- Estelle Bennett
- Nedra Talley
A classic girl group with a tough, sexy twist.
Led by Ronnie Spector’s quavering siren voice and Phil Spector’s musical genius, the Ronettes produced some of the greatest music of the century.
Pair one of rock’s greatest voices (Ronnie Spector, born Veronica Bennett) with one of its greatest producers (Phil Spector), and memorable music was bound to result.
That is exactly what happened when Veronica Bennett, along with her older sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley, signed to Spector’s Philles label in 1963. From that point, the Ronettes quickly became the premier act of the girl-group era.
The three singers were from the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. They began singing together when the family gathered at their grandmother’s house on weekends. In 1957 they formed their first group, the Darling Sisters. It also included two other cousins, Diane and Elaine, and they performed one show at the Apollo Theatre in New York. After that show, Diane and Elaine left the group, which then became Ronnie and the Relatives. In 1961 they signed with Colpix Records, and that June, they recorded four songs: “I Want a Boy,” “What’s So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen,” “I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead” and “My Guiding Angel.”
None of those songs made the charts, and Ronnie and the Relatives began spending their time dancing at New York’s Peppermint Lounge. It was the twist era, and Ronnie and the Relatives soon became a regular act at the club, singing and dancing. New York deejay Murray the K became enchanted with the group, and he had them perform at some of his shows at the Fox Theatre in Brooklyn. Then in March 1963, Estelle Bennett contacted Spector. She managed to arrange an audition. After the group, now called the Ronettes, performed “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Spector signed them to his Philles label. Initially he had only wanted to sign Ronnie, but her mother insisted that he sign the whole group, so he did.
At first the Ronettes sang backup vocals on Spector’s recordings for such acts as Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Then Spector had the group record two songs, “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You.” “Be My Baby” reached Number Two in the fall of 1963 and sold more than a million copies. “Baby I Love You” made it to Number Twenty-Four. Those two singles made the Ronettes stars as 1963 dissolved into 1964. The group toured England with the Rolling Stones and befriended the Beatles.
From September 1963 through December 1964, the Ronettes placed five singles in the Top 40. In addition to “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You,” these included the enduring girl-group classics “Walking in the Rain” (Number Twenty-Three), “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” (Number Thirty-Nine) and “Do I Love You?” (Number Thirty-Four). These records were among Phil Spector’s most monumental productions, all of them built around Ronnie’s tremulous, keening voice, which embodied the range of youthful, romantic yearnings from ecstasy to sadness. It didn’t hurt that the Ronettes were exotic, multiracial beauties whose black, beehive hairdos and thick mascara appealed to teenagers here and abroad. Boys wanted to be with them, girls wanted to be like them and record buyers of all genders devoured their Spector-produced mini-operas.
In June 1965 the Ronettes recorded a song called “I Can Hear Music,” which was written by Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. The song did not become a hit until the Beach Boys covered it four years later. In fact, one of the Ronettes’ biggest fans was Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who listened obsessively and repeatedly to “Be My Baby,” which he called “my all-time favorite song...It blew my mind.” Not far behind it, in terms of employing innovative production to heighten emotional depth, was “Baby I Love You,” which utilized a rousing chorus of overdubbed voices—including those of Cher and Darlene Love—to back up Ronnie’s captivating, siren-like lead vocal.
The Ronettes continued to record for Spector, and more singles followed, but their popularity tailed off after the charmed year of 1964. The trio’s final Spector-produced single—“Is This What I Get”/“Oh, I Love You”—missed the Top 40. After touring Germany in early 1967, the Ronettes decided to break up. Meanwhile, Ronnie and Spector had become involved romantically. According to music writer David Hinckley, “Their courtship provided the raw material and the emotional spark behind many of the Ronettes’ recordings.” The couple married in 1968. According to Ronnie’s autobiography, Be My Baby, Spector virtually held her prisoner in his Los Angeles mansion until the couple separated in 1973. They were divorced the following year.
After the divorce, Ronnie began working on a solo career. Initially, she had tried to reassemble the Ronettes, but Nedra and Estelle were not interested. Ronnie subsequently cut some extraordinary tracks with the E Street Band (“Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” a song Billy Joel wrote that he said was inspired by Ronnie), Eddie Money (“Take Me Home Tonight,” a Top 10 hit) and the Bangles (“Dangerous”). She also released the solo albums Siren (1980), produced by Genya Ravan, and Unfinished Business (1987). In 1990 she published her autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette, which documented her troubled union with Spector. She has remained an active performer, and in 2006 she released Last of the Rock Stars, her first album in twenty years. It featured appearances by the Raconteurs, Keith Richards, Patti Smith and the Raveonettes. In 2010 she released a Christmas EP called Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever.
“Be My Baby” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, and in 2004 the Ronettes were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
Inductees: Estelle Bennett (vocals; born July 22, 1944, died February 11, 2009), Veronica Bennett a.k.a. Ronnie Spector (vocals; born August 10, 1943), Nedra Talley (vocals; born January 27, 1946)