Pair one of rock’s greatest voices (Ronnie Spector, born Veronica Bennett) with one of its greatest producers (Phil Spector), and memorable music was bound to result. That is exactly what happened when Veronica Bennett, along with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley, signed to Spector’s Philles label in 1963. From that point, the Ronettes quickly became the premier act of the girl-group era.
The three singers from New York’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood first made their mark as dancers at New York’s Peppermint Lounge during the twist era. They also toured with Joey Dee and the Starlighters (of “Peppermint Twist” fame). The Ronettes’ initial forays as recording artists yielded four singles that went nowhere. That changed when Spector took them under his wing. He provided them with top-drawer material (often from him in collaboration with fellow songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry), Los Angeles’ hottest session musicians and his inimitable golden touch in the studio. Ronnie’s voice, meanwhile, served as the vehicle for a string of timeless pop classics in Spector’s “Wall of Sound” style. Spector fell in love with Ronnie’s voice, and then with Ronnie herself, and “their courtship provided the raw material and the emotional spark behind many of the Ronettes’ recordings,” according to music writer David Hinckley.
For 16 golden months, from September 1963 through December 1964, the Ronettes placed five singles in the Top 40. These included the enduring girl-group classics “Be My Baby” (Number Two), “Baby I Love You” (Number 24) and “Walking in the Rain” (Number 23). These records were among Phil Spector’s most monumental productions, all of them built around Ronnie’s tremulous, keening voice, which embodied the range of youthful, romantic yearnings from ecstasy to sadness. It didn’t hurt that the Ronettes were exotic, multiracial beauties whose black, beehive hairdos and thick mascara appealed to teenagers here and abroad. Boys wanted to be with them, girls wanted to be like them, and record buyers of both genders devoured their Spector-produced mini-operas.
One of the Ronettes’ biggest fans was Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who listened obsessively and repeatedly to “Be My Baby,” which he called “my all-time favorite song. . . . . It blew my mind.” Not far behind it, in terms of employing innovative production to heighten emotional depth, was “Baby I Love You,” which utilized a rousing chorus of overdubbed voices—including those of Cher and Darlene Love—to back up Ronnie’s captivating, siren-like lead vocal. These two singles made the Ronettes stars as 1963 dissolved into 1964, and, in England, the group toured with the Rolling Stones and befriended the Beatles. More singles followed, but the Ronettes’ popularity tailed off after the charmed year of 1964. The trio’s final Spector-produced single—“Is This What I Get”/“Oh, I Love You”—missed the Top 40, and their last release for Philles, the Jeff Barry-produced “I Can Hear Music,” fared no better. The Ronettes broke up in 1966, but Ronnie herself remained romantically tied to Spector. The couple married in 1968 and divorced six years later.
Reemerging as a solo singer, Ronnie subsequently cut some extraordinary tracks with the E Street Band (“Say Goodbye to Hollywood”), Eddie Money (“Take Me Home Tonight,” a Top 10 hit) and the Bangles (“Dangerous”). She also released the solo albums Siren (1980) and Unfinished Business (1987). In 1990, she published her autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette, which documented her troubled union with Spector. She’s remained an active performer, and, in 2006, she released her first album in 20 years, Last of the Rock Stars.