As the lead voice of archetypal girl group the Ronettes, Ronnie Spector, who will perform at the Bearsville Theater on February 14, rode her infamous producer and sometime husband Phil Spector’s celebrated “Wall of Sound” to the peak of the charts, belting out such classic hits as “Baby, I Love You,” “Walking in the Rain,” “I Can Hear Music,” and what is perhaps the most uplifting and transcendentally perfect pop single of all time, 1963’s “Be My Baby.” Born Veronica Bennett in Spanish Harlem, Spector and her fellow Ronettes—her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley—worked as stage dancers and backup singers for other artists and made a string of obscure singles before coming to the attention of Phil Spector, who remade the trio's image into gum-snapping New York "bad girls," complete with tight skirts, heavy eyeliner, and beehive hairdos. "Be My Baby" was actually the Ronettes' first effort with their new producer, and became a runaway smash, leading to the group touring with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
After the heady days of the Ronnettes came to a close, Spector married Phil Spector, and cut a pair of solo singles—including one with the Beatles as her backing band—but spent much of the time under the virtual house arrest of her husband, who insisted she give up her musical career. After finally divorcing, she recorded several tracks with a new lineup of the Ronettes and waxed the Billy Joel-penned solo anthem “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” which features Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Chart success came again in 1986 when she dueted with Eddie Money on “Take Me Home Tonight.” Since then Spector has kept busy as a performer and assumed the mantle of inspirational indie/punk godmother, releasing the acclaimed Joey Ramone-produced She Talks to Rainbows on the decidedly underground Kill Rock Stars label in 1999, covering tunes by Johnny Thunders, the Ramones, and Marshall Crenshaw—as well as the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," a song Brian Wilson originally wrote for her—and recording with the Misfits and the Raveonettes. Spector will premier “Beyond the Beehive,” a one-woman, multimedia show chronicling her life and career, at the Bearsville Theater on Valentine’s Day, February 14. (845) 679-4406; www.bearsvilletheater.com
“Beyond the Beehive,” sounds like quite an ambitious project. Can you tell us about the show and how the concept came about?
Well, I did a similar version of the show four years ago at a college in California, with just me and two other girls on piano and guitar, and the people in the audience just loved it. So I sing my songs and the ones I did with the Ronettes, and I talk about the stories behind the songs, and there’s pictures of me with Keith Richards and Joey Ramone and the other great people I worked with, plus I say things that make people laugh, which I don’t think they’re expecting. They come because they love my voice and they love the songs and they love to look at my body and all of that, but they don’t expect me to be funny.
You became a star at an incredibly young age, when you were just a teenager. Obviously, most of us have no idea of what that would be like. Can you talk a bit about those days and how they shaped you as an artist and a person?
It was the best time of my life. It really was. Not just with the Ronettes, but even before we were the Ronettes. We played at bar mitzvahs and at the Apollo Theater [as the Darling Sisters], and then at the Peppermint Lounge! But we already had all of our own choreography worked out. Every day after school I would get out my 45s by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Students, the Schoolboys, all of those great doo wop groups, and the three of us would sing along to them in front of the mirror in my mother’s room. We were never “groomed” like the Motown groups were. I never understood what that was about—I mean, of course you want to look good, right? So we knew to do our nails and our makeup and that stuff already.
What do you think made the Ronettes’ music stand out at the time? What made it so special in the context of the early 1960s musical landscape?
It was really a combination of things; my voice, which was very “innocent” back then, and there was the sound and the production. Plus I was in love with the producer and he was in love with me, too. That never hurts the music. But I was so young when I married him and he took advantage of that to control me and ended up just keeping me from doing anything. Finally my mom came to visit and said, “This guy is a loony, you have to get out of here,” and she helped me escape.
Even almost 50 years after the Ronettes' heyday, the group's music continues to resonate with so many different types of people from every walk of life—from punks to baby boomers to toddlers. What gives the songs their universal appeal?
I don't know, but I just got back from playing the UK and every club we played was jam-packed. There are kids 14, 15, 16 years old at my shows. Parents come with their really young kids to show them who they listened to when they were kids. They tell them how I was the first "pop" girl, before Madonna or anyone else.
Which contemporary artists do you like? Certainly the Raveonettes, with whom you’ve recorded, come to mind, but are there any other young artists whose music reminds you of your own? Do you see any heiresses out there?
Not too many, really. I mean, I love other people I’ve worked with like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. I like the Raveonettes and Amy Winehouse I love. I do one of her songs, “Back to Black.” I do like some rap, but with so much of it I can’t understand the words.
Congratulations on being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. How did that feel for you? What was the experience of the induction ceremony like?
I got so nervous [at the ceremony]. I still haven’t felt the impact of [being inducted]. I played with Paul Schaffer and my band, but when [presenter Keith Richards] gave me my award I just got it and ran off the stage. It was really hectic. We did “Walking in the Rain” in the sound check and Sammy Hagar was there, and he came up to me afterward and he had tears in his eyes and was telling me how moved he was—and that was just the sound check!
Your most recent album was 2006’s The Last of the Rock Stars (High Coin Records). Have you been working on a follow-up, or are there any other studio projects in the works?
That album only came out in England but now we’re working to get it out in America. But I’m writing new songs, too. I recorded a new song called “True” with Keith Richards six months ago. [Sings chorus.] It sounds great!
The process of putting the show together certainly must have had you reflecting on your life and long career. Looking back, how does it feel?
I tell you, it blows my mind. It really does. It’s amazing, even I can’t believe it. It’s like a dream. I had so much of my career taken away from me for so long and was hidden away for years by someone who was obsessed with me. But this is what I do—I was meant to perform.