When Ronnie Spector says hi, it's with a girlish chuckle and a thick Noo Yoik twang that hasn't diminished in all of her 72 years. Easily one of the most iconic singers of all time, she's influenced everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Amy Winehouse, thanks to her soulful style, compassionate command of the poetry of pop, and downright outstanding fashion sense.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem, she formed the Ronettes with her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley in the early 1960s. The most individual and edgy of the girl groups, they were a self-styled gang who had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones trailing at their heels like puppy dogs, not to mention legions of screaming fans across the United States and Europe.
After Ronnie's 1974 split from producer Phil Spector—who is currently serving a life sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson—she embarked on a solo career. She's still actively touring and releasing new material, following up promotion for a new Best Of collection last year with the forthcoming English Heart, a tribute to the British artists she toured, worked, and hung out with in the 1960s.
"To me, of course, lyrics are everything," she says down the line from her home in Connecticut, explaining her choice of material on the new album. "When I sang 'How Can You Mend A Broken Heart' [originally by the Bee Gees] in the studio, I was like crying. I said, 'Stop the tape!' This song is my life. It's what I went through."
The incident to which Ronnie refers is well documented. After marrying the notoriously controlling Phil Spector in 1968, who had signed the Ronettes in 1963 and headed up stellar releases "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You," he imprisoned her in his mansion and refused to let her work for seven years. "That took the wind out of me for a long time," explains Ronnie.
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Unsurprisingly, parallels between Ronnie's situation and pop singer Kesha's alleged abuse at the hands of her producer Dr. Luke have recently been drawn. "Of course I love Kesha and I agree with her, but in my case it was a little different because mine married me," says Ronnie. "In my day they married you and it was just like a rape to me in a way, because it took away everything. When I got married I thought I was going to continue singing and of course performing—that was my life—and I didn't do anything for seven years."
Despite the Kesha case, Ronnie is quick to point out the significant advances made by women in the industry since she started out. "You couldn't write your own songs back in the 1960s," she says. "Even if you put a couple of lines in [a song], you never got paid for it. You never knew that you were supposed to get paid! You didn't know about composing and writing and publishing. Of course, everybody knows about that now because of people like me. You have to speak up.
"Look at Taylor Swift today, there's a woman who wrote all her own songs and she has millions, but back in the 60s the producers and the owners of the record companies made the millions. I made pennies compared to what they were making." Rather than single out other contemporary artists, Ronnie seems overjoyed at success of women as a collective. "I like them all, because I'm so happy that girls now can write their own material and publish their own music. That's what I like the most. I don't have any favorites, I'll put it that way."
One star she is happy to heap praise upon however, is the late Amy Winehouse, whose "Back To Black" song has been a regular part of Ronnie's live set since before the British artist's death in 2011. Though the pair never met, Ronnie has become friends with Amy's mother Janis. "She gave me this great book the last time I was in the UK, about three months ago, a book she had written, and she put inside, 'You were Amy's inspiration.' It was such a touching thing. I'm looking at the book right now, I keep it on my bookshelf right here."
Amy wasn't the only one to have borrowed heavily from Ronnie's signature look. It's rare now for Ronnie to look out into the crowd and not see a sea of backcombed bouffants bobbing away in her direction. "I'm in shock! When I come out and see all these girls with the beehive you think you've gone back in time!" she laughs.
The look itself came directly from the Manhattan that Ronnie was raised in. "Everything came from the streets," says Ronnie. "We were different from any other girl group because we had tight dresses on, not flared dresses or gowns. We just had a street look, like everybody in our neighborhood; the black girls, the Spanish girls, the Puerto Rican girls, the Chinese girls."
Ronnie's mother had six sisters, each one of them a hairdresser, who would tend to the trio's towering manes, spraying them with clouds of Aquanet hairspray, while Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra piled on the Cleopatra eyeliner. "Backstage at these shows, at places like the Brooklyn Fox Theater, where you had to stay from 12 in the afternoon to 12 at night because you did six shows a day, you had nothing backstage but mirrors and makeup! So we stayed there all day. That's how we got the Ronette look."
It was a look that bewitched fellow musicians as well as the fans. The Ronettes were such a big deal that in 1964 the Rolling Stones were chosen as their opening act for a UK tour. Ronnie and Keith Richards even had a fling, with him regularly taking her out to the country's provincial burger joint Wimpy while they were on the road.
The Ronettes returned the favour to another English band not long after. Stranded in New York and desperately trying to avoid clamouring fans, The Beatles called up Ronnie, who quickly whisked them away to Spanish Harlem for some respite and BBQ. "Nobody bothered them because they thought they were just some Spanish dorks. In my neighborhood Spanish guys didn't get their hair cut for two weeks, because their parents couldn't afford it. So when the Beatles came to Spanish Harlem, people didn't even look up at them! They loved that, not being seen and being able to enjoy a good meal."
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It was the Beatles, amongst others, who helped convince Ronnie to start singing again after she extracted herself from the claws of Phil Spector and California. "When I got back to New York and met up with John Lennon, he said, 'You've got to be in the studio, your voice is still so great.'
"So that's what I did. I went right back, because I had people like Keith Richards and John Lennon and Billy Joel and David Bowie—even Springsteen—telling me 'Ronnie, you have the voice of all voices.'"
English Heart comes out on April 8.