Estelle Bennett: Singer with the Ronettes
Saturday 14 February 2009
One of the most striking images of the early 1960s is of the Ronettes, two sisters – Ronnie and Estelle Bennett – and their cousin, Nadra Talley, exceptionally pretty with huge beehives and slim figures with tight-fitting dresses that split up right up their legs. Very different from the demure innocence of other girl groups, they sang the most sexually alluring songs of their generation. The Ronettes were supreme examples of Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound and Brian Wilson has described "Be My Baby" as the best pop record of all time.
Estelle Bennett was born in New York in 1941 and her sister, Veronica, two years later. They were victimised by black children because of their light skin: their father Louis was white, while their mother Beatrice was of black and Cherokee ancestry. This mixture was to give them an exotic, rather Oriental look.
Beatrice appreciated their daughter's abilities to sing and dance but could only afford to send Estelle for lessons, something Ronnie resented. They would sing with their cousin, Nedra, at family functions and in 1959, they won an amateur talent contest as the Darling Sisters at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. This was followed by appearances at Joey Dee's Peppermint Lounge and at the Brooklyn Fox on rock 'n' roll packages devised by the DJ, Murray the K.
The Ronettes signed to Colpix Records and though they made several singles, they had neither the right song (one was called "I'm On The Wagon"!) nor the right sound. In 1962, they heard the Crystals, who were produced by Phil Spector, and Estelle asked him for an audition. He told them to tell Colpix that they were leaving the business and wanted a release from their contract. Once they had this, he signed them to his Philles label.
Although married, Spector developed a passion for Ronnie and made her the lead singer on "Be My Baby" (1963), a song he wrote with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Spector's combination of a sensual intimate sound with a full orchestration was unique, and the record went to No 2 in the US and No 4 in the UK. They made a stunning appearance on the ITV pop show, Ready, Steady, Go!, giving teenage boys three minutes of absolute bliss.
They toured the UK with the Rolling Stones and went to a pre-tour party with the Stones, John Lennon and George Harrison: there was certainly some intimacy, but no one has said what the pairings were. Mick Jagger, however, did have some dates with Estelle. In 1966, the Ronettes were one of the supporting acts on a US tour by the Beatles, but by then the Beatles were being whisked in and out of venues and hardly met anybody.
The Ronettes were part of Spector's 1963 album, A Christmas Gift For You, where they performed "Frosty The Snowman", "Sleigh Ride" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus". This had the misfortune to be released on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated and the public was in no mood for Christmas cheer. It took some years for the record to be appreciated and it is now regarded as the definitive Christmas album.
The follow-up to "Be My Baby" was the similar sounding "Baby I Love You", although the song was not as strong. It was a moderate hit, but their excellent third single, "(The Best Part Of) Breakin' Up" deserved to do better. In 1964, when Spector recorded but did not release "Chapel Of Love", the Ronettes were justifiably annoyed when a non-Spector group, the Dixie Cups, took the song to the top of the US charts.
By mid-1964, cracks were appearing in the group. Estelle wanted a classier image that would put them alongside the Supremes. Her boyfriend, Joe Dong, who was also the group's road manager, confronted Ronnie and said, "Wouldn't it be better do an act where people listened to your music instead of wondering what you were like in bed?" Ronnie retorted, "What's wrong with that? They're supposed to fall in love with us."
Spector had mixed feelings about the group, unsure whether to record them or make Ronnie a solo star. Although some splendid Ronettes'singles were released, "Walking In The Rain" (1964), "Is This What I Get For Loving You" (1965) and "I Can Hear Music" (1966), they were not promoted and the songs later became hitsfor the Walker Brothers, Marianne Faithfull and the Beach Boys, respectively. Spector was concentrating on the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner.
Tiring of Spector's whims, the Ronettes disbanded in 1966. Ronnie remained with Spector, marrying him in 1968 in one of the most Byzantine marriages of all time. Her talent was squandered and when she did return to performing, she used other girls to complete the Ronettes.
Estelle did make a solo single,"The Year 2000" (1968) with theproducer Teddy Vann, who was Dong's brother-in-law. She married Dong and they had a daughter, Toyin, but a succession of psychiatric problems prevented her from working again. Nedra became a born-again Christian and she assisted her husband, who was a minister.
In 1988, the Ronettes sued Phil Spector for back royalties but lost the case on appeal. They were inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007, but Estelle did not perform.
Estelle Bennett, singer: born New York 22 July 1941: married Joe Dong (one daughter); died New Jersey 11 February 2009.
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