“Be My Baby” by Ronnie Spector with Vince Waldron (published by Macmillan)
Married to a musical mastermind, and a master of emotional abuse
While The Ronettes only really had a few hits and are chiefly remembered for their smash “Be My Baby” in 1963, they were a sexy three-piece girl group and Ronnie was a tremendous singer. They headlined over the Rolling Stones on a UK tour and the Beatles wanted them as support on a US tour. But their musical career is overshadowed by Ronnie’s disastrous marriage. Little wonder, for it truly is one of rock’s most bizarre stories.
First published in 1990, her autobiography has been hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest rock memoirs. Various editions have appeared over the years, such as “How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette”. This latest one, “Be My Baby”, is simply subtitled “A Memoir” and it comes with an added introduction by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, plus a 2022 Postscript and a detailed discography.
Richards offers a fulsome blessing: “Do I have to tell you that Ronnie’s got one of the greatest female rock-and-roll voices of all time? She stands alone.” Could be, but those are the records he’s talking about and this is the book. As a reading experience it certainly hits the high notes.
Veronica – Ronnie – Yvette Bennett was born on August 10, 1943, in the vibrant, working-class, predominantly Spanish-speaking Hispanic neighbourhood of Spanish Harlem, north of New York City’s Upper East Side. Her mother was black and Cherokee, and her father was American Irish, namely white. Mixed-blood, light-skinned kids were never really accepted by the other black or white children, and the Puerto Rican kids didn’t talk to her because she didn’t speak Spanish. Thus the girl wasn’t sure if she was black or white at one point in her childhood.
Mum had seven brothers and six sisters, and weekend get-togethers involved lots of food, singing and dancing. Veronica loved to perform and enjoyed being the centre of attraction with the applause of her family audience. She, her elder sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley sang three-part harmonies.
Dad had a drinking problem and left the home when Veronica was 12 years old. This was her age when she took her voice and style from Frankie Lymon, who had a hit with his group the Teenagers in 1956 called “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. At high school she already knew that show business would be her life, and at 14 she organised a little group for audition night at the centre of black nightlife and music in New York, the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Little came of this but the attractive girl trio became The Darling Sisters then Ronnie and the Relatives. They got a few gigs, mostly bar mitzvahs, and eventually had a first recording session for Colpix Records in June 1961. Now the Ronettes, Ronnie was 17. Their singles sold zilch.
In 1961 the New York rock ‘n’ roll crowd hung out at only one place, the Peppermint Lounge, which attracted everyone from painters to presidents. Two of the three girls were under-age but they gatecrashed one night and ended up on stage dancing the Twist. Influential disc jockey and impresario Murray “the K” Kaufman put them on at his rock and roll revues.
This was 1962 and they were dancers and background singers whose gimmick was a liberal use of mascara, teasing their hair into beehive hairstyles and very tight skirts. “When we saw The Shirelles walk on stage with their wide party dresses, we went in the opposite direction and squeezed our bodies into the tightest skirts we could find,” recalls Ronnie. “Then we’d get out on stage and hike them up to show our legs even more. We weren’t afraid to be hot. That was our gimmick.”
But it wasn’t just their outfits. Ronnie’s voice was special and their popularity grew despite their records flopping. In 1963 they sought out Phil Spector. He pioneered the “Wall of Sound” recording technique and was already a legend at age 22, having written his first number one, “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, at age 18. By 21 he was a millionaire and when they met him he had already made more top 10 records than most producers twice his age.
It was under him that the group recorded hits such as “Be My Baby”, “Walking in the Rain” and “Baby I Love You”. By early 1964 they had two singles in the UK Top 20 and headlined a tour there, with the fledgling Rolling Stones as their opening act. But why weren’t the Stones talking to them? Ronnie found out that they had been threatened by Phil Spector not to do so.
He was your classic “mad genius”, a mentally unstable man. For Ronnie, though, it had basically been love at first sight, and despite his obsessive possessiveness and bizarre behaviour, they wed in 1968. Unknown to Ronnie, she had dated him while he was still married. She admits that nobody around her understood what she saw in him, but still she admired him.
He proved to be a nasty, narcissistic, messed-up monster. Once he became violent and abusive, she describes all the signs that in hindsight should have warned her, if only she hadn’t been so young, insecure and in love. She writes that he kept her a virtual prisoner in his spooky 23-room Beverly Hills mansion, and threatened to kill her if she left. It became a life of psychological terror and he sabotaged the Ronettes’ career, picking their songs, deciding how they sounded and whether they would be released – which they weren’t. He directed his attention to others, and even by 1965 they were on the way out.
Her mouth literally dropped open when she read how The Beatles wanted the Ronettes to open for them on their 1966 US tour but Phil refused to let her go, to which she actually acquiesced. The other two girls played the dates with a replacement. Another time, he forbade Ronnie to fly home to the States on The Beatles’ private jet. When she watched John, Paul, George and Ringo landing on TV a few days later, there was Phil getting off the plane with them.
She lost the hair in a fire in bed, drunk. Come 1967 the Ronettes were over. It’s baffling why Ronnie succumbed to his mind games and sabotage for so long. Finally, her mother helped her to escape, leaving the house – the electric gates, the guard dogs and the barbed wire – barefoot in 1972 because he had taken all her shoes. She had to leave their three adopted children.
And so the story continues: alcoholic seizures, depression, divorce, a court case for unpaid royalties. Along the way there are plenty of good rock ‘n’ roll tales: the backstage crockery-smashing antics of Dusty Springfield, John Lennon’s failed attempts at seduction, a one-night stand with David Bowie, friendship with Cher and more.
Finally, she sobered up, found a decent husband and had two kids and was happy. It’s candid stuff, and readers will be enthralled by it all.
Phil Spector died in prison in 2021 while serving a murder sentence for shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. Ronnie died on January 12, 2022, following a brief battle with cancer at the age of 78. She had just updated the book with co-author Waldron. Estelle died in 2009. Nedra survives. Their street-smart “bad-girl” persona is credited with paving the way for future female singers such as Amy Winehouse. A “biopic” is in the works, with Zendaya playing Ronnie.