As the pop culture icons of the ‘50s and ‘60s enter their 70s and 80s, it’s inevitable that we’ve started losing them. I’ve had to write a number of obituaries recently, and here’s another particularly tough one: Rock Hall of Famer and one of the great voices of girl group pop/rock, Ronnie Spector, has died after a battle with cancer at 78.
Her family issued a statement reading, “Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face. 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.” Tributes are flooding Twitter from countless musicians, from Joan Jett to Brian Wilson (who actually wrote the Beach Boys classic “Don’t Worry Baby” for her) to La La Brooks of the Crystals, who remembered her as “so sweet…a hoot, like a firecracker” who had “the most unique voice” and was at her happiest on stage.
Born Veronica Bennett, she was performing with her sister (she said they purposely played up their flirty sex appeal, getting longer eyelashes every time it worked) when they auditioned for megaproducer/homicidal nutjob Phil Spector, who immediately shouted, “That’s the voice I’ve been looking for!” He created the Ronettes to showcase her, and they quickly scored a string of hits that are still heard today on radio, TV and films, including “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain” and “Baby I Love You.”
Ronnie had much in common with Tina Turner: a powerful, sexy voice that could cut through Spector’s Wall of Sound, an overtly sexy image, an ‘80s career revival and a marriage to an abusive, manipulative husband. Ronnie married Spector, and he kept her a virtual prisoner in his house, driving her to alcoholism before her mother forcibly rescued her from his home, a harrowing experience she described in her 1990 memoir, “Be My Baby.”
Sadly, unlike Tina, Ronnie’s ‘80s revival was mostly limited to guest appearances on her admirer’s records like the Eddie Money classic, “Take Me Home Tonight,” since radio wouldn’t play her solo releases. The only silver lining is that that means there are a lot of great records that most people have yet to hear. Many involve big name stars who greatly admired her, like the 1980s LPs “Siren” (with its great cover) and “Unfinished Business;” the 1990 EP co-produced by Joey Ramone, “She Talks to Rainbows;” the 2006 EP of Marshall Crenshaw songs, “Something’s Gonna Happen;” and the 2016 album of British Invasion hits, “English Heart.”
Rolling Stone compiled a good playlist of 15 essential tracks, ranging from the biggest hits to terrific lesser-known titles, like her 1977 single of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (which was inspired by “Be My Baby”) with the E Street Band.
And my favorite must-hear ‘80s song is her duet on “You Mean So Much To Me, Baby” with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. If you love great ‘60s-style, horn-drenched, soulful Jersey rock songs like those that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cover, only with better vocals and no political lectures, this is a slice of musical Heaven.
Finally, someone put together a compilation of her interviews and performances on David Letterman’s show from the 1980s through 2010. Great quote: in a joint appearance, Eddie Money said he wanted her for “Take Me Home Tonight,” but figured she was unavailable (Ronnie snorts at that!). But he called her and asked, “What are you doing?” She replied, “The dishes.”
Watch and be reminded of what great pop singing with no need for AutoTune sounds like. RIP, Ronnie.