The recording started with an accident. “I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick,” drummer Hal Blaine said in 2015, recalling the start of the 1963 session with Phil and Ronnie Spector (then 19-year-old Veronica Bennett) that produced The Ronettes’ legendary single “Be My Baby.” “Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: ‘Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!’ Soon, everyone wanted that beat.”
This is one of those rare cases in which an artist isn’t being hyperbolic about the influence of their own work: Everyone did want the beat, and to recapture the song’s transcendent production — the first time Phil Spector would record with an orchestra to create his now-iconic “wall of sound” aesthetic, which was anything but an accident.
Per the song’s now-mythic origin story, Spector made the orchestra rehearse the song 42 times before he started recording, and Ronnie spent three days getting the vocals right — a style of recording that’s standard now, but was anything but in the early ‘60s. The backing band was a supergroup before there were supergroups, with Leon Russell on keyboards and Darlene Love, Sonny Bono, and a 17-year-old Cher on backup vocals.
“Be My Baby,” released as The Ronettes’ first single, peaked at no. 2 on the Hot 100 in October 1963 — but its influence was much more enduring than even its record sales and radio play.
Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson has called it his greatest inspiration, and the “greatest record ever produced.” “I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song and I never did,” he told the New York Times in 2013. His efforts were most explicit on “Don’t Worry Baby,” a 1964 hit that paraphrases the “Be My Baby” groove and lush sound — one of the earliest of a legion of imitators that would keep the song feeling as ubiquitous today as it was 50 years ago. (Billboard recently ranked the song at No. 1 on its list of the greatest girl group songs of all-time.)
Some of the many artists who’ve recently reprised the song’s famous drum intro spoke to Billboard about The Ronettes’ impact on their work, and just what makes the seemingly simple song so unforgettable.
Nathan Williams, Wavves: “When Will You Come?”
“[Using ‘Be My Baby’] was conscious to a point — I wanted ‘When Will You Come’ to sound dreamy and nostalgic. It’s hugely significant: its simplicity, its melody and its honesty. ‘Be My Baby’ is potentially the best pop song ever written and Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Phil Spector, who wrote it together, also wrote all the runners-up for best pop song ever (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Leader Of The Pack,” etc.). To this day, people try to replicate the production. But there was some specific magic that is literally impossible to recreate, and some (me) would say that was probably chemistry between producer and artist.”
Sharon Van Etten: “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”
?”When I first shared my demo of this song with the band, my two references were Bruce Springsteen and Phil Spector. I am not very good with terminology, so my very patient drummer, Zeke Hutchins, immediately went to the ‘Be My Baby’ ??beat. And that was the only beat I needed to hear to know that was exactly what I wanted. Simple. Classic. Timeless.”
Sune Rose Wagner, The Raveonettes: “Ode to L.A.”
“When I first heard ‘Be My Baby,’ it completely blew me away. That iconic drum intro is just pure genius. I had the record on repeat for an entire night. Ronnie Spector’s vocal performance is so incredibly flawless and brilliant. We had the pleasure of working with Ronnie on ‘Ode To L.A.’ [Spector is a guest vocalist on the track, and eventually covered it], which Phil Spector actually really liked, so I can die a happy man.”
Rick Nowels, producer, Lana Del Rey feat. The Weeknd: “Lust For Life”
“‘Be My Baby,” for me, is Ground Zero for the modern pop era. it was a line in the sand that left everything that came before in the rear view mirror. It was the beginning of pop music being a serious American art form. Like they say, Phil Spector created symphonies for kids — he’s still my no. 1 role model for a great production. When I first moved to L.A. in 1985, I got to work with Hal Blaine, Jimmie Haskell, Ray Pohlman and Sid Sharp from the Wrecking Crew, who I love — all these studied musicians playing and arranging fabulous songs in the studio together. Hal Blaine, the ‘Be My Baby’ drummer—he’s the drummer Ringo looks up to.
Lana and I spend a lot of time listening to the girl group songs of the early ‘60s. I think Lana is carrying on that high art girl group aesthetic in her own unique way. To me, ‘Be My Baby” is one of the great art pieces and testaments to the essential goodness of humanity of the 20th century. Along with Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can and [Salvador] Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory,’ I’ll take ‘Be My Baby.’”
Kip Berman, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart: “Gentle Sons”
“I’ve always thought all classic songs are ‘public domain,’ their ubiquity necessitating and benefiting from each generation’s interpretation. 20 years after the original and 20 years before I started a band, The Jesus and Mary Chain read the phrase ‘wall of sound’ literally, taking that beat and Spector’s aesthetic to its logical, post-punk endpoint in ‘Just Like Honey.’ Seemingly aimless guitar feedback stood in for orchestration, resulting in a sound artlessly chaotic as the original was meticulous. Jim Reid’s insouciant, comatose bellows are nearly opposite the Ronettes now-iconic, well-mannered harmonies. The only thing that remains constant is the reverb that drenched the snare drum, and the kick pattern that evokes an entire generation of teenage American pulp.
I don’t know that the last song on our first record really added anything to this. You could have called it ‘Just Like Just Like Honey’ and not been too wrong. If anything it was meant to signal a reminder that to me the best indie pop is not introspective, cardigan-clad and effete but loud, unhinged and vital. It was The Mary Chain (and countless other noisy, abrasive artists from the ‘80s and ‘90s) that I wanted to remind people about. If inverting The Field Mice’s “This Love is Not Wrong” into “This Love is Fucking Right!” wasn’t obvious enough, then ending an indie pop record with a song about sickness, loss, and regret set to the sound of 3 huge chords and the same iconic beat that accompanied doomed motorcycle gangs and desperate Scottish noise-pop ought to clue anyone in that we wanted to be something different than the twee bands that had come to solely define what indie pop meant.”
Ben Kweller, “Run”
“When I was a little boy, we had a big old upright piano. It was out of tune and clunky, but I loved it! As music became a serious addiction for me, my parents decided to buy a better quality instrument to hone my skills on, so they gave the upright away. In the summer of 2005 my mom and dad surprised me with a gift: the old upright. I started writing ‘Run’ on that old piano. It was a serious rush to be reacquainted with an instrument I hadn’t played in 20 years, so nostalgic and freeing. The song ‘Run’ mirrors that exact feeling — the freedom to move forward while remembering your roots.
The first piece of music I wrote for ‘Run’ was the piano intro. I instantly heard the ‘Be My Baby’ beat under the riff. Sometimes beats are like that. They just work… but “Be My Baby” is a masterpiece with or without drums! It’s a perfect song. BUT! When you have a perfect song and combine it with the right elements — beats, harmonies, etc. — that’s when you peek into the world of incredible production. When it comes to big, California hi-fi awesomeness (a.k.a. the Wall of Sound), it begins with Phil Spector. This is a man who inspired a Beatle (John) and a Beach Boy (Brian).”
Eric Bachmann and Stephin Merritt, Magnetic Fields: “Candy”
“When we did it, we updated it for the computer age by conspicuously using the same measure twice. And in lieu of castanets, our drummer Claudia is playing a bicycle wheel with a playing card. We didn’t have any castanets laying around, but somehow a bicycle appeared, just at the right moment.” — Stephin Merritt
“The opening drum pattern of ‘Be My Baby’ is such an inherent part of the vernacular of modern pop music: it’s kind of analogous to the ‘schwa’ sound in the English language; or at least some common vowel sound. In function, it creates a sense of nostalgia, usually with a mysterious, sad undertone. The childlike excitement that pop music fans collectively felt when they heard that ‘boom boom-boom snap’ for the first time isn’t something that’s easy to conjure. When you ape that riff, that excitement is what you’re trying to convey.” — Eric Bachmann