Ronnie Spector 1943–2022
Born in East Harlem, New York in 1943, Veronica Bennett, better known as Ronnie Spector, was a pop pioneer. As lead singer in the Ronettes, alongside her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley, she had hits including ‘Be My Baby’, ‘Walking in the Rain’ and ‘Baby I Love You’. The Ronettes were part of a wave of girl groups including the Crystals and the Blossoms that were steered to global stardom by renowned producer Phil Spector. The Ronettes supported the Beatles on their first US tour and the Rolling Stones opened for them in the UK.
Phil and Ronnie married in 1968, but the union was not a happy one. Ronnie alleged that Spector imprisoned her in his California mansion and subjected her to years of psychological abuse – hiding her shoes so she couldn’t leave the house, insisting she drive around with a life-size mannequin of him in the passenger seat and installing a coffin in the basement of their home, promising that he would kill her and display her corpse if she ever left him.
But leave him she did, climbing out of a broken window in her bare feet in 1971. After divorcing Spector – who was convicted for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2009 and died in prison in 2021 – she reformed the Ronettes, but without Estelle or Nedra, performed with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band and featured on Eddie Money’s Top 5 hit, ‘Take Me Home Tonight’. In 1982, she married Jonathan Greenfield and had two sons. Her second marriage was much happier than her first and she died in Jonathan’s arms in January. Dolores ‘LaLa’ Brooks, lead singer with the Crystals, remembers her friend.
“It feels like I’ve always known Ronnie. I first met her [in 1961] when I was 13, I’d just joined the Crystals and we used to sing as part of the Murray the K Show [at the Brooklyn Fox in New York]. Ronnie was one of the show’s backing dancers alongside Estelle and Nedra – they weren’t the Ronettes yet, but Ronnie already knew she wanted to be a star. She craved being in the spotlight; that was where came alive.
“Ronnie would be backstage at the Apollo with a little martini in her hand and a big smile on her face”
While Ronnie was always very comfortable on stage, she wasn’t as comfortable off it. One-to-one she was very shy and she didn’t like meeting new people. She was a sweetheart, but very, very sensitive. Whatever difficulties she was having offstage, for all the things she felt, for all the things she went through, the stage was her way out. The Ronettes first started singing in front of an audience at the Apollo Theater [in Harlem], and I would go down and watch them perform. We were all about cheering each other on. We weren’t dissecting their performance or putting each other down. We were just so happy as teenagers to be able to be on stage and perform and show the people how talented we were.
She was such a hoot in those days. She’d be backstage at the Apollo with a little martini in her hand and a big smile on her face. She’d always be upbeat when she was getting ready to perform and after the show you always wanted to be in Ronnie’s dressing room, her whole family would be there and it would always turn into a crazy party. Ronnie was quiet, but she was always ready to party once she’d had a little tipple. She gave us all so many good memories.
The Crystals started working with Phil Spector when he was about 22 years old. People forget that it was the Crystals that made Phil Spector’s name – before the Blue Jeans, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers or the Ronettes. The Crystals started Phil Spector, in New York with Carole King [who wrote the Crystals’ 1962 song ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)’, which was produced by Spector]. There was no problem with Phil Spector then; it wasn’t until he moved to California that he started to change. He was always anxious, but we had no idea what he would become, what he was capable of.
Maybe it was because I was the baby of the group, or more likely it was because I had six brothers, but Phil never gave me any trouble. I have good memories of laying down tracks for ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’, it was exciting to be making hits. The only thing I saw is the aggression he showed to Sonny Bono, who worked with him at the time. Sonny was his beating post and Cher would be standing on the side. I guess she would be upset, angry and disturbed about how Phil would treat Sonny, but nobody would stand up to Phil [he was too powerful in the industry].
The Ronettes’ first song with Phil was ‘Be My Baby’ [recorded when Ronnie was just 16]. In a way we were all having the time of our lives – singing all over America and the world. I remember doing my first tour in England. I was about 16, it was crazy. But it wasn’t all good. We all experienced so much racism, especially in America, and I saw a lot of girls taken advantage of. People offered me drugs all over the world and, even though I was young, I knew that when a grown man offered a teenage girl a drug it was because they wanted to control them. I was smart enough to know that that is wrong. Ronnie’s addiction was alcohol, she had problems with drinking… and with people wanting to control her.
The Ronettes were successful, but Ronnie wanted to be a big star on her own and sometimes you pay the price for what you wish for. When Phil asked her to marry him, she went there thinking that she was going to be married to the biggest producer in the world and he was going to give her hit record after hit record. His intention was completely different. Phil wanted a wife, he didn’t want to make her a star, in fact he didn’t want her out of his sight. Phil was very possessive. Ronnie’s attitude changed during the marriage. She always had a lot of problems, but Phil had a huge effect on her mentally. She was depressed and she really took to alcohol. It was her comfort, it made her forget what was going on.
It wasn’t just Ronnie’s life that changed. When she went with Phil, Ronnie left Estelle and Nedra behind. That impacted Estelle in particular. Estelle loved to sing and was devastated not to be on the stage any more – and it was her sister that had taken it away. Estelle had a nervous breakdown, she was homeless for a while. She never got over it; that feeling of abandonment was with her until she died [in 2009]. It was sad at Estelle’s funeral, Ronnie wasn’t there – I can’t say why.
After Ronnie left Phil, we started to perform together again and when we sang together it was the same as it had been back in the Apollo. Ronnie never played the diva with me, I wouldn’t have it, because when you’ve been in this business as long as I have you realise there’s no such thing as a star, it is a bunch of bullcrap. It’s a fantasy. It’s not real. If you start believing that you’re better than people, you’ve got to go home.
When Ronnie passed away, I was in shock. I’d lost this woman that I grew up with, that I’d shared so much with. I didn’t go to her memorial service, I wanted to remember Ronnie as she was at her best – the bubbly, crazy, fun person that I knew as a kid. As an adult, you know, she was a mess, but she was so cool with it.
I remember we performed together in New Orleans a while back [in 2015]. My rehearsal was before hers. So she was in the audience. I started the soundcheck and I could hear her shouting ‘Sing your f’ing ass off, LaLa!’ I was so embarrassed, but I did. I sang my ass off, like Ronnie would.”
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