Ronnie Spector is the ex-wife of the infamous and recently passed music producer, Phil Spector. As a member of the Ronettes, Ronnie Spector had a successful career that continues to span decades. But, being married to one of the most notorious men in the music industry had its pros and cons. Phil Spector helped Ronnie and the Ronettes achieve huge acclaim with numerous hits. On the other hand, their relationship was incredibly toxic and may have cost Ronnie even larger success.
Ronnie recently spoke up about the death of her quote “lousy husband”. Surprisingly, though, her relationship with Phil Spector only represents a fraction of the tragedies and hardships that she experienced throughout her lifetime. In this video, we’re taking a look at Ronnie Spector’s tragic life, and how she was able to separate herself from her ex-husband’s scandalous image and controlling grasp.
Early Struggles for Ronnie Spector
Ronnie Spector was born Ronnie Bennett in New York City. As a child of an interracial relationship, Ronnie struggled to find acceptance from her peers. She quickly found solace in music, which she claims saved her from a lonely life. Ronnie soon discovered her distinctive voice and singing became her biggest passion. As she developed her early relationship with music, she became infatuated with teen sensation Frankie Lymon, from the group The Teenagers.
Lymon was an African-American singer also from Harlem. He wasn’t much older than Ronnie himself, but had already started out on a recording career. Ronnie loved his voice and realized by listening to him that she too could make it as a singer.
Frankie Lymon, though, was about to disappoint Ronnie. He turned up at her house one day smelling of alcohol. Ronnie’s father also struggled with alcohol dependency, and after witnessing both of these male figures struggle, Ronnie vowed she would never let alcohol or drugs dominate her life.
Still, she was determined to make music her profession, and she encouraged others to join her. She was able to persuade her sister Estelle and her cousin Nedra to form a group with her, which they called The Darling Sisters. Shortly after, they would rename themselves the Ronettes.
The Ronettes were able to differentiate themselves from other groups thanks to their distinctive look. Ronnie’s sister Estelle had experience in the fashion industry, and she influenced the others to adopt this look. With big hair, dark eyeliner and eye-catching dresses, The Ronettes quickly caught the attention of the industry.
During the 1960s The Ronettes toured with a host of singers and groups who went on to become big names. These included Eric Clapton, David Bowie, The Beatles, The Yardbirds and The Kinks. Ronnie became especially friendly with Jimi Hendrix, naming him as one of her closest friends. Jimi’s death in 1970 hit Ronnie hard, and she mused in later years that so many great musicians and singers that she knew died young.
But with their rapid success, it wasn’t long before the Ronettes were approached by legendary record producer Phil Spector. He thought they were an ideal group to benefit from his approach to music production. He had already established himself as a giant in the music industry with his unique “Wall of Sound” approach.
The first record they released with Phil Spector was “Be My Baby” which was followed by “Do I Love You”. Other hits like “Walking in the Rain”, “Baby I Love You” and “The Best Part of Breakin’ Up”, shortly followed.
With Phil Spector producing their records, The Ronettes became even more successful and many of their records are now considered to be classics.
In 1967, The Ronettes embarked on a European tour that took them to West Germany where they entertained American troops in the town of Geinhausen. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the response they had hoped for from this tour and the preceding album. The group decided to go their separate ways, and each of the members took the opportunity to settle down. Ronnie, of course, ended up marrying Phil Spector in 1968.
Marriage to Phil Spector
The happiness between Phil and Ronnie was short-lived. Ronnie became increasingly forced into isolation by her husband. Phil’s mental state suffered as his career began to recede.
It was not long before Phil Spector became possessive and jealous. Ronnie was essentially kept prisoner in their Los Angeles mansion. Phil demanded to know what she was doing at all times, and even installed surveillance equipment throughout their house. As Phil’s sanity became more and more precarious, his treatment of her worsened. He threatened to have her killed by a hitman if she left him. She was forced to abandon singing, which is what hurt her the most.
Phil’s abuse brought on depression and Ronnie finally turned to alcohol to help her cope. This went against her own resolution as a teenager and showed just how bad her situation was.
But Ronnie wasn’t completely alone. At the time of their marriage, the couple had adopted a mixed-race child. Shortly after, Phil adopted twin boys without even telling Ronnie or consulting her before the decision. He treated them as a surprise Christmas present. Ronnie was furious, especially because Phil abused all three of the boys. They were prisoners just like her.
In 1971, Phil Spector was the head of the Apple Records A&R department, and he took Ronnie to London to work with George Harrison at the Abbey Road Studios. She released the single “Try Some, Buy Some” but it was not a chart success. Other singles were recorded and an album was planned but nothing was released.
Ronnie’s marriage to Phil Spector was becoming increasingly abusive. Apart from the psychological abuse she endured, Phil subjected her to physical threats. He pulled a gun on her frequently, took her shoes away to prevent her from running away and actively destroyed her career by forbidding her to perform on many occasions. He even went to the extent of erecting barbed wire around the mansion and bringing in guard dogs to keep her in. She also claimed that Phil had a glass-topped coffin in the basement of the mansion. This was to remind her that he could easily kill her and put her body on display.
By 1972, Ronnie was in a particularly depressed state and her mother was inspired to act. Between them, they were able to devise a plan for Ronnie to escape from the mansion. The escape was incredibly risky, as no one was sure how Phil would react if he found out what was happening. Luckily, the plan worked, and Ronnie got away. Ronnie fled back to her home in New York.
Once she was safe in New York, she was able to think clearly and planned to resume her career. In 1974, she and Phil Spector divorced and she had the freedom to sing again. She did, however, continue to use her married name as her professional name.
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Life After Phil Spector
Her first project was to reform The Ronettes, but without her cousin and sister. The group was called Ronnie Spector and The Ronettes, but the handful of singles they released all failed to chart. By 1975 Ronnie was pursuing a solo career. That year she released “You’d Be Good for Me”.
In 1976, Ronnie sang with Southside Johnny on a song written by Bruce Springsteen, titled “You Mean So Much to Me”. The song appeared as the last track on the debut album of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes titled “I Don’t Want To Go Home”. This gave her the opportunity to appear at concerts with the band during their 1977 tour. Her repertoire included her cover of the Billy Joel song “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” which owed much to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”.
Ronnie was back doing what she loved and had always dreamed of doing – singing. One of the great surprises for Ronnie was how she inspired others. Both Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen were in awe of Ronnie, and Bruce even suggested he write an entire album for her. That never came to pass but Ronnie was flattered by the respect and love others had for her.
In 1980 Ronnie recorded a solo album “Siren”. This didn’t make any impact on the charts, partly because she was seen as an “oldie” performer.
As part of her campaign to get her career up and running again, Ronnie gave up alcohol. Her dependency had begun while she was married to Phil Spector, but now she was free of him and free of alcohol.
In the 1980s she married again, this time to Jonathan Greenfield. He now acts as her manager and they have two children. In 1986 she achieved a chart hit when she sang on “Take Me Home Tonight” with Eddie Money. Ronnie was back!
Another solo album followed in 1987 called “Unfinished Business”. Unfortunately, it made no impression on the charts. The new century, though, saw Ronnie perform backing vocals on two tracks on The Misfits album “Project 1950”. She also guested on the album “Pretty in Black” by The Raveonettes and then in 2006 released another solo album “Last of the Rock Stars”.
In 2007 The Ronettes were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This honor added to Ronnie’s growing confidence that her work as a singer was important, and had inspired many other performers. Interestingly, Phil Spector objected to this induction, although that did not prevent it from going ahead. At the time, Phil was on trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson, whom he shot at his mansion in California. After a retrial, Phil Spector was found guilty of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 19 years in jail. He died in January 2021 at the age of 81 while still imprisoned.
In 2009 tragedy struck again when Ronnie’s sister Estelle died. The two sisters were very close and Estelle had been badly affected when The Ronettes broke up. The situation was further exacerbated while Ronnie was trapped in her marriage to Phil Spector. Estelle’s mental health had suffered during this period.
2011 brought more tragedy for Ronnie. The death of Amy Winehouse was particularly sad for Ronnie, as Amy had modelled her look after Ronnie and the rest of her group. Ronnie’s piled hair and heavy mascara inspired Amy’s look, but she also pitched her performances to emulate Ronnie’s stage presence.
Ronnie released her version of Amy’s song “Back to Black” as her tribute to the deceased star. The proceeds of this record were given to an addiction centre called Daytop Village in New York City. In 2015, Ronnie undertook a British tour and featured her version of the song as part of the act.
Subsequent to Amy’s death, Ronnie became close to Amy’s mother. They remain close friends. Ronnie, in turn, was inspired by Amy. She now knew that what she did mattered to so many other people.
In 2016, Ronnie released her most recent solo album “English Heart” which comprises covers of songs by, among others, The Bee Gees, The Zombies and The Beatles. This album reached number 6 on the Billboard chart and was noteworthy for being her first album containing new material in ten years.
In 2017 a new single made its appearance; called “Love Power” it is performed by Ronnie Spector and The Ronettes. Therefore it is the first single by The Ronettes since the mid 1970s. And this is how we end the story with a fresh start!
Retirement does not seem to be in her plans just yet – in fact she has been quoted as saying “rock and roll will have to retire me.”
Ronnie Spector’s life and career has had its triumphs and tragedies. The early years she outlined in a memoir called Be My Baby Now: How I survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness. This has now been used as the source for a film of Ronnie’s early life. In September 2020, Zendaya was named as the actress chosen to play Ronnie. You may remember Zendaya from her role in the Marvel film, “Spiderman: Far From Home”.
Ronnie Spector’s story is filled with both success and sadness. She was able to fulfill her dream of being a singer, yet her private life saw sadness and tragedy.
Now we’d like to hear from you. What do you remember most from Ronnie Spector’s career? Her timeless hits, or her friendships with others in the industry? Let us know in the comments! And if you enjoyed this video, don’t forget to click the like button. Be sure to subscribe to Facts Verse and click the notification bell for more videos like this.