Ronnie Spector, who has died aged 78, was the lead singer of the Ronettes, the Sixties girl group, whose enduring hit Be My Baby (1963) remains a classic of the revolutionary “Wall of Sound” production technique pioneered by the brilliant but troubled record producer Phil Spector.
It was Spector who in 1963 had discovered Veronica Bennett, as she then was, singing with her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley in a group called the Ronettes, and turned her into a star. Five years later Veronica made the mistake of marrying Spector (later sentenced to life imprisonment for the 2003 murder of the actress Lana Clarkson), who then set about making her life a misery.
The very first time the teenager had auditioned for the 23-year-old producer, she had only sung one line when he exclaimed: “Stop! That is the voice I’ve been looking for!”
Spector told her he would write a No 1 hit for her and the close-harmony group she had formed with Estelle and Nedra.
On Be My Baby (written by Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry) Ronnie’s plangent voice, belting out lyrics of teenage love, was backed by symphonic ranks of guitars, drums, pianos and orchestral instruments all playing at once. The single reached No 2 in the Billboard Hot 100 and No 4 in the UK, staying in the chart for 13 weeks; it regularly features on best-ever lists.
With their tight, slit skirts, bouffant hair, heavy mascara and sexy, “bad girl” attitude, the Ronettes became a performing sensation, and within a year had further hits with Baby, I Love You (1963), The Best Part of Breakin’ Up (1964) and Walking in the Rain (1964).
There were riots outside theatres where they performed and in 1964, at the height of their success, they toured Britain supporting the Beatles (John Lennon would try, unsuccessfully, to seduce Ronnie). The following year they were supported on tour by the Rolling Stones.
By this time, however, Phil Spector had begun to lose interest in them as performers. The group were no longer recording regularly and had little success with what they did record. Their first single of 1965 Born to Be Together, peaked at No 52, while Is This What I Get for Loving You? only reached No 75.
When Ronnie and Spector started dating in 1963, she would later claim, she had no idea that he was married. It was not until another of Spector’s artists, Darlene Love, took her to one side in the studio that she learnt the truth. She took it with a commendable mixture of sangfroid and pragmatism.
“I felt terrible for a few days, like somebody had died,” she wrote in her autobiography. But “for a girl singer in the Sixties, your producer was your lifeline. The way I saw it, my choice was simple. I keep my mouth shut and hold on to my career, my relationship and my family. Or I could confront Phil now and throw it all away.”
She kept her mouth shut.
Even before their marriage, she recalled, his behaviour was “kind of odd”. He insisted that she rehearse with him every night and that she sit next to him in the studio when he was working. During the Ronettes’ tour of Britain he telephoned her every night and insisted she leave the phone off the hook when she went to sleep: “I later realised he just wanted to know exactly where I was all the time.”
She agreed to marry him, hoping that things would get better. They did not. Spector spent most of his wedding night at his mother’s house, returning to the 23-room mansion he and Ronnie shared in California in a rage, slamming doors and screaming, “You b----! You just want my money.”
His behaviour became so violent that Ronnie Spector spent the rest of the night locked in a bathroom.
From then on Ronnie found herself a virtual prisoner, prevented from leaving their mansion by six foot barbed-wire fencing and a pack of guard dogs. Once a month she was allowed to leave for short drives in her car, “to go get my feminine stuff”, alongside a custom-made, inflatable dummy of her husband.
“I wondered if he’d gone insane,” she recalled. “The model was dressed in his best pants and was wearing a freshly ironed shirt. It looked exactly like Phil except its knees were permanently bent so it could sit next to me on the seat.”
If she was gone longer than 20 minutes Spector would send a bodyguard.
The song publisher Don Kirshner would recall paying a visit to the Spector mansion and hearing a banging noise from upstairs. When he went to investigate, he found Ronnie locked in a wardrobe, where Spector had left her.
Most of their time together was spent watching endless repeats of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s parable of ambition and hubris, which would reliably reduce Spector to tears. To stave off boredom Ronnie took up painting-by-numbers – and booze. “I would hold my nose and drink it down, so I could go to sleep and get away from his yelling,” she recalled.
One day Spector returned home announcing that he had decided to adopt a son. He insisted that Ronnie wear a pillow under her shirt so that she looked pregnant, and when the child was eventually brought home, he announced the “birth” to friends as if he and Ronnie were the biological parents.
Two more boys were adopted, in the face of Ronnie’s bemusement and, increasingly, indifference.
Finally, in the summer of 1972, Ronnie’s worried mother paid a visit. “She said, ‘Honey, you’re going to die here.’ She knew,” Ronnie said. The two women stayed up for three days and nights meticulously planning her escape as Spector uttered lurid threats.
After saying goodbye to their adopted children, Ronnie and her mother escaped barefoot from the mansion (Spector had earlier taken her shoes to stop her leaving). Her husband’s final words before she left were: “Now Mrs Bennett don’t let Veronica step on anything sharp.”
Her career afterwards never scaled the heights it once had, partly because she had become an alcoholic and it took her some years to recover, and partly because, as part of her 1974 divorce settlement, she agreed to forfeit all future record earnings and Spector would subsequently hire lawyers to prevent her singing her classic hit songs .
In the settlement Ronnie was also awarded $50,000 in community property and $2,500 monthly spousal support for three years. On the back of each cheque Spector would append a short message that Ronnie would be obliged to countersign when presenting the cheque to the cashier. It read: “fuck off”.
Things improved after she met her second husband Jonathan Greenfield, who became her manager and with whom she had two sons.
In 2012 she turned the memories of her abusive marriage to Phil Spector into an all–singing show Beyond the Beehive, with which she toured the UK in 2014.
Veronica Yvette Bennett was born on August 10 1943 in Spanish Harlem to a half African-American, half Cherokee mother and an Irish father. She grew up surrounded by music, recalling her uncles singing like the Mills Brothers in one room, her aunts singing like the Andrews Sisters in another. She herself, she claimed, started singing aged 18 months.
As a young teenager she transformed the family living room into a theatre and practised a stage act: “I modelled my voice totally on Frankie Lymon. I used to sing Why Do Fools Fall In Love? into my hairbrush every afternoon.”
At the age of 16 Ronnie, her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra formed a singing group specialising in three-part harmony. They lived down the street from the Apollo, a famous Harlem music hall, and when the Apollo held an amateur night Ronnie insisted that they enter.
Their younger cousin, Ira, was to act as the lead singer but was paralysed by stage fright. “I just danced over to the mike,” Ronnie recalled, “and launched into the song the best I could.”
The notoriously unforgiving Apollo audience loved Ronnie’s voice and, as she recalled: “That was my key – I knew I was good.”
The group found an agent, Phil Halikus, and started to perform after school at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Halikus won them a record contract with Colpix and as Ronnie and The Relatives, they made their recording debut in 1961.
Colpix released four singles including Sweet Sixteen, but all four songs flopped. The three cousins returned to singing at bar mitzvahs.
They first made their names as dancers when, in 1962, standing in the queue outside the fashionable Peppermint Lounge nightclub, they were mistaken for a dance act which had been booked to perform. “We just said we were them and went straight onto the stage” Ronnie remembered.
They became popular dancers at the club and were occasionally given the chance to sing with the resident band. Later in 1962, they were talent spotted by the disc jockey, Murray the K, who offered them a spot on his Rock and Roll Revue at the Brooklyn Fox. It was here, waiting backstage, that they developed their “look”, teasing their hair into foot-high bouffants and extending their eye-liner almost to their ears.
In 1963 Spector, who had co-founded Philles Records in 1960 and was making a reputation as the “First Tycoon of Teen”, saw the group at the Brooklyn Fox and invited them to audition.
(An alternative version has it that Ronnie’s sister Estelle telephoned Spector pleading for an audition.)
As the Ronettes they signed a contract with Spector in March 1963. Six months later they recorded Be My Baby.
After leaving her husband Ronnie Spector (who kept her former husband’s name as a performing artist) reformed the Ronettes with two new singers (Estelle and Nedra were married with children) and started performing live at bars and night clubs. In the 1970s she released several singles but had few successes, although her live performances continued to draw the crowds .
Ronnie and Phil Spector were divorced in 1974, but because her alcoholism had become increasingly obvious (on one occasion at a concert in Boston she lost her balance and fell off the stage), she lost custody of their adopted children.
In 1980 she inadvertently set herself on fire while drunk. She escaped with light injuries although she lost all her hair. “That was the absolute lowest point for me,” she remembered. “My career was over, I had lost my son, I had no husband and no hair.”
In the same year, she met her future husband Jonathan Greenfield, who at 21 to her 36, was 15 years her junior. They married in 1982 after the birth of her first son. Ten months later she had a second son and spent the early eighties as a housewife in New York.
In 1986, with Eddie Money, Ronnie Spector recorded Take Me Home Tonight in which she sang parts of Be My Baby in counterpoint. The single reached No 4 in the charts and was her first Top Ten hit in more than 20 years. In 1987 Columbia Records offered her a contract to record an album and later that year she released Unfinished Business.
In 1988, Ronnie and the other Ronettes sued Spector for lost earnings. It took 10 years for the case to come to court, and after a prolonged legal battle, Spector was ordered to pay Ronnie more than $1 million in royalties.
In 1991 she published her autobiography Be My Baby which she dedicated to her children.
She continued to release solo albums including, most recently, English Heart (2016), a compilation of classic songs.
She is survived by her husband and sons.
Ronnie Spector, born August 10 1943, died January 12 2022