Ronnie Spector's Victory Lap: The Original Rock Queen Talks New Music and Reviving the Ronettes
In conversation, it’s impossible not to fall head-over-heels for Ronnie Spector. Even over a tiny cell phone speaker, her strong voice bursts forth with electric excitement, full-bodied passion, and the occasional flirtatious giggle. It’s the voice—a mix of street tough New Yorker and tender schoolgirl vulnerability—that provided the heart, soul and swagger of the iconic ’60s group the Ronettes. Alongside her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, the trio scored hits with pop masterpieces like “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain,” and “I Can Hear Music.” Spector’s incendiary live performances established her as an unparalleled frontwoman in the early rock and roll world, providing a blueprint for generations of lead singers.
A cat-eyed siren who launched a million jukeboxes, Spector’s inimitable style bewitched some of the most famous artists of her generation. John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie all vied for her affections, and the Rolling Stones were close friends and tour mates. Brian Wilson became obsessed with “Be My Baby”—often 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. 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. Decades later, her bee-hived bad girl influence lived on in Amy Winehouse, who frequently cited Spector as an idol.
But she’ll forever be associated with the man whose last name she bears. Phil Spector, the brilliant but abusive record producer, made the young vocal powerhouse the keystone of his famed Wall of Sound productions in the early 1960s. He launched the Ronettes into the upper echelon of the pop world, but the stardom came at a heavy price. The pair’s professional relationship turned personal, and when they married in 1968, the intensely jealous producer kept her sequestered in their California mansion and subjected her to years of psychological torment. As she details in her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts And Madness, she escaped barefoot and nearly broke in the mid-’70s and set about rebuilding her career from scratch.
Now happily remarried and living in Connecticut (not far from buddy Keith Richards), the 73-year-old mother of two is taking a victory lap this summer, hitting the road with a newly revived Ronettes for the first time since the ’70s. The tour will kick off on Sunday in San Francisco with two performances at SF Pride, and will also include dates in Poughkeepsie, New York, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and in her hometown of New York City, where she’ll perform at Lincoln Center as part of NPR’s Turning the Tables series. At the end of July, she’ll cap off the trek with the release of a new single, “Love Power.”
The original Queen of Rock spoke to PEOPLE about her new music, new tour, some famous old friends, and what keeps her going after six decades.
How does it feel to go back on the road as the Ronettes?
It’s the most incredible feeling! I can tell you a little story: We were over in England at the Glastonbury Festival a couple years ago, and I’m onstage in front of thousands of people, lots of young kids having a blast. I look over at my girls doing the routine that the Ronettes did—shaking it up and all that stuff—and all of a sudden it’s the way it used to be, all about fun onstage. That feeling made me comfortable about performing as the Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes again. That’s how it came about. That’s when I thought, “I just gotta do this all over again, I just gotta start it over.”
I got two new Ronettes, because my sister [Estelle] passed away [in 2009, at age 67] and my cousin Nedra is a Christian. She said, “I can’t shake my ass now because Jesus doesn’t like it!” So I’ve got two new Ronettes and we’ve been traveling all over the world and people are loving it. So it makes me feel like I’m now instead of the ‘60s. It’s just an incredible, incredible feeling. I want to pinch myself and say, “Wake up, Ronnie, this is all not true. You’re dreaming this,” but I really am doing these new shows and making this new song [“Love Power”] with the Ronettes. We had that blood sound, the Ronettes, so I have a cousin of mine coming in [to record it]. My late sister’s daughter is singing on it, and it’s amazing, she sounds like my sister. So it’s just so great to be back and have a new recording coming out. I’m recording it in San Francisco. The Ronettes did the background here in New York, but I’m going to record it out in San Francisco because I can feel it out there. God, I can’t wait. I’m doing that the day before I do Gay Pride.
San Francisco Pride is an event that means so much to the LGBTQ community. What does it mean to you?
It’s amazing because that’s how I started before I had a hit record with the Ronettes, and also after I came back from [living with Phil Spector] California. Our career started working in the Village in the gay coffee shops. And then when I came back from California, where do you think I started out? I started out at the Continental Baths, a gay club. That’s how I started my return to show business.
When the Ronettes were first starting out, we didn’t have a hit record. We had nothing, but we had a look. We had the long hair with the beehive and the skirts with slits up the side, and as we played more and more, the gay people would come in and start dressing like us. I’d wear the cat eye eyeliner that goes way out, and they’d come in with cat eyes! [I thought,] “Wow, I’d made it!” It made me decide that I need to stay in this business.
The gay community started my whole career. They said, “Ronnie, you can do this! You’re fabulous!” It kept me going and going, and now I’m going to do it in front of the whole crowd. This is something I have dreamt of for the last 20 years, so I can’t wait to get to San Francisco for that Gay Pride.
You’re coming back to New York City, your hometown, to give a concert at Lincoln Center. There must be a lot of memories here for you.
I’ve played Radio City, I’ve played at Madison Square Garden, and I’ve played at all these places. We played the Apollo Theater, of course. We didn’t think people would like us because of our look and being biracial—but they loved us.
You had your first gig at the Apollo, right?
Yes! [laughs] I’ll tell you what happened with that. Back then was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. They were all guys! My cousin Ira had a good little voice, so we said, “You sing.” I was like 11 and he was 9 or something. He got out there at the Apollo Theater and he opened his mouth and nothing came out! I was so upset. Our parents had said, “If you don’t make it tonight, forget this business!” So I grabbed the mic from my cousin Ira and I just started. I don’t know if it was “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon, but the audience really liked us. That made me think, “Well, now you can definitely stay. You can reach white, you can reach black.” It was fabulous.
If you make it at the Apollo you can make it anywhere!
That’s right! A few years later we had a number one record so we headlined the Apollo with Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. She scared me because her voice was so great. It scared me to death because the people’s wigs were coming off at the Apollo. People were screaming about her voice and stuff. I thought, “Oh my god, the three little skinny half-breeds are gonna walk out there and they’ll hate us!” But they really loved us and I was so happy.
For many your voice defines rock and roll. How do you define rock and roll?
How do I define it? It’s just fun! If you’re on that stage and you have a hit record, you know you’ve made it and you’re having the time of your life. That’s how I felt in the 60s, the ‘70s when I came back, and in the ‘80s of course when I made that record with Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight.”
It’s so pure and real, and I think that’s what my audience likes about my shows. First of all, I must tell you, we never had a glam team. Today the female artists have a whole team to make a look. With us, it was just the three of us. No hairdressers, no dressmakers, no makeup artists. I still do the same thing today. I just do my own look. I do my own makeup, I still tease my hair and get it up with Aquanet hairspray. I’m a little older, but I still have the same feeling about rock and roll. I love it, and I love being onstage, and I love entertaining the people. I get goose bumps when I’m onstage at the end of the song and the crowd goes crazy and you don’t expect it. [gasps] It’s like, “Oh my god, they’re really rooting for me!” In my case I forget that, because I was out of the business for a while. After being absent for 7 or 8 years, to come back and see people like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel are my fans? What?! Billy Joel was also our opening act in Long Island [in the ‘60s]. They were called Billy Joel and the Hassles, and we were the stars of the show.
I loved your most recent album, English Heart, and those great British Invasion songs. I understand some of those bands were your opening acts at one point, too.
Thank you! It was so easy because I knew all those guys, or most of them. The Rolling Stones were the Ronettes’ opening act, and we were friends with the Beatles when they got to America. They came to our record party! So I knew all those guys before they hit it really big. Great guys! I mean, I dated John Lennon for a little while. I have to say that in secrecy [laughs]. He was so nice and polite. 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. Not fainted, but his head was to the side and he couldn’t get over it. I can’t sing low, I had to go all out. It blew his mind.
I’ve got so many stories with those guys. Keith Richards lives like 15 minutes from me now in Connecticut, so I see him quite a bit. There was just something that took with me going over to England with the Ronettes. It was the peak of our career, too. That’s why I think of England as so great. I went over there and all these Beatles or Rolling Stones are going, “Ronnie, tell us about this! Ronnie, tell us about that! Tell us about James Brown!” And I’m saying, “I don’t know these people!” [laughs]
My mother toured with us everywhere. I remember when John and George [Harrison] 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. You can’t go with us, mom! But we didn’t know how to say that, because I was still a kid. 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!”
They got the picture, and so did my mom. After dinner she got a cab. We used to stay at the Strand Palace, so she went back to the Strand, and George and John took us to the Elephant Club. I’ll never forget that. I said, “What a weird name!” So we went to the Elephant Club, and we had so much fun. I remember one night Judy Garland was dancing, and she was drunk. She had spiked heels that they wore in the ‘60s and it went down onto my foot! I looked at Paul McCartney with his girlfriend [Jane Asher], and Paul didn’t move. He just stayed and sat there with her. I said, “Help me, Paul!” And he said, “I can’t do anything, Ronnie. That’s Judy Garland!” So I didn’t say anything to her either, I just sort of limped back to my seat. But there it was, the fabulous Judy Garland.
What’s so amazing is that people are telling me I’m like Judy Garland today. That’s so weird to me. When I sing my slow songs, they say, “You’re like a little Judy Garland, you have such a big voice!” That’s full circle: she steps on my toe and I’m afraid to even say hello to her. Now she’s gone and people are telling me I’m the new Judy Garland. So it’s all so great for me. I couldn’t ask for anything more, because I never thought I’d get my career back. Never.
My last question: what’s your favorite song to do live?
It would definitely be “Be My Baby.” I save it for the end and I go on and on with it and the audience do the “Uh ohs” right with me. It’s a song that never dies in my mind. I love it. It’s my signature song, Jordan! I love it and I sing it every show that I do.
Nothing excites me more than just being onstage, having fun and flirting and winking to the guys and stuff like that. I just have so much fun. It’s just the best feeling when I go out and they say, “Ladies and gentlemen…” —my heart stops for a minute—“…Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes!” Then I just go out there and the crowd reacts the way they react and I can go on singing forever.