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Ronnie Spector, pop singer who fronted the Ronettes, dies aged 78

Ronnie Spector, the singer who defined the sound of mid-century girl groups as the frontwoman of the Ronettes, has died aged 78.

A statement on its website states:

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 feisty attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face. She was filled with love and gratitude.

Her cheerful sound, playful character and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her.

The Ronettes with Phil Spector. Photo: David Magnus/Rex / Shutterstock

With her towering beehive haircut and powerfully melancholic, melodramatic voice, Spector is one of the most distinctive figures in American pop. Her hits with the Ronettes include the hugely influential Be My Baby – whose signature drum beat has been recreated countless times – as well as Baby I Love You, Walking in the Rain and a string of enduring Christmas covers. She also survived an abusive marriage to the group’s producer, Phil Spector, who was later incarcerated for murder.

Spector was born Veronica Bennett in New York in 1943, her heritage included African American, Native American and Irish American. “If you don’t look like everyone else, you automatically have a problem at school,” she told the Guardian in 2019, saying her peers would “beat me up for looking different”.

She formed the Ronettes in 1957 and the lineup quickly fused with her older sister, Estelle Bennett, and cousin Nedra Talley. The trio earned a stay at a local club and a recording contract, but early singles failed to make the charts. Estelle arranged an audition with Phil Spector, who signed the group, and whose co-written song Be My Baby became their first hit, number 2 in the US in 1963 and number 4 in the UK.

With a standout style based on figure-hugging dresses and heavy makeup – “We weren’t afraid to be hot. That was our gimmick,” Spector later wrote—and supported by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production, the group had seven more US chart positions and contributed three songs to Phil Spector’s 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift for You. They toured the US in 1966 as the opening act for the Beatles; the Rolling Stones supported them on a Ronettes tour of the UK. “They could sing through a wall of sound,” Keith Richards later said when the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. “They didn’t need anything. They touched my heart there and then and they still touch it.”

The Ronettes broke up in 1967, Ronnie embarked on a solo career, beginning with the George Harrison-penned single Try Some, Buy Some in 1971. She failed to hit the charts of her previous group and attempted to reform the Ronettes with new members failed in the early 1970s, but she continued to release music throughout her life.

In 1976, she duet with Southside Johnny on the Bruce Springsteen duet You Mean So Much to Me. “It was an honor to produce her and encourage her to get back on stage where she stayed for the next 45 years,” said Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, who produced the song and paid tribute in the aftermath. of her death.

She returned to the US top five in 1986 as a guest vocalist on Eddie Money’s Be My Baby interpolating song Take Me Home Tonight. In 1999, she teamed up with Ramones frontman Joey Ramone, who produced her EP She Talks to Rainbows. Her most recent album was English Heart from 2016.

Her romantic relationship with Phil Spector started in 1963 as an affair while Phil was married. He divorced his wife in 1965 and married Ronnie in 1968, becoming domineering, paranoid and violent during their relationship. Notorious behavior included letting Ronnie drive with a life-sized Phil doll next to her; he kept her locked in their house and threatened her with murder. She finally escaped in 1972 and fled barefoot when Phil refused to let her wear her own shoes.

She fought Phil with her bandmates for 15 years over royalties they owed, and eventually with success – in 2000 a New York court ruled that Phil owed them $2.6 million. This decision was overturned in 2002 after judges found that the record deal the group initially signed gave Phil Spector rights to the recordings, but in 2006 the New York State Supreme Court awarded the group a lump sum and ordered Phil. to keep paying them. annual royalties. Later that decade, further legal complaints came, accusing Phil of withholding royalty payments.

In 1982, Ronnie married her manager Jonathan Greenfield, and their marriage lasted until her death. She is survived by him and their two sons, Jason and Austin.

Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson was among those who paid tribute, saying: “I loved her voice so much and she was a very special person and dear friend. This just breaks my heart. Ronnie’s music and spirit will live on forever.” .”