“I got my ideas from looking out my grandmother’s window on Amsterdam Avenue, seeing all the Spanish girls with cigarettes and big hair. I loved that tough look.”
If there is an archetypal Tough Girl of Rock, it has to be Ronnie Spector, lead singer of the '60s girl group the Ronettes. Hers was that preternatural Girl Omniscience that led Madonna to wish aloud that she could look the way Ronnie Spector sounds: "sexy, hungry, totally trashy." With her piles of dark hair and her Cleopatra eyeliner, Spector looked impossibly exotic amid white‑bread teen America ‑ an effect she credits to her heritage.
Veronica Bennett was born in New York in 1943 to an Irish father and a mother who was part black and part Cherokee; Ronnie's great‑grandfather was Chinese. She was raised in Spanish Harlem, where, she says, her different looks ‑ light skin and long lush hair ‑ got her beat up regularly. Petite and not much of a fighter, she spent much of her time in the safety of her grandmother's apartment, in the company of her sister Estelle and her cousin Nedra ‑ both future Ronettes.
In high school, they sang as Ronnie and the Relatives; they also danced onstage for rock & roll shows put on by New York DJ Murray the K. In 1963, Estelle got a meeting with an intense young man who was having great success with groups like the Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans.
Phil Spector was making his mark then as an obsessive, talented record producer. As Ronnie tells us in her interview, the producer's falling in love with his lead singer provided him and his songwriters with the inspiration for some classic teen anthems ‑ Ronettes hits like "Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You" and "Walking in the Rain." But once she and Spector married, in 1968, Ronnie Spector disappeared from the stage, forbidden by her husband to record or perform. Her 1990 book, "Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness," is a harrowing account of her years in a lonely Los Angeles mansion as Spector's prisoner of love. The couple divorced in 1972; she is remarried to her manager, Jonathan Greenfield, with whom she has two sons who have hipped her to the Counting Crows and Coolio. At 54, Ronnie still performs, in clubs and on rock & roll packages. Her band is mainly female: two backup singers, two guitarists and a piano player.
This past summer, Spector (along with Eartha Kitt, Chuck Berry and Lyle Lovett) performed for the president at the Colorado summit. Spector reports that both she and Hillary Clinton cried when they met backstage. And the commander in chief opened his arms and implored our smiling Tough Chick: "Be my little baby!"
You've said yourself that before the Ronettes had a hit record, they had a Look. And echoes of it still appear in groups from the B ‑52's to En Vogue. How did you get it together?
I grew up in a family of different races. And I loved my look, even though I got beat up a lot and my braids were cut off in school. I loved being different. And when I got with the Ronettes, we didn't do like the Supremes. Our hair would be up in these big beehives, with intentions for it to fall down during the show. I always made sure the pin wasn't tight. I loved getting messy.
Now, my eyes are a little Chinese. I wanted them all the way out. The three of us would sit in the mirror and see whose eyes would get out the longest with the eyeliner.
If, as you say, your grandmother kept you inside and so strictly supervised, how did you end up with such a tough street look ‑ all those slit skirts and that cigarette‑flicking motion you did onstage?
I got all my ideas from looking out of my grandmother's window on Amsterdam Avenue, seeing all the Spanish girls with cigarettes and big hair. I loved that tough look; that's what I wanted. [At our first gig] I remember walking out and the place going berserk because they had never seen a girl group look like this - they were used to little cocktail dresses. We walked out like, "Hey! We're here!"
Why do you think so many people consider "Be My Baby" to be the perfect pop record?
[Laughing] I think it was my voice. Of course it's the production and everything, too. But if you don't have that lead singer's voice ... I was very innocent, you know, and I think it's in the voice there.
I remember when Ellie [Greenwich], Jeff [Barry] and Phil were writing "Be My Baby." They were at Phil's penthouse, at 62nd Street and York Avenue. I was there, but Phil didn't want anybody to know. He needed my presence to get the feel of the song. I put my ear to the wall, and I'm hearing them discuss me: "She's so innocent, she's from Spanish Harlem, she has a grandmother who won't let her go out on the roof." So they were actually writing about this girl… "Ev'ry kiss you give me, I'll give you three" ‑ but on the cheek, you know. I didn't know about sex. It was so special and great 'cause I knew they were writing for me. Oh, and it made me feel like a queen. It made me want to sing it greater because I could hear them in there.
Of course, you did learn about sex. Girls loved the Ronettes, but guys went crazy for you. Just what did you encounter on the road?
In Germany, we caused a riot. We performed for the American troops there. And these guys were like they hadn't seen a woman in years. You're above them, the guys are on the floor looking up. We had these slit skirts, and they could see our panties. Those guys went berserk. They were actually having orgasms on the floor and doing this [hand gesture]. It was a sight! I'll never, never forget it. And that's when they got us into this bulletproof thing and drove us to the next place.
We also caused a riot at the Apollo Theater. The man came backstage and said, "We've had James Brown, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, lines around the block, and we've never had a riot." What happened was the Spanish guys were yelling in the back that we were Spanish, and the black guys were saying no, they're black. And they had a riot.
When the Beatles came to New York in 1964, every girl in America wanted to be in their Warwick Hotel suite. And the Ronettes were there. So?
When the Beatles first came to America, Murray the K called me to get him up to the Warwick. I was sitting on John [Lennon's] lap and he ... got an arousal. And I got upset and ran out and slammed the door. He called me the next day ‑ I was still living in Spanish Harlem ‑ and said, "Ronnie, forget about last night. I want to stay friends. What can I do to make it up to you?" I said, "Well, you can come to Spanish Harlem." I wasn't going back to the Warwick, 'cause it was so crazy down there with alcohol and drugs and women and all this stuff. So when everybody was looking ‑ "Where are the Beatles?" ‑ the Beatles were with me in Spanish Harlem at a place called Sherman's Barbecue, having chicken and ribs. Ten minutes away, there were girls screaming and doors being knocked down and policemen holding people back. People at Sherman's didn't notice. They just thought they were square‑looking Spanish guys.
Do you have any advice for other innocent teenage girls wanting to get into the business?
[Laughing] My mother always said, "If you love it, keep doing it." And I would give kids that advice today. You've got to love it. If you don't love rock & roll, you're going to be so miserable, signing autographs, doing things you hate. It's hard and exciting. People all over you all the time, wanting to know your personal business. Your life is like an open book.
Yet you wrote your own very personal and revealing story ... particularly about those years with Phil.
You know, it's a weird thing ‑ people always tell me what Phil's doing, as if I would want to know or I'm interested. I've come so far on my own. When I wrote my book, I put everything in there to close the chapter. Because I've been in therapy for years, you know. So for me, it closes the chapter.
So what keeps you out there now?
It's something I can't do without. I get crazy if I'm not onstage for like, say, two months. I'm like, “God, when am I going to be free?” The applause, the goose pimples I get, the eagerness when I'm out there. That's why I can't do a routine in a studio and then go do it onstage. Because the audience makes you. When they go, "Ooooh," your hands go a certain way. It's now ‑ that's rock & roll to me. When it's happening right then and onstage and it's not a routine.
I love the road. I love just being in different places, meeting people with different backgrounds. It's so great when you meet people who can't even speak your name but they can relate to what you're singing about. It's amazing. I feel so lucky to be in rock & roll. And to be a woman in rock & roll.
Have you ever felt limited as a woman in the business?
These women now ... everything is being recognized. Five years ago, we were in England at a business meeting. I wanted to get Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Marianne Faithfull ‑ all these women together to do this tour. I always thought it would be so great to just have a women's tour. But five years ago, these people shunned me; they said they couldn't get Diana Ross because she was doing a movie, she's not really a singer anymore. And we can't get Cher because she's the same thing. And I'm ‑ "But, guys, these are my girlfriends! I grew up with Cher! It would be so great!" It didn't happen. And now it is [the Lilith Fair]. I feel so good ‑ being ahead of my time.