Ron Onesti: We Will Miss You, Ronnie!
In my humble opinion, few individuals embody the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the way ’60s girl-group superstar Ronnie Spector did. We lost Ronnie to cancer last Wednesday. She was 78.
What I mean by that is the way her remarkable career has intertwined with so many legendary figures in music.
It is truly amazing to speak to her about it, as I did backstage prior to her last holiday show at the Arcada Theatre. It is equally amazing to the degree that her Christmas songs have become international staples, almost musically branding the holiday itself!
As we all sang along to “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” I thought of what she told me about her humble beginnings. “In Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem where I grew up, we didn’t have any fireplaces or chimneys,” Ronnie said. “My father told us that Santa came in through the fire escape … it made sense then! We didn’t have much so Christmas was such a big deal to all of us. My best family memories have always been around a Christmas tree, and that is why recording those songs were so important to me.”
Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, who changed her name to Spector after marrying her producer, Phil Spector, in 1968, was very sweet, and very appreciative of her fans. At 71, she still had the charm and beauty that made her one of the most stunning figures in rock history.
Later on stage, she spoke a bit about her close relationship with John Lennon of the Beatles. “He was such a close friend, he really understood me and my music.” But, ironically, a wall was put between the soon-to-be legendary groups.
Her tumultuous relationship with her ex-husband was legendary. Ronnie’s own accounts of her “enslavement” are both startling and heartbreaking. Although The Beatles requested her to tour with them in 1966, she was forbidden to by Phil Spector for his fear of the “backstage antics.” But the Beatles remained huge fans as they later wrote and produced with her.
George Harrison wrote a single for Ronnie titled “Try Some, Buy Some” on which John, Ringo Starr and George even recorded background vocals!
Forming the Ronettes in her basement in 1961 with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra, she wrapped her strikingly good looks, exciting dance moves and powerfully unique voice and made the group one of the biggest acts of that era. Rock legend Carole King wrote one of the group’s first releases and they exploded. “We became huge in England and everybody wanted to go on tour with us. The Stones were one of those groups. We became friendly and they even stayed by my family’s house, sleeping on the couch and on the floor when they first came over to the States. They were very innocent back then.
“All the stories about the drugs and alcohol really came later because, in the beginning, the young boys were as clean as could be.”
This close relationship was evidenced by the Stones’ Keith Richards referring to his crush on Spector as being “the love of his life” in his autobiography. Additionally, he even became the one to personally induct the Ronettes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Not only did the Stones open for the Ronettes, but other luminaries-to-be that opened for the group included the Yardbirds (with Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck) and the up-and-coming comic Richard Pryor. She even sang on a Jimi Hendrix record! She was definitely the queen of that generation.
As we continued to talk in her dressing room, she all of a sudden said: “You know, he was a big fan of ours, too,” as she pointed to a photo hanging on the wall of former St. Charles resident Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
“After ‘Be My Baby’ became a No. 1 hit, Brian wrote ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ for me as a follow-up song in 1964. Phil Spector didn’t own any of the publishing rights to that song so he wouldn’t let me record it. But through the tough times, that song and its message helped me get through it all; it even got me back into singing after I gave it up for a while. So even though I didn’t record it, the song wound up being written for me for another purpose,” she said with a smile.
In 1986, Eddie Money recorded the pop/rock megahit ‘Take Me Home Tonight’ where he references her by singing the lyric “… just like Ronnie sang.” She also sang on that single, and another rebirth happened for Ronnie Spector.
Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, James Brown, Ray Charles … even Elvis! The list goes on and on of legendary rock stars who have bowed to Ronnie’s royal status. She even won a historic 15-year court battle with her ex-producer/husband that paved the way for other recording groups from the ’50s and ’60s to collect past royalties. Just that alone puts her at Hall of Fame status, as far as I am concerned.It is all documented in her book, “Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness.” David Letterman even fostered a tradition of welcoming her on his “Late Night” show every holiday season to sing her popular Christmas tunes.
As we said our goodbyes, she gave me a big hug (with an extra squeeze … so cool!) and said she loved the history of the theater. The history of the theater? How about the history SHE carries? It was at that moment I realized just how much hugging her was like stretching my arms around all the icons who made rock ‘n’ roll what it is today. It was like hugging Mick Jaggar’s mom and the Beatles’ Little League coach!
The Hall of Fame in Cleveland may house the memorabilia, but the true rock ‘n’ roll memories are housed within the buxom yet petite frame of Ronnie Spector. She was to play The Arcada last Christmas, then moved to 2022. I will miss her and her “Ronnie” way.