There have been at least two distinct phases of Ronnie Spector’s career in music. In the early to mid-1960s, Veronica Bennett, as she was known at the time, fronted New York City girl-group trio The Ronettes and belted out sugary pop hits such as “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You.” In 1967, though, the classic lineup of The Ronettes — which included Ronnie’s sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley — broke up. After Ronnie married the band’s notoriously controlling producer, Phil Spector, the following year, the singer largely disappeared from public view for much of the next decade.
It turned that her husband kept her locked up as a virtual prisoner in their house, as the singer recounted in her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness. At the time, her husband was still a respected producer, recording solo albums for Ronnie’s former Beatles tourmates George Harrison and John Lennon. These days, the producer’s reputation isn’t quite as stellar; Phil Spector is currently in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of actor Lana Clarkson at his Alhambra residence in 2003.
Even though Ronnie Spector left her marriage with Phil Spector in 1972, it took her a long time to reinvent herself as a solo singer, a process that moved in fits and starts. In 1980, she debuted her first solo album, Siren, which was produced by the provocative Genya Raven and featured a hard-rock version of The Ramones’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.” (Coincidently, that same year The Ramones issued the mediocre End of the Century, in which the punk legends’ trademark buzz-saw sound was watered down by producer Phil Spector in an unsuccessful bid for mainstream popularity.)
Ronnie Spector received unexpected attention in 1986 when she was the guest vocalist on Eddie Money’s hit single “Take Me Home Tonight.” She released another solo record in 1987, the mostly unremarkable Unfinished Business, but Spector started to turn heads a decade later with She Talks to Rainbows, a 1999 EP co-produced by Joey Ramone and Daniel Rey that was sparked by Ronnie’s thrilling interpretations of songs by The Beach Boys, Johnny Thunders and Joey Ramone.
In more recent years, Spector has looked back on her adventurous life with the revue Voice of the Beehive, mixing songs from her back catalog with stories about her encounters with various Rolling Stones and Beatles, as well as chilling glimpses of her time with Phil Spector. In this email interview, she touched on a few fascinating subjects in advance of her concerts in Southern California this week.
L.A. WEEKLY: It is unusual for singers from the 1960s and classic-rock eras to even acknowledge punk-rock musicians, even though so many punks were openly influenced by early rock & roll. But you have covered songs by Johnny Thunders and worked with Joey Ramone. How did you first encounter musicians from the punk scene, and how is it that you were more open-minded about their music than many of your peers?
RONNIE SPECTOR: They all came to my show and gave me a lot of love, lots of respect. Johnny Thunders came to see me at the Continental Baths, the gay club, and he just cried through my entire performance. Joey Ramone used to come see me perform, and we became good friends and of course collaborated together. I remember Patti Smith calling me onstage at CBGB, “I hear Ronnie Spector is in the house; she better get her ass up here and sing!” And I did! The Clash came to my show. They just showed up; I didn’t invite them. I didn’t go looking for anyone, but in the ’70s the scene was happening downtown. As an artist, sometimes you need to be picked up, feel a little love, and at that time, the punks did that for me. The Ronettes’ style came from the streets, and I’m still about attitude and rock & roll, and I think that’s what we shared.
Can you tell us more about Joey Ramone, not just what it was like working with him but also what his personality was like?
Joey was always there when I needed him. He even traveled out of the country to make an appearance with me in London when he had no business traveling, but that was Joey. He pushed me and helped me realize it’s all about the music, and that means not letting all the other junk in your life get in the way. He was the most unselfish artist I knew. His personality — well, he was an artist, and artists are sensitive people; Joey was no different. He was a pure soul, shy, innocent, in love with the music, and we both believed a song never needed to drag on; two minutes was plenty!
How was it that your 1999 EP, She Talks to Rainbows, ended up on an underground-music label like Kill Rock Stars?
I recorded that with Daniel Rey and Joey Ramone, and we licensed it to Creation Records in the U.K. We thought Kill Rock Stars was the right place for it, or my manager thought so. Who remembers? It just happened, and it probably had something to do with it being an EP at that time.
How did you first come across Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”? That is such a quintessentially beautiful and tragic New York ballad, and your version is one of the most affecting of all the numerous remakes.
Joey, Daniel and I were sitting around at Joey’s apartment listening to songs. When I heard that song, I said, “We’re going to record that one.” And we got really hyped up right on the spot. Ya know, we just got back from a tour in Spain last month, and every night the kids were going nuts when we played that song.
What was it like recording your first fully autonomous solo album, The Last of the Rock Stars (2006), which featured guest appearances not only by early peers like Keith Richards but also more modern musicians such as Patti Smith, Nick Zinner and The Dead Weather?
That was wonderful, I got to do whatever I wanted to do. Having Patti come in was a blast. I was going to do the bridge with her, but I just loved how she sounded, so I said, “Take me out of there.” It was so much fun, and working with old friends like Keith was great. And I learned something doing it. I’m really happy I had that chance. I never had that kind of freedom before; really was a great experience for me. I probably should have done another one, but it’s too late now!
Did you feel any affinity with other girl groups of the 1960s, such as Mary Weiss and the Shangri-Las? Were you aware of more obscure all-female 1960s bands such as The Luv’d Ones or Ace of Cups?
There is a bond that we do have; it’s sort of unspoken, but it’s a fraternity. When I did my Beehive show, Lesley Gore came backstage, and that meant a lot to me ’cause she knew what it was like for a girl in the music business back then. When Mary Weiss came backstage, we were cool, talked about Murray the K. Last time I saw Diana Ross, it was the same thing, a special understanding of where we came from. I do love the girl groups, and any chance I get to represent them, I take it seriously.
So many recent garage-rock and pop performers, from The Detroit Cobras to Amy Winehouse, have drawn inspiration from bands like The Ronettes. How does it feel to hear your music reinvented by more modern performers or cited as an influence by such groups?
Of course it’s a huge compliment, I appreciate it, but I don’t pay too much attention to it. I don’t take myself too seriously except when I am onstage.
And have you ever wanted to collaborate or perform with the numerous musicians who have cited you as an influence? Are there any other current musicians you would like to work with?
I’ve collaborated with a few of them, and I’m always open for the possibility of doing another collaboration; it would just need to be the right song, producer and artist.
In 2011, your music came full circle in a sense when you covered Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” Did you ever meet her or get a chance to compare notes with her?
I recorded “Back to Black” a few years before Amy passed, and although we never met, she did come to one of my shows in London. Her mom and I have become good friends, and I get together with her every time I am in the U.K.
What drew you to her music and this song in particular?
I loved the lyrics to “Rehab,” and, of course, Amy’s voice. She was an original, and different.
Last year, you released “Love Power,” the first new recording under the name The Ronettes in decades. What was the inspiration for that song, and what was it like working as a Ronette again?
The inspiration was all the craziness that was going on at the time. All of a sudden, it felt like the country was splitting apart, so I thought we really needed love. The Ronettes always sang about love, and I really felt at that moment we desperately needed love. So why not put some love out there? Really, that’s all I can do as an artist.
What new music are you working on?
I recorded a couple of songs with Linda Perry recently, and, other than that, [I’m] busy touring and trying to do my part to help keep rock & roll alive for just a little bit longer.
As a native of Spanish Harlem, you’ve had a long love affair with New York City as your hometown. Can you tell us what it was like being from New York during such a rich cultural era, and does the city still inspire you?
Music was pouring out of the apartment windows; the energy, wow, walking by Frankie Lymon’s stoop and hoping to catch a glimpse of him! Dancing to Tito Puente at the club. Then the Peppermint Lounge, getting mistaken for the house dancers, dancing on the rails at night and looking out and seeing all the stars I saw on the late show, plus Judy Garland and Jackie O. twisting the night away. Then taking the subway home and getting up in the morning to go to high school. At school, all us biracial girls, we’d meet on the corner; we had our own little girl group. I could go on and on about growing up in New York — it had everything you could want! After school, going to my mom’s job, she worked next door to the Apollo, and I looked out the window of the luncheonette where she worked and would see the lines around the block at the Apollo, and I’d think to myself, “One day, I’ll have lines around the block too!”
You lived in Beverly Hills for several years during your marriage to Phil Spector, and Los Angeles has been a key place for you at various moments in your career. What are your thoughts about this city and your relationship to it?
My thought is, “Thank God, I don’t live here. I hate the traffic!”
What are some of your better memories of this city, either from living here or from past concerts you’ve performed in the Southern California area?
The one thing I always remember, the first time I ever came to L.A. in my life was to record, and I’m in Gold Star Studios, and the great drummer Earl Palmer came up to me after and said, “You’re going to be the next Billie Holiday.”
Ronnie Spector & the Ronettes perform at the Canyon Agoura Hills, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills; Thu., Aug. 2, 8 p.m.; $28-$48. (818) 879-5016. Also at the Canyon Santa Clarita, 24201 Valencia Blvd., #1351, Santa Clarita; Fri., Aug. 3, 9 p.m.; $28-$48. (818) 879-5016. Also at the Rose, 245 E. Green St., Pasadena; Sat., Aug. 4, 9 p.m.; $28-$48. (888) 645-5006, wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com.