Song of the day – 472: Ronnie Spector (+ interview)
Yeah, well. This one was almost like dreaming.
A while ago, one of my music blog class came over all funny because I told her that I’d interviewed The Spice Girls, face-to-face, the final interview before Ginger left. This one was like that for me… aside from Yoko Ono I can’t really think of anyone else I’ve been so in awe of. I mean, this is Ronnie Spector, for Chrissakes!
This one’s reprinted from Plan B 14 and it’s a bit of a shame you can’t see the lovely Emily Twomey illustration and Andrew Clare layout that accompanied it.
I should point out that this interview took place before any verdict on the Phil Spector murder case was reached.
Words: Everett True
“I gotta warn you in advance; no legal questions.”
Pinch me. I’m talking to Ronnie Spector – bubbly, petite, dark glasses, laughs easily, smokes occasionally. Looks exactly like you’d expect, only a little older, in a trouser suit and a cap. She’s one side of the table. I’m the other. A jug of water separates us.
“… Joey [Ramone] was ill, so we couldn’t go to the studio, so we went to [Ramones producer] Daniel Rey’s apartment. He has a small place, like a duplex, and we had to close all the windows – it was in the summer – and turn off the air conditioning. I looked over there at Joey and he looked like he was in heaven with his earmuffs, and I said I don’t care how much I sweat, cos he’s so genuine and he loves rock’n’roll. I had no idea that he was dying then, y’know…”
Pinch me. Ronnie fucking Spector. Her wavering, emotive voice represents the pinnacle of the Sixties for me. ‘I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine’. ‘(The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up’. ‘Be My Baby’, times a million. Those damn dresses with the slits up the side that The Ronettes wore – sophistication and lust and innocence wrapped up in an unassailable whole. She did it all. Saw it all. Number One hits, screaming fans, a permanent place in whatever Rock And Roll Hall of Fame you care to name. Released her first record, ‘You Bet I Would’, at the age of 13, accompanied by sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley. Spent several years as a virtual house prisoner of her first husband, Phil Spector. Post-divorce (1974), momentarily tried and failed to come back. Spent the last two decades in legal battles – it’s only since 2001, when Ronnie won $2.6m from Phil and prompted US Congress to create a law protecting recording artists, she’s been able to perform Ronettes songs in public again.
Riot Grrrls love her. The Ronettes projected an ideal of sassy, smart womanhood that, four decades on, still resonates. They were tough. They were straight from the streets – Spanish Harlem. They sang of boys and teen love and heartbreak, but with such naked emotion they transcended the confines of a simple three-minute pop song. Among the manufactured mediocrity of the early Sixties, The Ronettes – and especially lead singer Veronica Bennett – felt terrifyingly real.
Earlier this year, Ronnie released a new album, The Last Of The Rock Stars, her first for 20 years. Twenty years. (There was a beautiful, shimmering, five-track EP, ‘She Talks To Rainbows’, that came out in 1999 on kill rock stars, guest starring Joey Ramone, but this is her first proper full-length since 1987’s patchy Unfinished Business.) It’s not half bad. Sounds like The Detroit Cobras in places. Sounds like The Ronettes in others. (Not quite, obviously – too slick, too 2006, but not damn bad.) Features guest slots from Keith Richards and Patti Smith and Nick Zinner. It’s Ronnie fucking Spector. Of course it’s great!
What made you first decide to get up on stage?
“My whole life! My mom had seven brothers, and six sisters, and they all had, uh, you know, show business. And they were playing Sam Cooke, and I’m four years old, like, ‘I wanna do that’. So my uncles made me a spotlight from the Maxwell House coffee thing. The first audience was my family: my girl cousins, boy cousins and my mom’s brothers and sisters. When I heard that applause, I got chills and I knew that was what I wanted to do. There was this song called [starts singing], ‘Jumbalaya gosa biya billy gum boom/Cos tonight I’m gonna see my machay no meyum’. I didn’t know what I was singing! But I knew I liked that song. And that was by… um… you know the guy! ‘Mee-o/Pakka badio du gaiyu be gay-o/Chadndana having fun, on the bayou.’”
[Oh my god! Ronnie Spector is singing to me!]
“I didn’t even know the lyrics, but I knew how to make my voice go up and down… I remember people, especially my ex [Ronnie never refers to Phil by his first name], saying to my mom, ‘Mrs Bennett, she sings, she doesn’t care even if the lyrics are wrong, she’s so great at singing! I just want to have her on the record’. And my mother said, ‘Uh-uh. You take all three of them, or you get none of them.’ So, uh, I started at a young age and I still love it. And what I love even more is to make people happy. I’m a big flirt, I’ve flirted my whole life – but it’s very innocent… is it alright if I smoke a cigarette?”
Sure. Go ahead.
“That’s the problem with people today – artists. They think aboutmoney, they think about girls, they think they’re going to be asuperstar. That never entered my mind, even when ‘Be My Baby’ was out. The first time I realised I was a success was when we got off at Heathrow. There were photographers, fans – now we’d arrived. I never thought I’d even go to London, growing up. I was happy I got to the Brooklyn Fox! That’s the place where Murray The K started out, with the beautiful dancing girls. We were headlining at the Apollo Theatre, and I was so afraid – y’know, I’m a half-breed – that they would boo me off that stage. During Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, I thought the whole place had fell down, because of people hollering and screaming their wigs were coming off! I got so scared I ran all the way down the stairs to the bottom; they had a water fountain there. And one of The Ronettes, Nedra, came and said, ‘Come on, we’re almost on!’ I said, ‘I can’t do this’. She said, ‘Ronnie, we’re every race, we’ll make everybody happy!’ Once I got out there, the rest is history. They didn’t boo us, they loved it – because we danced, with the slits and sexy and all that stuff.”
Yeah. I know. I’ve seen your dance.
“You have? OK, OK! You know what I’m talking about. This is what I love: singing, talking to you… and of course my kids and my husband. I have everything that I’ve wanted, but my life is backwards. I was supposed to get married and have children before, but I got married and had three adopted children. I got my biological kids when I married Jonathon, and I’ve been married to him for 22 years.”
When ‘Be My Baby’ was so massive, did you wake up and think, ‘I’m Number One’?
“Naah. I woke up and I’d pinch myself because I didn’t think it was real. We all slept together – the three girls and stuff – and I’m hearing boom-da-boom and it’s Dick Clark, American Bandstand. I didn’t even know it was out. I heard the drumbeat and I almost passed out. Dick Clark said, ‘This is gonna be the hit of the century!’ You know? I know you know!”
Yeah, pretty much!
“But I was taken away from everything. I did my shows and then I had to be in California, [Phil Spector’s] Goldstar Studios. I couldn’t see the musicians. I wasn’t allowed. I’d have to go back to the hotel. I was writing poems, but I didn’t know about publishing, writing songs. That’s where the big money was. Who knew that, y’know? You’re 16 years old, you’re only thinking about getting out there and kicking ass on stage. I came back in ’72 [with George Harrison] and I didn’t get my divorce until almost 1974. In those two years I was on tour – I didn’t do any of that when I got married [in 1968 – Ronnie was born in 1943, and met Phil in 1963]. I didn’t do anything! I had maids and butlers. I couldn’t even go in my own kitchen. I got yelled at for going in the kitchen, so sometimes I’d go to bed hungry. I was naïve and vulnerable. I was a girl from Spanish Harlem – he thought he could take advantage, and he did. And I was vulnerable, cos I loved to sing, and that’s why I didn’t understand: ‘You know I love singing, so why aren’t I doing shows?’ And it went on for years and years. He said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll have another hit’.”
Danny Rey took me along to see your Christmas show on 42nd Street a few years ago. That was great…
“At BB Kings? Yeah, I’ve always loved Christmas. When I was a little girl, I loved my dolls. We’d go shopping every weekend and I said, ‘Dad, I want these skates for my little doll!’ and he said, ‘Honey, we don’t have any money left’. So he went over to the guard and said, ‘You know it’s a shame how people steal in these places’ and he stole those skates for me. When we got outside, he tapped me on the shoulder. He said, ‘Honey look’. And he had my doll ice skates. I was so happy. He said, ‘Just don’t tell your mom how I got these!’
“He was a little hen-pecked, but I loved my dad. He loved music, too. He couldn’t get into any of the black clubs, because he was white and that was his downfall. They wouldn’t hire him, y’ know, because practically every musician was black. I think that’s why my father drank a lot. But he wasn’t like how some people drink when they’re loud and can’t help yelling. My father was happy. And my mother would get mad…”
You’re part of Christmas now.
“Yeah. Well, Phil was Jewish, so the Christmas album [A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector] was my idea. In the mansion, we had those tall ceilings. He’d buy a tree that tall, but I was the only person in the house – except for the servants, of course – but I had no friends, no guests. So I had a big old tree, every year, just for me. Eartha Kitt was the only person that came over to the house, and that was once. When she was doing Batman, I’d go babysit for her little girl. Y’know, The Beatles were so hot and touring with my band, and I’m sitting there babysitting! They were so mad when they found out I wasn’t singing! And I had no choice because I was married.
“Then there was adopted twins, first we adopted a baby; it was crazy, OK? To have five-and-a-half-year-old twins as a Christmas gift was quite a lot! And I loved children so I couldn’t say anything. When I got home, those kids were running around the fountain. So it was like, ‘Where am I? Am I going to have more children? What happened to my singing?’ I would ask him and he would shout, ‘I don’t have time to talk about your goddamn career’, so I wasn’t going to ask him that question again because he yelled a lot, and I mean a lot. So I stopped asking him and became this little quiet girl.
“He said, ‘This is important – she only had one Number One record’. My lawyer said, ‘Well, Frank Sinatra never had a Number One record and he was popular all over the world’. He tried everything he could; ‘She was a go-go dancer’… I never was a go-go dancer. I made records before him! So everything he did, it got squashed. And that’s why he’s in the position that he’s in now.”
“Phil knew all about publishing – if he didn’t write the song, he wasn’t gonna to do it cos he wouldn’t get the money. [The Shangri-La’s] ‘Leader Of The Pack’ was written for me. Brian Wilson wrote ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ for me, and I thought it was the perfect follow-up to ‘Be My Baby’, but I didn’t get to do that either. I never thought about that stuff back then. Who thought about money in the studio? He did. A lot of people did, I’m not just saying him. But the artist didn’t.
“That’s why Frankie Lyman was begging for change on 42nd Street at the end of his life, even though he wrote ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’. And the guy Morris Levy put his name on it. I said, ‘That’s impossible’. He wrote that song. He was like a John Lennon before John Lennon. He had an imagination. He imagined the birds, ‘Why do birds sing so gay’, and all. We were not wealthy people, not even half-wealthy. We were just having fun. And I crept past his house and stopped, ‘Oh my god, Frankie lives here’, and I invited them to my 13th birthday party and his two brothers came and he didn’t. I was devastated! He showed up two weeks later. But he showed up wanting to kiss me, and he brought me a rose. I was afraid of him… He was into drugs, and drinking, and if I’d touched a drop my mother would have killed me. I just wanted the music. I was like, ‘You can’t do that, undoing my button and stuff!’
“Where I grew up, everybody was a different race. Spanish restaurants, Chinese laundry, Jewish delis, black barbershops. I didn’t even know what prejudice meant. I’d look out that window and I’d see the black girls throw a cigarette down, and I’d be like, ‘I wanna do that!’ And I did. I did a video with Eddie Money, [1976 hit] ‘Just Like Ronnie Said’. They only showed my feet with heels on and I threw a cigarette down and squashed it – and I was great!”
“Do you have enough, honey,” the lady asks. “I could talk all day!”
She throws back her head and laughs, lights up another cigarette. I glance at my tape recorder, the jug of water, the livewire lady sitting in front of me, 35 if she’s a day.
The spell is broken.
Sure. Sure, I do. Ronnie fucking Spector. Wooo-wheeee, baby.