Of all the great examples of rock and roll onomatopoeia, perhaps none was as sweet, alluring, and powerful as the cry with which Ronnie Spector opened "Baby, I Love You." The second single by The Ronettes on Philles Records - the first was the epochal "Be My Baby" - "Baby, I Love You" exuded youthful romance: uninhibited, unequivocal, and positively steamy! Fronting the trio she had formed with her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, Ronnie Spector (born Veronica Bennett) redefined the look and sound of so-called girl groups. With her mile-high hair, skintight outfits, heavy makeup, and seductive stare, Ronnie was assertive, edgy, and empowering. Her tough, distinctive New York-tinged voice conveyed the highest highs and lowest lows of young love in the 1960s, whether on "Be My Baby," "Baby, I Love You," "(The Best Part Of) Breakin' Up," "Walking in the Rain," or "Is This What I Get for Loving You," the latter taking on a haunting prescience considering her tumultuous marriage to Phil Spector. A whole new generation would get to know Ronnie when Eddie Money implored, "Just like Ronnie said, 'Be my little baby!' on his 1986 smash "Take Me Home Tonight." Sadly, Ronnie passed away on Wednesday following a short battle with cancer at the age of 78.
Phil Spector didn't invent The Ronettes; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted group first cut eleven songs in 1961-1962 for the May, Dimension, and Colpix labels before teaming up with the mercurial producer at his Philles label. While Phil, songwriters such as Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Vini Poncia, and Pete Andreoli, arrangers including Jack Nitzsche, and the thunderous Wall of Sound provided by The Wrecking Crew all upped the ante on the Philles records, the vocal sound was pure Ronnie, Estelle, and Nedra: yearning, vivacious, just a bit rough around the edges. It's no wonder both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, along with audiences the world over, were captivated by these young women.
Ronnie's career didn't end when The Ronettes initially disbanded in early 1967. Phil Spector (whom she married in 1968) and George Harrison teamed up to record Ronnie on a lone 1971 single for Apple Records, "Try Some, Buy Some" b/w "Tandoori Chicken." The next year, Ronnie escaped Phil's clutches, revealing years later the horrifying extent of the abuse she suffered while in the marriage. She reformed a new Ronettes to cut a couple of singles for Buddah Records in 1973-1974 overseen by producer Stan Vincent (The Five Stairsteps, Lou Christie) and then recorded one solo 45, "You'd Be Good for Me" b/w "Something Tells Me," in 1975 for the short-lived Tom Cat label with producer Edward Germano and arranger Jimmy "Wiz" Wisner.
Ronnie's unmistakable voice enlivened Bruce Springsteen's song "You Mean So Much to Me" on Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes' debut album, 1976's I Don't Want to Go Home. The Jukes' producer Steven Van Zandt then took Ronnie into the studio with his E Street Bandmates for "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" b/w "Baby, Please Don't Go." Billy Joel had penned the A-side as an homage to Ronnie and the Wall of Sound, and her rightful claiming of Joel's anthemic tune turned out to be every bit as inspired as her earlier Philles recordings. Ronnie would team with Genya Ravan for 1980's Siren, the first of four full-length LPs Ronnie would release in her lifetime. After "Take Me Home Tonight" revitalized her career, Columbia signed her for the LP appropriately entitled Unfinished Business. Almost another twenty years passed before her third solo set, one with the equally-apt title of The Last of the Rock Stars. For while The Ronettes have long been considered consummate pop stars (and make no mistake, they were), their songs pulsated with the beating heart of rock and roll.
EPs became Ronnie's preferred medium in recent years (including such releases as the Joey Ramone-produced She Talks to Rainbows, Something's Gonna Happen, and Best Christmas Ever, all on her own Bad Girl Sounds label), but in 2016 she issued her final full album. English Heart celebrated The Beatles, The Stones, and the other British Invasion artists with whom Ronnie belonged to a mutual admiration society. She was a regular presence onstage in her later years, including for joyful Christmas shows in which she'd recreate such Philles Christmas holiday favorites as "Sleigh Ride," "Frosty the Snowman," and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," all of which remain radio staples year after year. Like her contemporary and Philles labelmate Darlene Love, Ronnie had to take Phil Spector to court to earn what was rightfully hers. Though the settlement was partially overturned on appeal, she prevailed.
Determined and tenacious throughout her life, Ronnie Spector was a rock and roll survivor who triumphed over adversity and reveled in her role as a "bad girl." And a bad girl never sounded so good as when personified by the electrifying voice of Ronnie Spector.