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Ronnie Spector, Ronettes singer and ultimate girl-group icon, dead at 78

“Her joyful sound, playful nature, and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard, or saw her,” Spector’s family said of the “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain” vocalist

By Andy Greene

Ronnie Spector poses
Ronnie Spector has died at the age of 78 (Picture: Getty)

Ronnie Spector, the leader of the girl group the Ronettes and the voice behind immortal classics like “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain,” died Wednesday after a brief battle with cancer. She was 78.

“Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor, and a smile on her face,” her family said in a statement. “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.”

The Ronettes were the quintessential act of the early-Sixties girl-group era, and Spector’s silk-meets-sandpaper voice powered all of their songs. Last year, “Be My Baby,” the genre’s defining track, was honored at Number 22 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

“All the musicians dropped whatever they were holding, their horns and guitars, and they were looking at this new girl in town,” Spector remembered during a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone. “All the musicians were yelling, ‘Oh, my God. Her voice!’ And I’m saying, ‘Me? A little girl from Spanish Harlem?’ ”

The huge success of “Be My Baby” in the summer of 1963 turned the Ronettes into superstars, and caused massive ripples across the pop landscape. “I was driving [the first time I heard it], and I had to pull over to the side of the road — it blew my mind,” Brian Wilson said in 2013. “I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song, and I never did. I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.”

The Ronettes themselves had trouble topping it, though they had a string of hits over the next year that brought them over to England, where they toured with the Rolling Stones. The group also charted with “Baby, I Love You,” “Walking in the Rain,” “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” and “Do I Love You.”

“I just heard the news about Ronnie Spector, and I don’t know what to say,” Wilson said in a statement shortly after the news of her death broke. “I loved her voice so much, and she was a very special person and a dear friend. This just breaks my heart. Ronnie’s music and spirit will live forever.”

“She will have her own place in history because there was nobody like her,” Darlene Love, who also worked with Spector in the early days, tells Rolling Stone. “When I first met her in 1964, she was this little bitty thing — she reminded me of a little Barbie doll. But then she had this big voice. The way she sang and moved onstage, that was rock & roll.”

Phil Spector, who began an affair with Ronnie shortly after he signed the group in 1963, produced all of the group’s hits. They married in 1968 and split in 1972. In her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby, she wrote that her relationship with Spector was marked by years of horrible violence and abuse. 

“As I said many times while he was alive, he was a brilliant producer, but a lousy husband,” she said shortly after he died last year. “Unfortunately, Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio. Darkness set in, many lives were damaged. I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will. The music will be forever.”

Veronica Yvette Bennett grew up in New York City and started singing with her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley at a young age. Calling themselves the Darling Sisters, they performed around the city while still attending George Washington High School. After a few unsuccessful singles, Phil Spector signed them and immediately began writing songs specifically for her voice. “Watching him create in the recording studio, I knew I was working with the very best,” she said. “He was in complete control, directing everyone. So much to love about those days.”

In 1964, the group traveled to England to play a series of shows with the Rolling Stones the following year. “They were a bunch of scraggly-looking guys,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016. “But I loved them, and I especially loved Keith because I love that rugged look he had.”

“They could sing all their way right through a wall of sound,” Richards said while inducting the group into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. “They didn’t need anything.”

The success of British Invasion bands like the Stones and the Beatles caused groups like the Ronettes to lose fans in droves. And when the Ronettes were hired to open for the Beatles on their 1966 American tour, a jealous Phil Spector didn’t let Ronnie go. (They were forced to play the shows without her.)

It was the start of an extremely dark period of her life, when Phil Spector tried to exert as much control over her as possible, rarely letting Ronnie even leave their house. “He never let me read the newspaper or watch TV,” she told The New Yorker in 2012. “I didn’t even know Woodstock had happened. And when Charles Manson killed those people on Aug. 10, 1969, right near us — I didn’t know that, either. All I knew was Phil started putting barbed wire up, and then the guard dogs, and then the guns.”

She finally broke free from him in 1972 and started to reassemble her life and career. “My ex took singing away from me, and it was devastating because I had no idea that I would never record,” she told Rolling Stone. “I had no idea I would never perform again, which was my life. I was in shock with that because here’s a person who wrote your records and produced them… And then, you’re never gonna sing again.”

Her comeback started in 1976 when she recorded a cover of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” with the E Street Band. But she didn’t return to the spotlight in a big way until 1986, when Eddie Money had her record a live sample of “Be My Baby” for his hit “Take Me Home Tonight.” The song became a massive success and introduced Spector’s music to a new generation.

“That song brought her career right back to life, which was amazing,” Love says. “It just goes to show you can turn your life around again. You can come back as strong as you want to.”

Over the past few decades, Spector toured heavily and released the occasional new record. In 2016, she released the British Invasion covers record English Heart. “If someone had told me in the Sixties that I would be around 50 years later, still singing those songs,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016, “I would have said, “You’re outta your mind.”