Ronnie Spector, the iconic Ronettes vocalist known as the “original bad girl of rock ‘n’ roll,” has died of cancer, according to a family statement posted the afternoon of Jan. 12 on her official website. The famously cat-eyed, bee-hived singer, who influenced everyone from Brian Wilson and John Lennon to Billy Joel and Amy Winehouse, was 78 years old.
“Our beloved earth angel, Ronnie, peacefully left this world today after a brief battle with cancer. 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. In lieu of flowers, Ronnie requested that donations be made to your local women’s shelter or to the American Indian College Fund. A celebration of Ronnie’s life and music will be announced in the future. The family respectfully asks for privacy at this time,” read the statement in full.
Ronnie Spector was born Veronica Yvette Bennett in Spanish Harlem on Aug. 10, 1943, and grew up in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. In 1957 she formed the girl group the Darling Sisters, known later as the Ronettes, with her older sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley. “The Ronettes were my sister and my first cousin,” she told Yahoo Entertainment in 2016. “It was a blood sound that was different than all the other girl groups.”
After signing to Colpix Records but failing to gain traction for any of their early singles, the Ronettes auditioned for “Wall of Sound” record producer Phil Spector and signed to his Philles Records imprint in 1963. That partnership led to the trio’s chart breakthrough with ‘60s smashes like “Be My Baby,” “Baby, I Love You,” “The Best Part of Breakin' Up,” “Walking in the Rain,” and “Do I Love You?”; their debut LP, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, yielded a whopping five Billboard hits. However, Ronnie’s personal relationship with Phil, whom she married in 1968 a year after the Ronettes’ breakup, was less successful.
Ronnie revealed in her 1990 memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, that Phil psychologically abused her, professionally sabotaged her by forbidding her to perform, imprisoned her in their home, and frequently threatened her with guns. In 1972, she escaped their Beverly Hills mansion without any of her belongings and attempted to rebuild her life and career. In the couple’s 1974 divorce settlement, she forfeited all future record earnings after Phil allegedly threatened to have a hit man kill her, and she received only $25,000, a used car, and monthly alimony of $2,500 for five years. After their divorce, Phil additionally attempted to prevent her from singing Ronettes song and denied her royalties. In 1988, Ronnie and her fellow Ronettes sued Phil for $10 million in damages; after a decade-long legal battle, Phil was ordered to pay his ex-wife more than $1 million in royalties.
Despite these troubles, Ronnie kept working remained an inspiration for musicians of various genres and generations. Brian Wilson declared “Be My Baby” the greatest pop record ever made and was subsequently inspired to write the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”; Ronnie later recorded “Don’t Worry Baby” for her 1999 EP She Talks to Rainbows. Billy Joel also wrote “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in Spector’s honor; Ronnie later recorded that song with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. After briefly reforming the Ronettes with a new lineup in 1973, Ronnie officially went solo in 1975, releasing five albums during her lifetime, including 2006’s Last of the Rock Stars featuring Keith Richards (who inducted the Ronettes into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007), Patti Smith, and members of the Raconteurs and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In September 2020, it was announced that Zendaya was in talks to portray her in a biopic based on her Be My Baby memoir.
Ronnie also recorded with Southside Johnny, Steven Van Zandt, and various punk/garage acts that owed her a debt, like the Ramones’ Joey Ramone, the Misfits, and the Raveonettes. Her most commercially successful later-in-life collaboration was Eddie Money’s 1986 single “Take Me Home Tonight,” on which she reprised her famous refrain of “be my little baby”; the song was an MTV staple and went to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Her final solo album was 2016’s English Heart, a collection of the British Invasion covers, a tribute to the U.K. bands with whom the Ronettes shared radio airwaves and tour dates back in the day. Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment at the time of English Heart’s release, she recalled, “[The Ronettes] were big in the States too, but when we got over to the U.K. there was so much love and respect. That’s why I still love the U.K.”
In that same 2016 Yahoo interview, Ronnie also revealed that her favorite English Heart track — and the one that was the toughest for her to record — was the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” recalling, “I had to go into the bathroom and cry, because it was so much about my life. So, when I sang it, I cried and I had to stop the tape and get myself pulled together again so I could continue recording it. It was the one song, out of all of them, that I really, really felt. I felt all of them, but this one really, really, brought me to tears because it was about my life. My heart was broken a lot.”
Ronnie Spector is survived by her husband and manager, Jonathan Greenfield, and two sons, Jason and Austin.
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