No girl group set male hearts pounding in quite the way The Ronettes did. Most female aggregations, from The Bonnie Sisters, The Andrews Sisters, and The Chantels to The Angels, The Chiffons, and The Shirelles presented the picture of innocence. Not so for the group that many consider the first bad girls of rock ‘n’ roll. Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett, her sister Estelle, and their cousin Nedra Talley grew up in New York City’s Washington Heights listening to rock and pop, especially fancying Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers (Ronnie) and Rosemary Clooney (Nedra).
On those occasions, starting in 1959, when the young girls weren’t being little ladies, their grandmother would sequester the trio in a room for an indefinite period and encourage the threesome to harmonize. They became surprisingly proficient on songs such as “Red Red Robin” and “Goodnight Sweetheart.”
The girls, age 13 to 16, called themselves The Darling Sisters and took their act – with grandma’s encouragement – to the Apollo Theatre amateur night contest. When they won, grandma packed them off for singing lessons. Phillip Halikus heard the look-alike vocalists, saw their potential and became their manager. He started out by arranging appearances at hops and charity shows.
On a fateful night in 1961, the girls, dressed in tight skirts and with their hair piled high, stood in line at Joey Dee’s Peppermint Lounge on New York’s 45th Street. The manager mistook them for a singing trio that hadn’t arrived, and the three were whisked inside. Ushered onstage, the trio took advantage of the moment, with Ronnie belting out a stimulating version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” even using the choreography they had been working on. The girls took the club by storm and were signed to appear regularly for the sum of $10 a night.
The Darling Sisters were also booked to perform at the Miami Peppermint Lounge. They were spotted there by New York disc jockey Murray Kaufman, who converted the trio into Murray The K’s dancing girls for his Brooklyn Fox shows. They also did duty with Clay Cole’s “Twist-A-Rama” tour, and when those tough-looking young girls starting wiggling and singing onstage, pandemonium broke loose even before they had a record.
Meanwhile, Phillip Halikus set up their first recordings through Stu Phillips at Colpix Records. Colpix renamed the girls Ronnie And The Relatives and issued their first single in the summer of 1961, an up-tempo piece titled “I Want A Boy.”
Their next single, “I’m On A Wagon,” listed the girls as The Ronettes. Around this time they recorded an album’s worth of material for Colpix/May, but it went unreleased until their glory days.
In early 1961 they recorded a good Exciters-styled teen rocker called “Good Girls,” arranged by Bert Keyes, which showed continued recording maturity and a developing sound.
In between their other activities, the girls found themselves working in the Joey Dee Revue, as well; as recording with them.
At this juncture two conflicting stories emerge. One has it that Estelle, while dialing a phone number for confirmation of a recording session, dialed the wrong number and wound up talking to producer Phil Spector. One thing led to another and he supposedly asked the group to demo for him. After hearing them, he went immediately to thoughts of producing a finished Ronettes record.
The other, less romantic, version is that 16 magazine staffer Georgia Winters introduced Spector to the girls when he was in New York talent hunting. Whichever version is true, Spector was taken with Ronnie’s hard-but-sweet sound and saw the “bad girls” in bouffants that had it’s unique image. Up to that time, girl groups rarely had an identity or even their pictures on the sleeves of their 45s. That certainly changed with The Ronettes.
Their first single on Spector and Lester Sill’s new Philles label in July 1963 is a classic, the Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry/Phil Spector-penned collage of castanets, maracas, strings and Hal Blaine drumwork titled “Be My Baby.” Ronnie’s distinctive, seductive vocal delivery, along with her now-legendary “who-oh-oh-oh,” drove teen boys wild, while Spector’s production drove the single to chart success. The July review in Billboard stated, “This is the best record The Ronettes ever made, and more than that, it’s one of the strongest records of the week. It was made by Phil Spector, and he has transformed the gals into a sock singing group who handle this dramatic piece of material with flair. Backing has a stunning, rolling rock sound that’s bound to make the disc score with the kids.”
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys went further. He called it “the most perfect pop record of all time.”
By October 12, 1963, it was at #2, denied the top spot by Jimmy Gilmore’s “Sugar Shack.” “Be My Baby” became an international hit, reaching #4 in England.
In November, earth-shaking hand claps, thousand-pound drums, and Leon Russell’s insistent piano playing introduced the most powerful wall-of-sound record yet – “Baby I Love You.” If “Be My Baby” was a musical storm, “Baby I Love You” was a symphonic hurricane. The Ronettes held their own in a sea of orchestration, but not with out some support: Spector added the backing voices of Darlene Love And The Blossoms and Cher, overdubbing them until he had 20 to 25 voices balancing out the dense instrumental tracks. “Baby I Love You” charted Dec. 21, 1963, but only reached #24, although the British took it to #11.
In November The Ronettes joined Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars and then returned to New York to participate in one of the most memorable Christmas records ever made, Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You. Of the 12 seasonal songs, The Ronettes recorded “Sleigh Ride,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa,” and “Frosty The Snowman” – all in true “Be My Baby” style. The LP’s climb to greatness was halted by the assassination and death of President Kennedy.
On the wings of two solid U.K. hits, the group flew to Britain in February 1964 and toured with The Rolling Stones. While there, they also met the newest sensations, The Beatles. They were the first girl group to produce anything resembling hysteria among audiences; the headlines in the British press read, “Girls scream at Stones, boys at Ronettes.”
That same month they released their third wall-of-sounder, “The Best Part Of Breaking Up.” It reached #39 in the U.S. and #43 in England before Spector returned to high-powered orchestral teen rock with “Do I Love You,” a Vinnie Poncia/Pete Androli/Spector masterpiece that had one of the most power-driven intros ever recorded. Despite its U.S. peak at only #34 and British high of #35, “Do I Love You” became known as one of their best recordings.
When The Ronettes returned to the U.S., The Beatles were right behind them. Murray The K, who prided himself on being the self-proclaimed fifth Beatle, met them because of The Ronettes. Murray called the girls and asked to meet the mop-tops, so The Ronettes brought the starstruck DJ along with them to the group’s hotel. Also during 1964, Spector apparently test-marketed Ronnie as a solo act, issuing two singles under the name Veronica on his Phil Spector label. The first was a remake of The Students’ ballad classic “I’m So Young,” and the second was a Barry/Greenwich/Spector composition, “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love,” but pulled them from the marketplace almost immediately after its release.
In November 1964 the group released “Walking In The Rain,” their most dramatic ballad. The Mann/Weil/Spector-penned record (done in one vocal take by Ronnie) reached #23 and won a Grammy Award for Best Sound Effects – the only Grammy Spector ever received.
Their next two singles, “Born To Be Together” (#52) and “Is This What I Get For Loving You” (#75), were worthy of greater response than they received back in 1965. Their LP Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica reached only #96, though cut for cut it was the best Philles album.
Spector’s practice was to put an instrumental on the B-side of The Ronettes’ singles (as he had done with earlier Philles acts) to keep the disk jockeys from flipping the record and taking attention away from his “push” side. Titles such as “Bee Bee And Su Su” (the names of Ronnie’s and Nedra’s moms) and “Chubby Danny D.” (the name of some long-since-forgotten promo man) graced those early B sides. But from the single “Is This What I Get” forward, an actual Ronettes recording was paired with the A side. In this case it was “Oh I Love You,” which was the last side Spector produced with The Ronettes before he married Ronnie in 1968.
Prior to that, The Ronettes (minus Ronnie, who stayed behind with Phil), with another cousin named Elaine, toured the U.S. with The Beatles who personally requested the group open for their final tour..
In September 1966, Jeff Barry was given the reins for The Ronettes’ only non-
Spector produced single on Philles (and their last Philles 45), “I Can Hear Music” (#100). The song was later covered by The Beach Boys (1969, #24).
By the end of 1966, The Ronettes had disbanded. Nedra married WINS program director Scott Ross and Estelle married Joe Dong. Ronnie, forced into retirement by Spector, managed to emerge with an occasional single such as “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered,” a Toni Wine/Irwine Levine composition. It was released on Spector/A&M in 1969 with the backing of studio singers under the name of “The Ronettes Featuring The Voice Of Veronica,” and produced by Spector.
In 1971, Ronnie recorded “Try Some, Buy Some” for The Beatles’ Apple label. Written by and produced former Beatles George Harrison, it peaked at #77 in the spring of 1971.
In 1973, her marriage with Spector almost at an end, Ronnie returned to performing and appeared as Ronnie And The Ronettes at Richard Nader’s “Rock And Roll Revival” at New York’s Madison Square Garden with a new female trio that included Denise Edwards and Chip Fields.
In the fall of ’73, Stan Vincent produced two singles of the new Ronettes for Buddah Records; “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” was a re-recording of a song the original Ronettes recorded for Spector in 1965 (and Ronnie’s favorite). Spector didn’t release it until his 1976 Rare Masters II LP came out in the U.K.
In 1976 Ronnie was backed up by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at his New York Palladium performance. (Springsteen acknowledged her and The Ronettes as an influence on his music.) This led to E Street Band member Miami Steve Van Zant producing a 1977 single with Ronnie Spector And The E Street Band, titled “Say Goodbye To Hollywood.” The Billy Joel-penned powerhouse (Joel was also heavily influenced by Ronnie and company) rocked with Ronnie’s most inspired vocals since the early Spector days. It never charted.
In 1978 Ronnie tried again with an Australian song called “It’s A Heartache,” produced by Kyle Lehning and Steve Popovich. The record was beaten to the charts by Bonnie Tyler’s version (#3).
In 1986 she re-emerged in the song “Take Me Home Tonight” by Eddie Money, which put her back in the spotlight at #4. In 1992, Ronnie recorded a track for the multi platinum top 10 album “A Very Special Christmas 2”
In 1999, Ronnie released the critically acclaimed E.P. “She Talks To Rainbows” co-produced by Joey Ramone.
While The Ronettes were unique musically, they were also the first really seductive girl group. Others before them seemed to be singing to their friends about the boys they desired (“Maybe,” The Chantels; “I Met Him On Sunday,” The Shirelles; “He’s So Fine,” The Chiffons). The Ronettes, on the other hand, sang directly to the boys (“Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You”). Performer-to-audience relations have never been the same since.
– “American Singing Groups” By Jay Warner