The Ronette still glows when she performs at the North Park Theatre Thursday
The woman who needs no introduction stands at the top of a short flight of steps, flanked by her sister and first cousin — her Ronettes — their hair pulled high and big in beehives, eyes lined dark, bodies wrapped tight in the matching dresses an aunt made, slits riding high enough to make both the boys and the girls squeal in delight. The music starts, her girls step out ahead, and from her full lips comes a raw, tremendous voice that she bounces playfully from hip to exaggerated hip as she follows the Ronettes down the stairs. That was 50 years ago, but it could have been yesterday. And at the North Park Theatre, it’s Thursday, when Ronnie Spector asks San Diego to “Be My Baby.”
You know the song — everyone does. It’s one that has been burned into the American consciousness and marks an era in rock & roll’s timeline, the Girl Group era, defined by Spector herself, who’s widely lauded as the original bad girl of rock & roll. The designation carries different weight now than it did then, but her stories alone — all told with a genuine innocence and punctuated by coquettish giggles, even at 70 years old — inspire admiration, awe, respect and, yeah, a little healthy jealousy. (John Lennon courted her. The Rolling Stones opened for her. The Stones! A young, babe-ish Keith Richards wanted to — ugh! It’s too much.)
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee has been generous with her story, particularly those darker times that would have destroyed any artist’s spirit. But her horribly abusive marriage to producer Phil Spector at the height of her career only strengthened her resolve. The grim details have been published before — hiding her shoes to dissuade her from leaving the house, stifling her musical ambitions and making her pass on a tour with the Beatles — but she doesn’t hide from them. They’ve brought her, in part, to her most recent tour, part of which she’s spending performing Beyond the Beehive, the show that chronicles her 50-year career.
Ronnie Spector may not like the term icon, but that’s what she is — an inspiration for those who have fought abuse, a genuine powerhouse of talent, a gracious girl from Spanish Harlem with pipes and personality bigger than her tiny frame.
On Tuesday, she spoke to SoundDiego with excitement in her voice, delighted by her own thoughts and candid in conversation, pronouncing coffee as cwah-fee and ending certain clauses with a slight upward inflection. When she mentions Bruno Mars, it’s with a shy, sultry voice, as though she’s admitting a secret crush. We talked about her roots in Spanish Harlem, how she got the bad girl title, the time she first heard “Be My Baby” on the radio and, of course, fake butts.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: You’ve had an incredibly long and beautiful career.
Ronnie Spector: Hah! Not so beautiful. There were obstacles and interferences, but I kept going, Hannah.
HLS: I want to ask you about those as well. But what are some career highlights for you?
RS: Well, I would say when I first heard “Be My Baby” on the radio — that was like, “Oh, my God! I’m a star!” You know what I mean.
HLS: Do you remember where you were when you first heard that on the radio?
RS: As a matter of fact, I do [laughs]. I was in the car with my mother, and my mom doesn’t drive, so one of my mother’s brothers was driving us, and first time I heard it, I almost peed my pants! I went to L.A. to record “Be My Baby” with the Ronettes, and we didn’t know when it was coming out, you know? Nobody told us anything. So being in the car, I made my uncle pull over — I was so excited I almost peed on myself. You know what I mean? I could not believe it. And then it kept climbing and climbing until, I mean, I was a happy teenager [laughs].
HLS: Your upbringing in Spanish Harlem, did that influence your approach to music at all?
RS: Oh, yeah, of course! First of all, in my neighborhood, you heard Spanish music coming out of the windows, you heard R&B. Where I grew up in Spanish Harlem, that particular, let’s say, 12-block area, everything was music. And also, my grandmother had 14 kids, and by the time I was 5 or 6, they were all grown, and they would all come to my grandmother’s house on Sunday, her kids and grandkids, and they would watch me — I’d get up on the coffee table, when I was 5, and sing to my family. Believe it or not, that was my first real audience. I had all these uncles and cousins sitting around on the floor, and I’m on the coffee table, and they’re all looking up at me, and that was when I first — I was like, “I like this! I want to do this all the time” [laughs]. And I did. I never gave up.
HLS: So you were just 5 when you knew this?
RS: I was 5, yeah. As a matter of fact, our grandmother wanted us to be in the choir, like the Choir Sisters. I was like, “Grandma, I can’t lie, there’s only two sisters and one first cousin.” See, I knew I was going to be famous, so I didn’t want to come into the business with a lie. And my grandmother was insisting that we’d be called the Darling Sisters, and you know, we just didn’t — we were really into rock & roll, especially me. So we just said, “OK, Grandma” … and then we’d go in the other room, do our routines in this big mirror she had in the back room. Rock & roll. I fell in love with Frankie Lymon — I mean, that was the voice that I listened to. Instead of doing my homework, Hannah, I’d go in the living room — I had this little thing of 45s — and I’d listen to all of his records. My family, we came from humble beginnings, so I didn’t have piano lessons, singing lessons, none of that. So I taught myself, because I loved it that much and I loved Frankie Lymon’s voice.
HLS: You can tell the difference between someone who has that raw, inherent talent and someone who, well, you know …
RS: See, that exactly. That’s my point today. Everybody that you see, they have choreographers, dancers. In the ’60s, you were so pure and so good. I’m the same way today. I don’t have dancers [laughs], and they love my show. You know what I mean? A lot of the artists — to me — today, they have all of this to cover up for what they can’t do, and everybody lip syncs — I could never lip sync. That would be like taking money from my audience, you know? I have to sing to you. I think there’s too much competition today. There’s none of these groups left, none of these artists left. It’s been 50 years, and I still love it, and I still draw a crowd. When I think of other artists that are out today — how long do they have? Two years? Four, tops? And then you don’t remember their names! In the ’60s, you knew Led Zeppelin, you knew the Temptations, the Four Seasons — you still know those names today. I do like one person though [laughs].
HLS: And who is that?
RS: I like Bruno Mars. I like his voice. You know, he sings. He’s really talented, and he can really sing, and he really started like when I did, like 5 or 6 [laughs]. So I do like him. And I like the one song Rihanna made — it was called “Stay.” Yeah, that’s a good one, but that’s about it for me. You hear all these records and you enjoy them and you enjoy the groups, and then the groups are gone [laughs]!
HLS: And there’s the technology to make people who don’t exactly have much talent sound like they do.
RS: I know! You said it — I didn’t. In the ’60s, you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t even do that in the studio. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. It’s like a race today. Everybody is in such a rush to get ahead of somebody else, and it just doesn’t work.
HLS: The industry has definitely changed.
RS: Like I said, I don’t get it. Maybe because I’m older and I don’t get what these younger kids are going through, so maybe it’s that, too. We did have the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in our day. So maybe it’s the same thing — but not really, because you have all these other groups that make one record, then you never hear them again. I mean, Paul McCartney is still out there [laughs]. Like I say in my show: 50 years ago, you know, the artists I worked with are either dead or dead broke, and that’s the truth. You know what made me continue was Frankie Lymon. When I came back from California and heard that he had died at 25, that broke my heart. Broke my heart. So my favorite — my inspiration! — is dead from drugs. I’ll never do drugs, and I never did drugs, because of Frankie Lymon. Never.
HLS: Where did this “original bad girl of rock & roll” title come from?
RS: Ok, I’ll tell you. It’s very simple. We were dancing with Murray the K, he had a show in New York, and everybody played there that had a No. 1 record — Marvin Gaye, Little Anthony, the Shangri-Lahs — and we didn’t have any records. But Murray said, “I want you on my show,” ’cause he came to Miami and saw us there, and he said, “Where do you live? You’re so great, do my show at the Brooklyn Fox.” I said, “Are you kidding? We live in New York — we listen to you every night!” So as soon as we got back to Manhattan, Murray kept us hopping. He had us doing all the shows at the Brooklyn Fox, and that’s how we became famous. Just with me singing and the girls and I dancing, because we lit up the show for him. We were pretty — he called us the beautiful dancing girls — and we’d go out there and sing, and other girl groups had the wide dresses on — not that we were better, we were just different. You know, we had the long hair, slits up the side — we just knocked the guys and the girls out when we walked onstage. It was incredible.
HLS: So you just came at it all with a different image than —
RS: Than the other girls. That’s right. We were so different from other girl groups because our roots, for one, made us different looking. People get a little money, they can get a makeup artist, make them look better, you know? I didn’t do any of that. I have never had plastic surgery. I’ve never done anything, because I think it makes you look worse. I see these girls — oh, my God. And you know what else? The butt shot! The behinds? All these girls have, like, false butts! And I didn’t know! I was talking to my assistant, there’s this new girl, she sings hip-hop and she’s white, and she has the biggest butt, and then I find out through the TV that’s not her butt! Nicki Minaj, all these girls. What is it gonna look like in 15 years? They’re gonna fall down to their knees [laughs]! If you want to be in the business, you have to take care of yourself. I really do that, get my sleep, get my baths — my bubble baths. Oh, and you know what I don’t do, Hannah? I don’t go to clubs, like nightclubs and parties, and I never did that even when I was a Ronette. Because my mother traveled with us everywhere. And when you see your mom, it’s like, “Bedtime [laughs]!” Even though we went out with the Stones and the Beatles, I knew my mom was at that hotel, and we couldn’t stay out late, ’cause we had a show to do the next day.
HLS: So she went with you even overseas?
RS: Everywhere. It went great! Because you don’t even think about that, you thought about, “Wow, Mom was there!” I love my mom, and my sister was a Ronette, too, so she had two daughters and a niece to worry about. So she was in England, she was at the Brooklyn Fox, she was at the Apollo — I don’t care where we went, and I loved her being there. Some of those people had valets in those days, and how did they afford that [laughs]? We had Mom and ourselves, and we didn’t have a hit record, but we had talent and looks, beauty.
HLS: Going back to what you touched on earlier. You’ve been through so much in your personal life, and yet you came out of it as even more of a powerful force of woman. Do you have any advice for women — or men even — who struggle with finding their strength against others?
RS: The harder they hit you, the harder you hit back. In other words, when you go through problems and interferences and obstacles, you just walk through them. That’s what I did. I had to. I had no choice. I was in court for 15 years with my ex [Phil Spector] for royalties and stuff, and all I did, Hannah, I just kept on my shows. I had two babies on the way, I’d been married. I live in Connecticut away from the big city, and I have a wonderful, wonderful life. And if someone had told me in the ’60s when I married my first husband that I would have this life now, I would have never believed it. Never. You know, I had adopted kids, pretending I’m pregnant — it was so bad, the first marriage, because it was all a lie. I said, “I can’t tell my mother I’m having a baby, she’s going to come out here and see my stomach.” “Oh, put a pillow underneath” — stuff like that. You know, Hannah, I was brought up with morals. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had morals, you know? No sex before marriage, and this was like 50 years ago. Today it’s the reverse. You get maybe engaged, then you have a baby, and maybe then get married [laughs]. I was brought up to believe that you had to have a career to have children and to have a nice household. So that’s how I lived my whole life: just wanted to have a great house, kids — now I have all of that. Before, everything was given to me, and I hated that. You know, I wasn’t pregnant, I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, he’s not telling me maybe I can’t have kids” — and it was none of that. When I married Jonathan [Greenfield], I had kids coming out of my ears, I said, “Stay back! Don’t touch me [laughs]!”