‘My Past Made Me Strong’: Ronnie Spector’s Journey from ’60s Pop Icon to Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor

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‘My Past Made Me Strong’: Ronnie Spector’s Journey from ’60s Pop Icon to Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor

‘My Past Made Me Strong’: Ronnie Spector’s Journey from ’60s Pop Icon to Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor
2018-11-30 09:49:14

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‘My Past Made Me Strong’: Ronnie Spector’s Journey from ’60s Pop Icon to Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor Ronnie Spector Jordan Runtagh November 28, 2018 08:45 AM
For many, Ronnie Spector ‘s voice defines rock ‘n’ roll. A mix of street tough New Yorker, tender schoolgirl vulnerability and the occasional flirtatious giggle, it provided the heart, soul and swagger of the iconic ’60s group the Ronettes. Alongside her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, the trio scored hits with pop rhapsodies like “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain.” The cat-eyed siren bewitched the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie — all of whom vied for her affections — and served as a mascara’d muse for Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and even punk pioneers the Ramones. Her fiery live performances provided blueprint for generations of front-women to follow, and her edgy fashion set the trends for an era. Decades later, her beehived badass influence lived on in Amy Winehouse , who frequently cited Spector as an idol.
Last year Spector resurrected the long-dormant Ronettes name with a new single, “Love Power,” and a string of tour dates stretching from Spain to Napa Valley and beyond . “It’s blowing my mind because I get more of an audience now than I did with the original Ronettes,” she marvels. “I’m talking 18-year-old girls with beehives!” This December she’s hitting the road for a holiday tour across the United States , revisiting the Yuletide classics she recorded with the Ronettes in 1963, which have since become a permanent part of the Christmas soundtrack.
RELATED: FIRST LISTEN: Rock Queen Ronnie Spector Releases ‘Love Power,’ Her First Song in Decades with the Ronettes
Her triumphant resurgence seemed unimaginable during her stormy marriage to Phil Spector , the deeply troubled record producer who launched her to stardom. The pair’s professional relationship turned personal when she was barely out of her teens. After they wed, the intensely jealous hitmaker kept her sequestered in their California mansion and subjected her to years of psychological torment. With the help of her mother she ultimately escaped, barefoot and nearly broke, and began rebuilding her life on her own terms. Today Phil sits in prison for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson , and Ronnie tours the globe, singing her songs and telling her inspiring story to packed houses.
“I made every negative a positive,” she tells PEOPLE. “Back then, I couldn’t go out and I couldn’t sing. Now, I go on stage and get to see the audience go crazy over me.” In light of the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, her reputation as a beacon for female empowerment rivals her status as a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. “I was determined that nobody would ever keep me down again, and that’s what I’d tell any woman.” Ronnie Spector, 1966. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Born Veronica Bennett to an Irish-American father and a mother of African and Cherokee descent in New York’s Spanish Harlem, she began singing as a 5-year-old at weekly family gatherings. A coffee table served as a stage, and a coffee tin a makeshift spotlight. “It was amazing. That’s what started my fire, when I got that applause from my aunts and uncles,” she recalls. At age 11, Ronnie made her public debut at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Though relegated to backing vocals, she took center stage when the young frontman — her cousin, Ira — was overcome with a case of nerves. “He opened his mouth and nothing came out!” she recalls with a laugh. “So I went out there and grabbed the mic. The audience went nuts.” From then on, she was hooked.
In the early ‘60s, she enlisted her elder sister and cousin to sing and dance with her at local clubs like the Peppermint Lounge, putting in late nights before waking up just a few hours later for school. “Some mornings I couldn’t make it to class, but I wanted to be in show business so bad,” she remembers. Calling themselves the Ronettes, they honed their act as the resident “dancing girls” at WABC DJ Murray the K’s legendary music revues at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater. There they shared the stage with stars like Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson and Stevie Wonder, and developed their trademark fashion. “We wanted to be different, because there were all these other girl groups with wide dresses. When the Supremes came on, they had on gowns. I said, ‘Uh uh. That’s not our look.’ My aunt made us our first outfits, and I told her, ‘I don’t want anything wide, we want something tight,’ because we’d dance.”
For her sky-high beehive, Ronnie took inspiration from French bombshell Brigette Bardot. “I loved the way she did her hair, even though she was blonde and I have black hair. I would tease it up and do the bangs. In the streets, a lot of the Spanish girls would [also] tease their hair, and they had that makeup. We had the street clothes, and that’s why the kids liked us: because looked like them. A little exaggerated, of course…” The Ronettes in 1964. Seth Cohen PR
The Ronettes released a handful of early singles like “What’s So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen,” and “My Guiding Angel,” but their career remained stalled until they crossed paths with Phil Spector, then the hottest producer in the country. Only in his mid-twenties, he was the enfant terrible of the pop world, crafting teenage symphonies with his bombastic “Wall of Sound” style. Phil was intent on bringing the Ronettes to the top of the charts and making Ronnie his latest star. With “Be My Baby,” a love letter to his protégé, he would do just that. The record went to No. 2 in the fall of 1963. The Ronettes were instant headliners — and Ronnie his new love.
Their newfound fame brought the trio to England a few months later in early ’64, where the Rolling Stones served as their opening act. It was there that she struck up a friendship with guitarist Keith Richards that continues to this day. “He and I weren’t dating but we would go out after the show to Wimpy Bars to have hamburgers. Everything back then was so innocent. We didn’t think about drinking — you had soda backstage,” she tells PEOPLE.
The Ronettes also hit it off with another up and coming British group: the Beatles. “They had seen us on Sunday Night at the London Palladium and they said, ‘We have got to meet these girls with the black long hair and slits up the side.’” The Fabs showed up at an industry party thrown in their honor, where a completely besotted John Lennon made a major move. Unfortunately for him, Ronnie turned him down. “I was young then, and I was seeing Phil. I didn’t want to kiss other guys and stuff,” she explains. The Beatles would remain close friends and act as the Ronettes’ official guides whenever they came to London, taking them shopping and treating them to dinner — with Ronnie and Estelle’s ever-watchful mother, Beatrice.
But Ronnie’s mother wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on her. Phil became increasingly controlling as her fame grew. In the studio he insisted she stay by his side in the control room, separated from everyone else by soundproof glass. “I would bring my comic books, because I couldn’t be with anybody. Then, after everybody was gone, I’d sing my part. I was never around people. He made sure of that. The only person I was close to was Cher .” The future superstar, who’d begun dating Phil’s assistant Sonny Bono, was then working as a teenage background singer. “Cher and I really became close. We’d tell each other secrets.” In her own way, Cher tried to warn her friend about Phil’s destructive tendencies. “One time she said, ‘You know, Phil’s not a very attractive man…’ and I said, “Well Cher, Sonny ain’t no prize, sweetie!’” Phil and Ronnie Spector in the studio, 1963. Ray Avery/Redferns
Though studio sessions could be tense, you couldn’t argue with the results. With Phil at the helm, the Ronettes notched four more Top 40 smashes in the next year: “Baby, I Love You,” “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” and “Do I Love You?” Their influence was seemingly everywhere. Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson became obsessed with “Be My Baby” — often listening to it over a hundred times a day — and composed some of his most famous Beach Boys hits in an effort equal its symphonic grandeur.
Their bold fashion made them mainstays in the nation’s biggest magazines. “We were on the cover of Jet , the cover of Ebony , and Mademoiselle magazine. That was the first time a biracial girl could be in there,” she says proudly. “Everybody liked us — every race liked us — and that was so important because we communicated with all the kids out there.” An electrifying appearance in the 1966 concert film The Big TNT Show alongside Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner, Joan Baez, Bo Diddley and the Byrds, cemented their status as members of the pop elite.
That same year, the Beatles offered the Ronettes a coveted spot as a support act on their world tour. The other two jumped at the chance, but Ronnie faced an ultimatum from Phil: Marry me or go on the tour with the Beatles. Barely 23, the choice was clear. She would stay with her first boyfriend, the man she loved, the producer who made her famous. They would make it official with a brief ceremony two years later in 1968. “We didn’t have a wedding, we just went to the Beverly Hills Courthouse,” she explains. “I didn’t have a white dress, I just had on a blue suit and a white shirt! My mother had to sign the wedding certificate. She said to me, ‘I just signed your death certificate.’”
Their marriage effectively signaled the death of the Ronettes. Phil stopped releasing their new music, and then he stopped recording them all together. Still under contract, they had no choice but to watch their career wither away. The new bride found herself confined to her husband’s gloomy Beverly Hills mansion. “He wouldn’t let me go anywhere. I never went to dinner, because we had a cook. I never went out that door after I got married. Maybe six times in all those years.”
Before long, the former jet-setting pop star’s world became four walls. “The doors were locked so I couldn’t even go outside to the fountain and walk a little bit. And we had a gate, too. ‘No Trespassers!’ There were so many signs, even the cops were afraid to go up there. I didn’t get dressed because I wasn’t going anywhere. Every day was the same thing.” Shades were kept permanently drawn, as was Phil’s preference, and Wagnerian opera blared. “Imagine being a Ronette, with the Rolling Stones as my opening act and all this greatness, to all of this darkness, with no singing.”
RELATED: Ronnie Spector on the Time Ex Phil Spector Adopted Twins Without Telling Her: ‘No Woman Wants Live Children as a Surprise’
Phil’s control intensified. Phone calls were supervised. Intercom systems were installed in every room (“Including the bathrooms”). Even television shows were monitored. The Partridge Family was forbidden, because David Cassidy was deemed too cute. They adopted a child together, a mixed-race infant named Donte. Soon after, Phil brought home a pair of 6-year-old twins — Gary and Louis — without bothering to ask his wife first.
Through it all, Ronnie couldn’t help but wonder: “Was I ever going to sing again?” After years of assurances, he finally brought her back in the studio in 1969 to record a song he’d written, “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered.” The message in the title was not lost on Ronnie’s mother. “She would say, ‘Ronnie, don’t you know what he’s doing?’ And I would say, ‘Not exactly.’ And she would say, ‘He came, he saw and he conquered you . He’s got you in this mansion. You can’t even go outside!’”
For more on Ronnie Spector’s amazing life, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Finally, the red flags began to add up as realized that Phil’s behavior — swinging wildly from overprotective doting to his cruel outbursts — came from a deeply dysfunctional place. Everything seemed designed to keep her dependent, tied down and fearful. “I knew I was going to die there. It’s a feeling you get. He was so obsessed, and he always said, ‘Before I let you go, you’ll be dead, honey.’ And he wasn’t kidding.”
Unsure where else to turn, she called the one person she knew could help: her mother. “She was smart, powerful and intelligent,” Ronnie says. “My whole survival was through my mom’s strengths. She laid it on me and she gave me that strength to keep going.” Together they hatched a plan to escape the mansion for good. With the front door locked, they studied the service entrances. “We did all this planning for three days. We had everything timed.”
Phil regularly hid Ronnie’s shoes to prevent her from leaving, so she would have to go barefoot. Finally they made a break for it — only to come face to face with Phil, standing on the lawn. His eyes fell on her bare feet. “He said, ‘Mrs. Bennett, don’t let Veronica step on anything sharp.’” Ronnie’s heart sank, but her unshakable mother played it cool. “Oh, I won’t let anything happen to her,” she offered back. They sauntered away, as if going for a stroll. Once they hit the driveway, they started running.
Decades removed, Ronnie sees that her story mirrors many women trapped in abusive relationships, whether through fear, guilt or financial necessity. “People don’t understand why I stayed so long. But when you’re in love — and that person made you famous — there are a lot of reasons. I feel free now to tell other women: if you are in a bad relationship, you have to find someone. If it’s not your mother, your best friend. One person has to help you. It’s so important for women to know, if you want to go, pick yourself up and just figure a way out and get the hell out and save your life.”
After divorcing Phil in 1974, she moved back to New York to rebuild her musical career. “That’s where so much of my strength came from: I would not leave the stage. It was my love since I was 5 years old, so when I wasn’t performing, I felt like a nobody. And I was a nobody out there.” It was slow going at first, but a call to her old friend Murray the K helped shore up some gigs. Ronnie Spector, mid-’70s. Seth Cohen PR
During one comeback show at Madison Square Garden in the mid-’70s, a teenager named Jonathan Greenfield was smitten by her smoldering stage presence. They would meet face-to-face a few years later when he was producing a downtown stage play called, ironically, Women Behind Bars . “I went because of the title,” Ronnie says. “That’s how I felt my whole marriage. I saw this guy and he came over and said to me, ‘I’ve been your biggest fan forever. Can I just give you a hug?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
Touched by the sweet act, she returned to the play every night that week. “To see him , not the show,” she says with a laugh. In January the couple celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. “He’s 15 years younger than me. That’s why I married him, he can take care of me when I get older!” They share two sons — Austin Drew, 36, and Jason Charles, 35. “My mother was getting sick at that time, but she knew that he was the guy for me,” Ronnie recalls. “She got sicker and sicker until we had to take her into a nursing home. But as long as she saw Jonathan and her two grandchildren, that made her say, ‘I can rest in peace.’ Before Beatrice died in 1998, Ronnie lovingly sang “Be My Baby” in her ear one final time.
For decades she’s lived a duel life as Ronnie the Rock Star and a suburban mom in rural Connecticut. In 1983 she scaled the charts again with a featured appearance on Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” Billy Joel , her onetime opening act, wrote “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in Spector’s honor, and she recorded a cover of the song backed by the E Street Band, on loan from another musical admirer, Bruce Springsteen . In 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reuniting with her sister and cousin onstage for the first time in years. But even with all these accolades, she makes time for trips to the grocery store, a local steakhouse, and even Bed Bath and Beyond. “A lot of the women there tell me, ‘You are the beyond , girl!” she jokes.
Sometimes when she’s in the checkout line, she’ll hear one of her songs and a flood of memories comes rushing back. Some are good, others painful, but she’s at peace with the deceptively beautiful music she made with her ex-husband all those years ago. “He was a great producer and I love my records, and I love what we did together — in the studio,” she says. “So when I hear my records even today, I get excited.” When Phil received a 19 years-to-life prison sentence for his 2009 murder conviction, Ronnie felt both vindicated and liberated. “It’s like, ‘I won, because he’s where he is and I’m out here going all over the world.’“
RELATED: Ronnie Spector’s Victory Lap: The Original Rock Queen Talks New Music and Reviving the Ronettes
There’s a point in Ronnie’s stage show when she pays tribute to late artists like John Lennon, George Harrison and Amy Winehouse. To most they’re legends, but to Ronnie they’re friends and family. As she honors them in song, she always thinks of her mother and her sister Estelle, who succumbed to cancer in 2009. “I thank God I got Jon, and two kids that I love,” she says. “I’m a mom and a wife and above all, I’m a singer and a performer and that’s what I love. I have to give my mother credit, but I give myself credit. My past made me strong and it made me want to do more. It makes me stronger and stronger, the more I even talk about it, I’m sitting here and I’m saying, ‘Wow!’” You May Like



‘My Past Made Me Strong’: Ronnie Spector’s Journey from ’60s Pop Icon to Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor
2018-11-30 09:49:14

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