How Ronnie Spector’s outlaw spirit and sound has echoed down the music generations

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

Though Ronnie Spector died on Wednesday, aged 78, all the signs are there that, culturally speaking, she is not going anywhere. Not if the past near 60 years are anything to go by.

The tributes keep coming: Keith Richards, Brian Wilson, Darlene Love, Joan Jett, Elvis Costello. Patti Smith wrote: “Farewell, little fireball.” Ronnie Spector isn’t just part of rock’n’roll history, she’s the staples holding it all together. As lead singer of the Ronettes, she was barely out of her teens when she was influencing the influencers.

The Beatles courted her. Jimi Hendrix played with her. The Rolling Stones opened for her. She and Richards, for a time lovers, became life-long friends. She was also linked with David Bowie, a long-time admirer. Friends included everyone from Dusty Springfield to Aretha Franklin. Wilson famously had to pull his car over to avoid crashing when he first heard the Ronettes’ 1963 classic, Be My Baby; he went on to listen to it obsessively, declaring it “the greatest record ever produced”.

With a heritage that was part-African American, Irish and Cherokee – she grew up in Spanish Harlem, New York City – she ended up embraced across the musical genres, including the New York punks: Smith; Lou Reed; Joey Ramone was a super-fan. Madonna said: “I want to look like Ronnie Spector sounds.” Amy Winehouse revered and emulated her, from the teetering beehive to the missing-a-skin delivery. So much influence, so eclectically spread, pulsing through the decades.

Spector kept working and collaborating throughout her life – Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Johnny Thunders, the Misfits – but you get the feeling that, even if she’d spent the years slumped on a beanbag watching daytime soaps, her influence wouldn’t – couldn’t – have stopped spreading.

Is this the essence, the triumph, of Ronnie Spector: that she’s of the past but not trapped by it? Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett and the other Ronettes, her sister, Estelle, their cousin Nedra Talley, revolutionised the concept of demure, proto-virginal girl groups: eyes caked with mascara and winged with liner, in heels and tight skirts, they were the unapologetic bad girls, the dirty stop-outs, the glorious walk of shame of 1960s pop.

She was raw, passionate, distinct – an alley cat sharpening her claws on every note

Ronnie’s spirit couldn’t be homogenised or airbrushed away. Her vocals pushed and fought, wildly riding the music. Even embedded in the silvery landscapes of the Ronettes’ most celebrated songs (Be My Baby; Baby, I Love You; Walking in the Rain), she was raw, passionate, distinct – an alley cat sharpening her claws on every note.

It’s this quality – provocation, rebellion, outlaw spirit – that can be sensed filtering through in a diverse slew of later groups and artists, from the Runaways, Chrissie Hynde, TLC, the Bangles, the Go-Gos, Destiny’s Child, B-52s, Neneh Cherry and Poly Styrene, to Pussycat Dolls, Hole, Beyoncé and Solange. Rihanna, Dua Lipa, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion. Ariane Grande nicked her styling and delivery. Billie Eilish, in darker, wittier moments, is a direct Ronnie descendant. Though not everyone is, of course: Adele, for instance, has a direct, emotionally targeted style. Ronnie was different. Sometimes her voice said “yes” but her eyes said “maybe” and her attitude said “nah!”. She was gifted with tonal clarity, but she used it to mess with you.

Then there was her spirit. Ronnie spent 15 years wresting back Ronettes money, saying: “It was about winning back me. I gave birth to those songs in the studio.” Thus, we come, inevitably, to her first husband and “Wall of Sound” producer, Phil Spector. An undeniable talent, he was also a major-league controlling abuser. As detailed in her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby, he beat Ronnie, threatened her, isolated her, frightened her by showing her a coffin she’d be inhabiting if she tried to leave. He surrounded the house with barbed wire, adopted children without telling her, bought her a car and then made her travel with a dummy that looked like him. This appalling abuse, and more, was rendered even darker when Spector was convicted of fatally shooting the actress Lana Clarkson (in the mouth) in 2003, for which he was eventually found guilty of second-degree murder and sent to prison, where he died on this day last year.

You might ask: why did Ronnie keep his surname? Well, why not? She’d earned her right to use what was essentially her international stage name. Just as it’s a powerful statement to junk an abuser’s surname, arguably so is using it, showing you’re not scared of it. (See also Tina Turner: another who ditched the abuser and kept the name.) What mattered was that Ronnie overcame her own alcohol demons, and escaped, even though Phil Spector hid all her shoes. And that she found lasting happiness with Jonathan Greenfield, who became her manager and with whom she had more children.

Phil Spector never managed to wholly define her, nor subdue or distort her legacy

For all the horror Phil Spector put Ronnie through, for all that they encapsulated a sound together, he never managed to wholly define her, nor subdue or distort her legacy, either as Battered Rock Woman or Interchangeable Songbird.

Unsurprisingly, Ronnie was all for feminism and the #MeToo movement. She also publicly supported Taylor Swift when she took on her old record label boss, Scooter Braun, for using her material.

Was Ronnie born out of time? It’s a big question: if she managed to achieve all she did back then in the bad, old (uber-chauvinistic) days, what might she have accomplished now as a 20-year-old? Or maybe she belonged right where she was: dynamic, unstoppable, her appeal straddling the genres, paving the way for the Chrissies and the Pattis, the Beyoncés and the Amys, the Taylors and the Billies, and whatever spirited lionheart comes next. It’s the nature of true legend: lightning, not caught in a bottle, not confined, but flashing forward, inspiring new generations. That’s the thing about originals like Ronnie Spector: they never date, so they never die.

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist