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Ronnie Spector, Beloved Ronettes Singer, Dead at 78

“Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her,” her family said of “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain” vocalist

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ronnie Spector, the leader of the girl group the Ronettes and the voice behind immortal classics like “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain,” died Wednesday after a brief battle with cancer. She was 78.

“Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face,” her family said in a statement. “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.”

The Ronettes were the quintessential act of the early Sixties girl group era, and Spector’s silk-meets-sandpaper voice powered all of their songs. And while “Be My Baby” became the defining song of the entire time period. Last year, “Be My Baby” was honored at Number 22 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The group also charted with “Baby, I Love You,” “Walking in the Rain,” “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” and “Do I Love You.”

“I just heard the news about Ronnie Spector and I don’t know what to say,” Brian Wilson said in a statement shortly after the news of her death broke. “I loved her voice so much and she was a very special person and a dear friend. This just breaks my heart. Ronnie’s music and spirit will live forever.”

The group’s hits were all produced by Phil Spector, and he began an affair with Ronnie shortly after he signed them in 1963. They married in 1968 and split in 1972. In her 1990 memoir Be My Baby, she wrote that her relationship with Spector was marked by years of horrible violence and abuse. 

“As I said many times while he was alive, he was a brilliant producer, but a lousy husband,” she said shortly after he died last year. “Unfortunately Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio. Darkness set in, many lives were damaged. I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will. The music will be forever.”

Veronica Yvette Bennett grew up in New York City and started singing with her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley at a young age. Calling themselves the Darling Sisters, they performed around the city while still attending George Washington High School. After a few unsuccessful singles, they were signed by Spector. He immediately began writing songs specifically for her voice. “Watching him create in the recording studio, I knew I was working with the very best,” she said. “He was in complete control, directing everyone. So much to love about those days.”

The huge success of “Be My Baby” in the summer of 1963 turned the Ronettes into stars, and early the following year they traveled to England where they played a series of shows with the Rolling Stones. “They were a bunch of scraggly looking guys,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016. “But I loved them and I especially loved Keith, because I love that rugged look he had. Mick was, like, a pretty boy maybe. Keith used to say, ‘Oh, we would have great babies because you have that black, thick hair and I have black, thick hair.’”

The success of British Invasion bands like the Stones and the Beatles caused groups like the Ronettes to lose fans in drove. And when the Ronettes were hired to open for the Beatles on their 1966 American tour, a jealous Phil Spector didn’t let Ronnie go. They were forced to play the shows without her. It was the start of a very dark period of her life where Spector tried to exert as much control of her life as possible.

She finally broke free from him in 1972 and slowly started to reassemble the broken pieces of her life and career. “My ex took singing away from me and it was devastating because I had no idea that I would never record,” she told Rolling Stone. “I had no idea I would never perform again, which was my life. I was in shock with that because here’s a person who wrote your records and produced them… And then, you’re never gonna sing again.”

Her comeback started in 1976 when she recorded a cover of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” with the E Street Band. But she didn’t return to the spotlight in a big way until 1986 when Eddie Money had her record a live sample of “Be My Baby” for his hit “Take Me Home Tonight.” The song became a massive success and introduced Spector’s music to a new generation.

Over the past few decades, Spector toured heavily and released the occasional new record. In 2016, she released the British Invasion covers record English Heart. “If someone had told me in the Sixties that I would be around 50 years later, still singing those songs,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016, “I would have said, “You’re outta your mind.”

Eddie Money – “Take Me Home Tonight”

The Ronettes – “Frosty the Snowman”

Ronnie Spector – “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”

From Rolling Stone US