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Ronnie Spector: The Original Icon

Interviews

By Marissa G. Muller

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Ronnie Spector
Photo by Ben Clark

Ronnie Spector is ready to tell her story. The lead Ronette has been reconciling with her past through her Beyond the Beehive show since it premiered last year in NYC. In the production, she delivers hits from her 50-year career while dishing on touring with the Rolling Stones and other highlights from her glory days—which were heartbreakingly cut short when she married the now-imprisoned producer, Phil Spector. But outside of her Beehive show, Spector has rarely opened up about her successful years and following retreat from the spotlight.

She hasn’t done many interviews recently, which is why when I phone her she gushes and talks at length about her escape from her ex-husband’s controlling grasp, her peaceful life since she remarried and had sons, and letting go of her anger over not receiving writing credits for contributing to her signature songs “Be My Baby” and “Walking In the Rain.”

Noisey: How are you doing?
Ronnie Spector: I’m doing so great. We just finished doing four of the Beehive shows in Chicago, Phoenix, and LA. The audience’s response is killing me. I get four encores a night and it was like, “What!” It’s wonderful.

How did the idea for the show come about?
Well I did the show in 2001 with just a couple of girls—one on the piano, one on the guitar—at a college and the kids went so crazy about my story. I said, “Maybe I should do something about this.” It took me a few years and we got it all together and I love it. I love getting on stage and pouring my heart out to everybody, making them laugh, making them cry-- and, at the end, they’re all so happy.

I heard that you do a very good Keith Richards impersonation in the show.
Oh my god, you heard that [laughs]. I don’t even speak English in the way they say all of those words. I try, but thank you for hearing that. It makes me feel better.

Has he heard your impression of him?
No! I haven’t even heard it. I’m on stage doing it and I never listen to the show if it’s been recorded. I just want to remember how it was out there, with the audience, and all of the smiling and tears. I never look or listen.

How’d you get along with the Stones when you toured with them as the Ronettes?
It was so great. You have to remember, this was the 60s where everybody was so innocent—Mick, Keith, all the guys. They were all so gentlemanly and polite. They’d always say “thank you.” I couldn’t get over that. Yet, they were our opening act and didn’t have a lot of money. They loved us and we loved them. I still talk to Keith. We became fast friends as they say.

Now that the show is over, how will you be spending your day-to-day life?
I’m like a different person: I’m on stage, backstage, I love being in the dressing room after hearing all of the cheers and coming back-and-forth, but then when I get home I’m back to Ronnie. I’m a mother and a wife—I still have a kid that lives at home. That’s the difference, and a lot of people don’t have that.

I’ve been married for 30 years. My husband manages me [along] with [legendary rock manager] Danny Goldberg. We have a very good relationship with my business people. So I don’t have anything to do but come home and cook and clean. I love doing that too, it takes me away from the stage.

But you know what happens to me, Marissa? When I finish a show—this is only about the third day I’ve been home—I’m so itchy to get back on stage. That’s the only thing I hate. I’m so passionate about the music. I’m home and shopping and then it’s, “Where’s the stage? Where are the lights? Where are the people?”

After the fourth, fifth day of being home, I’m bored. I’ve done the shopping for the whole house. My husband is at his office. Danny Goldberg is at his office. I can’t wait to get back up there. I’m tired of shopping—I don’t cook that well, I must admit. But, you know, bacon and eggs, spaghetti and meatballs, little stuff like that. I enjoy that for a little while and then it’s time for me to hit the road because I love what I do. I was taken away from it for so long. For about ten years, I wasn’t on any stage so [not performing] it makes me more anxious than the average performer from the 60s, 70s, or now.

It sounds like you’ve been adjusting really well to being back on the stage.
Oh yeah. I never really left—I had two kids in between—but I was three months pregnant and I was still on stage until my mother-and-law said, “Uh, I think I see a little round thing.” I had three adopted sons, so I never thought I could get pregnant. I never would have thought 35 years ago that I would be doing what I’m doing, have my own show, two kids biologically. It’s a surreal life.

When I was married before [to Phil Spector], it was, “Here’s some kids, Merry Christmas.” [Gasps] I got a set of twins for Christmas! I couldn’t handle it. It was way over my head. I had an adopted son already home and then to get five-and-a-half year-old twins—it was a big box. I said, "Wow." I had never been pregnant. I went to doctors and they said, "You're fine." But I kept getting all of these adopted kids. The more kids I got, the further I was in that mansion and I never got out until I ran out and escaped. I got out of there with my mom. That's how I had to do it because I would have been dead there and I knew it. I knew, if I didn’t leave, I would die. That’s weird to say, but it’s the truth.

Some people would rather have you dead than you be with anyone else and that’s what I was going through. Over-possessive people can take over your whole life, and it did for awhile until I got stronger and stronger. And then when I got divorced, I became even stronger. [Before] I wasn’t allowed to sing my songs on TV. I worked so hard in the studio when I was making “Be My Baby,” I worked so hard. After the band came in, I would do my part. Towards the end, when my ex was getting really mental, he would make me sing one line over and over like “No baby no,” 50 times and I thought I was going insane trying to do this.

At the beginning it was great. He was a great producer, we loved each other [but] as soon as I got married, I never went on stage again. I went through so much, but it made me stronger to come out now and tell my story. Now, women are more powerful than ever. What better time to tell my story?

Yeah, this past year has brought out a lot of female artists who are speaking out against how oppressive the music industry can be. What are your thoughts on how expectations for female artists have changed over the years?
I think, of course, it’s gotten much better. On TV, there’s Chelsea Lately, Wendy Williams, Katie Couric—all of these women are hosts now and in the 60s and 70s, you never had that. Women are saying, “Look out, here we come.” That’s how I feel about my show, when I’m up there. It’s a great feeling to be up on stage and know that my ex-husband is in prison. I was in prison when I was in that mansion. I was married for seven years and I went out maybe five times, my whole time in California. I stayed in that mansion like I was in prison, with gates and barb wire around me. Now he's in prison. What goes around comes around.

Now I have a song in my show called "Karma," about a girl from the ghetto. It's amazing how things have come around back to me and I'm loving every minute of it.

I'm curious to know how you feel about the resurgence of girl groups in indie rock. Are you aware that people worship you?
Oh, I'm very aware and I think it’s so cool. I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to the industry. I must say one thing: by watching all these TV shows where you have The Voice, American Idol, I think it’s a bit much for kids today because everybody wants to be a singer or in show business and everybody can’t be. Since my children were in elementary school, I’d go to every music show they were in and I’d warn the kids, even for other things like if a little boy would say, “I want to be an astronaut.” I’d say, “What if you can’t be an astronaut? Be a pilot.”

It’s the same thing with singing because my parents would tell me, “We don’t have money for college so you have to finish high school. You don’t know if these records will be hits.” Luckily they were, but most people don’t have hit records. I can tell you that one to two percent of people in show business are going to last more than four years. So many of them, you hear their name and then they’re gone. You don’t even remember them.

It’s like Lady Gaga, for instance. Give me a break with the outfits. Just sing. People come to hear you perform and sing, because she has hit records and she has a good voice! What do you need with the head things and all this and the meat? It’s nuts. Because, what’s next? It’s just like Miley Cyrus. But she was very smart, she turned her act around and put on a gown covering her whole body and she looked adorable. You can’t go too far is my point.

I love Rihanna’s voice, and “Stay,” and I love Bruno Mars—I think he’s amazing. He reminds me of Frankie Lymon; that was my idol. He has that kind of voice and movement. I love Bruno Mars because he’s mixed like me—he’s not all black and he’s not all white—he’s just a guy that can sing his ass off and that’s what is important. You have to be able to sing and love it. So many people are just doing it to say, “Oh, maybe I can make millions. Maybe I can get a car like Justin Beiber.” That’s the problem. Everybody wants to sing and dance. It’s nuts.

The Ronettes are still a rite of passage. Why do you think after all of these years that your music still appeals to young people?
It’s true! In Chicago, the whole front row were dressed like the Ronettes. They all had their hair in beehives. I was in shock. When I went to my show in LA, I couldn’t see anyone with white hair. It was all young kids, dressed like Ronettes. I was like, “Am I back in the 60s?” I really had to pinch myself. I said, “No, Ronnie, it’s 2013, you’re on stage. Those little girls down there are dressed like you.” I was like in shock when I walked out there to see all of these girls with my hair style. I freaked, but I kept on doing the show. I spoke to them after. We took pictures. It’s such an honor to have girls now, sitting in the front row, with all of these beehives. It blew my mind. It was the most wonderful feeling. I love what I do and I love that I have people like you, 25, interested in me. It’s great. Everything is coming back to me now that I deserved back then.

The reason, I think, is because you have to leave some kind of stamp. It’s like when Amy Winehouse said in an article, “I want to be like Ronnie Spector. I want my hair up high like that. I want to dress like her.” And she did. But she did it as somebody else.

When I first heard Frankie Lymon, I didn’t know if he was a boy or a girl. But I said I love that voice and I’m gonna sing just like him. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to singing school so everyday my homework was to listen to Frankie Lymon—until the teachers started calling my house, “Uh, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, Ronnie’s not getting her homework done. You’ve got to buckle down with her homework.” That’s when they took me to the Apollo Theatre and said, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” because I was so determined with my singing as a kid.

So when I was 11 years old, my parents put me to the test. I went out there with a bunch of cousins—they would do all of the “ooh”s and “ah”s—and they loved me. Then my parents could never say no to my singing. They didn’t know I was that good because I would rehearse at home when they were at work, when I was 14 and 15.

Your look is so iconic. At the time, did you feel like your clothing was transgressive?
We didn’t have a hit record, at the time, in the 60s, and the Shirelles and Chiffons had on these wide skirts and we went the opposite. It was just like the Rolling Stones did with the Beatles—the Beatles had on these square suits so the Stones said we’re going to change and be real messy, rugged, and scraggly. We did the same with the girl groups: we put on tight dresses, slits up the side, hair in the ozone, and when we walked out there, it was something to talk about. That’s how I think we got our start.

When I went to London and Amy Winehouse came to see my show, she looked just like me. She had the same hairstyle as me and everything. It scared me. I was on stage singing “Back to Black” and she was in the audience listening to me. I saw a tear out of her eye and it made me cry. To think, six months later she was dead, I was devastated. I said, “There goes the Ronette that could have been me after I’m gone.” I was so sad when she died, I can’t tell you. I put “Back to Black” in my show going in to “You Baby.”

It was a Saturday when she died and the following Saturday, we had a show to do at the Lincoln Center with all girl groups—you name them and they were there. I was the star of that night and I dedicated the whole show to Amy because she loved girl groups. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is for you Amy and I looked up in the sky.” There was about 20,000 people and the audience was crying. They were so quiet and they listened.

I like being home and just being on stage. I don’t hear a lot of gossip. I do on TV but some of that I don’t believe. I’m just happy that women are out there right now speaking their minds. Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner just talked about the need to protect children from paparazzi.

Kanye West has talked about trying to pass new paparazzi laws too.
No kidding, good for him. I have to be honest, Marissa. I am not a fan of Kanye West. I don’t mind Kim, but I just don’t like that guy. I’m not a fan of how he speaks. He’s a dick. I’m sorry. I don’t like him. I’m just being honest.

How old are your kids now?
My kids are in their late twenties and one still lives at home—can’t get rid of him, but I don’t mind. The other one is only a half hour away so I still see him. I love it. If he wasn’t here—I can’t bring in all of those heavy packages. We have that Poland Springs water and he brings all that stuff in. Not only is he helpful but he’s just so sweet and I love him so much.

Everybody’s getting married later in life now. Can you imagine Halle Berry was 46 when she got pregnant? Wish I had known that when I was younger. When I grew up, when you were 25, you were considered an old maid. That was it for you. Now women are having babies in their 30s and their 40s and it’s fabulous. You can’t stop us now.

I’m talking about women. I’m not talking about the Gagas and the Rihannas of the world and all of the sex—I don’t like that. I dress sexy and all but you can’t really see anything. It’s my movement that guys and girls like.

You were pushing the envelope with your clothing back in the day as well.
We had to because we didn’t have a hit record. Once we did, we stayed the same. [Now] every time I see a star, whether it’s Gaga or Rihanna, they have such a different look. It’s like, “Now your hair is blonde. Now it’s long. Now it’s short.” So people don’t look at them like they look at me because I basically stayed the same. I still wear my black eyeliner. I still wear my hair teased on top. I may not wear a beehive but I still have long hair. I have a look where people go, “Oh I know you,” and I love that. But so many people today transform every six months. I think its crazy.

That’s probably because everyone has a shorter attention span today than when you started out.
Exactly. Marissa, thank you because that is to true. Every two years now it’s like, “Who was that? What was that record?” It’s amazing to me because in the 60s—people still know The Temptations, The Four Seasons, you know certain things from that era. From the last past five years, I can’t even tell you what performers were good and bad. Especially rappers. You hear their name, they’ve got a hit record, and then they’re gone.

Are you a fan of hip-hop?
I like hip-hop. I like Eminem. I like something I can understand. I understand his lyrics. But I like the beat. I’m still cool. Me, personally, I like what I do: my songs, their stories are innocent and real. I’m a lyricist, so if I don’t understand lyrics, I can’t listen to a song. It’s very difficult for me to listen to something I can’t understand and I don’t like instrumentals.

Since you consider yourself a lyricist, when you were performing with the Ronettes, it was a hard-earned privilege for women to be able to write their own music. It rarely happened. What do you think of artists today that choose not to write their own music?
The ones that do are very smart, like Taylor Swift. In the 60s, we didn’t know that the publishers and writers get the money. You got three cents a song every time they played it. We didn’t know about publishing then. I remember when we were writing “Be My Baby,” my ex had come over to my house one night and said, “Why do you have all of those dolls at the front of your bed right there?” I said, “Every night, I give them a kiss on the forehead and on each cheek and that was three kisses.” The next day when I went to rehearsals they had, “For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three.” They wrote off of me but they didn’t tell me so I didn’t get publishing or writing. I got nothing. No one sat down and explained, if you write something you get a certain amount of money; if you publish it, you get extra money. That’s why all of those people that published and wrote your songs years ago are living in mansions in Beverly Hills. We’re not. These people got tons more and we just didn’t have a clue.

I wrote a lot of the lyrics on my hit songs. With “Walking in the Rain,” I was in London walking in the rain with The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and when I got home those songs were written because I talked to my ex every night from wherever I was. He'd call and I'd tell him stories about whatever I was doing: walking in the rain-- I didn't say with Keith Richards-- but I said, "I'm just walking in the rain with my mom and the two Ronettes" and that's how they wrote my songs off of everything I said and I never knew it until 25 years later.

I thought if you were a singer and went out and performed, that’s how you made your money. Like when I would see Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra on TV, I thought of course you went in the studio and made records—that’s how the public got to like them—and then they’re going to make their money when they go out and perform. So I never thought about royalties. When we toured the UK and US, that’s when we made tons of money. But who knew? It was nothing compared to what the writers and publishers got.

But I don’t care. I’m still out there. I'm still on stage and they're not.

 

Marissa G. Muller is a writer based out of Los Angeles. She's on Twitter@marissagmuller

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