Ronnie Spector: Breaking down the walls of heartache

Ronnie Spector was the voice of her ex-husband's 'wall of sound' - and the object of his obsession, she tells Simon Hardeman
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In a neutral room, in a nondescript hotel, two medium-height chairs face each other across a black table. There is a jug of water, two glasses and an ashtray. There are no eye-level windows. It looks like the venue for a post-traumatic debriefing. In the adjoining bathroom, a small woman is applying make-up. Eventually, she sits down in an exaggerated display of relaxation. It is neither cold nor bright, but this attractive, part-black, part-Irish, part-Native-American sexagenarian wears a hat and sunglasses.

The setting is appropriate because, for Ronnie Spector, the voice that was the velvet cutting edge of Phil Spector's "wall of sound", everything still goes back to one central trauma: her life with the musical genius who is currently awaiting trial for murder - and who, she believes, would have killed her had she stayed.

On "Girl from the Ghetto", from her surprisingly good new rock'n'roll album (her first in nine years), she sings: "I hope your hell is filled with magazines/ And on every page is a picture of you." I mention this, and she laughs a smoker's cackle. "You know what happened at the very end of that song? I sang: 'I hope your cell is filled with magazines/ And on every page is a picture of you.' I didn't do it on purpose and I said I can't even say that - he might not even go to jail!" Neither of us has mentioned Phil yet, but despite the fact that she left him in 1973 (after five years of marriage) and has been married to her current partner, Jonathan Greenfield, for the past 23 years, "he" can only be one person.

The girl born Veronica Bennett in 1943 was used to restrictions from the start. "If you were pretty, you weren't allowed to go outside," she explains in her supercharged drawl. "My cousin Nedra and my sister Estelle [the other Ronettes] were all mixed race and they didn't want us going out. Once, when I was about seven or eight, me and Nedra snuck out to get some liquorice and candy, and a man standing there turned around and opened his jacket. It was the first time I had seen a penis. I told my grandmother that we didn't want to go out any more after that!"

So they stayed in and practised singing to Frankie Lymon records, "especially his live album At the London Palladium. I played it so loud my grandmother used to tell me I'd go deaf. I didn't know if he was black or white or yellow, I just fell in love with the voice. And that's when I knew I was going to sing." There was no question about who was the star. "They all knew I was the one. The other girls liked it, but they knew I loved it".

Restrictions were lifted when the girls were in their early teens. "Our aunts taught us to put on rouge and lipstick so we could stand in line at the Peppermint Lounge. We had hair piled up and eyeliner, and my aunts put blusher and lipstick on. There were movie stars standing there but this guy from the club saw us and said: 'Girls, you're late!' They thought we were the act! They put us on stage and after that they hired." The girls danced, and gradually got chances to sing, in a variety of nightclubs until, in 1963, they met Phil, already a successful producer. He immediately incarcerated their vocals inside his trademark wall of sound - dense, layered, reverb-strewn orchestration - to create classic singles including "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You".

When the Ronettes came to England in 1964, the Rolling Stones were their opening act. Ronnie struck up an enduring relationship with them (Keith Richards plays on two songs on Ronnie's new album) and with the Beatles. "I remember when John Lennon and George Harrison came to pick us up to go to dinner with us," she smiles, "and my mum was with us. They were so nice to her. I remember John saying: 'Would you like to go to dinner with us?', thinking that she would say: 'No, you kids go and have fun', and my mother said: 'Yes, let me get my purse.' We were devastated!"

But she was already becoming overwhelmed by the man she calls the "boy genius", and his promises of giving her a hit "bigger than 'I Want to Hold Your Hand'". The Fab Four wanted the Ronettes to tour with them, but Phil wouldn't let Ronnie go. "He tricked me," she sighs. "I thought it was great and he was writing me songs I love, so how could I also think that this guy was taking my career from me? He had to have me in the studio all the time. What makes me mad is that the records I did were great but he never released them. Everybody else was making money and having fun."

Periodically, she stops herself and says we need to move on, to talk about her album - but each time she slips back to telling me how Phil stole her career and, more often than not, there's a famous name involved. "Mike Love of the Beach Boys said to me: 'Ronnie, I listened to your voice to get the phrasing of "I Can Hear Music".' I did it first. But I lost my apartment and I went broke."

Phil, she says, took over her entire life. "When we moved to Beverly Hills, I wasn't allowed to talk to the servants, I couldn't read books, and if I watched television he would put it down. I couldn't listen to music because he had on this opera music all through the house and I didn't have a radio. He would yell a lot. And he would have curse-words I'd never heard before."

The stories pour out of her. About how once he caught her laughing with the cook - after which she was never allowed to talk to him again (this man, she says, was the only member of the Spector staff to stand by her at her divorce hearing). About how she only ever went to a place once, be it to the hairdresser's, a mass-euse, or on a food-shopping trip, because after the first visit Phil would make sure that what was needed came to the house.

About how once, coming out of one of her spells in rehab ("I was drinking because I didn't known what else to do, because he was yelling all the time so I'd just run to my room"), Phil took her by a park and asked her if she liked the two children of about five playing there. She said yes. When she got home, the same children were playing in the fountain in front of the mansion, and she was now their adoptive mother (adding them to the child the couple had already adopted). "So I had three adopted kids and I wasn't even married three years!" Then we laugh about how they could only go out to eat on Thursdays (when the cook was off) if Phil's hair was right: "I went to bed hungry a lot of nights."

So why did she stay? "I didn't think I could make music without him because he was so powerful. And I loved him. He was older than me. I was trapped like a rat." She sighs, wearily, her cloak of energy momentarily falling aside. "Even to talk about it now I get butterflies."

But even the promise of music wasn't enough when she began to fear for her life. "I thought I was going to die there. Matter of fact, I knew I was. Especially when he said about a gold-rimmed, see-through casket made out of glass so that he could watch me every day. He was going to kill me, of course, and watch me every day. My mother was there that weekend - she was the only relative allowed in the house - and she said: 'I have to get you out of here.'" Ronnie escaped, barefoot ("Phil always took my shoes").

I tell her the story reminds me of Tina Turner. "No. Tina worked. I never did a show after I married Phil for seven years. Then the divorce took two years and I had to be at court every day."

Nearly two decades of litigation followed (Phil still won't let her sing her hits on television) but during that time Ronnie found she still had some influential fans. I mention Patti Smith, who duets on the new record, and the energy returns. "Patti Smith: she loved me! After I got out I went to see Patti at CBGB and when she found out I was in the audience, she was hiding! She said at a women's convention that I was the girl that she wanted to look like and sound like and be like. I said: 'Me?!' You think after seven years that people forget you. And I remember singing in front of Johnny Thunders, and every song I sang, he cried."

She reprises a Thunders track on the CD. A one-time New York Doll, he's dead now, one of rock's live-fast-do-too-many-drugs icons. Ronnie seems to have an affinity with men like him, Richards, the Ramones and so on. Yet her fans stretch as far as the most powerful men on the planet. In 1997, she performed in front of Bill Clinton and seven other world leaders. "I saw this man stumbling across chairs to get to me. He was singing 'Be My Baby' to me, and then he picked me up. It blew my mind. To see the president of the United States going bonkers over me. And we cried - Hillary cried too because he was so in love with the song!"

Ah, yes, back to Phil. Ronnie Spector carries her past like the Elephant Man carried his cranium - it might be ugly, but she's obsessed with it being the only reason anyone is interested in her. Just look at the titles from her new album ("There Is an End", "Work out Fine" and so on). And she has chosen to carry on being called Spector. Perhaps, despite the bitterness and the repeated regret, it's just too cosy inside those walls of sound.

'The Last of the Rock Stars' is out now on High Coin