All those years I went through hell only made me stronger,” says Ronnie Spector. The lead singer of The Ronettes, who lived through a frightening, controlling marriage to producer Phil Spector and came out the other side, is now 75. When she steps out on stage in the UK this month to sing their classic hits, it will be 55 years since she first performed here, in January 1964. Back then, The Ronettes were an overnight sensation. “The crowds went crazy,” she says. “It felt like I was in a dream.”
One song she will surely play is her cover of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. Winehouse acknowledged a huge stylistic debt to Ronnie, both in her voice and her look. “I was devastated when she passed,” Ronnie says. Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. “I wish, I wish I could have talked to Amy about [her relationship to drink], but sometimes it’s too late.” She points out that Winehouse was 27 and married – her husband Blake Fielder-Civil told a tabloid in 2008 that he introduced the singer to crack cocaine and heroin. “I can’t blame her mother, but I can blame that husband,” she adds.
“When I was with Phil, I couldn’t get out, but you have to find a way, and you have to find a person you trust and unfortunately Amy didn’t have that. All the artists I’ve seen who’ve gone down the drain, they didn’t have anyone who loved them for them, not their money or glory or glamour.”
The situation with Spector was complex. He turned The Ronettes into stars; later he would deliberately ruin Ronnie’s career. The very first time the teenaged Veronica Bennett had auditioned for him, she had only sung one line when he jumped up and shouted: “Stop! That is the voice I’ve been looking for!” It was the beginning of a love affair between the girl from Spanish Harlem and the 23-year-old millionaire producer (now serving 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson). Their love would give us one of the greatest pop singles of all time and become a living nightmare for Ronnie.
Spector told her he would write a million-seller for her and the group she had formed with her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley. It was Be My Baby (by Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry) and it went straight to number one. Its famous bass-drum opening is the doorway into Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, an echo chamber of multiple guitars, drums, pianos and orchestral instruments all playing at once. But when Ronnie’s voice enters, with that New York sidewalk accent – “and if I had the chance, I’d nevuh letyoo go” – it is melting with sex and tenderness. The girls looked and danced that way, too. Big hair, tight skirts, “bad girl” attitude.