Today marks the 78th birthday of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring and tenacious icons, Ronnie Greenfield (Spector). The leading lady in the New York girl group The Ronettes, she founded the group in Spanish Harlem in 1957, alongside her elder sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, with whom she would go on to define girl-power in an abusive, patriarchal society.
In many ways, Ronnie Spector has been an overlooked character in music’s dense history, but her story is one that needs telling over and over again. Throughout her life and career, she has shown herself to be a defiant and effortlessly cool individual who embodied the punk ethos way before it had come to fruition. Without her, some of our favourite icons, such as Joey Ramone and Amy Winehouse, would not have existed.
Sometimes referred to as the “bad girl of rock and roll”, Ronnie Spector’s life is one characterised by triumph over evil, and in addition to her iconic influence on music, she will continue to be hailed as a bonafide legend.
Hailing from an African-American-Cherokee and Irish background, Ronnie Spector and her sisters were encouraged by their family from an early age to sing. Initially, the Ronettes called themselves ‘The Darling Sisters’, and before too long, they assumed the guise that we all know them by and were making a splash in the clubs of New York City. They would first sign to Colpix Records by Stu Phillips, who released a string of early releases such as ‘Silhouettes’ back in 1962.
However, their singles did not do well commercially, and the Ronettes would soon become fed up with their lack of success with Colpix. In early 1963, Estelle took matters into her own hands and telephoned the now-infamous producer Phil Spector and told him they would like to audition for him and his label, Philles Records. This was to be a fateful decision for more than one reason.
At the audition, Spector was sat at the piano when the group jumped into a version of ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’. Spector’s reaction said it all as he allegedly jumped up in excitement, proclaiming: “That’s it! That’s it! That’s the voice I’ve been looking for!” Initially, though, Spector only wanted to sign Ronnie as a solo act, but his hopes were denied by Ronnie and Estelle’s mother, who said he signed the Ronettes as a whole, or the deal was off. Spector agreed, and by March 1963, the Ronettes were officially a part of the Philles Records roster.
This was to mark the start of the Ronettes uber-successful career in music. After a series of singles that were released but not credited to the group, they finally hit the money with the iconic 1963 single ‘Be My Baby’. Recorded in July that year and released in the August that followed, it became a smash hit and reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Ronnie later remembered that “our lives were turned upside down” from that moment on, explaining that “all the things I’d ever dreamed about were finally coming true.” The song made such an impact that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys penned 1964’s ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ in homage to the New York trio.
‘Be My Baby’ was such a hit that it earned the group a mention on the hallowed show American Bandstand. In fact, presenter Dick Clark even hailed it as the “record of the century”. He wasn’t wrong. This was to be the start of a slew of records that would earn the group an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Other hit singles from that period include ‘Baby, I Love You’, which would famously be covered by the Ramones in 1980, ‘The Best Part of Breakin’ Up’, and ‘Walking in the Rain’. If the fame couldn’t expand any further, Spector would even launch Ronnie’s successful solo career during this intense period with the release of ‘So Young’. The Ronettes would also support The Beatles at points over the ’60s, making them one of the only American groups to survive the phenomenon of the British Invasion.
Unfortunately, with all this success came an insidious factor that would define much of Spector’s life. The clue is in the surname. The Ronettes would break up in early 1967, after a tour in Germany. After the failure of the single ‘I Can Hear Music’ and other later releases, the girls agreed to go their own ways. All three of the Ronette’s settled down. Estelle co-habited with long-term partner Joe Dong, and Nedra married her boyfriend Scott Ross.
In 1968, Ronnie, who was then known as Veronica Bennett, married producer Phil Spector. This was to be the start of a living hell for the former frontwoman of the Ronettes. She would continue to work in music, to declining rates of success. She even featured on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Earth Blues’. However, her work at the latter end of the ’60s was overshadowed by the spectre of her producer husband.
Now a convicted murderer, Phil Spector was the definition of abusive. From the get-go, owing to jealousy and other questionable elements of his ideation, he turned Ronnie into a shadow of her former self. Over the course of their marriage, Phil Spector became as controlling and psychologically abusive as was physically possible. He turned his 23-room mansion into a maximum-security prison. It boasted chain-link fences, barbed wire and intercoms in every room, making it nigh on impossible for Ronnie to leave. Her husband had come to embody Orwell’s Big Brother.
The extent of his abuse was so severe that he installed an inflatable version of himself in the passenger seat of her car, so it appeared that she was never alone. On numerous occasions, Spector threatened to kill her if she left. This is a chilling revelation given that the “wall of sound” producer shot and murdered actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 in cold blood.
In a 2019 interview with The Telegraph, Ronnie admitted that she began drinking heavily and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as an excuse for leaving the house, as her mental state was in such a fragile condition owing to the continued abuse at the hands of her murderous husband. She also revealed that at one point, Spector installed a gold coffin with a glass lid in the basement and again promised that if she left him, he would kill her. Around this time, he would display her corpse in the golden casket.
Thankfully for Ronnie, she found a means of escape, aided again by her mother. One night in 1972, with no shoes on her feet, as he also kept them from her, she slipped out for “a walk” and never returned. In her 1990 tell-all autobiography, Be My Baby, now known as Ronnie Greenfield, after taking her new husband’s surname in 1982, she shockingly admitted: “I knew that if I didn’t leave I was going to die there”. Sadly, given what we now know about Spector, this was probably true.
In 1974, the divorce was finalised. However, still holding some terrible power over her, Ronnie forfeited all of her future record earnings to Phil after he threatened to have her killed again. All in all, she received just $25,000, a used car, and a monthly provision of $2,500 for only five years. Ultimately, the divorce would kick off a long, drawn-out court battle for Ronnie to claim what was rightfully hers.
Eventually, Ronnie would win her court case and be reimbursed over $2million in unpaid royalties from Phil. In 2019, whilst weighing in on the #MeToo movement in a Guardian interview, Ronnie likened her struggle with that of Taylor Swift and label owner Scoot Braun. She told the interviewer: “It’s good to see women out there saying: ‘This label guy took advantage of me,’ and showing other women how to (get redress)”. She continued: “It was about winning back me. I gave birth to those songs in the studio.”
“When I was making records 50 years ago, you didn’t have a voice of any kind,” she describes of the abusive and patriarchal world. “What the man wanted was what you did. You made his records, with his lyrics and men producers, everybody was a man back then. All women have power, we just couldn’t show it…that’s why I love #MeToo and Time’s Up – because men’s time is up.” Even now, in her 70s, Ronnie continues to tour her songs, finally unchained from the horrific abuse of her ex-husband. It is this sort of defiance, in addition to her comments above, that demonstrates her ethos as a progenitor to the long-needed women’s movements of today.
Discussing how the tables have turned, Ronnie told the Guardian: “When I was making my hit records, my ex was always ‘the genius’ and you felt like: ‘Well, who am I?’ You felt that small. I’m so glad I’m still on this Earth to see women going out there and saying: ‘You can be fabulous like me, you can do anything.'”
So on her 78th birthday, why not revisit Ronnie’s work that stands as a defiant middle finger up to the abusive, patriarchal order of the past and helps illuminate an egalitarian future. Listen to her incredible voice and take in just how inspirational she is. She has overcome all the odds. To continue to perform and even outlive her ex-husband is no mean feat. He died rotting in a jail cell, and today she is as free as a bird, making her remarkable story heard loud and clear.
Listen to ‘Be My Baby’, below.