The Ronettes in a promotional photo, 1966
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|Origin||New York City, New York, U.S.|
The Ronettes were an American girl group from New York City. One of the most popular groups from the 1960s, they placed nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became Top 40 hits. The trio from Spanish Harlem, New York, consisted of lead singer Veronica Bennett (later known as Ronnie Spector), her older sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley. Among the Ronettes' most famous songs are "Be My Baby", "Baby, I Love You", "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up", and "Walking in the Rain", all of which charted on the Billboard Hot 100. "Walking in the Rain" won a Grammy Award in 1965, and "Be My Baby" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
The girls had sung together since they were teenagers, when they were known as "The Darling Sisters". Signed first by Colpix Records in 1961, they moved to Phil Spector's Philles Records in March 1963, and changed their name to "The Ronettes". In late 1964, the group released their only studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, which entered the Billboard charts at number 96. Rolling Stone ranked it number 422 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The group were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004. The Ronettes were the only girl group to tour with the Beatles.
- 1 The early years (1950–61)
- 2 Colpix Records and The Peppermint Lounge (1961–63)
- 3 Phil Spector and Philles Records (1963–66)
- 4 The group's initial break-up
- 5 Later events
- 6 Awards and recognition
- 7 Discography
- 8 Pop references
- 9 References
- 10 Sources
- 11 External links
The early years (1950–61)
The Ronettes began as a family act where the girls grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan. According to Nedra Talley, they started singing during childhood visits to their grandmother's home. "Estelle and Veronica are sisters," she said in a later interview. "I'm their cousin. Our mothers are sisters. We came out of a family that, on Saturday nights, home for us was at our grandmother's, entertaining each other." The Bennetts' mother was African-American and Cherokee; their father was Irish-American. Their cousin, Nedra Talley, is African-American and Puerto Rican.
"By the time I was eight, I was already working up whole numbers for our family's little weekend shows," Ronnie Spector later recalled. "Then Estelle would get up onstage and do a song, or she'd join Nedra or my cousin Elaine and me in a number we'd worked out in three-part harmony."
Furthering their interest in show business, Estelle was enrolled at Startime, a popular dancing school in the 1950s, while Ronnie became fascinated with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. In 1957, Ronnie formed the group which would later become known as the Ronettes. Composed of Ronnie, her sister Estelle, and their cousins Nedra, Diane, and Elaine, the five girls learned how to perfect their harmonies first at their grandmother's house, and they became proficient in songs such as “Goodnight Sweetheart” and “Red Red Robin”. Emulating Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the girls added their male cousin Ira to the group, and were signed up for a Wednesday-night amateur show at the Apollo Theatre by a friend of Ronnie and Estelle's mother. The show started out as a disaster; when the house band started playing Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", Ira didn't sing a word, so Ronnie took over. "I strutted out across the stage, singing as loud as I could," Ronnie later recalled. "When I finally heard a few hands of scattered applause, I sang even louder. That brought a little more applause, which was all I needed."
Colpix Records and The Peppermint Lounge (1961–63)
After their night at the Apollo, Ira, Elaine and Diane left the group. Renaming themselves "Ronnie and the Relatives", Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra began taking singing lessons two afternoons a week. Appearing at local bar mitzvahs and sock hops, they met Phil Halikus, who introduced them to Colpix Records producer Stu Phillips.
According to Ronnie, Phillips played the piano while the girls auditioned for him, singing "What's So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen". Successful, they were brought into the studio in June 1961 and recorded four tracks: "I Want a Boy", "What's So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen", "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead" and "My Guiding Angel". Colpix released "I Want a Boy" in August 1961 and "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead" in January 1962, the first singles credited to Ronnie and the Relatives.
While both singles failed to chart on the Billboard Top 100, fate intervened in advancing the group's success. A fortuitous case of mistaken identity led to Ronnie and the Relatives making their debut – as dancers rather than a singing act – at New York City's hip Peppermint Lounge in 1961. It was the height of the Twist craze and the underage Nedra and Ronnie needed to disguise themselves to get in. The girls' mothers showed them how to put on make-up and fix their hair to make them look at least 23. When they arrived outside the club its manager mistook Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra for the trio supposed to dance behind house band Joey Dee and the Starliters. They followed him in, were brought up on stage, and performed in their place. During the show, Starliter David Brigati even handed the mic over to Ronnie when she started to sing Ray Charles's "What'd I Say."
Soon afterward, Ronnie and the Relatives became a permanent act at the Peppermint Lounge, earning $10 a night per girl to dance the Twist and usually sing a song at some point in the show. Ronnie and the Relatives then became the Ronettes.
Later that year they were flown down to Miami to open up a Florida branch of the Peppermint Lounge. Colpix issued the first two singles credited to the Ronettes, "Silhouettes" and a re-issue of "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead", on its May label in April and June 1962, respectively. Both singles failed to chart.
After their performance at the Miami gala, radio host Murray the K came backstage and introduced himself to the act. He wanted the girls to begin appearing at his shows at the Brooklyn Fox in New York. They agreed, taking the Fox stage in 1962 and completing a transition from Murray the K's "Dancing Girls", to back-up singing for other acts, to performing as the Ronettes before the year's end.
It was during this time the girls evolved their iconic look, wearing ever more exaggerated eye make-up and teasing their hair to impossible proportions. "We'd look pretty wild by the time we got out onstage," Ronnie later recalled, "and the kids loved it."
Colpix's May label issued one final single by the Ronettes in March 1963. When "Good Girls" failed to chart, the girls decided it was time to look elsewhere for studio work.
Phil Spector and Philles Records (1963–66)
In early 1963, fed up with Colpix Records and the group's lack of success, Estelle placed a phone call to producer Phil Spector, telling him of the Ronettes, and how they would like to audition for him. Spector agreed, and met the girls soon after at Mira Sound Studios in New York City. Later, Spector told Ronnie that he had seen them at the Brooklyn Fox several times, and was impressed with their performances. At the audition, Spector sat at a piano while the group began singing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", when he suddenly jumped up from his seat and shouted: "That's it! That's it! That's the voice I've been looking for!"
After their successful audition, Spector decided to sign the group. Originally, he wanted to sign Ronnie as a solo act, until her mother told him either he signed the Ronettes as a group or it was no deal. He agreed to sign the group, and instructed Ronnie's mother to inform Colpix Records that the girls had "given up" on show business, in order for the studio to let them out of their contract. By March 1963, the group was officially signed to Spector's Philles Records.
The first song the Ronettes rehearsed and recorded with Phil Spector was a song by Spector, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich called "Why Don't They Let Us Fall in Love". They were brought out to California to make the record, but, once it was complete, Spector refused to release it. They recorded more songs for Spector, including covers of "The Twist", "The Wah Watusi" (lead vocals by Nedra), "Mashed Potato Time" and "Hot Pastrami". These four songs were released, but were credited to The Crystals on their 1963 Philles LP The Crystals Sing The Greatest Hits, Volume 1.
"Be My Baby"
After being denied a release of their first recording, and having the credit for their next four recordings going to another group, the Ronettes went to work on the Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich song "Be My Baby". The Ronettes recorded "Be My Baby" in July 1963, and it was released in August. By the fall of that year it had become a top 10 hit, peaking at number two on the Billboard Top 100. "Our lives were turned upside down," Ronnie later recalled. "All the things I'd ever dreamed about were finally coming true."
"Be My Baby" turned out to be a huge record for the Ronettes. Radio stations constantly played the song throughout fall of 1963, and the Ronettes were invited to tour the country with Dick Clark on his "Caravan of Stars" tour. "Be My Baby" inspired a legion of Ronettes fans, including Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, who wrote "Don't Worry Baby" as a tribute to the group.
The song is also notable for being the first recording work by Cher, who performed back-up vocals with Estelle, Nedra and Sonny on the song. The girlfriend of Sonny Bono at the time (who was then working for Phil Spector), Cher was asked to join the back-up singers when one of them didn't show up for the recording that day. "'Be My Baby' was the first record I ever sang on," Cher later wrote. "... I went out and stood in front of this big speaker and sang 'be my, be my baby' with the Ronettes and all these other singers."
"Baby, I Love You"
After the overnight success of their first Phil Spector single, Spector was eager to do a follow-up with the Ronettes. He wrote "Baby, I Love You" again with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and urged the Ronettes to leave New York for California to record the song at Spector's Gold Star Studios. A problem arose because the Ronettes were scheduled to leave for Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars" tour across the United States. In lieu of having the Ronettes skip the Dick Clark tour, Spector decided to have Estelle and Nedra do the tour with their cousin, Elaine, who was a former member of the group. Ronnie left for California to record "Baby, I Love You" with Darlene Love, Cher, and Sonny substituting for Estelle and Nedra on the backing vocals.
"Baby, I Love You" had an even denser arrangement, featuring Leon Russell on piano. The song was recorded in the early fall of 1963 and released in November that year. It was slightly less successful, reaching #24 Pop, #6 R&B in the United States and #11 in the United Kingdom.
A Christmas Gift for You
All three Ronettes, along with every other artist who was signed with Phil Spector in 1963, helped him complete his now-classic Christmas LP A Christmas Gift for You. The Ronettes recorded three songs for the album: "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Frosty the Snowman," and, "Sleigh Ride." All the artists sang on the album's finale, "Silent Night", which opened with a spoken message from Phil Spector, thanking everyone for buying the record.
In his desire for absolute perfection on the album, Spector pushed his artists to belt out their lyrics as powerfully as they could. "The Christmas album was the one where I'd thought I'd lost it mentally." Nedra later said. "I heard the parts. I swore I'd put them down, but they said it wasn't on the tape."
The album was not a success upon its initial release but has become considerably more popular since. It was re-released by Apple Records in 1972 and reached No. 6 on Billboard′s list of Christmas Albums that year.
British tour, "Breakin' Up" and "Do I Love You?"
The Ronettes left for their first tour of the UK in January 1964, where they made a strong impact from the very beginning. "We must have been quite a sight in the Heathrow waiting room," Ronnie Spector later recalled, "three black American girls sitting with their legs all crossed the same way, our three identical, enormous hairdos piled a foot or so over our heads. When our young chaperon finally showed up, he was all smiles."
On their first night in the UK, the Ronettes were taken to a party at Tony Hall's house where they were introduced to the Beatles. After a brief romance together, Ronnie and John Lennon remained friends until Lennon's death. Estelle also dated George Harrison. But for Ronnie, one of the biggest thrills was meeting Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who were the opening act for the Ronettes on their UK tour. The feeling was mutually shared by Richards, who wrote of his relationship with Ronnie: "The first time I ever went to heaven was when I awoke with Ronnie (later Spector!) Bennett asleep with a smile on her face. We were kids. It doesn't get any better than that."
When the Ronettes returned home from their British tour, they went right back into the studio to record "Keep on Dancing" and "Girls Can Tell", two songs written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector. The group's recording of "Keep on Dancing" is notable because it features Ronnie and Nedra singing in unison, but Spector refused to release the single. Around this time, the Crystals also recorded a version of "Girls Can Tell", which also went unreleased.
"(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up" was subsequently recorded by the Ronettes. According to Ronnie, Spector was especially enthusiastic about the song. "When Phil loved a song as much as he loved '(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up,'" she later wrote, "he could work on it for days without ever getting tired." Released in April 1964, the song did not fare as well as the group's previous two singles, though it did manage to briefly break into the Billboard Top 40.
In June 1964, the group's following single, "Do I Love You?", was released, also breaking into the Top 40, beating their previous single by five positions. The song is most notable for its powerful instrumental opening, accompanied by finger snapping and hand clapping.
"Walking in the Rain"
As the British Invasion took full force on the American music scene in 1964, the Ronettes were one of few groups that were able to maintain their relevance. The group had made friends with the Beatles when they first toured the UK in January 1964. The Ronettes had even been asked by John Lennon to accompany the Beatles on their flight to America on February 7, 1964, but Spector denied the Ronettes the opportunity to do so.
Throughout 1964, the Ronettes appeared on numerous television shows such as Shindig!, American Bandstand, Hullabaloo, and British TV show Ready, Steady, Go! As the popularity of other groups such as the Crystals, the Marvelettes, and the Angels began to wane, that of the Ronettes continued to grow.
In the summer of 1964, Ronnie went into the studio to record her lead on the group's next single, "Walking in the Rain". She later recalled that the writers – Phil Spector, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil – were still adjusting the lyrics right up to the minute she recorded it. Ronnie recalled Phil placing headphones on her and telling her to listen closely. "Everything was quiet," she later wrote, "Then all of a sudden I heard a low rumble, like there was thunder coming from every corner of the room." The thunder was used for the introduction, and was featured prominently throughout the remainder of the song, the only one of which Ronnie recorded in a single take.
"Walking in the Rain" became the group's most successful single since "Be My Baby" (released over a year earlier), and peaked at #23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Following the successful release of "Walking in the Rain," Philles Records released the group's first studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica, in late 1964. The album proved to be slightly successful, peaking at #96 on the Billboard charts, but it is notable for being the first evidence of Phil Spector publicly promoting lead singer Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett over Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley. Every Ronettes single after this referred to the group as "The Ronettes featuring Veronica" on the record labels.
Decline in popularity
With the success of "Walking in the Rain," the popularity of the group had clearly peaked. In February 1965, Philles Records released the group's next single, "Born to Be Together", which only reached number 52 on the Billboard 100.
Over the course of the next year, the Ronettes recorded a whole catalog of songs, which Phil Spector refused to release once they were completed. Many attribute this to his insecurities and his love for the group's lead singer, Ronnie. As the popularity of the Ronettes became greater and greater, the relationship between Spector and Ronnie became more serious, to the point of which they were basically living together. Spector then decided he didn't want Ronnie and the Ronettes to become too popular, in fear they would one day outgrow him. So he tried to reverse the whole star-making process by not releasing the records the Ronettes were contractually obligated to make. This allowed for Motown group The Supremes to rise in popularity, and eclipse the Ronettes as the most popular girl group in the music industry.
Among the songs the Ronettes recorded during this time that went unreleased were "Paradise", "Everything Under the Sun" and "I Wish I Never Saw the Sun Shine". All three songs individually have since been covered by other artists such as The Shangri-Las, The Supremes, and Ike and Tina Turner, among others.
Perhaps their biggest loss was the Spector, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich song "Chapel of Love", which the Ronettes recorded in early 1964. They were the first to record their version of the song, but Spector refused to release it as a single. Their version of the song eventually did come out of their Philles LP, but by then The Dixie Cups had already achieved mainstream notoriety for it. "We thought it was such a great record that we practically begged [Phil Spector] to put it out," Ronnie Spector later wrote. "Then the Dixie Cups' version came out and it was a smash! It was so depressing."
In June 1965, the Ronettes' next single, "Is This What I Get For Loving You?", was released, becoming only a minor hit, reaching only number 75 on the Billboard 100. The song was popular enough for the group to make appearances on the popular TV shows Hullabaloo, Hollywood A Go-Go and Shivaree, but it was a failed attempt to get the Ronettes another top ten hit, especially when The Supremes scored their fifth consecutive number-one record with "Back in My Arms Again".
Some have also attributed the decline of the Ronettes' recording career to the fact Phil Spector was not enthusiastic over his promotion of the group, which stemmed from his insecurities about his intimate relationship with Ronnie.
There were also some problems within the group. "You also have to remember that Nedra and Estelle stood in the background while I got to bask in the spotlight," Ronnie later wrote. "I was the one who flew out to California and sang lead on all our records. I was the one deejays wanted to talk to. And I was the one our producer was in love with, which meant I get the preferential treatment in all kinds of other ways which drove them crazy."
"I hated the 'dog-eat-dog' side of show-business," Nedra Talley later commented. "I hated pushing for the next record and the feeling of failure if we didn't get it. There was a continual demand on us to produce that I thought was unfair. My personality didn't like that." Nedra's disdain for show business also became partly fueled by her desire to marry and settle down with her boyfriend, DJ Scott Ross.
Opening for the Beatles
After "Is This What I Get for Loving You?" was released in June 1965, over a year passed before the group's next single was released. "I Can Hear Music", written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, was issued in October 1966, barely making it into the Billboard 100 by peaking at number 100 for exactly one week before it fell off the charts. The song was covered by The Beach Boys in 1969 with much greater success. The Ronettes 1966 original version of the song was produced by Jeff Barry.
From the start of their career, the Ronettes were always a popular live act. After "Be My Baby", the group became headliners at several Murray the K Holiday Shows in NYC, and did package tours in the US and England. By late 1965, even without a recent hit, the group continued to make appearances at popular night clubs, on television shows, grace the covers of music magazines and be featured on The Big TNT Show, which was produced by Phil Spector as a concert that was filmed and released as a TV movie.
In August 1966, the Ronettes teamed up with the Beatles for a 14-city tour across America. Phil Spector became so enraged when Ronnie expressed a desire to accompany Estelle and Nedra on the tour that Ronnie was forced to remain in California with him while the girls' cousin Elaine, who had previously been in the group, filled her slot on the tour, while Nedra assumed the lead vocals on stage. A picture published in the November 1966 issue of Ebony Magazine showed Nedra Talley singing lead, while Estelle and Elaine stood behind her singing harmony.
The group's initial break-up
After their tour with the Beatles ended and "I Can Hear Music" failed to make an impact, the Ronettes left for a tour in Germany in early 1967, after which they agreed to break up and go their separate ways. Soon afterward Nedra Talley married her boyfriend Scott Ross, Ronnie married Phil Spector, and Estelle Bennett settled down with Joe Dong, a long-time boyfriend.
According to her accounts, Phil Spector kept Ronnie a near-prisoner in their 23-room mansion in California. He brought her into the studio only once during their marriage. During this session, which took place in early 1969 at A&M Records, she recorded "You Came, You Saw, You Conquered!" The song was released in March 1969, failing to make an impact on the radio stations, which were now playing the music in the style of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick.
Later in 1969, Ronnie and Estelle were invited into the studio by Jimi Hendrix to record backing vocals on "Earth Blues". Their work on the song earned the Ronettes a credit on the LP Rainbow Bridge.
The Ronettes briefly return
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Ronnie left Phil on June 12, 1972. The couple's divorce was finalized two years later in 1974. As she made an attempt to restore her career, she decided to reform the Ronettes. Nedra had no interest in returning to the group, and Estelle mentally could no longer handle the burden of performing due to her struggle with mental illness. Ronnie then replaced them with Chip Fields (mother of The Facts of Life and Living Single star Kim Fields) and Denise Edwards. Ronnie, Chip, and Denise recorded some songs for Buddah Records in the mid-1970s, one of which was a cover of "I Wish I Never Saw the Sun Shine", a song Ronnie had first done in 1965, though Phil Spector had refused to release it.
The stint at Buddah Records did not prove to be successful, though the group made several tours together throughout the 1970s. By the end of the decade, however, Ronnie had abandoned the idea of continuing the Ronettes, and decided to begin her solo career.
In 1988, the original Ronettes sued Phil Spector for nonpayment of royalties. In 2001, a New York court announced a verdict in favor of the Ronettes, ordering Spector to pay $3,000,000 dollars in back royalties. The judgment was overturned by the Court of Appeals in 2002 and remanded back to the Supreme Court. The final outcome had Spector paying a judgment in excess of 1.5 million dollars to the Ronettes.
Awards and recognition
The Ronettes' influence on music was significant. In addition to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen have both cited Ronnie Bennett as an influence. Recently, their fashion style was emulated popularly by British musician Amy Winehouse.
The Ronettes won a Grammy Award in 1965 for "Walking in the Rain". The Ronettes were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for "Be My Baby" in 1999. The Ronettes were also inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004, and the People's Hall of Rock and Roll Legends in 2010.
It was reported that Phil Spector, in his capacity as a member of the Board of Governors, resisted the Ronettes (and Darlene Love) being nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although they had been eligible for a considerable time. The alleged reasons included the acrimonious divorce of Ronnie and Spector, in addition to the group's having unsuccessfully sued Spector for back royalties. Spector claimed that, apart from Ronnie, the other group members did not appear on their records, and that they did not make the contribution required for induction. While Spector was awaiting trial on a murder charge and out on $1 million bail, the Ronettes were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, 2007, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Keith Richards, a longtime fan, inducted the trio. Ronnie Bennett (Spector) and Nedra Talley performed "Baby I Love You", "Walking in the Rain" and "Be My Baby". Estelle Bennett was present to accept her award, but was not well enough to perform, so Tricia Scotti (a regular backup singer with Ronnie) took her place behind the microphone.
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- Ronnette is the name of one of the girl group-inspired street urchin characters in the musical Little Shop of Horrors.
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