Born Veronica Yvette Bennett in New York City, Ronnie Spector was the lead vocalist of The Ronettes, with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra on backing vocals. They had some massive hits in the 1960’s, including “Walking In the Rain,” “Baby, I Love You” and, of course, “Be My Baby.” That last number is possibly the best known example of producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, a recording formula that incorporated multiple guitarists playing in unison, full string and horn sections, the unusually reverberant echo chamber of L.A.’s Gold Star Studios, and a band of the best studio musicians in the business—The Wrecking Crew. It all came together to create mono recordings that didn’t lose their grandeur, even when played through the tinny speakers of transistor radios. That sound would have a profound influence on the Beach Boys, The Beatles, and countless others.
Phil Spector was a genius, but a mad one. The Ronettes broke up in 1967 and Ronnie married Phil in 1968. It didn’t take long for his possessive, threatening type of madness to surface. According to her autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, Ronnie was essentially kept prisoner in Phil’s mansion. He’d hide her shoes to keep her from leaving, and showed her a a glass-topped, gold coffin that he kept in the basement. Ostensibly, it was for her—if she were ever to leave, he threatened to find her, kill her, and put her on display. In 1972, she broke through a sliding glass door and, shoeless, left the mansion for good. She quickly filed for divorce, which was granted two years later.
“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” was written and recorded by Billy Joel for his 1976 album Turnstiles. It was a veiled tribute to Ronnie and the strength that it took to break out and start over. In 1977 she recorded the song herself, with some help from the E Street Band. Bruce Springsteen was stuck in industry contract limbo at the time and couldn’t legally put his name on the project, but he did manage to play rhythm guitar and offer some production assistance. Still, the real mastermind in the studio was “Little” Steven Van Zandt—or “Sugar Miami Steve,” as he chose to name himself here. The sound is big and lush—maybe not a Wall of Sound, but still pretty impressive. Clarence Clemons is especially powerful, his saxophone coming in hard on the heels of Max Weinberg’s opening snare hits and acting as a kind of backing vocal all the way through. Interestingly, the strings are high up in the mix, making this version of the song more commercial than Billy Joel’s leaner original. Maybe that was an attempt at recapturing the Phil Spector sound, or maybe it was just an attempt at making the song a hit; strings were all over pop radio in 1977. Either way, this version stands on its own merits and is still a joy to hear.
“Baby Please Don’t Go” was written by Steven Van Zandt and makes better use of the orchestral arrangements, adding majesty to the tale of regret over losing someone you love. Clemons’ solo around the 3:00 mark is short and sweet, bleeding into the same kind of backing vocal/Greek chorus role that he played on side A. Gorgeous.
Ronnie Spector has recorded sporadically since then, but she continues to perform to this day. She made some great music with Joey Ramone before he died, and she recently recorded an excellent—and very current-sounding—cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” with the proceeds going to addiction treatment centers. 50 years after debut, Ronnie Spector remains a class act.