“I don’t believe in entourages. I don’t do fads,” says Spector, who is dressed in dark denim, a button-down blouse and a moto jacket, all from Nordstrom. “I used to wear my husband’s [manager Jonathan Greenfield] shirts to bed, and he’d say, ‘You look fucking sexy.’ Now I wear them onstage, buttoned lower.” That understated edge and unwavering consistency might be why it’s easy to overlook the style influence that she, along with her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley, who rounded out the trio, wielded.
The act’s synchronized movements and precise harmonies evolved from the doo-wop era, and their cocktail-hour-ready costumes were a result of the control that Motown-era labels began asserting over their artists’ appearances. Like their girl-group contemporaries -- The Shirelles, The Supremes and The Chiffons -- The Ronettes usually wore coordinated ensembles in monochromatic tones. And yet there were subtle distinctions -- with significant implications. Shorter hemlines, higher slits and tighter silhouettes were the members’ ways of sampling what they saw on the ethnically diverse streets of New York’s Spanish Harlem and making it their own. More obvious were the Aqua Net-teased beehive hairdos and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra eyeliner. “We didn’t have a hit record like everybody else [at first],” says Spector. “So we had to create a look.”
What Spector did then is what many artists do today: There’s that sleek ponytail Ariana Grande has been whipping around since she left Nickelodeon; those reflective sunglasses perched perpetually on H.E.R.’s face; the pantsuits Janelle Monáe has pledged allegiance to album after album. They all learned what The Ronettes understood from the start: the power an image can have if you stick with it long enough to let it become your own. “I remember walking down the street and hearing John Lennon call out, ‘Ronnie Ronette!’ ” says Spector. “People knew me from the back of my hair.”
With an image that echoed her proto rock’n’roll, Spector’s less constricted vocal technique helped the trio last longer than any other girl group of the time. When the British Invasion began, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones sought them as tour support. Jimi Hendrix was a fan, as were David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. “I can’t say The Ronettes were better,” she says. “We were just different.”
This article originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Billboard.