One of the lasting icons of the girl group era, with an instantly recognizable voice that added grit to yearning relationship songs, Ronnie Spector was a key influence on generations of female rockers as leader of the Ronettes. After teaming up with producer Phil Spector, who called Ronnie “the voice I’ve been looking for” at the group’s audition, the Ronettes broke through in 1963 with their signature song “Be My Baby,” a number two smash that set the stage for further hits like follow-up “Baby, I Love You,” enduring holiday classic “Sleigh Ride,” and 1964′s Grammy-nominated “Walking in the Rain.” Ronnie proved an inspiration to contemporaries from the Rolling Stones (the Ronettes opened their 1964 U.K. tour) and the Beatles (opening their 1966 U.S. tour) to, perhaps most conspicuously, soon-to-be punk pioneers the Ramones. The Ronettes broke up in 1967, and, following a tumultuous six-year marriage to Phil Spector and a short-lived attempt to reconstitute the Ronettes with different singers in the mid-’70s, Ronnie Spector went solo. Her Genya Ravan-produced solo debut, Siren, appeared in 1980. In 1986, she resurfaced on Eddie Money’s Top Five hit “Take Me Home Tonight” with a call-back to “Be My Baby.” While her periodic solo albums, compilation entries, and soundtrack contributions failed to reignite her ’60s chart success, her 1990 autobiography Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness renewed interest in Spector as both a talent and a survivor. Her first album in nearly two decades, 2006′s The Last of the Rock Stars, featured such notable guests as Keith Richards and Patti Smith. A year later, the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With the group’s classic Christmas material still in demand entering the digital streaming era, the singer released the EP Ronnie Spector's Best Christmas Ever in 2010, and she took on the songs of the British Invasion on 2016′s English Heart. Spector continued to tour periodically until her death in 2022.
Born Veronica Bennett on August 10, 1943, in New York, New York, Ronnie Spector rose to fame as a member of the Ronettes, a girl group featuring her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley. Her powerful and unique voice was a main strength of the band. The trio started out as dancers at the Peppermint Lounge in New York and made a string of unsuccessful records in the early ’60s before hooking up with Phil Spector in 1963 and releasing “Be My Baby.” A tune Spector co-wrote with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich especially as a showcase for Ronnie Bennett, it announced itself as a pop classic with an often-imitated opening drum kick, followed by a lush Phil Spector arrangement that seemed to echo into infinity while Bennett’s strong-but-sweet vulnerability captured the hearts of enough teenagers to send the song to number two on the Hot 100 and number four on the R&B chart. “Be My Baby” and subsequent Top 30 entries “Baby, I Love You” and “Walking in the Rain” were among the hits on Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica. The album arrived on Phil Spector and Lester Sill’s Philles Records label in 1964, and “Walking in the Rain” received a Grammy nomination the following year for Best Engineered Recording (Larry Levine).
The group’s 1965 and 1966 singles landed progressively further down the charts, and the Ronettes disbanded following a tour of Germany in early 1967. All three members of the Ronettes soon married, with Ronnie marrying Spector in 1968. At Phil’s insistence, Ronnie gave up her musical aspirations and spent her time locked away in his mansion, releasing only “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” in 1969 for A&M and “Try Some Buy Some” for Apple in 1971. The song was written by George Harrison and featured all four Beatles as backup, but it wasn’t a hit.
The dissolution of the bad marriage in the early ’70s left Ronnie free to pursue singing again. She put together a new edition of the Ronettes with Denise Edwards and Chip Fields and recorded a couple of singles, “Lover Lover” in 1973 and “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” in 1974, for Buddah. The records did nothing on the charts and she soon broke up the new Ronettes and went solo. After a failed disco single, Ronnie got help from some heavyweights on her next effort. Released in 1976, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” was written by Billy Joel, and the backing band comprised noted Phil Spector devotee Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band. Despite the pedigree and the fact that it was a strong song, it didn’t make much of a commercial impression. Her next single was 1978′s “It’s a Heartache,” and it was a huge hit — for Bonnie Tyler, that is, not Spector.
Spector’s first solo album, Siren, was released in 1980 and featured a new wave sound and production by former girl group singer Genya Ravan. As with everything she had released since the glory days of the Ronettes, it was not a hit. Spector finally enjoyed some chart success in 1986 with “Take Me Home Tonight,” a duet with Eddie Money that went to number four and led to a record deal with Columbia. The album Unfinished Business followed in 1987 and featured songs by Diane Warren, Desmond Child, and Gregory Abbott, and appearances by Bangle Susanna Hoffs, Paul Schaffer, and Eddie Money. She made a concerted effort to push the record (starring in an HBO concert, appearing at the American Music Awards, singing at a Radio City Music Hall Christmas show, duetting with Southside Johnny), but it never took off. In 1988, she joined the Dirty Dancing oldies concert tour. Two years later, she published her autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness. It was a fascinating tale of a wild and at times harrowing life and sparked new interest in Ronnie. She didn’t release any records in the ’90s but appeared on many compilations and soundtracks, including on the theme song to Roseanne Barr’s cartoon Little Rosey, a duet with fellow Spector survivor Darlene Love on A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 2, and the cast album of Tim Rice’s Tycoon.
In 1999, Ronnie returned to the studio to record new solo material. Creation in the U.K. and Kill Rock Stars in the U.S. released the Joey Ramone-produced She Talks to Rainbows EP to loads of critical acclaim. Featured on the set were versions of Johnny Thunders’ ballad “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” and the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” which Brian Wilson had originally written for her. Ronnie’s voice was strong — her unique instrument weathered by time and experience but still unmistakably hers. After touring and being with her family in Connecticut, Spector returned in 2003 with Something’s Gonna Happen, a five-song EP of Marshall Crenshaw covers, a guest appearance on the Misfits’ Project 1950 record, and in 2005, a featured spot on the Raveonettes’ Pretty in Black. All this led up to the release of Spector’s first full-length release in almost 20 years, 2006′s The Last of the Rock Stars. The album featured collaborations with an impressive list of rockers old and new, including the Greenhornes, Keith Richards, Patti Smith, and Nick Zinner. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Spector resurfaced in 2010 with an EP of Christmas songs titled Best Christmas Ever. In 2014, she contributed backing vocals to Bryan Ferry’s album Avonmore, and her collaboration with the noted British rock singer was an unwitting preview of her next LP. 2016′s English Heart featured Spector’s interpretations of 11 classic songs from British rock acts of the ’60s, including numbers by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Zombies, and the Animals. A collaborative holiday song with Elle King, “Under the Mistletoe!” premiered in late 2019. Ronnie Spector died on January 12, 2022 after a short battle with cancer. She was 78 years old. ~ Tim Sendra & Marcy Donelson