Interview and story by Don Wilcock
“I’ve been listening to you forever,” I told Ronnie Spector last week on the phone.
“And I’ve been listening to me forever,” she threw down.
And we both giggled.
Ronnie is the founder of the ’60s girl group the Ronettes; the better half of a 1987 duet with Eddie Money on “Take Me Home Tonight;” a favorite performing sidekick for the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen; and the subject of songs by Billy Joel and the aforementioned Eddie Money.
More than 50 years after first helping to break the glass ceiling by defining the sultry siren in the all-male rock and roll bastion, she remains a role model for contemporary artists like the late Amy Winehouse, and is the Top 20 of all-time Christmas song sales with her renditions of “Sleigh Ride” and “Frosty The Snowman.”
One Canadian critic compared men’s reactions of the Ronettes in the ’60s to women’s reaction of Elvis. She knew even then she had something very special. “I did, I did, Don. As a matter of fact, we had one up on Elvis because the guys and girls were screaming over us.”
She is one of four acts in Saturday’s “Sixties Spectacular” at Proctors in Schenectady. The others are the Turtles, B.J. Thomas and Gary U.S. Bonds. I caught up with her last week two days after she’d played Carnegie Hall, opening a show that included Jackson Browne, Marianne Faithfull, Steve Earle, Art Garfunkel and Rosanne Cash paying homage to Stones classics from their “Hot Rocks” era, 1964 to ’71. Her song was “Time Is On My Side” recorded originally by another great female singer Irma Thomas in 1964 and covered by the Stones that same year. For her, that song is as much about the music as it any man.
“Now you always say
That you want to be free
But you’ll come running back (said you would, baby)
You’ll come running back (I said so many times before)
You’ll come come running back to me
Oh, time is on my side, yes it is
Time is on my side, yes it is…”
Ronnie remembers her daddy taking her by the fabled Carnegie Hall when she was a child. “All my life since I was a little girl I was, ‘I’m gonna sing there, Daddy,’ ’cause he would take us to Radio City, Carnegie Hall – not going in, but just looking at all these things – and I said, ‘One day I’m gonna sing at the Carnegie Hall,’ and actually five years ago, I sang one of those Springsteen songs similar to what I did with the Rolling Stones, their hits. They weren’t there, but with Springsteen, he came out in the end.
“The stage at Carnegie Hall and the balcony, it’s so beautiful. I just felt like a queen up there. I felt like an angel, and the song itself meant so much to me because I don’t ever do a song or record a song that doesn’t pertain to my life. So, ‘Time Is On My Side’ was so perfect for me.”
“You’re searching for good times
Just wait and see
You’ll come running back (I won’t have to worry no more)
You’ll come running back (spend the rest of my life with you, baby)
You’ll come running back to me…”
The Stones opened for the Ronettes on their second British tour in 1964. In his book “Life,” Keith Richards says simply, “I fell in love with Ronnie… She was as shy as I was, so there wasn’t a lot of communication, but there sure was love.”
In the book, Ronnie adds, “Those were the happiest days of my entire career.”
On their first tour of America, the Stones stayed with Ronnie and her family in Spanish Harlem, sleeping on the floor and enjoying her mom’s bacon and eggs. Ronnie took the band to meet James Brown, and she took Keith to her bedroom. “The first time I went to heaven,” writes Keith, “was when I awoke with Ronnie asleep with a smile on her face.”
Ronnie was baptized with a full rock and roll immersion at the age of 11 on the stage of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre on amateur night. “My parents gave me an ultimatum when I was 11. They said, ‘Ronnie, the teachers are calling and saying, all you do is sing in class, and all the other kids are enjoying it, but you can’t disrupt the class like this. What are we gonna do?’
“So my parents had a meeting with the teachers and, if I did the Apollo Theater amateur night, if I went over well there, then they wouldn’t scold me so much for not doing my homework and stuff, and that’s what I did. I had a couple of back-up singers – my cousins, of course – and I went out there, and my cousin Ira was supposed to sing lead.
“He got out there. His mouth didn’t even – nothing came out. I grabbed the microphone, and I started singing, ‘Please say you want me to…’ That’s when I knew I could make it in the whole world from that one spot at the Apollo.
“When I took over I said, ‘He’s not taking my chance away from me, you know? This is it for me.’ I sang my heart out, and they loved it, and that’s when I knew and my parents knew, my whole family – I had like seven uncles and six aunts. My mother had like 14 sisters and brothers. And they were all there cheering me on.”
“Go ahead, go ahead and light up the town
And baby, do everything your heart desires
Remember, I’ll always be around
And I know, I know
Like I told you so many times before
You’re gonna come back, baby
’Cause I know
You’re gonna come back knocking
Yeah, knocking right on my door
Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector tried to sign sultry siren Ronnie to a solo contract in 1963, but she insisted that her two partners in the Ronettes – sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley – be part of the package. Between 1963 and ’66 when he finally wed Ronnie, Phil had produced such landmark pop classics as the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep and Mountain High,” but his biggest success was with an impressive chain of Ronettes hits – “Be My Baby,” “Baby, I Love You,” “(The Best Part Of) Breaking Up,” “Walking in the Rain,” “Do I Love You?,” “Is This What I Get for Loving You?” and “I Can Hear Music.”
Those early Wall of Sound recordings by the Ronettes and Ronnie’s image still are influencing acts more than half a century later. Three years ago, veteran industry mogul Richard Gottehrer called Ronnnie. He had produced Blondie, Joan Armatrading and the Go-Go’s. He also wrote one of the most iconic girl group songs, the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Ronnie recalls his comments that day on the phone. “’I saw your show. It sounds amazing. You don’t sound like Amy Winehouse. You sound like Ronnie, but you gotta do (her) ‘Back to Black’ ’cause Amy wants to be you.’
“So, I did it,” says Ronnie, “and it was great. They put it out, and I want all the proceeds to go to Day Top Village (a New York City-based substance abuse center). It does take a village to get people straight. About two years ago, Amy Winehouse, my lawyers and everybody got together about Amy playing me as a young girl, and unfortunately she didn’t make it. I was devastated because of that.
“We had just had this big meeting ’cause she had straightened up her act, gotten off drugs and everything. I said, ‘That’s such a good idea,’ because she already had my looks. She wanted to look like me. She had the beehive. She had the whole Ronnie Spector thing down, and I loved her for that. She wasn’t afraid to imitate or emulate another person, and I’m still living so it made it even greater ’cause most of the people from the ’60s and ’70s are dead.”
“Time is on my side, yes it is
’Cause I got the real love
The kind that you need…”
Ronnie Spector has become ubiquitous as the female yin to some of the greatest Rock God’s yang, cutting across generations and genres with flash and finesse. Her credits include George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix and Joey Ramone.
“I think it’s my voice, it’s my attitude, it’s my looks. Especially it’s the love of singing one artist to another. The guys also know who real artists are. You know what I’m saying? I’ve had these guys with me all my life, and it’s because they know I’m a real artist. They know I love to sing. People can tell. Even I can tell how long they’re gonna last. ‘Oh, they won’t be around for long because they’re not that interested.’
“I remember all these guys… Springsteen was on the bus, and he didn’t care about anything but eating and going up to his room and writing songs.
“I remember so much Hendrix and how he came to my house. I left one of his recordings – or he left one of his recordings – in my car, and he came back by himself. When I first met him, he was with all these girls, and they were lying on his bed, and I’m like, ‘Ugh! What is this? I gotta go.’ I left, and he came to my house the next day. I also played with him in the ’60s when he had his own band in a place called Ondine’s, this little nightclub. And we used to go there every other night, and I used to get up there with Jimi. I would sing, and he would jam.
“I’ve been doing it for years and years, and knowing all these guys personally. Everyone that you spoke of I’ve know personally. Joey Ramone, oh, God! I think of George Harrison. I did ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ with him. Springsteen. ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood.’ Joey Ramone and I did “She Talks to Rainbows. And they wanted me.
“I didn’t know if anybody knew who I was when I came back from California. I was shocked that all these people… ‘I’ll put the drum section here for you on your part. You went up on your oh, oh, ohs. We did a bha, bha, bha on a saxophone.’ I’m saying, ‘What? All this is coming from my voice?’ So I learned a lot. I didn’t know all of this prior to that how much influence I made on all the people.”
“You’ll come running back (said you would, baby)
You’ll come running back (I always said you would)
You’ll come running back to me
Yes, time, time is on my side. Yes, it is…”
“I had the most fun (at Carnegie Hall), especially the Stones songs. I’m so very close to Keith, and he also inducted me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We’re still writing songs together. He only lives 15 minutes from me. So, would I not do it for the Stones? Are you kidding?”
“I’ve always kept in touch with Ronnie,” says Keith in “Life.” “On the day of 9/11 we were recording together a song called ‘Love Affair’ in Connecticut. It is a work in progress.”
So is Ronnie Spector.
“You’re searching for good times
But just wait and see
You’ll come running back (I won’t have to worry no more)
You’ll come back (spend the rest of my life with you, baby)
You’ll come back to me….”
Ronnie Spector will step into the spotlight at Proctors in Schenectady for the “Sixties Spectacular” concert at 7:30pm on Saturday (March 24). Sharing the stage with her will be ’60s hitmakers the Turtles, B.J. Thomas and Gary U.S. Bonds. Tix are $36.75, $44.75 & $51.75.