This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs In Modern Music History.
Song #379: Be My Baby by The Ronettes.
***Warning: The story of “Be My Baby” is not a happy one, as it turns out. It involves domestic abuse, among other things. If you are someone who would find this disturbing then, please, stop reading now and skip this post. Happier songs and stories await in future posts.
The story of “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes reads like one of those “Unsolved Mystery” television detective shows. It involves fame and love and kidnapping and murder and redemption, too. It is an epic saga that spans several decades and ultimately ends in vindication for the lead singer of The Ronettes, Ronnie Spector. But, more than anything, it is a very human tale of love gone wrong, opportunities lost and a lifetime of wonder at what might have been if things had evolved differently. Here is the story of Ronnie Spector, The Ronettes and their biggest hit, “Be My Baby”.
Before The Ronettes came to be, the three singers were better known as “The Darling Sisters”. All three were family; lead singer Veronica Bennett, her older sister, Estelle Bennett and their cousin, Nedra Talley. Like many singers of colour back in the 1960s, The Darling Sisters performed at church basements and local community events. Many folks complimented them on their harmonies and their good looks. The girls were encouraged to try and take their talent to “the next level”, as it were and sing professionally. So, the girls began visiting night clubs and jazz hotspots in NYC. Soon, they were offered jobs as back-up dancers and back-up singers. One night, when the scheduled singer failed to show up for their gig, the nightclub owner asked Veronica if she had songs she could sing and, if so, would she mind filling in. She was delighted to sing her church songs, backed by a professional band. The audience took to her right away. Veronica and her sister and cousin were invited to come back to the club and take a regular slot performing with the band. One person who was in the audience that night and heard Veronica sing was a man who was becoming increasingly influential in the music business. His name was Phil Spector and he was about to change Veronica Bennett’s life forever.
Phil Spector was a record producer. He is best known for what became known as his “Wall of Sound”-style of music-making. Spector’s “Wall of Sound” created a full, rich aural experience by using all manner of instruments that produced sounds at all ranges of the sound spectrum. Thus, when you listened to a typical Phil Spector-produced song, you heard sounds in combinations that were fresh and original and awe-inspiring. Spector worked with everyone from The Beatles, to The Rolling Stones, to The Righteous Brothers, to Ben E. King, to Ike and Tina Turner and then, to a young girl named, Veronica Bennett. When Spector heard Veronica Bennett perform that night in the club, he immediately assessed her voice as possessing hit-making ability. He invited her to audition for him. Veronica was thrilled do so for a man of Spector’s renown. But, one thing that Phil Spector was known for, in addition to his talent at producing hit records, was his all-controlling nature. Typically, Spector handled all aspects of the recording of the songs he produced; everything from the recording of each track, to the sound mixing, the planning of rehearsal schedules, the booking of studio time…..everything! When he worked with male singers or bands, he was a hard task-master but he was professional, too. When he worked with females, Phil Spector was different. For example, he was very dismissive of Tina Turner. He claimed that she had no particular talent and that her husband at the time, Ike, could have trained any number of women to be his, “Tina”. So, when the small-town, young and inexperienced Miss Veronica Bennett showed up for her audition, Spector immediately began belittling her. He mocked all of her song choices. He ridiculed her vocal range. In the end, he told her that she would amount to nothing without his guidance and training. This was a pivotal moment in Veronica Bennett’s life.
Like many young women, when faced with power imbalances with powerful men, Veronica was being pressured into doing nothing less than relinquishing a fair degree of control over her life. Unsophisticated and unprepared as she was in that moment, she agreed to work under Phil Spector’s rules. The first rule he insisted upon was that she was to no longer share equal billing with her family members. In fact, she was to turn her back on her family ties, altogether. The intoxicating effect for Spector of having a female completely under his thumb caused him to propose marriage. Veronica was hardly in a position to argue so, not only did she change from Veronica to Ronnie but, also, from Bennett to Spector and thus, his new, legally-bound protégée, Ronnie Spector, came into being. While most people marry for Love, Phil Spector married for control. He insisted that she record and release the song “Be My Baby” and to tour relentlessly under his watchful eye. In the years that followed, “Ronnie” brought forth many other songs that she wanted to sing but, Phil Spector rejected her choices, time and time again. Often, he would give her song choices to other singers that he was working with, leaving her without any new source material to help advance her career. The song, “Be My Baby” became a #1 Hit and helped bring attention to “Ronnie Spector”, who was careful to always appear happy and upbeat when on stage and/or being interviewed by the media.
But, behind the scenes, she was being, quite literally, held captive within the walls of the home she shared with Spector. He even kept her shoes under lock and key so that she wouldn’t have anything to wear should she have ever decided to leave him. If she did wish to leave, Spector said he would kill her and her family. Eventually, with her mother’s help, she was able to file for divorce but, as a condition of divorce, she had to relinquish all rights to her hit songs to Spector. Even in divorce, she was subjected to years of abuse and control by Spector that would have continued ad infinitum if not for a serious event that happened to another female singer.
One day a 911 call was placed by staff who worked at Phil Spector’s studio. A woman had been shot in the mouth and ended up dying. Phil Spector was seen holding the gun in his hands, muttering that “I think I’ve just killed someone”. He was charged with murder and placed in jail. That unfortunate incident was what freed “Ronnie Spector” from her imprisonment. With Spector removed permanently from her life, Veronica was able to step back out into the real world and establish her own life again.
One of the first things that happened was that her song, “Be My Baby” was selected for induction in the Song Category of The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Previously, when Phil Spector was a free man, he actively campaigned against the honour, claiming that his ex-wife was undeserving of such an award and that, without him, she would still be “nothing more” than a back-up singer in small time clubs. But, now that he was in jail, Spector had no more influence on her life and, as such, she was free to accept the induction and to step back into the limelight.
We often allow ourselves the privilege of viewing celebrities as being different from us. We lend them an air of glamour that, in some cases, only serves to mask the human drama that exists in their private lives. From everything I have read, many people knew of Phil Spector’s treatment of Veronica but, because of his position as a Kingmaker in the music industry, no one reached out to help her throughout the years that they were married, including those years when they were divorced. Once Spector was jailed, people felt freer to approach Veronica. One highlight for her was a musical collaboration she did with singer, Eddie Money, called, “Take Me Home Tonight”. The song was a hit for them both. From that song, “Ronnie Spector” was accorded the respect given to veteran singers (such as Diana Ross or even, Tina Turner) based on the strength of “Be My Baby”. What most did not know until much later was that she had only a small career, with a few minor releases and collaborations, after “Be My Baby”. Veronica Bennett could have had a whole string of hits and Gold records to her name but, instead, was denied, again and again, by a man who sought to control her rather than promote her and help her realize her dreams. Of all of the stories behind the songs that make up this list of the greatest songs of all-time, the story of “Be My Baby” is, arguably, the saddest of them all.
Away from the glitz and the glamour, Veronica remarried and is now known as Veronica Greenfield. She lives quietly in Connecticut with her husband and family. She performs on occasion but tends to avoid the bright lights and the big stages. From everything I have read, she is now happy and content with her life. That is important. As for Phil Spector, he spent the remainder of his life being controlled by prison guards. Upon entering prison, one of the first things that happened to Spector is that the authorities took his shoes. He died in custody in January of this past year, having been incarcerated for longer than he had been married to Veronica Bennett.
The link the video for “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes, can be found here.
The link to the website for The Ronettes, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. A link to their website can be found here.