Although Ronnie Spector died on Wednesday at the age of 78, everything indicates that, culturally speaking, he is not going anywhere. Not if the past nearly 60 years is any reference.
The tributes keep coming: Keith Richards, Brian Wilson, Darlene Love, Joan Jett, Elvis Costello. Patti Smith wrote: “Bye bye little fireball.” Ronnie Spector isn’t just part of rock and roll history, he’s the staple that holds it all together. As the lead singer of the Ronettes, she was barely out of her teens when she was influencing influencers.
The Beatles courted her. Jimi Hendrix played with her. The Rolling Stones opened for her. She and Richards, lovers for a time, became lifelong friends. She was also linked to David Bowie, a long time admirer. Friends included everyone from Dusty Springfield to Aretha Franklin. Wilson had to stop his car to avoid crashing when he first heard the Ronettes’ 1963 classic Be My Baby; He continued to listen to it obsessively, declaring it “the greatest record ever produced”.
With a heritage that was part African-American, Irish, and Cherokee (she grew up in Spanish Harlem, New York), she ended up embracing all musical genres, including New York punks: Smith; Lou Reed; Joey Ramone was a superfan. Madonna said, “I want to sound like Ronnie Spector sounds.” Amy Winehouse revered and emulated her, from the wobbly hive to the skinless delivery. So much influence, so eclectically spread, pulsating through the decades.
Spector continued to work and collaborate throughout her life (Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Johnny Thunders, The Misfits), but it seems that even if she had spent the years slumped in a bean bag watching soap operas, their influence ‘t – could not – have stopped spreading.
Is this the essence, the triumph, of Ronnie Spector: that she is from the past but not trapped by it? Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett and the other Ronettes, her sister Estelle, her cousin Nedra Talley, revolutionized the concept of demure, proto-virgin girl groups: mascara-covered, winged-eyeliner eyes, heels and tight skirts, they were the bad girls. no apologies, the dirty stops, the glorious walk of shame of 60s pop.
Ronnie’s spirit could not be homogenized or airbrushed out. His voice pushed and struggled, wildly riding the music. Even embedded in the silvery landscapes of the Ronettes’ most celebrated songs (Be My Baby; Baby, I Love You; Walking in the Rain), it was raw, passionate, different: an alley cat, sharpening her claws on every note.
It’s this quality (provocation, rebellion, outlaw spirit) that can be felt seeping into a host of later groups and artists, from the Runaways, Chrissie Hynde, TLC, Bangles, Go-Gos, Destiny’s Child, B-52s. , Neneh Cherry and Poly Styrene, even the Pussycat Dolls, Hole, Beyoncé Y Solange. Rihanna, Dua Lipa, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Ariane Grande stole her styling and delivery. Billie Eilish, in darker and wittier moments, is a direct descendant of Ronnie. Although not everyone is, of course: Adele, for example, has a direct and emotionally driven style. Ronnie was different. Sometimes his voice said “yes”, but his eyes said “maybe” and his attitude said “no!”. She was gifted with tonal clarity, but she used it to pick on you.
Then there was his spirit. Ronnie spent 15 years getting Ronette’s money back, saying, “It was about getting me. I gave birth to those songs in the studio.” So we come, inevitably, to her first husband and “Wall of Sound” producer, Phil Spector. An undeniable talent, he was also a controlling bully in the big leagues. As detailed in his 1990 memoir, Be my Baby, hit Ronnie, threatened her, isolated her, scared her by showing her a coffin she would be inhabiting if she tried to leave. He surrounded the house with barbed wire, adopted children without telling her, bought her a car, and then made her travel with a doll that looked like him. This appalling abuse, and more, became even darker when Spector was found guilty of fatally shooting actress Lana Clarkson (in the mouth) in 2003, for which he was eventually found guilty of second-degree murder and sent to prison. where he died on this day last year.
You might ask: why did Ronnie keep his last name? Well why not? He had earned the right to use what was essentially his international stage name. Just as it’s a powerful statement to throw away an abuser’s last name, it’s arguably a powerful statement to use it, showing you’re not afraid of them. (Also see Tina Turner: Another Who Left the Abuser and Kept the Name.) What mattered was that Ronnie overcame his own alcohol demons and escaped, despite the fact that Phil Spector hid all his shoes. And that she found lasting happiness with Jonathan Greenfield, who became her manager and with whom she had more children.
For all the horror Phil Spector put Ronnie through, for all they encapsulated a sound together, he never fully defined her, subdued or distorted her legacy, be it as Battered Rock Woman or Interchangeable Songbird.
Unsurprisingly, Ronnie was pro-feminism and the #MeToo movement. He also publicly supported Taylor Swift when she confronted her former record label boss Scooter Braun for using her material.
Was Ronnie born out of time? It’s a great question: if he managed to accomplish everything he did in the bad old (super-chauvinistic) days, what could he have accomplished now in his 20s? Or maybe she belonged right where she was: dynamic, unstoppable, her appeal cut across genres, paving the way for Chrissies and Pattis, Beyoncés and Amys, Taylors and Billies, and whatever energetic lionhearts came after. It is the nature of true legend: a bolt of lightning, not trapped in a bottle, not confined, but moving forward, inspiring new generations. That’s the thing about originals like Ronnie Spector: they never come out, so they never die.