Remembering Ronnie Spector
I wrote the following for my weekly column. Dashed this off in roughly an hour so it’s fairly barebones as an obit.
When pressed to name a song that best epitomizes what I love in a piece of popular music, it’s no contest, it’s “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes.
To me, it is the perfect pop single, one that encapsulates adolescent yearning in under three minutes. The famed Wall of Sound courtesy of producer Phil Spector that inspired the studio experimentations of 60s luminaries The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
The lyrics penned by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich derive their power from the vocals of Ronnie Spector, who passed away at the age of 78 due to cancer.
Brian Wilson, one of the eminent melody composers and studio wizards of his era considers it the greatest pop song of all time.
The first time Wilson heard the song, he was driving and listening to his car radio.
“In a way it wasn’t like having your mind blown, it was like having your mind revamped. It’s like, once you’ve heard that record, you’re a fan forever,” said Wilson of the song in a 1995 interview.
It even inspired him to write an incredible and indelible song of his own “Don’t Worry Baby.” Wilson offered that song to The Ronettes but was rejected by their producer, Phil Spector.
Ronnie Spector recorded the song three decades later for an EP.
Wilson was obsessed with song and attempted to recreate the lush production of Spector in his own work.
Ronnie was beloved among her peers, when news of her passing broke, there was an outpouring of tributes from her contemporaries as well as the musicians she inspired. No one had a bad word to say about her, it was all love: sadness at her passing mixed with joy of knowing her or the joy her music brought.
Ronnie did not have an easy life. She was married to Phil Spector, who abused her psychologically and harmed her career. She was not permitted to perform. She was essentially a prisoner in her own home. In her 1990 memoir, Ronnie recalled barbed wire fences and guard dogs. He confiscated her shoes so she could not leave and the times she was permitted to leave, she had to drive around with a life-size dummy of Phil.
Per the memoir, he kept a gold coffin with a glass top in the basement. He told Ronnie that if she left him, he would kill her and display her corpse in the coffin. During their marriage, it was common of Phil to pull a gun on her, behavior that also occurred with musicians Phil worked with such as The Ramones, Debbie Harry, Leonard Cohen and John Lennon.
She developed a drinking habit and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings just to leave the house. Ronnie escaped her imprisonment in 1972 with the aid of her mother. She was barefoot and had none of her possessions. Ronnie and Phil divorced in 1974. She forfeited all future royalties after Phil threatened her with a hit man. She received $25,000, a used car and a five year alimony of $2,500 a month.
The important thing was that she was free from Phil and alive. She tried to rebuild the career that her husband had attempted to snuff out. She got help from some famous fans who revered her and the music she had made. Fans like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
At the time, Springsteen was barred from entering a recording studio due to legal disputes and his backing group, The E Street Band, sought work elsewhere to supplement money they made touring. Guitarist Steven Van Zandt wanted to help Ronnie, a musician he and Springsteen had idolized as a kid.
They took to the studio to back Ronnie for a cover of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” a song written by Billy Joel that was directly inspired by “Be My Baby.” Ronnie was shocked at the reception she got from the experience
“I didn’t do any shows for seven years and was so isolated,” Ronnie said in a 2013 interview “So when I came back with ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood,’ I was so shocked that anyone cared. When I went to play at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey in the seventies, there’s Bruce, up on stage and Billy Joel sitting next to me. These people idolized me and I was saying, Me?
Ronnie is now hopefully at peace. I just hope she was aware of how beloved she was.