Ronnie Spector: Be My Baby singer of The Ronettes dies at 78

January 13, 2022

NEW YORK — Ronnie Spector, the trail-blazing lead singer of the 1960s all-girl group the Ronettes, has died.

The pop star found fame with hits such as Be My Baby, Baby I Love You and Walking in the Rain.

A statement from her family said she passed away at age 78 "after a brief battle with cancer".

"Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humour and a smile on her face," the statement said.

"She was filled with love and gratitude. Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her."

With their beehive hairstyles and liberal use of mascara, the multi-racial group caught the attention of record producers while performing in New York clubs.

In 1968, she wed Phil Spector, who pioneered the "wall of sound" recording technique. They were married for six years and adopted three children together before their divorce.

It was under him that the group recorded smash hits like Be My Baby, Walking In The Rain and Baby I Love You.

But he was violent and abusive. In her memoir, Spector wrote that Phil kept a coffin in the basement of their house to let the singer know that he would kill her if she left him. In 1972, she escaped their house barefoot.

The Ronettes' bad-girl personas are credited with paving the way for future female musical artists.

"We weren't afraid to be hot. That was our gimmick," Spector wrote in her memoir in 2004, titled Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness.

"When we saw The Shirelles walk on stage with their wide party dresses, we went in the opposite direction and squeezed our bodies into the tightest skirts we could find. Then we'd get out on stage and hike them up to show our legs even more."

But it wasn't just their outfits. Spector's voice - full of yearning, tenderness and toughness - was a revelation, with a street-wise spirit other girl groups lacked.

The huge success of Be My Baby stopped other musicians in their tracks.

"I was driving [the first time I heard it], and I had to pull over to the side of the road - it blew my mind," said the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson in 2013.

"I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song, and I never did. I've stopped trying. It's the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one."

The group's only album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, was released in 1964 by Philles Records.

It contained standards like Chapel of Love, I Wonder and a cover of Ray Charles' What'd I Say; and five of its 12 songs have made it to the US Billboard charts.

Be My Baby also made the UK's top five, and Spector's vocal style influenced everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Beatles. The latter hand-picked The Ronettes to join their US tour in 1966 but a jealous Phil Spector wouldn't let Ronnie go, and the band played the dates without her.

After escaping her abusive marriage, the singer recorded a cover of Billy Joel's Say Goodbye to Hollywood with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band; and was introduced to a new generation of fans when she contributed vocals to Eddie Money's Take Me Home Tonight in 1986.

Be My Baby was also used in the opening sequence of films Dirty Dancing and Martin Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets; and The Ronettes were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Spector's final record was 2016's English Heart, in which she covered classics by her 1960s contemporaries, including The Kinks' Tired Of Waiting and Nina Simone's Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.

"Every song is a little piece of my life," she said in 2007. "I'm just a girl from the ghetto who wanted to sing."

Tributes to the star have flooded in since her death was announced on Wednesday night.

"She had the most unique voice," said her friend and Crystals singer, La La Brooks.

"Fans should know, when Ronnie hit the stage, she was the most happiest."

"I loved her voice so much and she was a very special person and a dear friend," wrote Brian Wilson on Twitter. "This just breaks my heart. Ronnie's music and spirit will live forever."

Joan Jett said: "She was the sweetest person you could ever know. And her mark on rock and roll is indelible."

"This totally blows," said Go-Go's bassist Kathy Valentine. "Thank you for the music, for being so freaking cool."

Spector is survived by her second husband and manager, Jonathan Greenfield, and two sons.

January 13, 2022
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