The Ronettes

TrackAlbum / Single
Good GirlsThe Ronettes
Be My BabyPresenting The Fabulous Ronettes
Baby I Love YouPresenting The Fabulous Ronettes
Sleigh RideA Christmas Gift For You
(The Best Part Of) Breakin’' UpPresenting The Fabulous Ronettes
Do I Love YouPresenting The Fabulous Ronettes
Walking In The RainPresenting The Fabulous Ronettes
Here I SitBe My Baby (CD)
I Can Hear MusicGreatest Hits Volume II
You Came, You Saw, You ConqueredA&M AMS 748 / Be My Baby CD

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Contributor: Peter Viney

The Ronettes started out as Ronnie & The Relatives: Veronica Bennett, her sister Estelle Bennett, and her cousin Nedra Talley. They took a job dancing, then singing, with Joey Dee & The Starliters (see toppermost #122) at the Peppermint Lounge in New York, then Miami. After their first two singles with Colpix in 1961 (What’s So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen) and 1962 (I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead), they changed their name to The Ronettes. Veronica was always the focus and lead singer. The Colpix singles flopped. Ronnie says in her 1990 autobiography Be My Baby:

Listening to those songs today, I can see why they didn’t make it. Colpix had no idea what to do with us. Stu Phillips just didn’t know what rock ‘n’ roll was. He had us in the studio backed up by two fake McGuire Sisters. And with the strange songs he picked for us, it’s no surprise our recording career was going nowhere.

The Colpix sides were released on an LP in 1965, after their Spector hits, now on CD as The Ronettes Featuring Veronica. Ronnie’s largely right, What’s Sweet About Sweet Sixteen is an abysmal song, and the overall style is girl group without the attitude and soul edge that The Ronettes had with Spector. Ronnie had revised her opinion by the notes for the 2004 CD, and says that Recipe For Love was rescued, and went back into her live act in 2001, and the start of the song lends itself to their later sound. It has a punchy feel like later Spector tracks. Nestling in among those early poppy sides like I Want A Boy, are some worthwhile tracks. In Good Girls, Ronnie can suddenly get funky and roar, so we get a pretty rendition of Always be a lady … then a roaring I’ll mashed potato but forget the gravy … which may not make sense, but the way she sings it you think it does. Silhouettes is The Rays song, later to be a major hit for Herman’s Hermits. It’s an earworm of a song, like it or love it, and The Ronettes track from April 1962 is the best version. I’m On The Wagon rocks, though it sounds like Brenda Lee rather than The Ronettes, an illusion increased by the honking sax. And you can hear those fake McGuire Sisters.

Enter Phil Spector. Read her book for the story. Estelle simply phoned Philles Records, asked to speak to him, and got an audition for the next day. Just like that. They signed in March 1963, and he had them rehearse daily with him, without recording. Ronnie says “We became his obsession.” Then Ronnie became his obsession, then his possession. He flew Ronnie and her mother to California to record Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love, but had Estelle and Nedra travel five days cross country by car to add backing. Ronnie says she always got preferential treatment. But Phil declined to release the track. It was not, he said, a number one. When it finally came out in 1964, it was credited to just “Veronica” as it is on the Back To Mono Spector box set. They then did four songs in June 1963: The Twist, Mashed Potato Time, Hot Pastrami and The Wah Watusi, all stuff they did on their live shows – they were already a popular live attraction. Hot Pastrami was one left from backing Joey Dee. Phil Spector regarded the sessions as mere warm-ups, and used them to fill out The Crystals Sing Their Greatest Hits, credited to The Crystals. This was not unprecedented, as Darlene Love sang the first two Crystals hits. Current versions credit the four tracks to The Ronettes. They’re definitely not given the full wall of sound.

A lot of work and preparation and obsessive rehearsal went into Be My Baby before they even recorded. Ronnie was flown out to California ahead of the others, who were to put their parts on later. They spent three days in the studio on Be My Baby, with Spector telling everyone that Ronnie was the voice he had been looking for. He later said it took him the time Motown spent on ten hit songs. He may have intended to add Estelle and Nedra later or not, but in the sessions Be My Baby was backed by Darlene Love and Bobby Sheen (Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans), Sonny Bono, Cher, Nino Tempo, and Fanita James (The Blossoms). It was Cher’s first ever session. It was a #1 US hit (on Cashbox) and a #4 UK hit. Phil was right in that The Ronettes had image with the hair, mascara and looks in a way other interchangeable girl groups did not, and Ronnie has that special thing: the signature voice. You can have ten great singers, but the important ones will be instantly recognizable.

Be My Baby is a classic, often said to be Brian Wilson’s favourite song. Billy Joel said:

It just oozes sex, that record. It’s got this Latinesque string line that practically throbs. And Ronnie’s voice – I mean it sounds almost lubricated. It’s got a smell to it, like sweat and garlic. There’s an urgency to that voice, a sexuality that screams street to me. Ronnie’s sound is like the neon glow that hits the streets under the elevated tracks on a hot summer night. She’s got that natural vibrato that sounds like it’s coming straight up from her gut – and there’s no one else who sings like that. Ronnie can wring more emotion out of one long phrase than most singers can from a whole song. (Forward to “Be My Baby” autobiography)

She also has a slightly soft ‘r’ sound, and that lends just a touch of vulnerability.

Baby I Love You was the follow up, also written by Spector with the Barry-Greenwich team. To a degree, it was formulaic in following Be My Baby, but it was also equally good. It’s the one they chose to open with when Keith Richards inducted them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Keith introduced them as “Veronica Bennett and The Ronettes” having said that “in spite of Jack Nitzsche’s beautiful arrangements, they could sing it without any wall of sound.” No mention of Phil Spector from Keith.

At this point, Spector had The Ronettes tour with Ronnie’s cousin Elaine singing lead, plus Nedra and Estelle. Ronnie stayed in the studio recording. Ronnie says she always recorded her lead vocal alone, and that the backing singers are the usual studio crew, often just Darlene Love and Cher. She says if Estelle and Nedra were around their voices got added to the mix later, but often they’re not on the records. They’re not on Baby I Love You. This is helpful in compiling the Toppermost because I was unsure about later songs credited to “The Ronettes” after Estelle and Nedra had left, wondering whether to put them in the accompanying Ronnie Spector solo Toppermost. But it’s clear that much of their output is only Ronnie anyway, so if it says Ronnettes on the label, it’s in this one.

All three Ronettes do appear on A Christmas Gift For You, aka the Phil Spector Christmas Album. They were assigned Frosty The Snowman, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and Sleigh Ride. Having played the album through many Christmases, Sleigh Ride is far and away the best of the Ronettes contributions, as well as the second best song on there. Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) has no competition for first place.

The Ronettes toured England with The Rolling Stones in 1964, and Phil flew over with a new song (The Best Part Of) Breaking Up. If I could only choose one, this might just edge past Be My Baby as the definitive song. In this case Ronnie says Phil spent hours working on the harmonies with Estelle and Nedra, so it really is a group song.

More singles? This was a singles group. Most of Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes was singles, and five of the songs at least choose themselves. Phil Spector went to obsessive lengths selecting the songs, working with three writing teams: Greenwich/Barry, Poncia/Andreoli and Mann/Weil. Phil knew well in advance what the singles were going to be and they were the ones that got the full treatment. He didn’t record a bunch of stuff, and then select. He didn’t devote much time to B-sides. So both the next singles Do I Love You and Walking In The Rain have to go in. So Young, which had been released as “Veronica” again, still features in Ronnie 21st century solo shows.

What’d I Say is on the album and purported to be live. It was a song they used to sing with Joey Dee and continued to perform on shows. It’s fake. The audience was dubbed on, and it’s recorded to sound like Joey Dee’s Starliters with a ton of echo. Chapel of Love is a typical cover as album filler.

1965 saw less successful releases of two brilliant songs: You Baby, and Is This What I Get For Loving You?, the second was a particular favourite of Phil’s (mentioned on Back To Mono) and tries out some ideas that are similar to The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Then there are comparative rarities, songs which didn’t come out until ten years later on Spector compilations. There are several on the 1990s Back To Mono box set: Soldier Baby Of Mine, Keep On Dancing, Woman (In Love With You), Paradise. Then there’s Here I Sit, Paradise, Everything Under The Sun. All three are excellent, and they all emerged, and are now on the main compilations. Spector was so intent on keeping Ronnie to himself that they got recorded but not issued. Here I Sit was a Nilsson/Spector composition, as was Paradise, and I love the way Ronnie floats above the massive chorus in Here I Sit. This is a Great Wall of China sized wall of sound. It’s only issue is the repeated line Here I sit broken-hearted the start of a crude popular couplet often written on toilet walls in Britain in the 60s. Paradise is laden with sound effects.

I Can Hear Music in 1966 was another Spector/Greenwich/ Barry composition, much more famous in The Beach Boys hit version from 1969, revealing the Brian Wilson obsession with Phil Spector, though brother Carl produced this one. What is amusing is that Carl Wilson took the basis, layered it in Spector style and produced something that sounds more Spector than Spector (apart from the a cappella section). An interesting combination of the two can be found on YouTube: Ronnie Spector singing it with Brian Wilson and his band in 2000.

But Ronnie’s voice interprets the words rather than reciting them, and the horns are lovely. It was an unissued single, then on the Greatest Hits Volume II album before being issued on the B-side of the 1969 A&M single You Came, You Saw, You Conquered which was only Ronnie. At this point, Phil Spector had his logo overprinted on his A&M productions, and they didn’t record as normal at Gold Star, but at A&M. It wasn’t a happy session, as Ronnie says “These guys at A&M didn’t depend on Phil for their jobs and treated him like the nut that he was.” The release was a major flop. It’s on the compilations now. I always liked it, possibly because it was refreshing to get Ronnie Spector back after a long gap.

There were two singles on Buddah in 1973 and 1974, credited as Ronnie Spector & The Ronettes. Three of the four sides were written by Stan Vincent. The fourth was a re-recording of I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine, originally done in 1966 and left unreleased. The 1966 version is on many compilations. Ronnie says the other Buddah single, Lover Lover, was an awful song.

The Ronettes had been asked to reform for shows in 1974. Ronnie said that Estelle had become extremely overweight and could no longer do the moves, while Nedra was a born-again Christian, married to a minister, and refused. Chip Fields and Denise Edwards replaced them, for a tour with Billy Vera as bandleader. It foundered under Ronnie’s then alcoholism. She was divorced from Phil in 1974, and we get ready for a whole other Toppermost … the solo Ronnie Spector (see toppermost #205).

Ronnie Spector website

The Ronettes biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #199

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Feb 16, 2014

    Great list: It’s actually fantastic critical consensus came around to that girl group period (1957-1962, though of course it’s much longer than that). Spector was a troubled genius, and of course couldn’t handle his success – retiring at the age of 24 or so, and then years of unstable behaviour. (He pointed a gun at Johnny Ramone, for example). Listening to this out of that context though – if they don’t play this stuff in heaven, I don’t want to go.

  2. John Chamberlain
    Feb 16, 2014

    Thanks for the review, Peter. However, I must pick you up on your dismissive comment concerning gravy. You say that Ronnie sings “I’ll mashed potato but forget the gravy”. And that it doesn’t make sense.
    Gravy is the next level of excitement and I can but commend you to some bedtime reading with the lyrics of Dee Dee Sharp’s big hit.

  3. Peter Viney
    Feb 16, 2014

    You’re quite right, John. There must be a book somewhere on simile and metaphor in girl group songs. I kind of guessed ‘gravy’ but on the surface it might not be obvious! Dee Dee Sharp … now there’s another waiting. She did later stuff in the 70s too.

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