'My Past Made Me Strong': Ronnie Spector's Journey from '60s Pop Icon to Rock 'n' Roll Survivor

The iconic Ronettes front-woman opens up about surviving her tumultuous past and achieving success and happiness on her own terms

Ronnie Spector
Ronnie Spector in 2018. Photo: David Williams/Redux

Ronnie Spector sits in a suburban Connecticut steakhouse, demurely refusing a slice of cake. “I don’t want to ruin my lipstick,” she says from behind her sunglasses. Diners tuck in around her, unaware that they’re in the presence of rock ‘n’ roll royalty. At 75, she commands the cozy booth like a stage. Though barely five feet tall, the word “big” comes to mind: big energy, big laugh, seriously big bouffant hair, and a majestically big voice.

For many, it’s a voice that defines an era. A mix of street tough New Yorker, vulnerable schoolgirl and the occasional flirtatious giggle, it provided the heart, soul and swagger of the seminal ’60s girl group the Ronettes. Alongside her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, Spector climbed the charts with pop rhapsodies like “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain.” With looks to match her formidable talent, the cat-eyed siren bewitched the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie — all of whom vied for her affections — and served as a muse for Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and even punk pioneers the Ramones. Her fiery live performances laid the groundwork for generations of front-women to come, and her edgy fashion is still in style. Decades later, her influence lived on in Amy Winehouse, who frequently cited Spector as an idol. “We took it from the streets to the stage,” she says of the Ronettes’ iconic pencil skirts, thick mascara and sky-high beehives. “That’s why they called us ‘The Bad Girls of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’”

Last year Spector resurrected the long-dormant Ronettes name with a new single, “Love Power,” and a string of tour dates stretching from Spain to Napa Valley and beyond. “It’s blowing my mind because I get more of an audience now than I did with the original Ronettes,” she marvels. “I’m talking 18-year-old girls with beehives!”

Her triumphant resurgence seemed unimaginable during her stormy marriage to Phil Spector, the deeply disturbed record producer who launched her to stardom. The pair’s professional relationship turned personal when she was barely out of her teens. After they wed, the intensely jealous hitmaker kept her sequestered in their California mansion and subjected her to years of psychological torment. “I thought I wasn’t going to sing again and that I was going to die there,” she recalls. With the help of her mother she ultimately escaped, barefoot and nearly broke, and began rebuilding her life on her own terms. Today Phil sits in prison for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, and Ronnie tours the globe, singing her songs and telling her story to packed houses.

“I made every negative a positive,” she tells PEOPLE. “Back then, I couldn’t go out and I couldn’t sing. Now, I go on stage and get to see the audience go crazy over me.” In a post #MeToo world, her status as an exemplar of female empowerment rivals her reputation as a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer. “What I went through then made me that great today. I was determined that nobody would ever keep me down again — and that’s what I’d tell any woman.”

Photo of Phil Spector
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Born Veronica Bennett to an Irish-American father and a mother of African and Cherokee descent in New York’s Spanish Harlem, she began singing as a 5-year-old at weekly family gatherings. A coffee table served as a stage, and a coffee tin a makeshift spotlight. “It was amazing. That’s what started my fire, when I got that applause from my aunts and uncles,” she remembers. In school she exasperated teachers by bursting into song at the slightest provocation. Usually she picked a track by her idol, local boy Frankie Lymon, whose boyish tenor made “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” a hit in 1956. “I had a teacher named Mr. Sacks, and he would call my mother: ‘Ronnie is interrupting the class. She’s singing again! She’s singing a Frankie Lymon song!’”

At age 11, Ronnie made her public debut at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Though relegated to backing vocals, she took center stage when the young frontman — her cousin, Ira — was overcome with a case of nerves. “He opened his mouth and nothing came out!” she recalls with a laugh. “So I went out there and grabbed the mic. The audience went nuts.” From then on, she was hooked.

In the early ‘60s, she enlisted her elder sister and cousin to sing and dance with her at local clubs like the Peppermint Lounge, putting in late nights before waking up just a few hours later for school. “Some mornings I couldn’t make it to class, but I wanted to be in show business so bad.” Calling themselves the Ronettes, they honed their act as the resident “dancing girls” at WABC DJ Murray the K’s popular music revues at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater. There they shared the stage with stars like Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson and Stevie Wonder, and developed their trademark fashion. “We wanted to be different, because there were all these other girl groups with wide dresses. When the Supremes came on, they had on gowns. I said, ‘Uh uh. That’s not our look.’ My aunt made us our first outfits, and I told her, ‘I don’t want anything wide, we want something tight,’ because we’d dance.”

For her towering beehive, Ronnie took inspiration from French bombshell Brigette Bardot. “I loved the way she did her hair, even though she was blonde and I have black hair. I would tease it up and do the bangs. In the streets, a lot of the Spanish girls would [also] tease their hair, and they had that makeup. We had the street clothes, and that’s why the kids liked us: because looked like them. A little exaggerated, of course…”

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The Ronettes released a handful of early singles like “What’s So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen,” and “My Guiding Angel,” but their career remained stalled until they crossed paths with Phil Spector, then the hottest producer in the country. Only in his mid-twenties, he was the enfant terrible of the pop world, crafting teenage symphonies with his bombastic “Wall of Sound” style. Phil was intent on bringing the Ronettes to the top of the charts and making Ronnie his latest star. With “Be My Baby,” a love letter to his protégé, he would do just that. The record went to No. 2 in the fall of 1963. The Ronettes were instant headliners — and Ronnie his new love.

More than half a century later, Ronnie still lights up when recalling the first time she heard her signature song beamed across the airwaves. The group were all crammed into a single bed, getting some rest while on tour in Wildwood, New Jersey. “Dick Clark came on [the radio] and said, ‘This is going to be the number one record of the century.’ And we were all laying there, tired from the show the night before, and we heard the drum: Boom, boom boom — bam. It was like, ‘Hello! That’s not us, it couldn’t be. Are we dreaming?’”

Their newfound fame brought the trio to England a few months later in early ’64, where the Rolling Stones served as their opening act. It was there that she struck up a friendship with guitarist Keith Richards that continues to this day. “He and I weren’t dating but we would go out after the show to Wimpy Bars to have hamburgers. Everything back then was so innocent. We didn’t think about drinking — you had soda backstage.”

The Ronettes also hit it off with another up and coming British group: the Beatles. “They had seen us on Sunday Night at the London Palladium and they said, ‘We have got to meet these girls with the black long hair and slits up the side.’” The Fabs showed up at an industry party thrown in their honor, where a besotted John Lennon made a move. “John took me into a room to show me the beautiful lights over London. I said, ‘Wow, it’s so beautiful.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you are.’” Lennon tried to steer Ronnie to a nearby bed, but her heart was with Phil back home. “I was young then, and I was seeing Phil. I didn’t want to kiss other guys and stuff,” she explains. “I just dug my feet into the carpet: ‘We gotta go downstairs, John!’” Despite the rejection, the Beatles would remain close friends and act as the Ronettes’ official guides whenever they came to London, taking them shopping and treating them to dinner — with Ronnie and Estelle’s ever-watchful mother, Beatrice.

But Ronnie’s mother wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on her. Phil became increasingly controlling as her celebrity grew. In the studio he insisted she stay by his side in the control room, separated from everyone else by soundproof glass. “I would bring my comic books, because I couldn’t be with anybody. Then, after everybody was gone, I’d sing my part. I was never around people. He made sure of that. The only person I was close to was Cher.” The future superstar, who’d begun dating Phil’s assistant Sonny Bono, was then working as a teenage background singer. “Cher and I really became close. We’d tell each other secrets.” In her own way, Cher tried to warn her friend about Phil’s destructive tendencies. “One time she said, ‘You know, Phil’s not a very attractive man…’ and I said, “Well Cher, Sonny ain’t no prize, sweetie!’”

w/Ronnie Bennett (Spector) recording
Ronnie Spector and Phil Spector. Ray Avery/Redferns

Though studio sessions could be tense, you couldn’t argue with the results. With Phil at the helm, the Ronettes notched four more Top 40 smashes in the next year: “Baby, I Love You,” “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” “Do I Love You?,” and “Walking in the Rain.” Their influence was seemingly everywhere. Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson became obsessed with “Be My Baby” — sometimes listening to it over a hundred times a day — and composed some of his most famous Beach Boys hits in an effort equal its symphonic grandeur.

Their bold fashion made them mainstays in the nation’s biggest magazines. “We were on the cover of Jet, the cover of Ebony, and Mademoiselle magazine. That was the first time a biracial girl could be in there,” she says proudly. “Everybody liked us — every race liked us — and that was so important because we communicated with all the kids out there.” An electrifying appearance in the 1966 concert film The Big TNT Show alongside Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner, Joan Baez, Bo Diddley and the Byrds cemented their status as members of the pop elite.

That same year, the Beatles offered the Ronettes a coveted spot as a support act on their world tour. The other two jumped at the chance, but Ronnie faced an ultimatum. “Phil said, ‘Marry me or go on the tour with the Beatles.’ So of course I stayed with him because I loved him.” They would make it official at a brief ceremony two years later in 1968. “We didn’t have a wedding, we just went to the Beverly Hills Courthouse,” she explains. “I didn’t have a white dress, I just had on a blue suit and a white shirt! My mother had to sign the wedding certificate. She said to me, ‘I just signed your death certificate.’”

Their marriage effectively signaled the death of the Ronettes. Phil stopped releasing their new music, and then he stopped recording them all together. Still under contract, they had no choice but to watch their career wither away. The new bride found herself confined to her husband’s gloomy Beverly Hills mansion. “He wouldn’t let me go anywhere. I never went to dinner, because we had a cook. I never went out that door after I got married. Maybe six times in all those years.” For occasions when it was absolutely necessary to venture outside the gates, Phil purchased his wife a Camaro, emblazoned with her initials. It came with another customized feature: an inflatable mannequin of himself to ride shotgun to deter any suitors. “If I was gone 20 minutes, he’d send the guards looking for me.”

Before long, the former jet-setting pop star’s world became four walls. “The doors were locked so I couldn’t even go outside to the fountain and walk a little bit. And we had a gate, too. ‘No Trespassers!’ There were so many signs, even the cops were afraid to go up there. I didn’t get dressed because I wasn’t going anywhere. Every day was the same thing.” Shades were kept permanently drawn, as was Phil’s preference, and Wagnerian opera blared. “Imagine being a Ronette, with the Rolling Stones as my opening act and all this greatness, to all of this darkness — and no singing.”

Phil’s grip tightened. Phone calls were supervised. Intercom systems were installed in every room. (“Including the bathrooms.”) Even television shows were monitored. The Partridge Family was forbidden, because David Cassidy was deemed too cute. They adopted a child together, a mixed-race infant named Donte. Soon after, Phil brought home a pair of 6-year-old twins — Gary and Louis — without bothering to ask his wife first. “We had a fountain and there are these twins running around — these blonde haired, blue-eyed twins. I said, ‘What’s this?’ He said, ‘Merry Christmas!’ It was never talked about. Everything was a surprise. No woman wants live children as a surprise!”

Through it all, Ronnie couldn’t help but wonder: “Was I ever going to sing again?” After years of assurances, he finally brought her back in the studio in 1969 to record a song he’d written, “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered.” The message in the title was not lost on Ronnie’s mother. “She would say, ‘Ronnie, don’t you know what he’s doing? He came, he saw and he conquered you. He’s got you in this mansion. You can’t even go outside!’”

On one of her rare trips out of the house, she snuck a peek at Phil’s private office, where she’d always been denied entry. What she saw sent shivers down her spine. “There was nothing but pictures of me: eating, sleeping, just walking around…it was so scary, because everything was me. And there was a candle there, like a shrine.” Finally the red flags began to add up as she realized that Phil’s behavior — swinging wildly from overprotective doting to his cruel outbursts — came from a deeply dysfunctional place. Everything seemed designed to keep her dependent, tied down and fearful. “I knew I was going to die there. It’s a feeling you get. He was so obsessed and he always said, ‘Before I let you go, you’ll be dead, honey.’ And he wasn’t kidding.”

Unsure where else to turn, she called the one person she knew could help: her mother. “She was smart, powerful and intelligent,” Ronnie says. “My whole survival was through my mom’s strengths. She laid it on me and she gave me the strength to keep going.” Together they hatched a plan to escape the mansion for good. With the front door locked, they studied the service entrances. “We did all this planning for three days. We had everything timed.”

Phil regularly hid Ronnie’s shoes to prevent her from leaving, so she would have to go barefoot. Finally they made a break for it — only to come face to face with Phil, standing on the lawn. His eyes fell on her bare feet. “He said, ‘Mrs. Bennett, don’t let Veronica step on anything sharp.’” Ronnie’s heart sank, but her unshakable mother played it cool. “Oh, I won’t let anything happen to her,” she offered back. They sauntered away, as if going for a stroll. Once they hit the driveway, they started running. “That’s how badly I wanted to get out, because I knew I was going to die there.”

Decades removed, Ronnie sees that her story mirrors many women trapped in abusive relationships, whether through fear, guilt or financial necessity. “People don’t understand why I stayed so long. But when you’re in love — and that person made you famous — there are a lot of reasons. I feel free now to tell other women: if you are in a bad relationship, you have to find someone. If it’s not your mother, your best friend. One person has to help you. It’s so important for women to know, if you want to go, pick yourself up and just figure a way out and get the hell out and save your life.”

After divorcing Phil in 1974, she moved back to New York to rebuild her musical career. “That’s where so much of my strength came from: I would not leave the stage. It was my love since I was 5 years old, so when I wasn’t performing, I felt like a nobody. And I was a nobody out there.” It was slow going at first, but a call to her old friend Murray the K helped shore up some gigs.

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During one comeback show at Madison Square Garden in the mid-’70s, a teenager named Jonathan Greenfield was struck by her smoldering stage presence. They would meet face-to-face a few years later when he was producing a downtown stage play called, ironically, Women Behind Bars. “I went because of the title,” Ronnie says. “That’s how I felt my whole marriage. I saw this guy and he came over and said to me, ‘I’ve been your biggest fan forever. Can I just give you a hug?’ I said, ‘Sure.’” Touched by the sweet act, she returned to the play every night that week. “To see him, not the show,” she says with a smile.

In January the couple celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. “He’s 15 years younger than me. That’s why I married him, so he can take care of me when I get older!” They share two sons — Austin Drew, 36, and Jason Charles, 35. “My mother was getting sick at that time, but she knew that he was the guy for me,” Ronnie recalls. “She got sicker and sicker until we had to take her into a nursing home. But as long as she saw Jonathan and her two grandchildren, that made her say, ‘I can rest in peace.’ Before Beatrice died in 1998, Ronnie lovingly sang “Be My Baby” in her ear one final time.

For decades she’s lived a dual life as Ronnie the Rock Star and a suburban mom in rural New England. In 1986 she scaled the charts again with a featured appearance on Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” Billy Joel, her onetime opening act, wrote “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in Spector’s honor, and she recorded a cover of the song backed by the E Street Band, on loan from another musical admirer, Bruce Springsteen. In 2007 she was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, reuniting with her sister and cousin onstage for the first time in years. But even with all these accolades, she makes time for regular household errands. “I’ll be standing on line at the grocery store like anybody else. All of a sudden ‘Walking in the Rain’ comes on and I want to scream, ‘That’s me, that’s me!’”

These songs unleash a flood of memories for Ronnie — some good, others painful — but she’s at peace with the deceptively beautiful music she made with her ex-husband all those years ago. “He was a great producer and I love my records, and I love what we did together — in the studio,” she says. “So when I hear my records even today, I get excited.” When Phil received a 19 years-to-life prison sentence for his 2009 murder conviction, Ronnie felt both vindicated and liberated. “It’s like, ‘I won, because he’s where he is and I’m out here going all over the world.’“

There’s a point in Ronnie’s stage show when she pays tribute to late artists like John Lennon, George Harrison and Amy Winehouse. To most they’re legends, but to Ronnie they’re friends and family. As she honors them in song, she always thinks of her mother and her sister Estelle, who succumbed to cancer in 2009. “I thank God I've got Jon, and two kids that I love,” she says. “I’m a mom and a wife and, above all, I’m a singer and a performer — that’s what I love.” More often than not, she’s counting down the minutes until the next time she takes the stage. “That’s all I can think about; when is my next show? Because it makes me happy! My past made me strong. It makes me stronger and stronger, the more I talk about it. I’m sitting here and I’m saying, ‘Wow!’ When Phil went to prison, that really made me say, ‘I’m never stopping.’ I couldn’t sing then, but I’m damn sure singing now!”

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