The Ronettes released a string of enduring classics in the 1960s, including the Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hit “Be My Baby,” which Billboard named the greatest girl group song of all time in 2017. And their charting days aren’t over – back in January, “Sleigh Ride” cruised up to a new Hot 100 peak of No. 26. Like Mariah Carey watching “All I Want for Christmas Is You” reach new highs years after its release, pop pioneer Ronnie Spector has relished watching her seasonal songs jingle up bigger numbers each season.
“It’s 50-some odd years later, and each year I get more and more royalties, more airplay, more sales,” she says incredulously, referring to a string of seasonal offerings that originally appeared on 1964’s A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector, arguably greatest Christmas album of the rock era.
“Who would have imagined it 50 years ago? Never in my lifetime… When I get in my car and hear ‘Sleigh Ride’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ I get goosepimples. When I’m driving I pull over just to hear my songs.” And from the warm, misty tone in her voice, you can tell she means it: “I get chills just thinking about it,” she later adds.
“They’ve never seen my Christmas show, just my regular show,” she says of overseas fans. Of course, Spector has been playing England for about as long as her songs have been gracing the airwaves. “I remember when the Ronettes first flew to London, Decca Records had given us a party. And the Beatles just walked in – they were like, ‘we love you guys’! They loved us and my voice. I’ve had such great moments with people. And when Christmas comes around, I never know who I’m gonna see. People come to my show in the business who I haven’t seen in decades. I did something on a boat a few weeks ago and who was on the show with me? Smokey Robinson.”
This year gave her the chance to work with a new acquaintance, too: Elle King, her duet partner on “Under the Mistletoe.” According to Spector, it’s a bit of an achievement that King even convinced her to do a new one. “I don’t record just anything – I’ve had these great songs for 50 years. I’m not gonna do anything less than what I want, but I love ‘Under the Mistletoe,'” she says. “I love the way I’m rough and sexy on it and she’s mild and cool. I love the combination.”
Aside from a chance to run into old pals, make new ones and see a nice spike in song royalties, there’s a more important reason Spector breaks into giddy laughter when talking about this season: cherished memories of her childhood.
“I was a little girl from Spanish Harlem who loved Christmas because at Christmastime, everyone was nice, all of the cashiers were smiling. Christmas meant so much to me growing up. From September I started counting off on my calendar to December 25th.” It didn’t hurt that December brought a visit from her celebrity crush. “I was in love with Santa,” she admits with a chuckle. “I had a big crush when I was 5 or 6. I thought he was the coolest guy with the white velvet trim and the big black belt. I begged my mother to take me to Macy’s. She worked all day as a waitress, and when she took me to Macy’s, I got to sit on Santa’s lap. I thought he actually lived on top of Macy’s when I was a little girl.”
Growing up in a working-class family, Christmas was more about the festive mood and family time than presents for a young Spector.
“My father would take me and my sister to Radio City every Christmas — not to ice skate, but to watch people ice skate. And the same thing, we’d look in the windows of Macy’s, the windows of Lord and Taylor, but we didn’t go in and buy stuff. But just the lights, the snow, the great toys in the windows, that’s all I needed back then. It was a humble beginning. But I didn’t know there were rich people – I just loved my little childhood. It’s the most amazing time of the year.”