Ronnie Spector is seated in the restaurant of a lavish midtown Manhattan hotel. She's dressed in black, and her long, black hair is bouffant – though a far cry from the beehive she wore when she was making hits with the Ronettes over half a century ago. It's a bright, sunny, late-March day – "It's meant for us," she beams giddily – and even though the woman born Veronica Bennett is now 72, she has the energy of a woman a third of her age. She laughs boisterously, she slaps her hand on the table for emphasis, and she seems to have no reservations about belting out the opening lines to "Be My Baby" at 2 p.m. mere feet away from a fancy hotel lounge.
Four decades ago, she was a prisoner in her own house. Now, years after escaping her marriage to producer Phil Spector – the mastermind behind the "Wall of Sound" and Ronnie's biggest hits who is now serving a prison sentence for murder – she's intent on enjoying her freedom. She's been married to her manager, Jonathan Greenfield, for more than three decades, she lives in Connecticut and she's the mother to two sons.
Ronnie has kept busy with music in recent years, sporadically performing live (her favorite thing to do) and putting out albums. Her latest LP, English Heart, which came out this month, finds her singing songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Bee Gees and others. Her inspiration for the record, however, is distinctly American. After reading that Bob Dylan had done an album of Frank Sinatra songs, she remembers saying, "If Bob can sing Frank Sinatra, who was known as a great singer, and Dylan's known as not such a great singer, I could make a hell of an album." She laughs. But the more she thought about it, Dylan was singing American songs, so she ought to do something different, and focused her project on Great Britain.
The record, helmed by producer Scott Jacoby (Vampire Weekend, Sia, Coldplay), couldn't sound more different from her ex's dense, claustrophobic signature sound – and that's how she likes it. As she speaks with Rolling Stone about how the LP came together, along with her experiences and friendships with British artists, it's clear she's moved on from her past. And she couldn't be happier.
Why did you want to do an album of cover songs by British artists?
When the Ronettes started out, our first big trip was to the U.K., where we met the Beatles before they even came to the States and the Rolling Stones were our opening act. Everybody was so innocent. Everybody just loved the music and the fun we had backstage; if it was somebody's birthday, we got a cake and soda. We didn't have all the stuff that came later on with rock & roll. We got to know Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, the Kinks, all these groups. Later, I knew and dated David Bowie a few times.
But when we got to the U.K., we felt like real stars for the first time [laughs]. So I thought of the idea that I was over there in the Ronettes with the British Invasion when it was all happening for us. I was at the peak of my career when I was with the Kinks, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and we were all so happy together. And then all of a sudden, I was taken away from it [because of Phil].
You did your tour with the Stones in January 1964. What was that like?
We were in a car, and they were in a bus following our car. They were a bunch of scraggly looking guys. But I loved them and I especially loved Keith, because I love that rugged look he had. Mick was, like, a pretty boy maybe. Keith used to say, "Oh, we would have great babies because you have that black, thick hair and I have black, thick hair." Now his is not so black. But they were my opening act. I remember Keith and Mick asking me about James Brown and I said, "I don't even know the guy."
Was it easy traveling then?
One time, we had to stop driving because of the fog. So Keith and I got off the bus, looking for a light, for a house. I said, "Keith, you stand at the back of me," because he has always had that rugged look, and I look sort of neat, you know? So I said, "Let me knock. I'm a girl." And I'll never forget, when we found one, this little lady – she was like round and short – she came to the door and I said, "Hi, I'm Ronnie of the Ronettes and our bus is stuck." And Keith would say, "I'm Keith from the Rolling Stones." And she said, "Come on in, guys," and she gave us scones and tea, which we took back to the bus. You couldn't do that today. People don't even open the door today.
Did she know your music?
I don't know [laughs]. I only thought about that years later [laughs]. We never went back to her because we could never could find her. But I remember Keith and I were both laughing, very energetic. He's still like that today. Even though he's older and I'm older, we still have that same attitude.
You recorded with Keith Richards in 2006 on your The Last of the Rock Stars album. You've kept the friendship alive.
Keith Richards was there before I even got there. He's known to be late. I got to the studio, and then Joey Ramone came in. It's kind of dim in the studio and Keith is on one mic and I'm on another. And you can see Joey sitting in the control room, just staring. He looked at Keith; he looked at me. And that was like his dream. To see Ronnie Spector and Keith Richards in one room. He didn't move when we were in the recording studio. He died shortly after that. That was the last time I saw Joey.
On English Heart, you cover the Stones' "I'd Much Rather Be With the Boys" as "I'd Much Rather Be With the Girls." Why did you flip it?
When Keith wrote that, it was when all the girl groups were in, so they were saying, "I'd much rather be with the boys." So I just waited 50 years. Yeah, I'd much rather be with the girls.
There's a spoken-word part of the song where you and your girlfriends have a party. What is partying for Ronnie Spector like in 2016?
Well, my parties, to be honest with you, are all onstage. I wait for the stage. I live a very bland life in Connecticut. I have two boys. I go shopping at ShopRite once a week, like any other mother. So I save it up for when I get onstage. It's, like, I have no kids. I'm not even married. I'm married to the audience.
Were you ever a big partier?
No. Even in the Sixties, we didn't party. I remember going to these clubs, and people would be slobbering all over me because of alcohol. It would make me sick. Everybody tells me I look so great for my age, and that's because I didn't do drugs. I drank beer and smoked cigarettes. But I looked after my voice. My voice makes me money. But even if that wasn't the case, I still wouldn't have gone to clubs. It was boring to me.
Why did you pick "I'll Follow the Sun" as your Beatles cover?
I had to do a Beatles song, having known them my whole life. But I didn't want to pick a song that everybody had already covered. I don't think anybody covered "I'll Follow the Sun," and I made sure [laughs].
What are your fondest memories of knowing the Beatles?
John Lennon and all the guys took us to Carnaby Street [in London] to show us where to get. It was innocent. It was pure. It was rock & roll. John and Paul would be writing on napkins anywhere we'd go; they were just, like, crazy about the music.
I remember them coming to New York the first time, and John Lennon called me saying, "Ronnie, we don't know what to do. We're prisoners here." They were in either the Warwick or the Plaza Hotel. "You gotta come up and get us out of here." They didn't know anybody in America. So me, Estelle and Nedra – the three Ronettes – would go up there. He said, "Please bring the 45 records." So we'd sit there on the floor and listen to records. We had the best time. I remember he got upset because the Supremes came in, because people came in just to take pictures with them. But they were our buddies; we were having fun. I remember George going, "Oh, no. We've got to take a picture." So they'd get up, leave us and come right back and sit down on the floor and continue our conversation about rock & roll.
The production on English Heart is a departure from Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Did you intend that as a statement?
I didn't think like that. It was just something I wanted to do.
The record features the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." Your version has really sparse production, especially compared to your Sixties hits.
I wanted it to be like that so people could hear my voice, my feelings. I mean, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart"? I had to tell Scott, the producer, "Give me a minute." I went in the ladies' room and cried my eyes out. Because that song is about my life, you know? My heart's been broken so many times. I mean, I was in lawsuits over royalties with my ex for 20 years. It took away a lot of the things I really wanted to do.
How does it feel for that to be over?
Oh, it's the best feeling. And the fact that we won? It was like the sun came out. I felt free for the first time.
The last Ronettes record came out 50 years ago. What do those songs meant to you now?
I love 'em. I've never not sung "Be My Baby," or "Walking in the Rain," or "Baby, I Love You." I would never disappoint my audience like that.
What do you remember about the "Be My Baby" session?
I don't think anybody wanted me to know how good I was, other than Jack Nitzsche.
Maybe they were jealous?
These were men!
They still could have been jealous of your voice. How did Jack help shape "Be My Baby"?
It took him all night to arrange "Be My Baby," so when I got into the studio in Los Angeles the next day, the guys were all quiet and I went into the vocal booth. I'll never forget how it happened. [Ronnie pounds her hand on the table to the opening beat.] And I went, [singing loudly] "The night we met … " All the musicians dropped whatever they were holding, their horns and guitars, and they were looking at this new girl in town. All the musicians were yelling, "Oh, my God. Her voice!" And I'm saying, "Me? A little girl from Spanish Harlem?" So from then on, it was so great to be in the business and to have a hit record.
You'd been practicing the song in New York with only with a piano. How did it feel to hear Hal Blaine play that famous bass-drum beat?
It was like I'd gone to heaven. It all fit. It all was like a puzzle and once my voice was put on, the puzzle was complete. That's when I knew this record just might be a hit.
You mentioned David Bowie earlier. How did you meet him?
I met him through May Pang, who was with John Lennon when he and Yoko broke up. She called me [one day in the mid-Seventies] and said, "David is having a concert and he wants you to come." And I was like, "David who?" [Laughs] So I went and when he was done, I was asked to go to his dressing room. He couldn't get enough of me [laughs]. We went out to dinner a few times; he came over to my apartment a few times. He was so nice.
I remember one time at the Plaza, he'd brought me to a party but then disappeared. There were all these people with big diamonds on, and they were standing around this glass coffee table doing cocaine. They were looking at me like, "Who's this piece of shit David brought?" So I walked away and tried to find him. I was so scared. So his friends brought me to a room, and there was David, and we kissed for a little while and then I took him to my house because he didn't like those rich snobs either. It was amazing how they're in his room yet he didn't like them.
That must have been sometime after your divorce from Phil in 1974. It must have felt good to be liberated.
Yes. My ex took singing away from me and it was devastating because I had no idea that I would never record. I had no idea I would never perform again, which was my life. I was in shock with that because here's a person who wrote your records and produced them. … And then, you're never gonna sing again.
Well, things have changed.
I never knew "What goes around, comes around," until he went to prison. Then I knew what it meant. Because I was in prison in the mansion and I couldn't even get out. For seven years, I didn't go anywhere. I never saw a movie. I never did anything in California because everything was brought to me.
Some people are good people. It's, like, David Bowie was such a good guy, why did he have to go? And why is my ex still alive? [Laughs] The good people die … like Jimi Hendrix, I knew him really well then all of a sudden he's gone. Gone. It bothers me that a lot of the rock & roll people that I loved, that I hung out with, are gone.
What was Jimi Hendrix like?
He used to play in a small place downtown in the house band. I'd get up and sing – anything he would do on his guitar, I would repeat with my voice. He would say, "Boy, your voice sounds like a guitar." I didn't know my voice was supposedly that great because people didn't tell you back then how great you were. Then it was, "Go to the ladies' room. Re-do your eye makeup, or something."
It sounds like Jimi was different. Did you remain friends?
One time, my sister called me up when I'd come back to New York, visiting my parents. She said, "Jimi is dying to see you again." So I went over to Jimi's house at Electric Lady, and he has a mattress on the floor, and about four girls hanging around the bed. My sister was sitting in a chair, and he was like, "Ronnie, you've got to go on my record. Even if you just say 'ooh' or 'ahh,' you know, your little 'oh-ohs.'" So I did that. They had shipped my Camaro to New York, so Jimi and all of us, the girls, got in after recording and we were all crowded in there, and I dropped Jimi off and said, "OK, good night!"
The next morning, somebody's ringin' my bell. I look through the peephole and I say, "Oh, it's Jimi!" [Laughs] I open the door and he had one hand on his hip and said, "Hi Ronnie. I left my tapes in your car." He left that tape on purpose. I thought it was the sweetest thing. Because he wanted to see me alone. Yet I was married at the time, so … I couldn't see him too much [laughs].
It's hard losing friends.
Yes. For Joey Ramone to die and all my rock & roll friends. … Even when John [Lennon] died and George [Harrison], I was devastated. You would think one of the Rolling Stones would be dead, with how everyone would talk about how skinny they are [laughs]. But I'll tell you, nobody has Keith Richards' heart. He has the biggest, greatest heart.
Another British singer who has died that you had a connection to was Amy Winehouse. You were performing her "Back to Black" before her death.
Amy Winehouse was so great for me, because she made me feel like what I did mattered. The hair, the eye makeup. I recorded "Back to Black" three years before she died. I used to sort of make fun of her saying, "She has a beehive, but it's sort of tilted like the Eiffel Tower," but I don't say that anymore since she passed because her and I became very close – even if it was through magazines. I'd read where she'd say, "I loved all-girl groups but my specialty was the Ronettes and Ronnie Spector with the way she wore her hair." I got messages through her interviews. And now her mother comes to every show I do in the U.K. She wrote a book about Amy and gave me a copy. She wrote an inscription that was so sweet and personal about how I was her daughter's inspiration. It just made me feel so great. And it makes me continue to want to sing, 'cause what I did back then mattered: the hair, the makeup.
You didn't think you mattered?
I didn't realize it until people started telling me, "You're amazing." Singing was something I loved and something that was taken from me. And after that, I want to do it so much more.