Ronnie Spector, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who fronted classic 1960s girl group the Ronettes, delivered the iconic vocal on their hit “Be My Baby,” and counted many of rock’s biggest names as fans, died today of cancer. She was 78.
Here family shared the news on her official website: “Our beloved earth angel, Ronnie, peacefully left this world today after a brief battle with cancer. She was with family and in the arms of her husband, Jonathan. Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face. She was filled with love and gratitude. Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her.”
Spector sang lead on the influential stone classic “Be My Baby,” which spent three weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. The song, which the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson famously has said is “the greatest record ever produced” — was co-written by Phil Spector, whose intense “Wall of Sound” production style is personified by the track. He and Ronnie were married from 1968-74, decades before he would be convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson
After Phil Spector’s death early last year, Ronnie called him, “A brilliant producer but a lousy husband.” But she added in a statement then, “Meeting him and falling in love was like a fairytale. … I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will.”
“Be My Baby,” which was kept out of the top spot by Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs’ “Sugar Shack,” was by the far the Ronettes’ biggest hit. None of their other singles reached the top 20, though 1964’s “Walking in the Rain” also is recognized as a classic. Spector later would reprise its singular chorus in the 1986 Eddie Money hit “Take Me Home Tonight” and its video (watch it below). “Just like Ronnie sang,” Money says in the song — which then cut to Spector belting out, “Be my little baby.”
Billy Joel wrote the song “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” with the Ronettes in mind, and Spector would record it with the E Street Band in 1977. Joel’s version was a hit in 1981.
Bruce Springsteen and his band were unabashed fans of Ronnie Spector and recorded material with her at the time when Springsteen was barred from releasing new music amid a contract dispute among his reps. The group’s guitarist Steven Van Zandt wrote this tribute today:
RIP Ronnie Spector. It was an honor to Produce her and encourage her to get back on stage where she remained for the next 45 years. Her record with the E Street Band helped sustain us at a very precarious time (thanks to Steve Popovich). Condolences to her husband and family.
— Stevie Van Zandt (@StevieVanZandt) January 12, 2022
Born Veronica Bennett on August 10, 1943, in the Bronx, Spector began singing professionally in junior high and formed the Darling Sisters with her sibling Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley in 1958. The group signed its first label deal with Colpix Records in 1961, and moved to Phil Spector’s Philles Records two years later, changing their name to the Ronettes.
After breaking out with “Be My Baby,” the group had a moderate follow-up hit with “Baby, I Love You.” A couple of minor hits later, “Walking in the Rain” hit No. 23 in late 1964. All seven of their Hot 100 singles were produced by Phil Spector. Most of those songs — including “(Best Part of) Breaking Up” and “Do I Love You?” — were on the late-1964 LP … Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, which peaked at No. 96 and would be their only charting album.
The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, three years after they joined the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
The group was featured on three songs from the classic 1963 holiday LP A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, which Phil Spector produced and ranked No. 142 on Rolling Stones list of greatest albums. Ronnie’s vocal fueled Wall of Sound renditions of the secular yuletide classics “Frosty the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Sleigh Ride.”
In fact, the Ronettes; “Sleigh Ride” made the national top 10 during Christmas Week last month. Our sister site Billboard noted that the feat set a record for an act’s longest break between Top 10 singles — a run of 58-plus years since “Be My Baby” in 1963.
Ronnie would launch a solo career with 1964’s “So Young,” but the single failed to chart. She had minor success with the George Harrison-penned “Try Some, Buy Some” in 1971 — Phil Spector was head of A&R at the Beatles’ Apple Records at the time — and recorded the 1976 duet, “You Mean So Much to Me” with Southside Johnny. The track was written by the latter’s pal Springsteen, and produced by Van Zandt.
She went on to record five albums from studios 1980-2016. None would chart, but fans and critics praised her still-sharp vocal skills.
She married her then-manager Jonathan Greenfield in 1982. Survivors include sons Donte, Louis and Gary Spector — who were adopted during her marriage to Spector — and sons Austin Greenfield and Jason Greenfield from her second marriage.
Ronnie Spector’s family noted that, in lieu of flowers, the late singer requested that donations be made to local women’s shelters or to the American Indian College Fund. A celebration of her life and music will be announced later.