No one else sounded like the tough yet tender Ronnie Spector
The late Ronettes singer had one of the most distinctive voices in pop music – and her discography should be celebrated beyond her girl-group hits
Amid the jaw-dropping stories of horrific abuse in Ronnie Spector’s 1990 autobiography Be My Baby, there’s a fascinating passage about her singing voice. She says she felt cowed by the other female singers in Phil Spector’s stable of stars: she didn’t have the kind of big, gospel-trained voice that Darlene Love or Fanita James possessed. But the producer had singled her out for special treatment. Veronica Bennett, as she was then, had “exactly what he needed to fill the centre of this enormous sound”, she said. Phil Spector was famous for rounding up whoever was in the studio to sing backing vocals, but he demurred when Ronnie offered. You could see that as an early example of the controlling behaviour with which he made her life a misery after their marriage, but his explanation was pretty convincing: “Your voice is too distinctive – it comes right though.”
He was right. Phil Spector worked with a succession of fantastic singers – not just Love and James, but the Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner and LaLa Brooks of the Crystals – but none of them sounded like Ronnie, a state of affairs that makes a mockery of the notion that Phil Spector was the solitary artist at work on his records, his vocalists interchangeable puppets.
There’s something immediately recognisable about her voice, a combination of street toughness and tenderness, a trademark vibrato, a raw, unschooled power. It didn’t matter how dense and unyielding Phil Spector’s arrangements got, Ronnie Spector’s voice always cut through. Even Tina Turner sounds like she’s fighting for space with the umpteen instruments on River Deep Mountain High, but listen to the Ronettes’ Is This What I Get for Loving You? or I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine – singles that exist in the shade of their biggest hits Be My Baby and Baby, I Love You – recorded in 1965 and 1966, by which point Spector’s production style had become increasingly OTT. Even when I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine reaches its emotional height – the moment just before the chorus when the drums crash in – you, metaphorically speaking, can’t take your eyes off Ronnie Spector. Everything else is (an admittedly elaborate) background to her wracked cries of “oh baby!”
It made it all the more unfair that she struggled to establish herself outside the context of Philles Records and her appalling husband. When Phil Spector decided to pull up the drawbridge and withdraw from making records, Ronnie Spector had to go with him: the barbed wire on top of the walls, the guard dogs and the threats to kill her and display her body in a glass coffin if she tried to leave saw to that. When he re-emerged, towards the end of their marriage, as George Harrison and John Lennon’s producer of choice, she re-emerged too, but luck wasn’t on her side. She cut a fabulous, mandolin-bedecked version of the former’s Try Some, Buy Some for Apple records, but it flopped: perhaps the melody was too cyclical and hypnotic for pop radio, perhaps the lyrics – which contrasted drug use with spiritual awakening – were too oblique. There was supposed to be an album, with a crack backing band involving Harrison, Leon Russell and various members of Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos, but like a lot of things that were supposed to happen at Apple, it never materialised. By all accounts, the sessions were torture for Ronnie Spector, who sat silently in the vocal booth waiting for her cue while her husband ignored her in favour of chatting to Harrison: according to engineer Ken Scott, she was visibly too terrified to speak up. In the end, Harrison simply took the backing track of Try Some, Buy Some and recorded his own vocal over it for his 1973 album Living in the Material World: if you want to hear how good Ronnie Spector’s performance of the song is, it’s worth contrasting the two versions.
Finally divorced, she formed a new version of the Ronettes, but to little avail: it didn’t help that the best song they recorded, the funky Go Out and Get It, ended up as a B-side. She made a great disco single, You’d Be Good For Me, before working with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It was an arrangement that suited both parties perfectly. The influence of Phil Spector’s 60s singles on the E Street Band’s sound was obvious; furthermore they were at a loose end, broke and trapped in recording limbo by Springsteen’s legal struggle with an ex-manager. The resulting single, a cover of Billy Joel’s Say Goodbye to Hollywood, was stunning, its commercial failure baffling, although Steve Van Zandt later suggested the money the musicians made stopped the E Street Band from breaking up entirely.
Next, she was embraced by New York’s punk scene, making a new wave-ish solo album, Siren, with members of the Dead Boys and the Heartbreakers. If nothing else, the sheer diversity of musicians she worked with post-divorce told you both something about how widely revered she was, and something about her voice, which managed to be both incredibly adaptable – it fitted over the strings and dancefloor rhythms of You’d Be Good to Me just as well as it did over a cover of the Ramones’ Here Today, Gone Tomorrow – and utterly unique: it didn’t matter whether she was singing soul or punk, you always knew immediately that you were listening to Ronnie Spector.
Both facts were underlined when she finally scored a hit in 1986, albeit in a supporting role. Eddie Money’s Take Me Home Tonight was shiny, be-mulleted stadium AOR, entirely of its era. When she appears midway through, singing the refrain from Be My Baby, the contrast between the grit in her voice and the gloss that surrounds her is really striking. Without wishing to sound sniffy – Take Me Home Tonight is a perfectly good example of a certain strain of 80s rock, which has its own charm – it’s the difference between soulful emotion and an over-inflated, chest-beating simulacrum of emotion.
Its MTV-fuelled success – along with her autobiography, and an eventually successful court process against her ex-husband that saw the Ronettes awarded back royalties – helped set Ronnie Spector up for the rest of her career. She never had a hit in her own right, but she toured relentlessly and started playing Christmas shows in New York that became a staple part of the city’s musical calendar.
Related: Ronnie Spector: a life in pictures
As before, the range of musicians who queued up to work with her told its own story: she could go from performing with Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin producer Narada Michael Walden to Keith Richards to horror punk pioneers Misfits without missing a beat. You only had to glance at Amy Winehouse to see Ronnie Spector’s influence: the beehive and the thick eyeliner were a dissolute take on her 60s look; the sound of the Ronettes was in Back to Black’s DNA. You’re never too far from a new single that knowingly sounds like Be My Baby or Baby, I Love You, and you probably never will be: they cast as long a shadow over pop as anything made in the 60s. The big difference is that, as ever, whoever’s singing them won’t sound like Ronnie Spector.