"Phil Spector wanted to erase me from the public consciousness," the producer's ex-wife, Ronnie Spector, said with righteous indignation. The former lead singer of classic 1960s girl group the Ronettes was nearing the end of her spotty but winning two-hour, one-woman show, "Ronnie Spector: Beyond the Beehive," at New York’s City Winery on Friday night.
With split-second timing, a man seated to the right of the stage shouted, "He didn't, though!" The biggest cheer of the night erupted immediately.
There were a few such cheers for Spector’s show, such as when she performed what she called "my favorite Ronettes song," 1964’s "Walking in the Rain." "It was recorded in one take," she said afterward, to even more applause. "That never happened in the Sixties, especially with Phil Spector."
But no applause could go up for the Ronettes’ biggest hits – "Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" – due to Phil’s refusal, from inside prison, to grant permission for their use in a theatrical production. (Ronnie can sing the songs in a regular concert, but a scripted show requires a song publisher’s OK.)
Phil Spector’s paranoid, threatening control of Ronnie’s life during their six-year marriage – she wasn’t allowed off their heavily guarded property with shoes, for example – was the show’s ugly motif. Hence, Ronnie spoke of her subsequent successes – recording with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a healthy and stable second marriage – as triumphs over that relationship. "Decades of obstacles won't stop me from doing what I love, which is performing," she said at the top of the show.
The performance itself had its rickety spots: Spector admitted she was nervous about reading a script from an iPad, admonishing one table to "Shut up or get out." Her voice has lost a little range with the years, but the big, yearning tone behind all those "whoa-whoa-whoa" sobs was still in good shape on the opening night of a four-show engagement that will run at City Winery over the next three weeks.
Spector’s limited access to her hits didn’t prevent her from bringing out a lot of audience favorites. She sang "Time Is on My Side" after recounting the Ronettes’ road adventures with the Rolling Stones. (Spector does a very good Keith Richards imitation.) After that came the Beach Boys’ "Don’t Worry Baby," which Brian Wilson wrote as a follow-up to "Be My Baby" (Phil nixed it since he didn’t have a piece of publishing); "Frosty the Snowman" (on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, but not published by him); and, keyed to her finally leaving Phil’s mansion, barefoot, Billy Joel’s "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," which Spector recorded as an E Street Band-backed single in 1977.
Spector got laughs by admitting that when she first heard Frankie Lymon while growing up in Spanish Harlem, "I didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl," and talking about the first time the Ronettes met John Lennon and George Harrison. "I won't say they were perfect gentlemen – what fun would that be?" She also indicated something similar about Bill Clinton, who invited her to the White House for a performance, saying that Hillary Rodham Clinton stood by while the President "hugged and hugged and hugged me."
But some of the laughs were darker. After "The Best Part of Breaking Up," she recounted that the only way Phil would let her leave the mansion was for alcohol rehab. ("I loved rehab! It was like breaking free.") She described how she and Phil would sit in the mansion’s basement, watching – irony alert – Citizen Kane over and over again.
Finishing the Rolling Stones’ "Time Is on My Side," keyed to tales of the Ronettes’ ’60s tours with the Stones, Spector added, "Time’s on my side. The other person’s in prison."