In addition to her title as the original Queen of Rock and Roll, Ronnie Spector enjoys an undisputed status as one of the ’60s greatest heartthrobs. Fronting the legendary Ronettes in her signature sky-high beehive and stylish pencil skirt, the cat-eyed siren bewitched millions, including some of the most famous artists of her generation. Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie were among those who vied for her affections, but few were as besotted as John Lennon.
The pair met in January 1964 when the Ronettes toured England soon after their pop masterpiece “Be My Baby” became a global smash. The Beatles, barely a year into their own superstardom, counted themselves as huge fans and wanted to be introduced. “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,'” Spector, 75, tells PEOPLE.
Both groups were invited to a show business party at a glitzy London townhouse. Despite the fact that Lennon was married and Spector was linked to her producer (and future husband) Phil Spector, that didn’t stop the Beatle from making a move. “John took me into a room to show me the beautiful lights over London,” she remembered. “I said, ‘Wow, it’s so beautiful.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you are.’”
He tried to steer her to a nearby bed, but her heart remained with her boyfriend 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!’”
Lennon, however, took the romantic rejection in stride. “He said, ‘Okay, I guess I lost on that one!'” Spector recalls.
The incident failed to damage their friendship. Lennon would act as Spector’s official guide whenever the Ronettes came to London. “He was so nice and polite,” she told PEOPLE in a 2017 interview. “He’d take me to clubs, and he took me to Carnaby Street to get all the t-shirts. We didn’t know what was in London, so John was all, ‘Don’t worry, Ronnie: I will take you.’ And then at night they’d take us to clubs. I remember one night I was with John and he said, ‘Ronnie, sing a little bit of “Be My Baby” in my ear.’ So I went, [full-voiced] ‘Be my little baby!’ And he almost passed out. I can’t sing low, I had to go all out. It blew his mind.”
Once, the duo arranged a double dinner date with Spector’s sister — and fellow Ronette — Estelle Bennett and George Harrison. It seemed like a great idea until the sisters’ mom accidentally crashed it.
“My mother toured with us everywhere. John and George were picking us up at the hotel to take us to dinner. They were so nice and polite, they said, ‘Mrs. Bennett, would you like to go to dinner with us?’ And my mother said, ‘Sure, let me get my purse!’ I almost had a heart attack! We were just at the age where we wanted to go out and have fun, and here’s Mom with us!? No no no. But we didn’t know how to say that. So we took her to dinner like good little girls, and of course John and George were so polite: ‘Ok, Mrs. Bennett, we’ll wait for you to get your purse.’ And I’m looking at them: ‘We wanna see England without mom!'”
The Beatles and the Ronettes would remain close, with the Fabs inviting them on their 1966 world tour. Years later, they released her solo debut on their own label, Apple Records. Though her producer/then-husband Phil wanted to credit it to “Veronica” (her given name), the band suggested her affectionate nickname. “The Beatles named me Ronnie Spector,” she says now. “It was really the Beatles that said, ‘Veronica just doesn’t sound right on your records. Everybody knows her as Ronnie.'”
Spector would repay the favor years later with English Heart, her 2016 album that pays tribute to British Invasion-era bands. In addition to recording a track by the Beatles, she also gave a nod to her onetime backing band, the Rolling Stones. She particularly hit it off with the band’s guitarist, Keith Richards.
“He and I weren’t dating but we would go out after the show to Wimpy Bars to have hamburgers,” she says of the time. “We didn’t think about drinking — you had soda backstage! Everything back then was so innocent.”
Lennon was murdered in 1980, but Spector’s friendship with Richards continues to endure. “He lives like 15 minutes from me now in Connecticut. So I see him quite a bit,” she says. When the Ronettes were welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, it was Richards who had the honor of inducting them.