Adore You 'Til Eternity: Remembering Ronnie Spector

Adore You 'Til Eternity: Remembering Ronnie Spector

The gleaming raw diamond who survived to speak her truth...

The biggest voice and the highest hair; an inspirational survivor of abuse and a rose that shot through a crack in the Spanish Harlem sidewalk - Ronnie Spector has left us. After a short battle with cancer, she passed away on Wednesday, at 78.

She was the doo-wop girl who stepped out of a dream - all pencil skirt and hair teased to heaven, the gleaming raw diamond - and voice - that shone as the centrepiece of the incomparable, Ronettes.

Falling in love with the Frankie Lymon records that played through her grandmother’s radio, she was possessed by a drive to become part of that sound. So, she practised with her sister, the late Estelle Bennett and their cousin, Nedra Talley, every second they could: perfecting harmonies, playing bar mitzvahs and sockhops till the spotlight inevitably came calling. It all happened by chance, in the queue for the Peppermint Lounge.

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With hair whipped to the gods and ingenious matching outfits, the Cleopatra-eyed trio were mistaken by a cigar-toting promoter for the act who’d failed to show. He swept them in out of the cold and onto the stage, and lo: The Fabulous Ronettes were born. All night, they’d mash-potato and twist above the cream of New York society. And then, Ronnie, still in high school at the time, would get up for class the next day.

The Ronettes were tender yet tough, and proudly wore their Harlem hearts on their sleeves. A girl-gang with wriggle in their hips and a barb on the lips, Ronnie was their leader. In contrast with the prim, virginial mode of other girl groups breaking through at the time, they blazed a trail with their bold, unapologetic womanhood: “When we saw the Shirelles walk onstage with their wide party dresses, we went in the opposite direction and squeezed our bodies into the tightest skirts we could find”, she recalled. Their trademark warpaint came about competitions they held to pile on the most mascara.

This tightrope walk between romance and suggestion, attitude and innocence is what gave them their magic. Take early rarity ‘Good Girls’, released on Colpix Records (“I’m a good girl like my mama told me/Make me know your love is true and I will be good to you”) for a masterclass in toying suggestion. But Ronnie had a fine grasp of melodrama too - the poignant wail of ‘I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine’, or the cloud-busting tearjerker ‘Walking in the Rain’.

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Musically, she’s often defined by the Phil Spector years: a professional Golden Age and a personal nadir. Her inimitable voice - “no-one sounds like Ronnie”, he said– was the firework made to shoot through the orchestrated tidal wave of Spector’s Wall of Sound: it’s deeply felt, untrained raw talent the perfect counterpoint to those manically-managed layers of production.

Despite a courtship that resembled a bunting-string of screaming red flags (they recorded ‘Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love?’ in their early days together), he’d wooed her with the music: the key, he knew, to her heart. They ended up married, and she became a prisoner of his jealousy and rage.

“If I stayed in that house another day, I would leave in a straitjacket. That, or a solid gold coffin with a glass top,” she recalls in her memoir Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, or My Life as A Fabulous Ronette. Conspiring with her mother, she plotted escape from the controlling grip that saw her unable to speak, record or leave the house as she wished, forced to drive around with an inflatable man in the passenger’s seat of her car, fake a pregnancy and drink away her woes with a bottle hidden in a toilet cistern.

But he was not always to be a main character in her story, even if he remained a stain on it.

Like any woman who’s left an abusive relationship, she did what she needed to get free - even if she needed to walk barefoot and bereft, without a penny to her name. (He regularly stole her shoes when they fought, to try and prevent her from walking out.)

When the Ronettes split following their marriages, she had struggled to position herself or secure gigs in venues that previously would have clamoured for her. A 1973 reformation of the Ronettes (lacking both original members) flopped badly and her version of George Harrison’s ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ never took off. The divorce saw her cast out in the showbiz cold.

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Eventually, she found her tribe. Who was ready for her punk renaissance? 1980’s ‘Siren’ was her first shot at it, leading to a friendship with Joey Ramone that saw him produce 1990 E.P. ‘She Talks to Rainbows’, a covers record reimagining tracks by the Ramones, Brian Wilson and the notorious Heartbreaker Johnny Thunders. Thunders had seen her performing before, in gay venue the Continental Baths, sat front row and cried throughout.

Though she never again touched the commercial success of her 60s heyday, she’d found a synergy with the attitudes of the punks - the Ronettes were as streetwise as they come, after all. Her exquisite version of ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’ remains one of her finest solo moments.

Her career ran to Christmas revues and revival shows in the latter years, though she sold it all with the same spirit, heart and gusto that characterised her early career. She never lost her power as an icon. ‘Last of the Rock Stars’, released in 2006, featured guest spots from Patti Smith, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Keith Richards (a friendship that endured through early 60s post-gig Wimpy Burgers to their 60s in Connecticut). 

She was, of course, always a rock star in a pop star’s clothing. A patron-saint to the girls who didn’t identify with prom dresses and apron-strings, who flicked their wits and flexed a strong femininity. Beyond the beehive, wriggle dresses and the story, she’ll live on forever in song.

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Words: Marianne Gallagher // @SoLongMarianne

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