In April, Ronnie Spector released English Heart, a new LP that explores her surprisingly deep rock & roll roots. The legendary Ronettes singer told Rolling Stone how she hung out with the Beatles, toured with the Stones, dated David Bowie and fended off advances from Jimi Hendrix. In a more recent chat, Spector discussed her favorite books, why she loves Bruno Mars and what life with Phil Spector was really like.
You grew up in Spanish Harlem. What’s the most New York thing about you?
I loved watching the black and Puerto Rican girls with their cigarettes and their high hair. We had a Jewish deli and a Chinese laundry. My father was white, and my mother was black and Indian. I thought it was great that everybody was dark — or not so dark.
Who was your biggest hero?
Frankie Lymon. When I heard “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” I loved his voice so much that I wanted to touch it. I grew up 15 blocks from him, and I didn’t know anybody with that kind of diction. But he had bad people around him. Before he died, he would run up to cars on 42nd Street and beg for money — my idol, begging for pennies! That story hurt my guts, but at least he made me not want to do drugs.
What kind of books do you like to read?
All women’s books, about Dolly Parton, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday. The book Amy Winehouse’s mother wrote about her. I’ve learned so much through those women. Each book I go through, I say, “That’s what they did wrong.” That’s how I’m still living today.
What do you think of the new generation of pop stars, like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift?
I love that women have the power now. At my recording sessions in the 1960s, there was only one woman: Carol Kaye, on bass.
What new music moves you?
Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars. “When I Was Your Man” is so great. I pull over in my car and listen to the whole song. His voice is like Frankie Lymon’s.
How do you look back on the years with Phil Spector?
I had a big party at my wedding, and then I saw no one else after that. Our house was locked from the outside. I never went to a movie in seven years. I never went onstage for almost eight years. I could have five servants, but I couldn’t have the stage, and that’s the only thing I cared about.
Do you have any positive memories of Phil?
He was great in the studio. He could hear one mistake in one person’s guitar and say, “Over there, in the corner — you hit a wrong note.” That blew my mind. He was great as a producer. As a husband, not so much.
You had a drinking problem at one point. How did you get sober?
It started in the Sixties with my ex. Later, when I moved home to New York from L.A., all I thought about was getting my career back on track. I said, “That’s it — no more drinking,” and I haven’t had a drink in maybe 33 years. My greatest accomplishment at this point is just being alive.
You became a mom later in life. How did that change you?
Things I couldn’t do years ago, I do now, like cooking. I love going to ShopRite. I look a little nice in case someone says, “Can I take your picture?” I get a little bouffant going and put on a little lipstick. I try to look like Ronnie.
“I love going to ShopRite. I look a little nice in case someone says, ‘Can I take your picture?'”
Your new album features remakes of British Invasion hits. What made you want to revisit these songs?
I was in the middle of that. The Ronettes hung out with the Beatles. The Rolling Stones were our opening act. The Kinks played shows with us.
You and your sister even double-dated John Lennon and George Harrison.
I was 18, and I didn’t know John was married. John and George came and picked us up at the Strand Palace Hotel in London. They said to my mom, “Mrs. Bennett, would you like to go out with us to dinner?” I thought she would say, “Oh, you kids go out and have fun.” But she said, “Let me get my purse!” George and John almost passed out. After dinner, my mom took the hint and got in a cab. The rest of us went to the Crazy Elephant club and John said, “Ronnie, sing a bit of ‘Be My Baby’ in my ear.”
What’s on your bucket list?
I’ve outgrown that. Now it’s a “fuck it” list. I met someone from Dancing With the Stars and he said, “You should be on it.” I want to, but not really. I love the show, but it looks like a lot of work.
When you and friends like Keith Richards get together, do you marvel that you’re all still around?
We do. If someone had told me in the Sixties that I would be around 50 years later, still singing those songs, I would have said, “You’re outta your mind.”
Is it true Steve Van Zandt asked you out in the Seventies — and took you to see The Exorcist?
Yes! We were like buddies. It was fun! Little Anthony of the Imperials took me to see The Ten Commandments
What’s your advice about dating musicians?
Um … do it with caution? A lot of girls are hanging around every place they go.
Do you think about retiring?
The way people whistle at me? At this age? I love it. I will never retire from rock & roll. Rock & roll will have to retire me.