Sisters Veronica and Estelle Bennet and their cousin Nedra Talley, all hailed from Spanish Harlem, New York. They had been playing shows in their home city, but were struggling to break through, when a phone call to Phil Spector landed them an audition in early 1963. The producer was smitten, with the girls’ voices and, especially, with lead singer Ronnie. Be My Baby was the band’s first single, written by Spector, along with songwriting duo Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and inspired by those heady first flushes of romance between Ronnie and Phil. “He was infatuated with my voice, my body, everything. It was mutual,” said Ronnie in a 2015 interview.
The creation of a masterpiece
Ronnie flew out to Los Angeles – minus her two bandmates – to record the song at Gold Star Studios, the birthplace of Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound. Spector, a notorious taskmaster, insisted on 42 run throughs by the band before he finally hit record. Darlene Love was among the backing singers, as was Sonny Bono and his new girlfriend, a then unknown teenager called Cher. As for that iconic intro, drummer Hal Blaine – who died last year, aged 90 – claims it was an accident. “I may have missed the second beat,” he told NPR in 2001.
Ronnie’s vocals were the final brick in Spector’s Wall of Sound and he made her rehearse them for three days straight. Like most girl groups of the time, The Ronettes didn’t get a lot of say in what they recorded – but by taking herself off to the bathroom and coming up with those inimitable vocal sounds, Ronnie found a way to carve out her own space on the record.
The single was released a month later in August 1963, three months before the assassination of JFK, with Dick Clark introducing it on American Bandstand as: “the next record of the century”. It reached number two in the US and number four in the UK. More singles followed: Baby I Love You, Walking In The Rain, I Can Hear Music, though none matched the success of Be My Baby. The Ronettes toured the UK, where an up-and-coming band called The Rolling Stones supported them, and became friends with The Beatles, Estelle briefly dating George.
But as their fame grew, so did Phil Spector’s jealousy. When The Beatles asked The Ronettes to support them on their US tour in 1966, Spector refused to let Ronnie go, sending one of her cousins as a replacement. By the time Phil and Ronnie married in 1968, the band had broken up and Ronnie’s singing career appeared to be over.