Ronnie Spector was the undisputed Queen of Rock in the mid-’60s. Her group, the iconic girl group the Ronettes, had scored a string of smashes, including the immortal classic “Be My Baby,” all produced by her boyfriend — pop wunderkind Phil Spector. But as her fame began to eclipse his own, the deeply troubled hitmaker became increasingly possessive. When the Beatles offered the Ronettes a coveted spot on their global world tour, Phil gave Ronnie an ultimatum: Marry me or go on the road. Ronnie chose love, but she lived to regret it.
In an effort to dim her star, Phil sabotaged Ronnie’s career by refusing to release the Ronettes new music, and eventually stopped recording them all together. Bound to him under contract, she was left with no other recourse to save her career. By the time they said “I Do,” he had made Ronnie a virtual prisoner inside his gated and gloomy Beverly Hills mansion, and subjected to regular psychological torment.
“Imagine being a Ronette, with the Rolling Stones as my opening act and all this greatness, to all of this darkness, with no singing,” Ronnie, now 75, tells PEOPLE. “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.”
Ultimately it was her mother, Beatrice, who helped lead her towards the light once again. “My mother was the one who helped me survive all of it. [Phil] was my first boyfriend, so my mother knew I was so innocent,” she says. “My whole survival was through my mom’s strengths. My mother was smart, powerful, intelligent to the point where I knew she was telling the truth about everything. She would say, ‘Ronnie,’ and look in my eyes and say, ‘This is not for you.’ I knew. She laid it on me and she gave me that 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. I had to go out the back door where the cook left and the delivery people brought food in.” 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. “As soon as we got to a corner where he couldn’t see us, we started running out of there. That’s how badly I wanted to get out, because I knew I was going to die there.”
After divorcing Phil in 1974, she moved back to New York to rebuild her musical career. She had little more than her name, her talent, and her ambitious drive to succeed. “Phil’s abuse was mental, not physical; telling me how useless I am, and I’ll never sing again and I’ll never be successful again without him,” he says. “All those things made me say, ‘You wanna bet?’” She proved him wrong, rebooting her career in the ’70s with performances across the country.
During one concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, a special person sat in the crowd — her future husband, Jonathan Greenfield. They wed in 1983, and share two sons, Austin, 36 and Jason, 35.
For more on Ronnie Spector’s amazing life, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Over the years, Ronnie has seen her story play out among many women who stay with their abusive partners, whether through fear, guilt or financial necessity. In her long-running stage show, Beyond the Beehive, she offers insight into own experience, encouraging women to look deeply at their own relationships and make a positive change. “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.”
When she isn’t spending time with her family in rural Connecticut, Ronnie is touring the globe singing her songs and telling her inspiring story to packed houses. In light of the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, her reputation as a beacon for female empowerment rivals her status as a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer. This month she’ll embark on a holiday tour, and in 2019 she plans to hit the road once again with a newly revamped Ronettes.
“Everything is so vivid in my mind because I didn’t sing for so many years. That’s all I can think about; when’s my next show? Because it makes me happy!” she says now. “What I went through then made me that great today, because I was determined that nobody would ever keep me down again. And that’s what I’d tell any woman.”