The Being of Bayyaybee
By Lenny Kaye

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2000


"You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" is one of Johnny Thunder's most beloved songs, tinctured with nostalgia just out of grasp and the bittersweet intangibles and tangibles of life's fleeting fancy. Listening to Ronnie Spector sing this paean to past as elusive present at the Life disco in New York City for a recent Christmas show—she of the sleigh-belled Phil Spector Christmas album on which she saw Mommy kissing Santa Clauauauaus—was the whammy of the double pop icon, singer and song. Knowing Keith Richards would be coming out to play Chuck Berry's greatest licks in tandem with Ronnie, with Joey Ramone guesting and somewhere in there Tom Clark and myself doo-wopping a medley of holiday tunes by the Castelles and Sonny Til and the Orioles, only added to the occasion. I began to feel the tectonic-plate reverberations of a life lived in pop music.

Ronnie's iconic look and voice are hers, simply. Or, as Joey Ramone puts it, "Ronnie's just Ronnie." Her legendary stardust stare is enshrined on the cover of her new She Talks to Rainbows ep (released on the Kill Rock Stars label, no less), where her black-encircled eyes tell her sultry tale. These windows to the soul, dark and direct and framed like a renaissance artwork in their brushed liner, straddle the twilight zone between sensuality and innocence, able to go either way. Both, in Ronnie's case.

Ronnie grew up as Veronica Bennett on the Upper-Upper West Side, a sliver of Manhattan blocks just under Washington Heights that was then, and still is, in ethnic flux. The flow of the Hudson a few short blocks away gave the neighborhood a port feel, and the family settled at 405 West 149th Street, near St. Nicholas Avenue. The tempo in the air was Afro-Spanish, and Ronnie herself was an acknowledged half-breed, black and white intermingled, a mix heightened by the compressed nature of New York's neighborhoods, where the musical bleed was united by the weekly charts of New York's AM hit radio: the WABC All-Americans, the WMCA good guys and especially Murray the K of WINS, who played tunes for "submarine race-watchers" and ran shows at the Brooklyn Fox each holiday season. He was New York's most revered disc jockey.

Ronnie lived in a small apartment with her folks and sister Estelle, who was two years older. A cousin, Nedra, was close by, and the trio hung out together, adopting the beehive hair and Cleopatra eye make-up that defined au-courant-a-go-go plumage, riding the Seventh Avenue subway into midtown to do the twist. The sixties had just begun. All three were waiting in line to get into the Peppermint Lounge on West 45th Street in 1962 when the manager, thinking they were the onstage dancing group, pulled them out and up to the stage alongside Joey Dee and his Starliters. Passed the microphone during "What'd I Say," Ronnie opened her mouth. A bird of paradise sprang out.

Well, maybe it was a bit more calculated than that. The pre-Ronettes had entertained thoughts of being singers, and the family was musical; an assortment of cousins (including Ronnie) even traipsed to the nearby Apollo Theater to sing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" one amateur night. Ronnie loved Frankie Lymon's voice, his cusp of child-to-adult, his perfect diction and his dead-eye aim on the note, striking it straight on and then shaking it with vibrato.

The girls enrolled with a vocal coach in Broadway's legendary Brill Building, and one day, while sipping Cokes at the downstairs coffee shop, were approached by an agent named Phil Halikus, who said he could find them work. He connected them with Colpix producer Stu Jacobs (responsible for the Marcels' version of "Blue Moon"), who, over the spring of 1962, recorded a dozen sides. The released singles—the best of which is the delightful "What's So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen"—were somewhat anonymous, reflecting the girls' inexperience and Jacobs' attempt to figure them out. Their chosen name, Ronnie and the Relatives, offered few of the come-hither qualities that would later define them.

But Ronnie was determined to be noticed, and once the Lounge had taken note of the sensation the girls had caused in their impromptu performance, they became the Peppermint Twisters, singing a couple of songs with the band and spending the rest of the evening dancing atop the "rails" shaking their "tails." They were in show business, ten bucks a night and all the dreams they could muster.

The singles released by Colpix disappeared into the black hole of nowheresville, and the girls were further disheartened by the director of Hey, Let's Twist, a bandwagon movie shot at the Lounge, refusing to let them be in the film because they were neither black nor white.

Ironically, this cross-polarization would prove the future Ronettes' strongest cultural card, a racial tension at the core of the music known as rock and roll. When blended together in just the right alchemy, it can transmute all elements into gold. The first to recognize their uniqueness was Murray the K, who visited the opening of the Florida branch of the Peppermint Lounge and invited them back to New York to be his dancing girls at the Brooklyn Fox, not realizing they were the hometown transistors to his transmitter. He only knew they looked like the music he played.

The Fox was home to a dozen acts each Christmas, Easter and Labor Day, allotted a song or two or three, depending on how many hits you had spinning around the charts, four or five or six times a day, with the downtime spent hanging out backstage with the peers of your musical moment. Little Anthony, the Shirelles, Dusty Springfield, the Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye all brushed shoulders along Flatbush Avenue. The Ronettes' job was to keep the tail feathers flying around Murray, sing the occasional song and wonder why they were twelfth on the bill and their records weren't going anywhere while their slit skirts and slit eyes were making the crowd go wild.

Many can shimmy; few can sing. Adopting the look of Spanish calle culture kept their catcall whistle-factor high, but eccentric legendary producer Phil Spector was not one to be attracted by a mere toss of the hip. He made records, sound pictures that created their own cinerama visuals; no one could ever live up to their widescreen grandeur.

That is, until he heard Ronnie sing. She was the picture he hung on his epic wall-of-sound; the records they made together represent an apex of Spector's art and the Girl Group as it came to be well-beloved in the mid-sixties. The hits—"Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You," "Walkin' in the Rain," "The Best Part Of Breaking Up"—sing for themselves. Even in Spector's dense fog of heightened instrument overlay and indelible hook, Ronnie (and her Ronettes—this was a trinity, with the thin angularism of Nedra balanced by the curvaceous badder-girl Estelle) stepped out from the swirling production and proclaimed herself incarnate. Tough but fragile, as able to break your heart as bust your head. "Good-bad, but not evil," as the Shangri-Las would put it, playing the Rolling Stones to the Ronettes' Beatles, though those categories had yet to be invented. In the early sixties, it was the Fab Four who threw a party to celebrate the Ronettes' first English tour, and Keith Richards who slept on her living room floor when the Stones initially visited America.

The Girl Group as a phenomenon reasserts itself at regular intervals. Perhaps it never goes away, just taking on the accessories of the present, earrings to piercings with a nod to the synchronized dance step. Occasionally a golden era will result, when a style crystallizes ("Da Doo Ron Ron!") and pop music finds its most seductive silhouettes-for-this-season draping the female voice, the sashay and song styling and the polished fingernails of production raking themselves down your back. I think of this whenever I hear Destiny's Child negotiating the staggered rhythms of "Bills," or So Plush's "Damn (Should've Treated U Right)," or Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody." I think of this when I hear the Ronettes.

The only thing Phil Spector could do was marry Ronnie. That he proceeded to try to cage the very thing which had fascinated him so, the wild burst of freedom Ronnie unleashed in her voice, is probably the same impulse that made him a great artist in the first place: all visionaries wish to grab a grand emotion out of the air and capture it, encase it behind the bars of a work-in-progress. There's an element of big-game hunting, of tracking the exquisite concept and bringing it back alive, trapped in your own personal trophy den, in the shape of a novel, or record, a movie or this article. But you have an obligation to let your subject find their way within your work; otherwise, there results a battle of will and expectation, and Spector, the control aficionado, had no compunctions about sacrificing his work in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. In the end, it would topple the edifice of his production empire, leading to studio skirmishes with artists—Dion, the Ramones, Leonard Cohen—and records that could never be topped. Instead, they toppled, like his meisterwork of "River Deep Mountain High," featuring Ike and Tina Turner. Eventually, as the sixties closed, he turned inside himself, to his cloistered family.

Ronnie was trapped with Spector. Was this what "Be My Baby"—"my one and only baby"—was about? Doors locked from the inside, bodyguards making sure she never left the grounds of a Beverly Hills mansion, her career cut off just as it was cresting?

Finally, Ronnie escaped. In 1972, she left him and went off to test the waters on her own. Nedra and Estelle were retired; it was up to her now. "I wish I didn't love it so much," says Ronnie wistfully, her voice still retaining some of the spanglish inflection of her old stomping grounds. "It would make it all easier. I say to myself, Ronnie, you've got kids now, you're living in Connecticut, why not just hang up your rock and roll shoes? But I can't. It's those three little words. I love it."

And they love her, a new generation whose sense of the Ronettes has been passed along like oral folk tradition, crowding the front of stages from Tokyo to arcane clubs like New York's Coney Island High. When she brings up Joey Ramone to duet with her on "Bye Bye Baby," their voices meld to bridge any youth-cult gap.

If she feels at home in the music of today—listening to Ricky Martin reminds her of the days when she used to cha-cha and mambo at the Palladium with her best teen-girlfriend, Mildred Rodriguez—she's also at home with herself. "I have a real life now," she says, "and my voice is better than ever. It's my turn now."

It hasn't been easy, what with a fourteen-year ongoing legal battle with Spector denying her access to royalties and even excising her appearances from the classic TNT Show and compilations of old Shindig and Hullaballoo television programs. But she's nothing if not a survivor, and she has the vocal cords to prove it. "I sing all the songs in the same key," she says proudly, and it's up to me to add that it's also with the same emotional commitment and onstage joy.

Her solo career has shown a remarkably open mind and range of collaborators, all anxious to pay homage to the girl they fell in love with in their formative years. In the mid-seventies she worked with Miami Steve Van Zandt and the E Street Band, recording Bruce Springsteen's "You Mean So Much to Me" and Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood." Ten years later, she was riding atop the charts with Eddie Money and "Take Me Home Tonight." She has made records with Genya Raven and Paul Schaffer, and today, produced by Joey and Daniel Rey, her new ep shows that though the settings may change, one thing remains constant. That voice.

It all begins there, a vibration from deep in her throat and the push of air. One time I had the opportunity to hear a pre-mixed tape from a Spector session, an early version of "Walking in the Rain" with the background vocals isolated, Ronnie and her -ettes in a small sound booth, joined by Cher (then an up-and-coming singer yet to click with Sonny) and perhaps the Blossoming Darlene Love. No studio trickery; the voices glow with burnished harmonic splendor.

"She has so much love and passion in her voice," says Joey Ramone. "She's a free spirit."

Vulnerability and strength are the attracting opposites of Ronnie's appeal. When I first interviewed her, in the early seventies, when she was fresh from breaking away from Spector, she brought her mother to the interview, and the very sweetness of this gesture won my heart. The remembrance seems especially poignant in the light of her losing her mom a year ago, but Ronnie has always made no pretense about wearing her beating heart on her silken sleeve.

She's no diva. She hates the term, connoting as it does haughtiness and a sense of queenly entitlement that seems out of place with her earthy splendor. It's about "having fun, sweat, sex, tears and energy." "Either you got it or you don't," she winks, and once the gift is given and thankfully received, it is your duty to give it back to the people who lend their ears to you.