It's one of the most instantly recognizable openings to a song there is. First, like a thudding heartbeat, the bass drum. The beats repeat and then one more time for good measure. Then come the strings and the bells and that mighty wall of sound crashes over you like a tidal wave. Finally, there's that voice a tinny, raspy, plaintive little-girl voice that swells, astoundingly, as if it's full of all the adolescent lust, hope and excitement in all of rock 'n' roll. It's unmistakable: "Be My Baby," the three words that summarize the sentiment of almost every pop song ever written. Ladies and gentlemen, Ronnie Spector. Her hair is big. Her lips are full. Her heels are high. Her eyeliner is slathered on as if with a paintbrush. And her unchoreographed wriggle, combined with that voice the ecstatic "whoah-oh-ohs" for the short time that the Ronettes were at the top of the female rock 'n' roll heap, were (and still are) a perfectly distilled expression of the bursting teenage sexuality and innocent joy that was rock 'n' roll at the onset of the '60s.
These days, the girl who was born Veronica Bennett in Spanish Harlem is in her 60s. But to talk to her or to hear her sing, it's as if no time has passed. She's still as full of wonder as a teenager hearing her first record and raring to be a part of that sound.
Spector's initiation into music came like thousands of other young girls' did in the '50s when she heard the vocal group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' song "Why Do Fools Fall in Love."
"It was like goose pimples all over my body," she says. "At the time, I didn't understand what the feeling was. I was hot all over like, 'What am I hearing?' And these were street kids. Frankie lived in a neighborhood where no 'birds sang so gay.' He had to imagine it." Most preteen girls would have been content to spin their platters and sigh. Ronnie was different.
With her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley, Spector formed the Ronettes when the three were barely into high school. The group got its start performing in rock and soul revues produced by the New York DJ Murray the K at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. It cut a few records for Colpix, a Columbia subsidiary, before being signed to the Philles label by the young hotshot producer Phil Spector in 1962. That, of course, began one of the most famous and scary stories in rock history: Ronnie's voice was just what Phil needed to complete his symphonic wall-of-sound production style. Phil also was controlling and abusive, and in the end, his seminal Gold Star Studio became her gilded cage.
Ronnie's ebullience on wax won her legions of fans even while she was a domestic prisoner on the West Coast, and when she finally left Phil, she was welcomed heartily back into rock 'n' roll. Billy Joel wrote "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" for Ronnie.
"He said, 'I'll write this. That'll get it out of your system,'" she says. "And I was like, 'They know me?' I had been a prisoner. I felt so lost."
Throughout the '70s and '80s, Ronnie cultivated friendships with artists like the late Joey Ramone and Keith Richards, both of whom worked on her upcoming release Last of the Rock Stars. (Ramone also produced an EP, She Talks to Rainbows, for her in 1999). More recently, she inspired the Raveonettes whose dense, lush sound owes much to Phil Spector's wall to write her a song, "Ode To L.A." for the 2005 album Pretty in Black. Ronnie contributed vocals to that track, and the band appeared on Last of the Rock Stars.
These days, Ronnie is still making up for lost time, and her excitement when she talks about getting back onstage is infectious.
"Back then, I was singing 'Be My Baby,' and it was like I was a baby," she says. "I didn't mind, but I didn't know. Now, it's all about the future. To me, it's about getting out there, playing to my audience, getting sweaty and having fun."
- Ronnie Spector created the Ronettes when she was in high school and has been a familiar face in rock 'n' roll ever since.