The English Heart of an American Icon

July 20, 2016 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 92
Ronnie Spector in the recording studio. Photo: Even Seplow

Ronnie Spector in the recording studio. Photo: Even Seplow

by Steve Desroches

Just about a month ago Ronnie Spector played the famed Glastonbury Festival, a five-day music event in the countryside of South West England. Founded in 1970, the festival has grown to become one of the most important annual music events in the world, featuring artists from various genres, with this year’s bill including Adele, ZZ Top, Coldplay, Beck, Cyndi Lauper, PJ Harvey, and more. The outdoor festival is also famous for its usually rainy weather and mud—lots and lots of mud.  But as Spector took to the stage the rain stopped, the sun came out, and the crowd of 135,000 roared as she began to sing.

Spector is of course an American rock and roll icon, having led The Ronettes to superstardom in the 1960s. But returning to England to perform is always a special experience for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. The Ronettes arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport in January of 1964, where they were met with thousands of screaming fans. Already famous in America with mega hits like “Baby, I Love You” and of course “Be My Baby,” Spector was nevertheless surprised at their reception in the United Kingdom. And on their very first night in London The Ronettes went to a party where they were introduced to the Beatles. Shortly after that they met the band that would be their opening act for their British tour: the Rolling Stones.

“It was the best time in rock and roll, in 1964, when the Ronettes and I were in England,” says Spector. “There was nothing like it.”

Now, over 50 years later, Spector’s new album English Heart is a loving tribute to those times, as she covers 11 songs made famous by British acts in the early 1960s, including “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” She’ll be singing many of those songs along with other classics this Wednesday at Town Hall in a concert produced by the Payomet Performing Arts Center, which has hit a winning niche on the Outer Cape by bringing in so many legends of rock and roll.

A Spector promo photo from the beehive days of The Ronettes

A Spector promo photo from the beehive days of The Ronettes

The contributions of The Ronettes to rock and roll music cannot be underestimated, and that meeting in 1964 between them, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, would be one of those magical moments where artists meet and forever change the face of popular music. While the Beatles would arrive in the United States for the first time just three weeks later, it was the Ronettes that led an American invasion of Britain, if you will, bringing the legendary Wall of Sound production style to Europe. But in addition, these were good times. At only 20 years old, Spector, then known as Veronica Bennett, along with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley, ran around England with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. John Lennon took them to Carnaby Street to the hip clubs of swinging London. They celebrated Keith Richards’ birthday backstage with cake, ice cream, and soda (she swears that’s all!)  They were all just kids, playing rock and roll, having a ball.

“What people don’t understand about that time is that it was so innocent and fun,” says Spector. “It was the best time to be in rock and roll because you didn’t think about anything but the music.”

When the Beatles arrived in New York that February, Lennon called Spector from the Plaza Hotel to tell her they were trapped inside by the thousands of screaming teens that had come to see them. They desperately wanted to get out and see the city. Born and raised in Spanish Harlem, Spector went down to the Plaza as they snuck out an alley door, and then the Ronettes and the Beatles hopped from club to club in Harlem, listening to the latest in music. The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show two days later.

Spector would go on to a long solo career, full of ups and downs, as well as her much publicized abuse at the hands of producer and ex-husband Phil Spector. But through it all she has managed to reemerge time and time again as a force in rock and roll, working with musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, and more. And her artistic influence continues to this day, perhaps most recently and notably with her clear inspirational effect on the late Amy Winehouse, in both song and style. The two met in 2011, shortly before Winehouse’s death, when Spector performed in London, including a cover of “Back to Black.” Now each time she goes to England she has dinner with Winehouse’s mother, Janis.

“Amy’s mother said to me, ‘If it wasn’t for you there wouldn’t have been an Amy Winehouse. She wanted to be just like you,’” says Spector. “It breaks my heart.”

While the iconic beehive hairdos, tight pencil skirts, and heavy eye makeup are now the stuff of nostalgia, at the time it was seen as radically different, even controversial. Most of the 1960s girl groups wore flaired skirts in a more conservative look. But when the  Ronettes hit the scene, they were instantly labeled the bad girls of rock and roll for the look as well as their completely organic dance moves, as they never used a choreographer, like the Shirelles or the Chiffons did. Add into that their multiracial background and some in America saw them as downright scandalous at the time.

The Ronnettes: Ronnie Spector (then Veronica Bennett), Estelle Bennett, and Nedra Talley in a 1960s television appearance.

The Ronnettes: Ronnie Spector (then Veronica Bennett), Estelle Bennett, and Nedra Talley in a 1960s television appearance.

“We had a street style,” says Spector. “We got it from the streets. We looked at how the black girls dressed, how the Puerto Rican girls did their hair, how the Chinese girls in my neighborhood did their make up, the Cleopatra eyes. We wanted to be like them. We took everything from the streets of our neighborhood.”

While her new album is title English Heart, Spector has always had a rebel heart, as well. Her love for live performance and music has taken her around the world, establishing herself as a solo artist who does whatever she likes creatively. She’s done it all. She laughs and recalls a gig in the 1970s at the Continental Baths playing for a room full of men in towels as a wild, good time. And then she pauses and remembers something else. When the Ronettes first started as just teenagers,  her mother didn’t want them singing in places that served alcohol, so they often performed at the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, introducing her to gay people for the first time.

“Our first audiences were a lot of gay people,” says Spector. “You know, they really loved our look. They loved us because we were different. Our first fans were really the gay audiences.”

The Payomet Performing Arts Center presents Ronnie Spector at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St. on Wednesday, July 27 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets ($35 – $85) and information call 508.487.5400 or visit payomet.org.