‘In the Sixties, girls in music just did as they were told’

Ronnie Spector. Photo: PA Photo/Handout.
Ronnie Spector. Photo: PA Photo/Handout.

Ronnie Spector hasn’t lived in New York for more than 20 years now. Not that you can tell from her accent; the second she begins talking, I’m struck by her thick Harlem drawl.

“I was born and raised in Harlem, but when I had kids, I wanted to leave for the country,” she says. “I thought, ‘I gotta get out of the city’ - it was killin’ me. Get me some oxygen, keep my voice,” she goes on. Spector may speak like a tough wise guy, but her singing voice is anything but.

As plain old Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Bennett, she, her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley had sung together for years, and earned a decent local following as The Darling Sisters, later Ronnie And The Relatives, before finding fame as The Ronettes.

It happened when, after a few flop releases, in 1963, they were signed to producer Phil Spector’s Philles Records.

Shortly after, armed with signature beehive hairdos and some of the decade’s best songs, they became a phenomenon, pioneering what we’ve come to know as the ‘girl group’ sound, thanks in no small part to Phil’s trademark ‘Wall of Sound’ recordings, and Ronnie’s breathtaking voice.

The tracklisting of their one and only album, Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes... Featuring Veronica, reads like a greatest hits. Do I Love You?, Breakin’ Up, Baby I Love You, Walking In The Rain and, perhaps the greatest single of all time, Be My Baby.

No surprise, given the way British music fans lapped up what was coming out of the US, The Ronettes were superstars in the UK, given a heroes’ welcome when they arrived here in 1964.

“That was when we knew we were famous,” recalls Ronnie, who became Ronnie Spector when she married Phil in 1968 (he, of course, is now serving a life sentence for second degree murder).

Their six-year union is off limits today - she says she’s spoken about him plenty in the past, and it’s understandable she doesn’t really want to dwell on a marriage during which she “cried every night”.

While Phil’s songs and production did help make the band, his behaviour ended Ronnie’s career for a time, and sapped her spirit. She didn’t perform live from the day they were married, instead sending out the other two members of the group with another singer to take Ronnie’s place.

Back at home, something of a prison, Ronnie was allowed to leave once a month to visit a pharmacy, and if she was gone longer than 20 minutes, her husband would send a bodyguard to find her.

Thankfully, her mother visited, saw what was happening and helped get her out. Ronnie’s escape took place barefoot, because Phil used to hide her shoes.

They were divorced in 1974, and she married Jonathan Greenfield in 1982. They’ve been together ever since, and have two sons, Austin and Jason.

Despite her challenging past, Ronnie’s new album - English Heart, her first for 10 years - is all about reminiscing. It sees her covering songs from her favourite period of music, the early-Sixties. All the songs were made famous by bands involved in the so-called ‘British Invasion’, which saw UK groups flock to the States on the back of The Beatles’ success and storm the charts.

“I had the idea when I saw Bob Dylan’s album of Sinatra songs,” says Ronnie. “I wanted to record some songs I was familiar with, that everyone else was familiar with too.”

She set about making a list, which ended up with between 70 and 100 titles on it.

“That was the hardest part, getting that list down. I love all those songs, I was in the middle of all of it. Of course, I knew The Beatles even before they came to the States.”

Just how well she knew The Beatles, John Lennon in particular, is an oft-discussed topic, but she will admit he was a “lovely boy”.

“I knew The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and so on. The Beatles and the Stones were an opening act for The Ronettes, we all hung out a lot.”

She paints a brilliant picture of the time, hanging out backstage with The Fab Four, celebrating someone’s birthday.

“There was soda, and cake,” she says, not quite living up to her reputation as the first ‘bad girl’ of music. “It was an innocent time. Of course we had cigarettes, but that’s about it. They were so polite, so much fun. And they were always writing. I remember one of them writing a song on a napkin at that party.”

Recording English Heart was a blast, she says.

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, although an anomaly as it was written and released in 1971, by The Bee Gees, is the standout on the record. No surprise, given the sort of experience Ronnie can inject into a song like that. “I sang that and had to go into the ladies’ room and cry a little bit afterwards,” she confides.

Again, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood was technically written by two Americans and a St Croix native, and made famous by Nina Simone, though it was recorded by The Animals.

“I really challenged myself with that one. I didn’t think I could put anything into it, but I went over and over it in the studio I have at my house, and I got there in the end.”

Ronnie is touring the UK, including her debut at Glastonbury this month - and can’t wait. “My thing is performance; it always has been,” she begins. “Seeing the crowd, getting excited - then I get more excited! I just love it, and always will.”

She’ll be performing hits from her rich catalogue - “the songs people want to hear” - as she can’t stand going to see heritage acts who refuse to play the numbers that made them famous.

“I know what people want, it’s not going to be two old hits and then loads of other things from a new album.”

She’s no great fan of artists who go on to long, either.

“I love my Sixties groups, and I’ll go to see these people when I can, but so many don’t sound good any more. Some can’t help that, they have to keep working, they need bread on the table.”

She goes on to say many stars of the era, herself included, didn’t make big money because they didn’t write their own songs. As a woman, it was even harder.

“Phil was writer and producer, and no one else got a chance. Now girls write their music, produce, get a say in everything, but we didn’t have that choice. You just did what you were asked. It was a horrible feeling, but it was the way it was, and we didn’t know any better.

“If someone had told me I’d still be singing Be My Baby, 50 years on, going to the UK, playing festivals, I’d have said they were out of their mind,” Ronnie reflects. “But it’s happening. And I am happy about it. I have records people still want to hear 50 years later. That’s the most amazing feeling. “

Ronnie Spector’s new album, English Heart, is out now.