If you don’t know who Ronnie Spector was, she was the leading singer in the New York girl group The Ronettes. Spector founded the Ronettes in 1957 with her sister Estelle Bennette and cousin Nedra Talley. The Ronettes in their career had nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became top 40 hits. They are best known for their song Be My Baby, which was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. But what really defined the group is Ronnie Spector, who defined girl-power in an abusive and patriarchal society.
Ronnie Spector’s life was a mix of glitz, wealth, fame, and tragedy. Without her, the likes of Joey Ramone and Amy Winehouse may not have existed. Throughout her career, she has shown herself to be defiant and cool and she also embodied the punk ethos even before it existed.
Early days with Phillies Record
Before The Ronettes existed, they called themselves The Darling Sisters. Ronnie and her sisters were encouraged to sing from an early age. They made a splash in the clubs of New York City and signed to Colpix Records releasing singles such as Silhouettes in 1962. However, their singles did not do well commercially.
Frustrated, Estelle got in touch with Phil Spector for an audition. The Ronettes sang the song Why Do Fools Fall In Love during the audition and Spector jumped out of the chair excited by their voice. Spector only wanted to sign Ronnie to Phillies Records, but her mother insisted he sign them as a group or else the deal was off. By 1963, The Ronettes became a part of Phillies Records’ roster.
Be My Baby
The Ronettes became famous with their 1963 hit single Be My Baby, which reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was followed by a slew of records including songs like Baby, I Love You, Best Part of Breakin’ Up’ and Walking in the Rain. The Ronettes would open for The Beatles in 1966 on their US tour, becoming the only girl group to tour with them. The trio would break up in 1967 after the failure of their single I Can Hear Music and later releases. The girls would settle down and get married.
Married to Phil Spector
Ronnie, who was then known as Veronica Bennett, married Phil Spector. Although Ronnie continued to work in music, she did not find success as she did with The Ronettes. Phil Spector was an abusive, controlling, and psychologically dominant husband. He turned Ronnie into a shadow of her old self and made his 23 room mansion into prison with maximum security to lock her up. It was almost impossible for Ronnie to step out of the house. Many times, Spector threatened to kill her if she left him.
Spector even had a gold coffin with glass lids in the basement and warned Ronnie that she would be in the golden casket if she ran away. On a night in 1972, Ronnie slipped out for a walk with the help of her mother without shoes (as Spector had kept her shoes) and never returned. In an interview, she said she believed she would die if she did not escape Phil Spector. She was probably right as Spector was convicted in 2009 for the murder of Lana Clarkson, whom he killed in 2003.
After the Nightmare
Although Ronnie finalised her divorce from Phil Spector in 1974, she still feared him. She forfeited all her future record earrings to Spector after he threatened to kill her again. The divorce would be followed by long-drawn court battles for Ronnie to claim what rightfully belongs to her. Finally, Ronnie triumphed and was reimbursed over $2 million in unpaid royalties.
Ronnie in her later years described the patriarchal world she had to work in recording music 50 years ago. She said women could not show their power and all they could do was make records and lyrics as the men wanted. She was a supporter of the #MeToo movement. She added in an interview with Guardian, “When I was making my hit records, my ex was always the genius and you felt like: ‘Well, who am I?’ You felt that small. I’m so glad I’m still on this Earth to see women going out and saying: ‘You can be fabulous like me, you can do anything.’”
Ronnie Spector passed away on January 12 but remains a true icon in the history of rock and roll has had success and triumph over the evil of an abusive marriage.