Ronnie Spector’s soulful voice was pure heartbreak to a whole generation

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The couple married in 1968, after which he virtually kept her prisoner in their LA mansion, the victim of terrifying jealous rages in which he waved pistols in her face, until she had to escape barefoot through a broken window. “I knew if I didn’t leave, I was going to die there,” she said. In their 1974 divorce settlement, Ronnie forfeited all her future earnings, later claiming that her ex-husband had threatened to hire a hit man to kill her unless she did so. 

She kept his surname as she tried to rebuild her career, though he forbade her from singing her own hits, to which he held the copyright. It would be the late 1980s before all that was revisited in court, and eventually Spector had to pay Ronnie over $1 million, and she clawed back the right to sing her own songs again. Spector, as we know, died in prison last year, having been convicted of the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

Her solo career was fitful, but she made some good records, on which she was often aided by old friends including Richards and Lennon, and new friends such as Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street sidekick Stevie Van Zandt. From 1988 on, she launched an annual Christmas show, drawing on the seasonal 1963 classic A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, in which she had led The Ronettes through I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and Sleigh Ride. And yes, it might be corny, but right up until the end, she remained a woman who could sing anything and hold a room. 

I last saw Ronnie at the Roundhouse in January 2019, and she was fantastic, transcendent, utter rock and soul joy. She sang Johnny Thunders’s You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory like a woman with a past she would never shake. She sang Amy Winehouse’s heartbroken epic, Back in Black, like it was written for her. She had taken some abuse, but she never let it define her, and there were many young women in that audience – a whole new generation of fans – singing along, revelling in her story, because she had become a heroic symbol of survival, a woman who carried her whole life in her voice. 

Ronnie Spector will be missed. But she will be heard for a long time to come.

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