Ronnie Spector, Legendary Voice of Rock and Soul, Dead at 78

Ronnie Spector in 1970
Photo Credit
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ronnie Spector, whose distinctive voice ushered in a new sound in rock music and became synonymous with adolescent yearning, died today (Jan. 12). She was 78 years old.

"Our beloved earth angel, Ronnie, peacefully left this world today after a brief battle with cancer," a family statement read. "She was with family and in the arms of her husband, Jonathan. Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face. She was filled with love and gratitude. Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her."

Born Veronica Bennett in Spanish Harlem to parents of Black, Cherokee and Irish heritage, the young singer came to prominence as a member of The Ronettes alongside sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley. After several years of gigging around New York City and a contract with the Colpix label that went nowhere, The Ronettes signed to Philles Records in 1963, run by an idiosyncratic producer/songwriter named Phil Spector. Spector and married songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich penned a slew of gripping singles for The Ronettes to sing, coupled with a monaural kitchen sink production style Spector dubbed the "Wall of Sound."

Their first single for the label, "Be My Baby," was immortalized by Ronnie's impassioned, romantic vocals and a hypnotic, oft-copied opening rhythm by session drummer Hal Blaine. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, and several Top 40 hits followed, including "Baby, I Love You," "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up" and "Walkin' in the Rain." The trio also featured that year on the label's enduring A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records compilation, singing versions of "Sleigh Ride," "Frosty the Snowman" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." The Ronettes reached levels of success rarely tapped by girl groups. When they made their first trip to the U.K., they were supported by The Rolling Stones; Keith Richards later recalled meeting her as one of the highlights of his life. Back in the States, they became one of the last openers for The Beatles. (In England, all three groups were the top-selling acts of the period.)

But all was not well at the time: shortly after signing to Philles, Ronnie and Spector began seeing each other - the singer did not know her producer was already married - and their marriage in 1968, shortly after The Ronettes' breakup, was marked by considerable physical and emotional abuse. He would choose when and how she made music (rarely, outside of a single for The Beatles' Apple Records in 1971), forbade her from leaving the house by hiding her shoes, and threatened to display her corpse in a gold-plated coffin in the mansion they shared. She finally left in 1972, divorcing him two years later and spending decades suing him for unpaid royalties. (Three years later, Spector was arrested and charged with the shooting murder of actress Lana Clarkson; he was sent to prison in 2009, where he died in 2021.)

Ronnie worked hard to rebuild her career - aided in part by various rockers who counted her work as an influence. She appeared on record with Jersey shore rockers Southside Johnny & The Absury Jukes in 1976; a year later, she cut a cover of Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" with the backing of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. She seemed unable to break out of the oldies circuit until 1986, when rock stalwart Eddie Money namechecked her and The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" in his single "Take Me Home Tonight." Ronnie agreed to not only re-record her vocals but appeared in the song's video; the track hit No. 4 on the U.S. pop charts.

Ronnie Spector would become a darling of the New York club scene with her semi-regular Christmas shows at B.B. King's Bar & Grill starting in 1988. Through the rest of her career, she'd record alongside everyone from Joey Ramone to The Misfits to The Raveonettes. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and A24 acquired the rights to her memoir in 2020, with Ronnie voicing her support for Euphoria actress Zendaya to portray her.

Through it all, Ronnie Spector - who only kept her ex-husband's surname for professional reasons - enjoyed a healthy marriage with her manager, Jonathan Greenfield. She is survived by Greenfield, their two sons, and three she adopted with Spector.

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