the accolades, but she also enjoyed feeling like she had “earned a spot along side others who just loved to make music.”
Ronnie Spector was born Veronica Yvette Bennett on Aug. 10, 1943 in the Spanish Harlem area of New York City. In 1957 she formed the girl group the Darling Sisters, who were later renamed the Ronettes. The secret sauce of the group was that its other members were her older sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, allowing for that intangibly unique and tight vocal connection that only shared DNA can provide.
A 1963 audition for famed “Wall of Sound” record producer Phil Spector lead to a record deal that sparked the breakthrough hits “Be My Baby,” “Baby, I Love You,” “The Best Part of Breakin’ Up,” “Walking in the Rain,” and “Do I Love You?” The flurry of fame gave way to romance with Phil, whom she married in 1968, a year after the Ronettes broke up. It was a union that threw her life in immeasurable turmoil.
During their marriage, Phil psychologically abused her by wielding guns, and threatening to kill her and her family. He professionally sabotaged her by forbidding her to perform, and he held her captive in their home. “I was never ever allowed to be outside without a guard,” Ronnie said in an interview we did for SiriusXM radio.
“Phil tortured me,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe it. I was a young and vulnerable girl, and for a while, I was under his spell. He used his power to imprison me. He tried to create an alternate world that wasn’t real. It made no sense. He built me up. He made me believe that he loved me. And then did everything he could to break me down. It nearly killed me.”
In 1972, she managed to break free from their Beverly Hills mansion with only the clothes on her back. In the couple’s 1974 divorce settlement, she forfeited all future record earnings after Phil allegedly threatened to have a hit man kill her, and she received only $25,000, a used car, and monthly alimony of $2,500 for five years. After their divorce, Phil additionally attempted to prevent her from singing Ronettes song and denied her royalties. In 1988, Ronnie sued Phil for $10 million in damages. After roughly a decade of legal battle, Phil was ordered to pay his ex-wife more than $1 million in royalties.
Despite Phil’s best efforts, Ronnie succeeded in rebuilding her life and career. Her solo career was buoyed by a series of albums that included the brilliant 2006 opus, Last of the Rock Stars, which featured Keith Richards (who inducted the Ronettes into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007), Patti Smith, and members of the Raconteurs and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The collection shines with extraordinarily biographical songs like the scathing “Girl From the Ghetto,” which takes stabs at Phil with lyrics like “I hope your hell is filled with magazines. And on each page you see a big picture of me. Not bad for a girl from the ghetto like me.”
She also released the 1990 memoir Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, which is in development to be a biopic starring Zendaya.
Perhaps best of all, she found enduring love in Jonathan Greenfield, to whom she married in 1982. The two were immediately inseparable. “He’s my love, my protector, my manager, and my best friend,” Ronnie often said. “He shields me from the dangers of the world, but he encourages me to soar and be everything I want to be.”
I remember Jonathan once telling me that the most beautiful thing about Ronnie was how she has inspired the world to make music. The evidence was undeniable. Brian Wilson declared “Be My Baby” as the greatest pop record ever made, adding that it inspired him to write the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby.” Billy Joel also wrote “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in Ronnie’s honor. She later recorded that song with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
Perhaps most notable was a particularly fortuitous gig that Ronnie played in London during 2005. That was the night that a not-yet-famous Amy Winehouse was in the audience. Ronnie said the two locked eyes during a song. “It was like seeing myself,” she said. “There was an intensity in her eyes that I could not shake. I sang directly to her for the rest of the song. We connected very deeply in the moment. I tried to find her after the show. She was nowhere to be found. I never forgot her.”
A year later, Winehouse released undeniably Spector-influenced Back to Black. In fact, producer Mark Ronson has famously shared that Amy arrived to an early writing session declaring that she had found the inspiration for the album.
In recounting the legacy of Ronnie Spector, all of this and more will contribute to a woman who was a true pioneer. A towering figure of creativity and survival that will inform generations of artists to come. But for some of us, it will simply be about that unmistakable laugh… and the way she turned the phrase “woah, oh, oh” into a declarative chant of joy.