December in Michigan is a cold prospect, made much warmer this year by the promise of Ronnie Spector's singular voice to lull us into the season of nostalgia.
That is correct: The Ronnie Spector, frontwoman of the Ronettes, proprietor of perhaps pop music's most magnificent beehive, and the original "bad girl of rock 'n' roll" is gracing us with her divine presence during a Detroit stop on her holiday tour. Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes' Best Christmas Party Ever promises not only renditions of classic Christmas songs she recorded with the Ronettes in 1963, but the enduring pop hits we all know and love as well as lesser-known gems from Ronnie's back catalog.
The Ronettes — originally Ronnie, then known as Veronica Bennett, her sister Estelle Bennett, and their cousin Nedra Talley — were stars of the golden age of girl groups. Their career began in Spanish Harlem in the late '50s, but really took off when they met Phil Spector, the infamous producer now known just as much for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 as for the "wall of sound" encapsulated in his recordings.
As successful as the group's debut was (1964's Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica) it would become its only proper studio release. Interpersonal issues — including Phil's growing interest in Ronnie — spelled an early end to the group, and it disbanded in 1967. In 1968 Ronnie and Phil married, but it was a devastating situation; she alleges he essentially imprisoned her in their mansion, sabotaging her burgeoning career and mentally tormenting her. In 1972, with the help of her mother, she was finally able to escape and begin a life on her own terms.
Since then, Ronnie has never stopped performing and sharing her love of the stage with adoring audiences. She has four solo albums under her belt, including 2016's rock 'n' roll covers album English Heart, and in 2007 the group was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Her siren's voice is still as unmistakable as ever; what was once the perfect combination of tender adolescent excitement with a sensibility mature beyond its years has now reversed itself, and is all the sweeter for it.
In advance of her performance at El Club, Ronnie was kind enough to chat with us about why those songs of the '60s still captivate modern listeners, the differences between Motown and the Ronettes, and more.
Metro Times: What was your introduction to music as a child?
Ronnie Spector: Seeing Hank Williams sing "Jambalaya" on TV when I was very young. I even tried to do his yodel. "Jambalaya" was the song I would perform for all my relatives when I would jump up on the coffee table and sing. And then all the great doo-wop groups in NYC, like the Students, the Schoolboys, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and of course my inspiration, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The first female voice that really got [me] was when I heard "Maybe" by the Chantels. Arlene Smith's voice was the beginning of the girl group sound, and her producer also produced Frankie Lymon!
MT: Did you ever feel a sense of competition between the Ronettes and Motown groups?
Spector: We worked with all the Motown Groups at the Brooklyn Fox: the Temptations, the Miracles, Marvin, and Stevie. And I knew all their girl groups too from the Fox. I loved Gladys of the Marvelettes — she was so sweet, and they had adorable routines, plus two lead singers. Motown was a different thing from us — their groups were groomed and choreographed. The Ronettes were not. We were a rock 'n' roll group, a little wild, a lot of shaking, with a street look. We merged street with fashion to create our look. I don't remember any competition. I would always say, "We won't be better, just different."
MT: Why do you think classic girl group pop music still speaks to people today?
Spector: The innocence and honesty in the music. Everyone wishes they could go back to a simpler time, especially today. Things are crazy, and the girl groups represent that time when things were slower. Everyone is in such a hurry today, and they aren't even going anywhere.
MT: Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica has so many well-known guests as well as famous folks credited as additional session musicians, from Sonny Bono and Cher to Leon Russell. Do any memories about recording that album stand out, and what was it like in the studio working with so many talented musicians?
Spector: In the beginning, it was a lot of fun recording at Gold Star [Studios, in California], and then after a while, it stopped being that way. I missed joining in with all the other singers, but I was told my voice was too distinct sounding to blend in with the harmonies. I worked very hard in the studio. Cher and I were best girl friends then, and other than with her, I didn't get the chance to hang out much. It was different than recording in New York City, there was a big buzz about the players in the Wrecking Crew in L.A. So when I arrived on the West Coast to record, I walked into the studio, sang, and then after my first recording Earl Palmer taps me on the shoulder and says, "You're going to be the next Billie Holiday." That sort of blew my mind.
MT: You've gone out on dates with so many famous people, from Steven Van Zandt to John Lennon — who is someone you dated that you've never been asked about, or that would surprise people to learn?
Spector: Yeah, a lot of guys asked me out, and I only dated a couple of them. I dated very few people, some happened to be famous. My mom toured with the Ronettes and kept a close eye on us. Dick Clark even asked my mom to go on the Caravan of Stars tour because he didn't want the guys bothering the Ronettes. I dated Little Anthony once, and we went to the Whitestone drive-in movie theater in the Bronx to see The Ten Commandments. I loved that movie.
MT: I interviewed Question Mark (of the Mysterians) some time ago and he mentioned this movie he wanted to write that would have starred you, centered around him falling for you after seeing you walk out of a record store at the mall and spending his life trying to find you again. Did he ever talk to you about this, and what are your memories of him?
Spector: No, he never discussed a movie idea. I bumped into Question Mark a couple of times, the first was when I was doing a show in New Orleans, and he seemed to be slightly obsessed with me, sort of like a stalker, just waiting outside my dressing room. The second time I joined him on stage at Lincoln Center Out of Doors and we had a ball. Question Mark is totally out of his mind but a ton of fun on stage, he's good, and we really rocked it.
MT: What excites you about still making music and performing to this day?
Spector: No matter what is going on in my life or in my head, the moment I walk out on the stage and feel the applause and love from the audience, everything else just melts away, and all is good. There is nothing better for me. Every night there is a different audience, and someone will be seeing me for the very first time, and that is just so cool. I get excited just thinking about it.
Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes' Best Christmas Party Ever will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8 at El Club; 4114 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-279-7382; elclubdetroit.com; Tickets are $55.
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