In their towering black beehive hairdos and dark eye makeup, the Ronettes were a classic mid-1960s girl group with a sultry twist: vulnerable but tough, sexy but sweet. The Ronettes were the first bad girls of rock, a racially undefinable (the Bennetts' mother was black and Native American; their father was white) trio that became producer Phil Spector's most successful act.
All three Ronettes are related: Talley is the cousin of the two Bennett sisters. The trio began singing together as the Darling Sisters. By 1961, they had become featured dancers and vocalists at the Peppermint Lounge, performing a song-and-dance routine inspired by Hank Ballard and Chubby Checker's "Twist." They later appeared with New York City disc jockey Murray the K's rock shows and recorded in 1961 and 1962 for Colpix as Ronnie and the Relatives, then the Ronettes.
Spector signed them to his Philles label in 1963. Smitten with Ronnie, he attempted to sign her as a solo artist, but when the group refused to be broken up, he signed them all. Initially the trio provided background vocals for other Spector productions, including records by Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. (Earlier in their career, the Ronettes backed up Little Eva, Del Shannon, Bobby Rydell, and Joey Dee, among others.) His first Wall of Sound productions for them were "Baby I Love You" and a song he cowrote with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, "Be My Baby." That fall it hit Number Two and sold over a million copies.
The Ronettes had other, less successful hits: "Baby I Love You" (Number 24, 1963), "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up" (Number 39, 1964), "Walking in the Rain" (Number 23, 1964), "Do I Love You?" (Number 34, 1964), "Is This What I Get for Lovin' You?" (Number 75, 1965), and "I Can Hear Music" (Number 100, 1966). In 1964 Spector began managing the group as well, and throughout the group's career Spector's possessiveness and jealousy created problems. For example, when they were set to open for the Beatles on their 1966 U.S. tour, he kept Ronnie at home and had another cousin of hers take her place on the road. By then, the group was near to breaking up. Talley married a New York City radio station–programming director, and Estelle married producer Teddy Vann.
In 1966 Ronnie Bennett married Phil Spector. According to her autobiography, Be My Baby, Spector virtually held her prisoner in their L.A. mansion. They separated in 1973 and divorced in 1974, by which time Ronnie Spector had developed a serious drinking problem that would last several more years. Although Spector had recorded her for A&M in 1969 ("You Came, You Saw, You Conquered") and Apple in 1971 ("Try Some, Buy Some," co-produced with George Harrison), her first solo releases went unnoticed. Ronnie Spector began her long comeback with a 1973 appearance at a rock-revival show with two new Ronettes; she then released two singles on Buddah.
Through the 1970s she later pursued a solo career, inspired by the fact that many notable musicians (including Billy Joel, who wrote "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" for her, and Bruce Springsteen) cited her as an influence. In 1977 Little Steven van Zandt produced her version of "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" (with backing by the E Street Band), but it never charted. She sang on Southside Johnny's debut LP and then cut a solo album in 1980 entitled Siren, produced by Genya Ravan. Ronnie Spector's biggest commercial break came in 1986 when her duet with Eddie Money, "Take Me Home Tonight," the chorus of which reprised "Be My Baby," hit Number Four and became an oft-seen video. In 1986 her autobiography, Be My Baby (written with Vince Waldron) was published. Through the 1980s she also performed as one of the "legendary ladies of rock," along with Martha Reeves, Lesley Gore, Mary Wilson, and others.
Remarried and living in Connecticut with her husband and two sons, Spector returned to recording in the late 1990s. She began touring on punk and indie-rock bills. The hard-edged, guitar-based She Talks to Rainbows featured songs written by Joey Ramone (the EP's co-producer, with whom she also sings a duet), Brian Wilson, and Johnny Thunders. In 2000 a Manhattan judge ordered Phil Spector to pay $3 million, most of it in back royalties, to Ronnie Spector and her fellow Ronettes, but two years later a New York State appeals court reversed the decision, deferring to the group's original 1963 contract. Ronnie Spector resurfaced in 2003 with yet another EP, Something's Gonna Happen, a collection of Marshall Crenshaw songs; she also sang backup vocals on a Misfits album that year. In 2006 she released her third full-length solo album, The Last of the Rock Stars, which included guest appearances from Keith Richards and Patti Smith. In 2007, the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).