Ronnie Spector, who charmed the music industry in the early 1960s as the lead singer of the Ronettes and emerged as a solo force of power in the late 1980s, passed away at the age of 78.
“Our beloved earth angel, Ronnie, peacefully left this world today after a brief battle with cancer,” said her family in a statement on the RonnieSpector.com website. “She was with family and in the arms of her husband, Jonathan.
Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face. She was filled with love and gratitude. Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her.“
Rise To Stardom: Spector was born Veronica Yvette Bennett Aug. 10, 1943, in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City, the daughter of an Irish-American father and a mother with African-American and Cherokee heritage. She began singing while in high school and teamed with her sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley on an act they called Ronnie and the Relatives.
A successful audition with Colpix Records landed the trip a record deal in 1961, but their initial singles failed to connect with audiences. The label renamed the act as “The Ronettes,” but they still could not gain traction.
Estelle reached out to producer Phil Spector in 1963 and arranged an audition. Spector initially wanted Veronica as a solo act, but her mother intervened and kept The Ronettes together for Spector’s Philles Records label.
The Ronettes made several recordings before the August 1963 release of “Be My Baby” scored their first major hit. A then-unknown singer-songwriter Sonny Bono and his teenage girlfriend who went by the single name Cher were back-up singers on the recording.
The Ronettes followed up with “Baby, I Love You” and were then included on the 1963 album “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” with recordings of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Sleigh Ride” that latter became annual radio favorites every holiday season.
The Ronettes toured the U.K. in January 1964 and made the acquaintance of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, which grew over the years into deep friendships. More songs followed, although “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” and “Do I Love You?” did not reach the same level of popularity as their earlier hits, but the group found a new hit with “Walking in the Rain.”
Veronica and Spector fell into a difficult relationship after he signed the Ronettes, with the producer growing infatuated with his singer — yet he would not release many of their recordings out of fear that her stardom would lead her away from his control. Veronica was also unaware that Spector was married; he finally divorced is first wife in 1965. Tensions within the Ronettes also created friction, with Estelle and Nedra becoming unhappy that Veronica (now more commonly known as Ronnie) was getting a surplus amount of attention.
Despite these difficulties, the Ronettes opened for the Beatles during their August 1966 U.S. tour, but Spector’s jealousy forced Ronnie to drop out of the tour, with her cousin Elaine filling in. The Ronettes split up in 1967.
The Difficult Years: Spector and Ronnie married in 1968, with Ronnie taking on Spector’s surname. The marriage was a professional and emotional disaster for Ronnie, who was prevented by her husband from performing while he kept her as a virtual prisoner in their mansion. While the Ronettes were staples on oldies radio stations, Ronnie was nowhere to be seen anymore.
After Spector’s repeated threats of physical violence drove her into alcoholism, Ronnie escaped from her home in 1972 with her mother’s help and divorced Spector two years later. In later years, Ronnie and the other Ronettes would successfully sue Spector to gain royalties that they were denied for many years.
Dramatic Comeback: Performing as Ronnie Spector, the singer made multiple attempts in the late 1970s and early 1980s to secure a return to stardom, both as a solo singer and with a new version of the Ronettes, but her efforts came to naught.
In 1982, Spector married her manager Jonathan Greenfield. Four years later, Spector suddenly found herself back in the spotlight as a guest vocalist on Eddie Money’s song “Take Me Home Tonight,” in which Money calls her out by her first name while she responds, “Be my little baby.” The music video of the song became a hit on MTV and introduced Spector to a new generation, while her older fans learned the astonishing details of her catastrophic marriage and her struggle to regain her independence and career.
In 1988, Spector found a loyal audience at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City as the star of a Christmas music party that became a much-loved December event. She provided guest vocals on a number of songs, and in 2007 she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the Ronettes.
Spector made headlines again in September 2020 with the announcement that Zendaya would portray her in a biopic based on her autobiography “Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness.” To date, the film has yet to be produced.
Photo: Ronnie Spector (center) with Estelle Bennett (left) and Nedra Taley in a 1966 Ronettes publicity photo.
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