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(Credit: Alamy/Bent Rej)

How Ronnie Spector helped to give her friend Jimi Hendrix his start

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.”

Jimi Hendrix, likewise, was such a sui generis force that he not only changed the direction of guitar music, but like a modern-day Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he even changed how his instrument was played. As Hendrix decreed: “I’m the one that has to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life, the way I want to.”

Together, their idiosyncratic ways helped to define not only the sound and aesthetic of the era, but in a more holistic sense, they also laid down a sort of proto-punk attitude for others to follow, as the attributed quotes above can attest. And this kinship was anything but just a spiritual one; throughout the 1960s, they became very good friends. 

Hendrix is cooler than cool, and as such, there are a great number of hip epitaphs to his name, but none more so than when he turned to Ronnie Spector and said, “Boy, your voice sounds like a guitar.” With her wide octave range and bravura delivery, his compliment was not a difficult sell. In fact, he would back up the sincerity of his remark by performing with her several times. 

As Ronnie told Louder Sound: “[I knew] Jimi because The Ronettes played the Brooklyn Fox in New York with Dusty Springfield – ten days, six shows a day – and afterwards we used to go to this place called Ondine’s and Jimi Hendrix was the lead guitarist of their house band. I’d jump up on stage and sing with him. He’d play something on the guitar, and I’d mimic it with my voice, and he thought that was phenomenal.”

In 1968, Ronnie would marry the legendary music producer and homicidal autocrat Phil Spector. His depraved behaviour in their marriage was so abusive and controlling that he even made her drive around with a dummy of himself in the passenger seat to create the illusion that they were together. During the height of his sadistic controls, Hendrix’s friendship would offer a space of salvation. 

As Ronnie explains: “When I was in California in ’68, ’69, I would come back to New York to see my family every two or three months. I met up with Jimi, and I’d sometimes go into his studio. One time, my sister said, ‘You’ve got to come over to Jimi’s house.’ When I got there, he had ten girls surrounding his bed. It wasn’t a regular bed, just a mattress on the floor. It was so rock ‘n’ roll. All we did was sit around and sing all night. I loved Jimi – we had great harmony.”

Hendrix’s love of Ronnie and The Ronettes was equally profound. Not only did they guide him towards the music industry when he provided guitar in their backing band circa 1964, but he even hired them to sing backing vocals on ‘Earth Blues’ because he “dug their style” that much.

When they performed together at Ordine’s in the summer of 1964, he was an unknown guitarist, usually having to play the chords that were put in front of him. However, while The Ronettes simultaneously ensure he received a platform, their rock ‘n’ roll ways always encourage him to show off his individualism and the rest, as they sat, is ancient history on that front. The crowds that flocked to see the seismic force of The Ronettes were also soon stirred by the simple session musician who was clearly the nuclear reversal of being out of his depth. 

As Ronnie recalls in her memoir, their friendship flourished from these early days, but Hendrix would also crave her creative support in a very charming manner. Apparently, he would get her to sing on early demo session tapes to help establish his own style. And to ensure that he could see her again, he would purposefully leave the tapes in her car to make sure she would come back to drop them off. 

Sadly, however, when The Ronettes received a credit on his Rainbow Bridge record, it would be a one tinged with tragedy owing to the fact it was a posthumous release. As Ronnie bemoaned: “The good people die … like Jimi Hendrix, I knew him really well then all of a sudden he’s gone. Gone. It bothers me that a lot of the rock & roll people that I loved, that I hung out with, are gone.” But the sentiment she judiciously lent when her abusive and murderous ex-husband died – “the music will be forever” – proves even more poignant when it comes to truly the benevolent Jimi Hendrix and this performance of the two stars together is proof of that.

 

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