Arts: She talks to rainbows

Phil Spector built a Wall of Sound around her, then imprisoned her behind real gates and barbed wire. Game over? Not likely. Meet Ronnie Spector, pop's finest moment.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You can't be a part of rock'n' roll history and come out wholly unaffected. Ronnie Spector has the double bind of both being a mythic icon and having lived with one of the strangest men in the business. She was the love object, the protegee, and later the prisoner, of the genius Phil Spector, and hers is the voice you hear on Sixties teen anthems such as "Be My Baby", "Walking in the Rain", and "Baby, I Love You" - a vibrato of raw adolescent devotion, a mixture of innocence, pathos and desire.

The then Veronica Bennett was 17, dressed in get-up that sent men crazy - but breathtakingly unworldly. She'll tell you she was a virgin, that the numbers written for her by Phil express the depth of his love. But according to Billy Joel, one of the many musicians who idolise her, they were pure sex; and if you took a Ronettes record to a party, you were bound to get laid. "Ronnie's voice," he has said, "sounds almost lubricated. It's got a smell to it, like sweat and garlic."

Ronnie and Phil, of course, got married; after years of trauma, she left him. Neither has done anything of particular note since, though Ronnie's made stabs at comebacks. She's just beginning another one, helped out by Joey Ramone and signed to Oasis's label, Creation.

But when you talk to her, it's pretty clear that Phil's still running around in her head, a nerdy but visionary tyrant.

Ronnie's 55 now, with a Marlboro-deepened voice, like Lennie the Lion's. She's filled out from the gawky kid who got called Skinny Yellow Horse at school because of her colouring (her father was Irish, her mother half- black, half-Cherokee), and her tendency to kick like a pony. She's still exotically beautiful - perhaps, in a way, more so - and, boy, can she talk. The scene is a Russian tea room in Camden.

"People say I was created by Phil. Well, first of all..." Wags finger, then looks down. "First of all, I can't get this sugar out, can you get it? OK..." Taps out seven tabs of Sweet 'n' Low. "What attracted Phil was what we already had. We had our look, because me and the Ronettes were born different-looking. And he didn't teach me how to sing. If anyone guided me, it was Frankie Lymon. I'd come home from school and holler `Why Do Fools Fall In Love?' over and over."

Phil got a ready-to-go package, right down to the styling, which Ronnie took from the girls of her Spanish Harlem neighbourhood: tight dresses with side splits, heels, teased beehives, and a gallon of eyeliner. Hip- swingin', finger-clickin', total West Side Story - quite something when other girl groups, such as The Shirelles, were still flaunting big silly party dresses.

The Ronettes (the other two were her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra) had a record deal, with the lacklustre Colpix, when they called up Spector - at 21, a prodigy and a self-made millionaire. There was an immediate frisson between the producer and the singer, and it developed at Phil's Gold Star studios in LA, where the legendary Wall of Sound was being constructed around the likes of Tina Turner, the Righteous Brothers and the Crystals.

Phil built the sound deep - six guitarists, three pianos, a dozen strings, a room of backing singers - but had such Mekon-like control, he was able to detect faulty tuning on the 10th violin mid-track. "And that turned me on so much, I'm telling you." Ronnie's huge eyes half close. "I wanted him so badly. A man's brain - that's so exciting for women. Phil had the diction, he had all the big words, and he had a cute tush, too. I remember telling Darlene Love, Isn't he cute? She said, `You think that's cute?' I thought he was adorable."

Phil was convinced of his ugliness. "By the time he was 23, and we were married, he had a toupee. Every night, he would go to the bathroom and use an acetone solvent to get the glue off his head. You could smell it all the way to the bedroom. But he'd turn off the light, come out of the bathroom with a little hat on, then take it off when he got in bed. It was so unnecessary. Whereas I had so much hair." A touch of smugness here. "He was always on a diet, too. His father was heavy and bald, and he didn't want to be anything like his father. It was sad in a way - I could eat anything, I lived on cheeseburgers, and there was the cook making low- calorie food for Phil." Spector Snr had killed himself when Phil was 17: "I don't know if anyone knows that. It probably made him more insecure."

Don't feel sorry for Phil. At 19, he'd written "There is a Rose in Spanish Harlem". Once he'd picked Ronnie and married her, he tied her securely. The couple had a 23-room mansion in Beverly Hills. "On the first day of my honeymoon, I woke up to hear all this banging. I looked out the window, saw these construction workers. I thought they were making a basketball pitch." Instead, barbed wire-topped walls went up. The doors were locked, and Ronnie didn't get a key. Deeply possessive, Phil forbade his wife from touring with The Beatles, then from touring anywhere, and then from going out at all.

As pacification, he got her to record numbers that would have taken her to new heights - had they been released. "Days and months of work, and the songs never appeared. I blamed myself. I did my best, but I thought it must be me." Around this time, The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson wrote the mellifluous "Don't Worry, Baby" for Ronnie. She never heard about it. So the Ronettes faded, stifled in their prime.

Things worsened when, in 1966, Ike and Tina Turner's phenomenal "River Deep, Mountain High" inexplicably stiffed in the States. It was Gold Star's last recording. At 26, Phil went into retirement. He shuttered the windows, plunging the house into shadow, watched Citizen Kane repeatedly, and roared his head off at Ronnie - who took refuge in alcohol, and painting by numbers. "A lot of people say I'm like Tina Turner or Cher, but I'm nothing like them," she tells me. "Ike let Tina perform. He worked her too hard, but she could sing. And Sonny, he was the brain behind Cher. Maybe Phil just loved me too much."

In 1972, after years of sanatoriums and Al-Anon meetings, Ronnie escaped - running through the electric gates barefoot one day while her mum kept Phil talking. That easy. Interminable litigation followed, first the divorce, and continuing lawsuits over royalties. ("He won't give up. It's contact with me.") The Seventies saw Ronnie taken up by a number of musicians with respect for her voice and status, but nothing paid off. She worked with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, then Billy Joel wrote the storming "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" for her, which she recorded with Springsteen's E Street Band. There was a pseudo-punk album, Siren, then a single with Eddie Money and an album, Unfinished Business, that went nowhere.

She met her second husband, Jonathan Greenfield, in the mid-Eighties, a jovial bear of a man who's now her manager. It was he who heard The Ramones' "She Talks To Rainbows", and suggested Ronnie meet Joey. Joey heard her sing, told her, "You're so now," and fixed up a deal with Creation. On a new four-track EP, Ronnie covers "Rainbows" and finally gets a shot at "Don't Worry, Baby". Her voice is almost what it was, though the years do show, but she claims: "I'm ready to take on the world.

"Sometimes, even now, I think Phil might be in the audience, watching me. You never forget that first love, though I wish I could. At Gold Star, when I'd watch him telling the guitars what to do, I'd think, he is so cool. And I still think that."

Ronnie Spector's new EP will be released on 18 January