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Remembering Ronnie Spector, lead singer of the Ronettes

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Last week, we lost one of the distinctive voices of early rock and roll - Ronnie Spector, the lead singer of the Ronettes. She died at the age of 78. The Ronettes were perhaps the greatest girl group of the early rock era with hit records like "Be My Baby," "Baby, I Love You" and "Walking In The Rain." An obituary in The Guardian noted, quote, "with their towering, black, beehive hairdos, extravagant eye makeup and tight sheath dresses, the Ronettes brought a whiff of sex and danger to the wholesome girl group genre of the early '60s," unquote.

Ronnie Spector was born Veronica Bennett. She and her multiracial bandmates grew up in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. She married her record producer, Phil Spector, known for his big wall of sound. But he abused her, and they later divorced. The Ronettes broke up in 1967. Terry Gross spoke to Ronnie Spector in 1987, when she had started to record and perform again on her own. They started their conversation, though, with this 1963 classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE MY BABY")

THE RONETTES: (Singing) The night we met, I knew I needed you so. And if I had the chance, I'd never let you go. So won't you say you love me? I'll make you so proud of me. We'll make them turn their heads every place we go. So won't you please be my, be my baby? Be my little baby, my one and only baby. Say you'll be my darling. Be my, be my baby. Be my baby now, my one and only baby. Whoa, oh, oh, oh. I'll make you happy, baby. Just wait and see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Ronnie Spector, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RONNIE SPECTOR: Oh, I'm glad to be here, Terry.

GROSS: How did you first hear this song? Did the songwriter sing it for you before you performed it the first time?

SPECTOR: Well, the first time I heard it, you know, Phil and those were - and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. We met in a little studio, and they started writing around me. And I guess I was very - I was 16 years old and very shy. And I liked Phil at the time, and he liked me. I think they wrote it all around that - you know, our little love affair at the beginning. I think it was all a part of that - the lyrics and stuff.

GROSS: Do you remember the recording session?

SPECTOR: Like it was yesterday (laughter).

GROSS: What was it like?

SPECTOR: It was incredible because there I was in California recording, and I had never left New York. I had never been out of New York in my whole life, and there I am on a plane going to California by myself without the other two Ronettes just to do the lead part. And I'm in the - I remember being in the ladies' room at the New York airport, just singing in the bathroom (singing) be my - 'cause I don't read music or anything, and I don't play any instruments. So it was like - you had to just learn it over and over. And then Phil asked me to come to California and do it at Gold Star Studios, and that's where we recorded it. It just - a record that I remember that day being in the studio. I remember what color dress I was wearing (laughter). I remember everything.

GROSS: Now, as we'll hear, one of the things you do on this record is your famous - I can't. I can't even imitate this, but you have the...

SPECTOR: (Singing) Whoa, oh.

GROSS: Yeah, your famous whoa, oh, oh (laughter)...

SPECTOR: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which you do a lot in "Be My Baby" and in a lot of your early records. How did you come up with that? Was that something you just started singing?

SPECTOR: No, it was like - Frankie Lymon used to sing, (singing) why do birds sing so gay and lovers await the break of day? Why do they fall in love?

And so I sort of got it from him. And it was like my own little (singing) whoa, ohs - came out, you know? I think it was like - I was three years old. I was singing this song - what was it called? I can't even remember, but it was like a - one of those yodeling songs for my family. And I think it's just something that I started, and it stuck - the (singing) whoa, oh. Oh, oh, oh, oh.

As a matter of fact, when I did the Eddie Money song "Take Me Home Tonight," I did the whoa-ohs without any music or anything. And then they added that to the track (laughter).

GROSS: Can we talk about some of those old memories...

SPECTOR: Sure.

GROSS: ...About how you started to sing? You formed the Ronettes with two of your cousins when you were all teenagers.

SPECTOR: No, a sister and a cousin.

GROSS: A sister and a cousin, oh, OK.

SPECTOR: Right.

GROSS: And how did you learn to sing harmonies?

SPECTOR: Oh, actually, it was, like, a bunch of cousins. I had so many first cousins, and I remember being on the rooftop, you know, rehearsing and trying to get our routines together and stuff for the Brooklyn Fox. We had a sort of strict upbringing, so we couldn't go out in the - we could look out in the street and watch other girls walk and everything. But we couldn't go out 'cause our grandmother was very strict, so we stayed in the house.

And that's how we all just started singing because - out of boredom (laughter) and out of - all the people in our neighborhood were, like, becoming stars. Like, I - Frankie Lymon and stuff. And when I met him - I was in love with him when I - and I didn't even know him, and I was in love with him. I was in love with his voice.

GROSS: What kind of neighborhood was it that you grew up in?

SPECTOR: I grew up in Spanish Harlem, which was terrific because it was, like, every race, every color, every language. It was wonderful. My father's Irish, and my mother's Black and Indian. And every time somebody says Black and Indian, they say, oh, come on. They're not - they don't have Indian. My mother is really half-Indian, and she has the high cheekbones. And so I do look like all of those races.

GROSS: You broke in through - into the music business by being a dancer at the Peppermint Lounge, being a dancer on the "Murray The K" show...

SPECTOR: Right.

GROSS: ...Singing backup vocals. Did you do things in those early days to help get yourself noticed? Did you either, like, dress in such a way...

SPECTOR: Oh, yeah, are you kidding?

GROSS: ...As to call attention to yourself?

SPECTOR: Oh.

GROSS: OK, what'd you do?

SPECTOR: Oh, first of all, we would - we wore - we tried to be - you have to have a gimmick in this business. And we figured. And so we wore hair extra high - you know, the beehives in the '60s. And we wore eyeliner. And we wore slits up out - up the side of our dresses because we sang and danced. So we really looked different. And what was the question? I forget. I get so excited.

GROSS: Oh, about things you did to call attention to yourself...

SPECTOR: Yeah, I - and...

GROSS: ...When you're trying to break in.

SPECTOR: See; when we first - we decided to dress up, and we had a lot of aunts. My mother has, like, six sisters. And so that's seven of them dressing us. And they told us to put a cigarette in our mouth.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPECTOR: And we stood outside the Peppermint Lounge, dressed just alike. And I was so glad because it's 14 hours smoking. They just didn't know it. And it was great because we stood on line, and we had to look over. So we tried - we had to exaggerate everything because all of us were underage. So it was very hard. But we had our gimmick. And it was amazing because before we even had "Be My Baby" as a hit record, being at the Brooklyn Fox as Murray the K's dancing girls, we would come out for lunch, and it was actual girls dressed like us and our hairstyles. It was knocking me out. I couldn't believe it.

GROSS: You had some of the highest hair in the whole music business.

SPECTOR: (Laughter) Well, that's what I said. You had to have a little attention. And we certainly brought attention with those high hairdos. I mean, we must have worn our hair at least 10 inches high.

GROSS: Now, you know, it always made me think that you were really tough, really streetwise.

SPECTOR: No.

GROSS: Were you? No?

SPECTOR: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, when we heard about people being junkies or dope addicts, I would ask my mother, where? Let me see one, because I wasn't a tough, streetwise kid at all. But I just - we just did all the dances, you know? And by living in Spanish Harlem, you learned all the dances anyway. I mean, you could just look out the window and people on the corner singing and stuff. And this is how we - and I loved it from the time I was 3 years old when my whole family applauded me. I remember the song was, (singing) jambalaya and a crawfish, pie and a file gumbo, because tonight, I'm going to meet my mon cher ami-o (ph). Pick a spot filled with sky and be gay-o (ph). Son of a gun, we're having fun on the bayou.

And I think that's when I got my, (singing) oh, oh, oh - oh, oh, oh.

And then my family just started applauding me. And I was, like, 3 years old. And I said, that's what I want to be the rest of my life. I want to perform.

BIANCULLI: Ronnie Spector speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALPHABET ST.")

PRINCE: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with Ronnie Spector, the singer who rose to fame as the lead singer of The Ronettes. She died last week at age 78.

GROSS: Let's get to more of your recordings with The Ronettes. You first signed with a small label called Colpix Records. And...

SPECTOR: That's right.

GROSS: That - those records never really became hits. How did you sign with Phil Spector, with whom you really recorded your best-known records?

SPECTOR: Well, what we did - we were still with Colpix at the time when we met Phil. And he had my mother go down to Colpix Records and tell them that we didn't want any part of show business. We wanted to go back to school. And we just didn't want to sing anymore. And this was all Phil's plan and my mother - my mother's and Phil's plan to get us on his label. So they released us, Colpix. And naturally, we hadn't had any hits from them. So it wasn't like they were letting go of these big stars, (laughter) you know? We hadn't had any hit records, so it was perfect. And my mother went there one day. And she got them to release us because we were underage. And my mother said, they don't want to sing anymore. And about six months later, we had a No. 1 record. So that's how...

GROSS: Fooled everybody (laughter).

SPECTOR: Yeah. So that's how we got to be with Phil on Philles Records. But that's not how we met him, you see. My sister and myself and my cousin got together one night. And we said, how are we going to meet this Phil Spector? We hear he's the best producer in the world. And my sister said, well, why don't we pretend we're making - we're dialing him. We knew the number to his office. We called his office one day. And we said, hi. We pretended - we said, oh, we're calling for an audition. We're The Ronettes. Her name was Joni (ph), Phil's secretary. She said, well, maybe - I don't know if Phil is auditioning. Da, da, da (ph). Hold on.

So we held on. And next thing we know, Phil was on the phone. And he said, I'd like to meet you girls the next night at Mirror Sound here in New York. And we couldn't believe it. And we did. And yeah, we sat down at the piano at Mirror Sound. And Phil said, sing me some songs that you guys just, you know, know off the radio. And of course, by my loving Frankie Lymon, I started singing "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," "ABC's of Love." And he immediately fell in love with my voice. And he said, that's the voice I've been looking for.

GROSS: Once he started working with you, did he make suggestions to you and The Ronettes about changes he wanted to hear in either the harmonies or the lead vocals?

SPECTOR: No, because first of all, the backgrounds weren't just my sister and my cousin. It was, like - we had about 10 people. There was Cher. There was Sonny. There was Darlene Love. He had, like, 10, 20 - and he would make those - double those voices. So it was - I don't know. It was very complicated in his studio. But it was - watching him work was a miracle to me - watching Phil Spector work in his studio.

GROSS: You both became lovers. Did that add a certain drama to your performances when you worked together?

SPECTOR: It may have. But I guess because I was, you know, performing so much before I met him, I just had that - I loved performing. And I don't think he - by falling in love with him made me any better as far as my singing. I just think he knew what materials to pick out for us, you know, song-wise, like "Be My Baby," "Walking In The Rain." And he was just a great producer.

GROSS: "Walking In The Rain" - we've heard some of "Be My Baby." Is "Walking In The Rain" one of your favorites of the records that you recorded?

SPECTOR: Well, "Be My Baby" is my No. 1. I'll love it forever. And "Walking In The Rain" - I love it, too. Yes, I really do.

GROSS: I love that, too. Why don't we hear a few seconds of it? And then we'll talk some more.

SPECTOR: OK.

GROSS: OK. This is The Ronettes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING IN THE RAIN")

THE RONETTES: (Singing) I want him. And I need him. And someday, someway - woah, woah, woah - I'll meet him. He'll be kind of shy, and real good looking, too. And I'll be certain he's my guy by the things he'll like to do, like walking in the rain and wishing on the stars up above and being so in love.

SPECTOR: (Singing) Oh. Oh, oh (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, Ronnie, that sounds great. That's Ronnie Spector singing along...

SPECTOR: I couldn't help it.

GROSS: ...With her record from the 1960s, "Walking In The Rain."

SPECTOR: I couldn't help it, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, it's terrific. You gave up rock 'n' roll for a while when you married Phil Spector.

SPECTOR: That's not the right way to put it (laughter). I didn't give it up. As a matter of fact, I didn't know when I got married that I would never sing again. I thought, as a matter of fact, I would be recording a little bit more and maybe touring a little less. But I had no idea I would never record again or sing again or perform again. I sang again, but I didn't perform again.

GROSS: So it was kind of against your will that...

SPECTOR: Yeah. Yeah, it was something I didn't expect.

GROSS: Well, during that period, did you sing a lot in the house just to keep your voice in shape?

SPECTOR: No, because it was no rock 'n' roll allowed in my house then. It was only classical music played throughout the whole house. And how can I sing to classical music, you know, rock 'n' roll? And I just didn't sing. I just - I would - at night, I'd go to sleep, I remember, and just turn over and just think about being on stage and singing. Occasionally, when I was in the bathroom, in the bathtub, I'd sing songs and stuff, but never too loud because he'd get angry.

GROSS: Yeah. There was no rock 'n' roll because your husband of the time, Phil Spector, didn't want it in the house. When you left that marriage and you left him and you tried to re-enter the music business again, had you lost your bearings for a while? Was it hard for you to find your place? You'd been out of the scene for a while, and you hadn't even been listening to the music for a while.

SPECTOR: Right. No, but I never lost my bearings. I guess it's like riding a bicycle. Once you, you know, learn, once you fall off, you get right back on. And that's how I was with my singing. Of course, it was much tougher. I remember I came back in '74, and I went to Buddah Records. And they auditioned me. They loved me. And a few weeks later, Phil sent them a letter saying that I was still his wife because it took me two years to get a divorce. And immediately, they let me go.

So I had a lot against me because of Phil. You know, people just said, well, we don't want to be bothered with him because he was known for suing people and, you know, making scenes and keeping people in court. And that's basically why I didn't get started as fast as I wanted to, you know, because when I everywhere I went, he sort of like, you know, stuck his two cents in at the time.

GROSS: You recently remarried. And I believe your husband is also your manager.

SPECTOR: Yeah.

GROSS: And I was wondering if you were ever afraid to get involved with a professional relationship that was also an intimate relationship because of how you had been hurt the first time by combining the two.

SPECTOR: I tell you, I wouldn't have never met - first of all, I've been married two years. And I have two kids now, 3 and 4. With Phil, I had kids too. I had three kids, but they were all adopted. But with this particular marriage, I wouldn't have gotten married to this gentleman if I had known. See; I made sure because of my first marriage. I made sure I - because he was managing other people in Broadway shows and stuff. So I - he knew that I loved it. And I knew he loved what he was doing. And I don't think I would have ever gotten married to a man that didn't like my career or didn't have anything to do with it or just didn't want me on stage. So really, I know what you're saying. I would have never married again.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you're back recording and performing again. It's a pleasure to hear your voice.

SPECTOR: Thank you, Terry. I'm so glad to be back.

GROSS: And I thank you very much for spending some time with us on FRESH AIR.

SPECTOR: Oh, any time.

BIANCULLI: Ronnie Spector spoke with Terry Gross in 1987. The seminal singer of the early rock era died last week. She was 78 years old. After a break, I review "The Gilded Age," the new HBO costume drama series premiering Monday. It's from Julian Fellowes, the creator of the PBS series "Downton Abbey." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID NEWMAN'S "HARD TIMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.