New York City, NY

6. The Ronettes – Be My Baby (1963)

Geography

The song, like a lot of Phil Spector’s biggest numbers, may have been recorded out in California, but it was in New York City that he discovered the two Manhattan sisters and their cousin who would give him his most seismic hit. For his part Spector was initially raised a Bronx boy before his family moved to LA following his father’s suicide.

It was in Los Angeles, a 15 minute easterly drive from the Gold Star Recording Studios in which Be My Baby was recorded, that Lana Clarkson was tragically murdered by the producer; he is today serving a 19 year murder sentence in the California Health Care Facility in Stockton.

Published January 2019

Affinity

Pre-US100 Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound was something I was vaguely aware of without really knowing the first thing about it. What I did know was that 1963’s A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector was for me the definitive festive compilation. While I struggle to enjoy most of what we might call the ‘drive retail employees insane from November onwards’ playlist – Mariah Carey, Wizzard* et al – I have no issues when The Crystals’ Santa Claus Is Coming To Town or The Ronettes’ Sleigh Ride comes on. Indeed Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is to me the greatest Christmas song ever recorded. Yes even better than Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses.

I was ignorant of how that rich distinct ‘snowstorm in your ears’ sound was created, and replicated in records such as Be My Baby; and while I knew of Spector I had never heard of the Wrecking Crew, the musicians who delivered his vision. The point from which I worked backwards was knowing the Ronettes were New Yorkers and that Be My Baby was a tune. I once again had hit upon my happy knack of picking a song behind which lay another fascinating origin-to-legacy journey.

* Although speaking of which, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday is a clear example of Wall of Sound inspired production.

Origin

Veronica (‘Ronnie’) and Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley first got a taste for performance as children in the 1950s – they would deliver three part harmonies to their relatives at their grandmother’s Manhattan home. Despite being two years younger than her sister, Ronnie commanded front and centre from the start – before the Ronettes, the group had the slightly disparaging (for the other two) name of Ronnie and the Relatives. Prior to Spector they were first spotted by another Phil – in 1961 the young girls were introduced to Colpix Records producer Stu Phillips by talent agent Phil Halikus, and from there came their first record deal. Within a year the now-named Ronettes had began to develop their iconic mascara and beehive look.

“Most producers don’t create, they interpret. When I went into the studio I created a sound … I always compared it to what da Vinci did when he went to a blank canvas … I always considered it art.”

Phil Spector
Phil Spector and the Ronettes, 1963

Phil Spector came into the picture in 1963. Disgruntled with a lack of success with Colpix, Estelle put a call into Spector, who then headed up Philles Records and had got The Crystals to number one with He’s A Rebel. At a subsequent audition Spector was so enamoured with Ronnie’s vocals that his first offer was to sign her as a solo act –  but this was vetoed by her mum who informed the producer that it was the group or none of them at all. The professional relationship with Spector got off to an uncertain start as he withheld the first record set for release, and then released the next four but attributed them to the Crystals. But in July 1963 Phil came to them with Be My Baby and the Ronettes were stars.

An encapsulation of the pre-Beatlesmania zeitgeist, it dominated the airwaves upon its release. Alongside Righteous Brothers hits You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and Unchained Melody, it is the stand out example out of the ‘Wall of Sound’ formula that Spector perfected. This was the upshot of a visionary realisation – that the recording studio need not just be a means of conveying what musical instruments can do, but that it could also be a musical instrument in itself.

Delivery

Spector was the first producer to take control of everything, from the selection of the artists to the writing of the material and the supervision of its arrangements, and he was famed for his excruciating level of attention to detail. This ‘Wagnerian’ approach to creating in his words ‘little symphonies for the kids’ was almost exclusively delivered by his enormously talented group of personal go-to session musicians: we’ve heard from The Wrecking Crew on California Dreamin and they will later be a US100 focus in their own right.

The science behind the Wall of Sound may on the face of it seem distinctly unsophisticated: essentially Spector crammed the studio so that instruments doubled and tripled in unison in a kind of ensemble that no one had considered before, described by one of his colleagues as ‘deliberately blending everything into a kind of mulch’. ‘Musically terribly simple’ is the take of Wrecking Crew guitarist Barney Kessel, yet absolutely no one would deny the power of the end product, and as a recording Be My Baby personifies the hugely dense and layered sound that Spector obsessively sought.

Meanwhile the songwriting behind the number is simply pop dynamite: an endlessly catchy chorus, told through the most basic yet relatable love song lyrics: I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see / For every kiss you give me I’ll give you three / Oh, since the day I saw you / I have been waiting for you / You know I will adore you / ’til eternity. There is something so compelling in the sweetness and innocence of these lyrics and the Ronettes sound overall that it has you harking, endlessly harking, although who knows what for.

Legacy

Phil Spector's mug shot in 2014
Phil Spector’s mug shot in 2014

Somewhere between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, a California State Prison is home to one of the greatest contributors to the popular music canon, where he is set to remain for at least another ten years. In 2009 Phil Spector was found guilty of the 2003 murder of an actress, Lana Clarkson, who was found dead in his mansion, and he was sentenced to 19 years, with numerous unsuccessful appeals following the conviction. Now in his late 70s, he is alleged to have lost the ability to speak due to a rare infection of the throat and he has filed for a third divorce –  although more cheerily it is reported that he got to keep his diamond cufflinks as gifted to him by Elvis Presley in the settlement.

It’s a depressing destiny for an individual who if assessed purely on artistic merit would be nothing but a hero – following the success of the Ronettes, he signed and made stars of Ike and Tina Turner, while You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, as recorded by The Righteous Brothers a year later, became the most played record in 20th Century America and an ultimate expression of the Wall of Sound. Between 1970 and 1971 Spector produced The Beatles’ Let It Be (even if Paul McCartney was not a fan of the production values), George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and John Lennon’s Imagine. But almost every record comes with a disturbing allegation or anecdote, whether it is using the occasion of Ike Turner’s funeral to attack Tina Turner and Oprah Winfrey or his apparent obsession with bringing, brandishing, and at times letting off firearms in the recording studio. Perhaps we should not be surprised that a boy who lost his father to suicide at the age of ten grew into a violently troubled man.

Returning to the song, Be My Baby’s legacy was near immediate. I’m not sure if there’s ever been an instance of a song instantly sending someone into a state of mental disorder but the story of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and this number must certainly come close. Upon hearing it on the radio Wilson had to pull over his car while he ‘balls-out totally freaked out’ such was its impact upon him, and this soon developed into a near pathological obsession. He instructed his sound engineer to create a tape loop of the chorus which he listened to for hours in a trance, his daughter Carnie claims that she woke up to its distinctive drum introduction every morning for months, and Wilson himself claims to have listened to the song over 1000 times. Spector genuinely claims to have sent him crazy, describing himself as Moriarty to Wilson’s Holmes.

But without such a complex, then Wilson would not have employed the Wrecking Crew to create his own era-defining ‘wall of sound’ record, with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds landing in 1966. Paul McCartney was in turn inspired by Wilson’s work and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band immediately followed, the concept album became underwritten into mainstream musical consciousness, and the elevation of the record producer’s role from technician to artistic director of a creative process – and thus the ascent of popular music as art – was complete. The irony of this pattern of events is in the fact that Spector’s innovations indirectly led to bands increasingly being responsible for writing and recording their own music, thus somewhat de-Spectoring the whole process.

Meanwhile Be My Baby‘s popularity made the Ronettes sex symbols of their era, beehive hair, slit skirts and all. Phil Spector’s professional involvement with the group was from the start conflated with a romantic relationship, and its leading vocalist became Ronnie Spector when the pair married in 1968. As per rock n roll tradition, it was sadly not a partnership of stability and rude health, characterised as it was by Phil’s obsessive and controlling behaviour. Initially this manifested itself through mere favouritism – their only studio album, released in 1964, was entitled Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica and Spector insisted on the ‘Featuring Veronica’ caveat from hereon in.

Ronnie Spector in 2016
Ronnie Spector in 2016

But this dynamic soon became defined by mistreatment and abuse. When the Ronettes teamed up with the Beatles on a 14 day tour in 1966 (they are the only girl group to have done so), Spector refused to let Ronnie join, at a time when he was withholding entire catalogues of Ronettes material due to jealous insecurities over Ronnie and the group outgrowing him – a professional misstep that allowed Motown and the Supremes to step into the breach. Following marriage, Ronnie claims she was kept a “virtual prisoner” by her increasingly reclusive husband (amidst much darker allegations by their adopted son Donte who separately alleges he was kept a literal prisoner), and divorce came just six years later – followed by a 15 year court battle in which Spector was ordered by a New York state court to return $3,000,000 to the Ronettes for loss of royalties, a decision overturned on appeal.

“David Bowie was such a good guy, why did he have to go? And why is my ex still alive?”

Ronnie Spector

The bitterness didn’t stop there – Spector unsuccessfully attempted to use his influence to deny the Ronettes a place in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, the group eventually being inducted in 2007 (as an aside Keith Richards, who led the induction, once described sleeping with Ronnie Spector as ‘the first time I went to heaven’). Today cousin Nedra Talley left showbusiness behind and currently works in real estate in Virginia; Estelle sadly died in 2009 of colon cancer, following a tragic period of her life defined by anorexia, schizophrenia, and homelessness; and now remarried, Ronnie maintains a solo career, releasing her first studio album for a decade in 2016. In January 2019 the 55 year anniversary of the Ronettes first UK tour will be celebrated in concert at the Roundhouse, London.

Learn more

Trivia
Be My Baby is the first known recording of a 17 year old Cher: she was drafted in when some of the original backing singers failed to show. Sonny Bono, who served as one of Spector’s runners at the time, also appeared on backing vocals, along with Darlene Love of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) fame.

Watch
Mean Streets (1973)
Phil Spector: The Agony and the Ecstasy (2008)
Be My Baby (Stage Show)

Read
Ronnie Spector – Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness (2004)
Mick Brown – Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise And Fall of Phil Spector (2008)
‘How we made the Ronettes’ Be My Baby’ – The Guardian, November 2015

Listen
The Teddy Bears – To Know Him Is To Live Him (1958) Spotify / YouTube
A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector (1963) Spotify / YouTube
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966) Spotify / YouTube
Ike & Tina Turner – River Deep – Mountain High (1966) Spotify
Let It Be (1970) Spotify / YouTube
Let It Be… Naked (2003)
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006) Spotify / YouTube
Ronnie Spector – English Heart (2016) Spotify
The Ronettes – I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine Spotify / YouTube

US100 cover* of choice
Mutya Buena feat. Amy Winehouse – B Boy Baby (2007) Spotify / YouTube

* – of sorts