It is not always the case that someone’s art will reflect them as a person. Still, when describing how The Ronettes relinquished gender and genre norms and refused to propagate anything other than their own positive individualism, you could well be describing their leader in arms, Ronnie Spector. As she said herself: “No one has their own identity like the Ronettes did back in the day.”
When she passed away at the age of 78 last Wednesday (January 12th), the music world mourned the trailblazer’s death. As Rockstar and riot grrrl pioneer Joan Jett took to Twitter to fittingly pay tribute to Ronnie’s life and legacy, writing: “Our dear friend Ronnie Spector, has passed. She was the sweetest person you could ever know. And her mark on rock and roll is indelible.”
Born as Veronica Greenfield in Spanish Harlem, she began singing with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Tally at a young age as The Darling Sisters, eventually performing in high schools and sock hops in the New York area throughout the late 1950s. By 1963, the group had signed a record deal with producer Phil Spector and changed their name to The Ronettes. Thereafter, she overcame the struggles she faced in the industry and in the form of her criminal ex-husband, Phil Spector, and blazed a trail for others to follow—including her friend Jimi Hendrix. Her passion for music was a factor that sustained her throughout.
And according to an interview with NME in 2016, that musical obsession began with one song life-changing song: ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The track from 1956 reached number one in the R&B charts and has received a slew of renditions ever since but it is the original that first stirred Spector into action.
“Oh my God! Well, first of all there was Frankie Lymon’s voice,” Spector enthused. “There was something about his voice that pierced me. His diction was so amazing, I couldn’t understand how he could speak that clearly. He wrote that song, which made me more interested in him. If it wasn’t for Frankie Lymon, I wouldn’t be talking to you. He influenced my whole life.”
Buzzing with that first musical love infatuation, Spector stormed off to the record store and quickly snapped up her first album to go along with it, which was, of course, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers at The London Palladium. Waxing lyrical, Spector opined: “It was the best. I was, like, 13 years old and I’d never heard ‘live’ music. I knew every word on that whole album by heart – every single word. Frankie Lymon was definitely everything to me.”
That love of rhythm and joie de vivre is something that would remain with Spector throughout and positively infect her musical output. She may have been dubbed “the bad girl of rock ‘n’ roll” but as anyone who met her can attest, that title was purely earned through unapologetic bravura as she burned like a beacon in the music world.