Ronnie Spector, iconic lead singer for ’60s girl group hitmakers The Ronettes, has died at age 78 after being diagnosed with cancer.
A statement from the family was released on Spector’s website confirming her passing, reading, “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.”
As the frontwoman for vocal trio The Ronettes, Spector sang on some of the most immaculate pop of the 1960s, including “Walking in the Rain,” “Baby I Love You” and of course the group’s signature smash, the peerless “Be My Baby.” Spector’s voice on these girl group classics was somewhat reedy but undeniably powerful and indelible, typifying the best of the approachable, youthful and often delirious-sounding singing vocal style of the era, which made Ronettes songs feel both relatable and intoxicating to countless young listeners across the world. Though the trio fell apart in 1967 and Spector was never able to reach the same commercial heights as a solo artist, The Ronettes (and Spector in particular) endured as a paragon of early rock-era teen pop, with the group being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the 2000s.
Spector was born Veronica Bennett in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, born to an Irish-American father and a mother of African-American and Cherokee descent. She sang from an early age, joining a family group with sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley. Initially known as the Darling Sisters, the group first rebranded as “Ronnie and the Relatives,” and then ultimately The Ronettes. While they achieved some success as live performers in the early ’60s and developed a striking image of wildly teased hair and heavy eye makeup, the group’s initial run of singles on New York-based Colpix records went nowhere.
In 1963, however, they auditioned for Philles Records — and legendary producer and music biz impresario Phil Spector — and quickly found their proper home. Spector was ecstatic over Bennett’s voice, and initially tried to sign her as a solo act, which the sisters’ mother shot down. The group officially moved over to Philles, and after some abortive attempts at a first single, connected in 1963 with “Be My Baby.”
Co-written by Spector with venerated Brill Building duo Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, “Baby” was captivating from its famous (and oft-copied) opening Hal Blaine drum beat, with the lush pop arrangement that followed serving as arguably the definitive example of Spector’s famous Wall of Sound production technique. Still, the song belonged to Bennett, whose soon-to-be-trademark stretched enunciations and love-drunk “whoa-oh-oh” exhortations gave substance, feeling and personality to what could’ve otherwise come off as a dippy teen romance lyric. Altogether, the song was pure magic, shooting to No. 2 on the Hot 100 — held from No. 1 by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs’ significantly less timeless “Sugar Shack” — and living on as one of the most celebrated pop songs of the second half of the 20th century. (A 2021 Rolling Stone industry poll voted it the 22nd greatest song of all time.)
The group’s full-length debut, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, followed in 1964, along with four more consecutive top 40 hits for the group: the similarly sparkling pop gems “Baby, I Love You” (No. 24), “(The Best Part of) Breaking Up” (No. 39), “Do I Love You?” (No. 34) and “Walking in the Rain” (No. 23). As the British Invasion was taking off stateside, The Ronettes toured the U.K., and Spector became friends with John Lennon and Keith Richards. Meanwhile, Bennett and Spector had begun an affair that would lead to them ultimately getting married in 1968, with Bennett taking Spector’s name.
As the Ronettes’ leader, Spector also became a major style influencer. The trio’s go-to look — sleek single-toned dresses with short hemlines and beehive hairdos — reverberated throughout American households. “We didn’t have a hit record like everybody else [at first],” Spector told Billboard in 2019, “So we had to create a look.” Despite the group’s chic appearance, it was a DIY effort, created without the benefit of professionals. “The Ronettes never had makeup artists — we had aunts who were hairdressers. I’m in shock when I see people with my haircut,” she told Billboard in 2016.
By 1967, however, The Ronettes had run their course: The group’s popularity declined in the decade’s second half, and tensions between the group members and with the famously insecure, abusive and megalomaniacal Spector stalled attempts to get them back on the right track. (When the group opened for The Beatles on their 1966 U.S. tour, Spector insisted Bennett stay with him in California, with cousin Elaine Mayes filling the group’s third spot.) The trio broke up in 1967, having never released a second album, and Bennett and Spector’s marriage turned abusive — with Ronnie later saying she was essentially held prisoner by the producer in their California relationship for most of their marriage. She recorded one solo single for Spector, the George Harrison-penned “Try Some, Buy Some,” but the song stalled at No. 77 on the Hot 100 and subsequent follow-ups were never released.
Ronnie and Phil Spector were divorced in 1974, after which Ronnie attempted to revive the Ronettes with new (non-family) members, finding little success. Other attempts to revitalize her career proved similarly futile — until 1986, when AOR rocker Eddie Money invited Spector to feature on a new single, “Take Me Home Tonight,” which allowed Spector to recreate her epochal “Be My Baby” hook on the chorus (following Money’s vocal lead-in, “Listen, honey, just like Ronnie sang…”). The song was an enormous hit, peaking at No. 4 on the Hot 100 — the highest-charting single of Money’s career, and Spector’s highest since the original “Baby” — and giving the latter’s career a second wind. (It wasn’t the last time “Be My Baby” would be revived that decade, as it also appeared in the opening scene of the enormously popular Dirty Dancing a year later, and as the lead track to the film’s diamond-certified accompanying soundtrack.)
Spector would never have another hit single, however, she continued to record and perform, with future generations of rock and pop stars citing her as a key inspiration — including Joey Ramone, who co-produced her 1999 EP She Talks to Rainbows, and Amy Winehouse, whose throwback image and sound in the mid-2000s suggested nothing so much as a more streetwise and tougher-luck Ronnie Spector. (After Winehouse’s death in 2011, Spector was devastated, telling Rolling Stone: “I haven’t been this sad in a long time, about anyone in this business.”) After being shut out for many years due to Phil Spector’s meddling on the Board of Governors, The Ronettes were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, introduced by Keith Richards.
“Be My Baby” is still often cited as the greatest girl group song of all time — including by Billboard‘s staff in 2017. However, Spector’s seasonal offerings with the Ronettes are perhaps the group’s best-known material these days, in no small part because of the annual December boost they receive from radio and streaming. And Spector herself never tired of hearing the Ronettes’ Christmas tunes, telling Billboard in 2019, “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. I get chills just thinking about it.” (The Ronettes’ version of holiday pop standard “Sleigh Ride,” released on the classic A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector compilation in 1963, even made Hot 100 history last December by reaching a new peak of No. 10 — making The Ronettes the artist with the longest span between top 10 hits, dating back to “Be My Baby” in ’63.)
Following Spector’s death, her family has requested that donations be made “to your local woman’s shelter, or to the American Indian College fund.” The family will also be announcing “a celebration of Ronnie’s life and music” at a date to be determined, and ask for privacy until that time.