Her voice made her a 1960s pop icon, but her terrifying marriage to Phil Spector nearly destroyed her. How she broke free and found success on her own terms
The lead singer for the iconic ’60s girl band the Ronettes reveals intimate details of her traumatic marriage to Phil Spector and how she put her life back together
Ronnie Spector sits in a booth in a suburban Connecticut steakhouse, demurely refusing a slice of cake. “I don’t want to ruin my lipstick,” she says from behind her sunglasses. Diners tuck in around her, unaware that they are in the presence of rock and roll royalty. If you bother to look up, there’s no mistaking the lead singer of the legendary girl group the Ronettes. The petite 75-year-old is barely 5 ft. tall, but more than a half century after her rise to fame, everything else about her remains big: big hair, big laugh and, above all, a majestically big voice.
When a woman weathers all Spector has in the music business, she’s predictably described as a survivor. It’s an old song, but in her case it’s pitch perfect. Spector survived stardom in the tumultuous ’60s, hard times and, most of all, an abusive marriage to hitmaker Phil Spector, the Svengali who made her a star. She’s lived quietly in New England with her second husband in recent years, but she’s never stopped performing. Last year she resurrected the Ronettes for a new single, “Love Power,” and now she’s set to headline a holiday tour. Today the nightmares she’s left behind are a source of strength and empowerment. “What I went through made me great,” she says. “I was determined nobody would ever keep me down again.”
Ronnie’s husky mezzo-soprano, backed by the soaring “wall of sound” created by her exhusband, is part of pop music history. But when she first joined with her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley to form the Ronettes, she had no notion of what they would become. The trio scored hits with pop anthems such as “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain,” and their tight skirts, thick mascara and sky-high beehive hairdos have inspired generations of frontwomen, including the late Amy Winehouse. That look came from black and Puerto Rican teens in Spanish Harlem, where they grew up. “We took it from the streets to the stage,” says Ronnie. “That’s why they called us the bad girls of rock and roll.”
But in truth she was an innocent whose early success was shaped by Phil, who she says sabotaged her career by keeping her a virtual prisoner in his Beverly Hills mansion before they divorced in 1974. “I thought I wasn’t going to sing again,” she says of those dark years. “And that I was going to die there.” Today, Phil is serving 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, and his former protégée is enjoying success on her own terms.
Born Veronica Bennett in Spanish Harlem, she first began singing as a 5-year-old at family gatherings. “That’s what started my fire,” says Ronnie, whose father was of Irish descent and mother was African-american and Cherokee. Once she’d formed the Ronettes, they honed their act while working as dancing girls at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater, sharing the stage with stars such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. They also caught the eye of Phil Spector, one of pop music’s most successful producers. He took them under his wing and cowrote “Be My Baby” as a love letter to Ronnie. It topped the charts in 1963 and made her a star.
The threesome hit it off with another upand-coming group: the Beatles. Like Phil, John Lennon was besotted with Ronnie, and he made his feelings known one night at a party. “John took me into a room to show me the lights over London,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Wow, it’s so beautiful.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you are.’ ” Lennon tried to steer her to a nearby bed, but her heart was with Phil. “I just dug my feet into the carpet and said, ‘We gotta go downstairs, John!’ ” In 1966 the Beatles offered the Ronettes a spot on their world tour. Ronnie was thrilled; her boyfriend was not. “Phil said, ‘Marry me or go with the Beatles.’ I stayed with him because I loved him.” Phil became increasingly reclusive, and the pair wed in a brief California ceremony two years later. “My mother had to sign the wedding certificate,” says the singer. “She said, ‘I just signed your death certificate.’ ” The union effectively ended the Ronettes, and the new bride found
herself confined to her husband’s home, which he surrounded with guard dogs and barbed wire. “I never went out after I got married,” she says. “Maybe six times. The doors were locked.”
For the rare occasions when she was allowed out, Phil bought her a sports car with a strange customized feature: an inflatable mannequin of himself to ride shotgun. “If I was gone 20 minutes, he’d send the guards,” she says. The couple adopted three boys—donte, now 49, and twins Gary and Louis, now 52, the latter of whom Phil brought home one day without telling his wife. “No woman wants live children as a surprise,” she says. As the marriage wore on, her husband’s moods became darker: “He was obsessed. He always said, ‘Before I let you go, you’ll be dead.’ ”
So she called the only person she could trust: her mother. “My whole survival is through my mom’s strength. I tell other women: If you’re in a bad relationship, you have to find one person to help you.” Together they hatched a plan for her to escape the mansion for good in 1972. With the front door bolted, they studied the service entrances for three days. Phil regularly hid Ronnie’s shoes to prevent her from leaving, so she went barefoot. While making their break, they came face-to-face with Phil, standing on the lawn. Ronnie’s heart sank, but her mother played it cool, and they pretended to stroll the grounds. “As soon as we got to a corner where he couldn’t see us, we started running.”
She returned to New York to start over. “People don’t understand why I stayed so long,” she says. “But when you’re in love and that person made you famous, there are lots of reasons.” While he got custody of the kids, she kept her stage name. Decades later Phil was convicted of shooting Clarkson in his L.A. compound. The story underscores to Ronnie just how lucky she was. In her case, “Phil’s abuse was mental, not physical— telling me I’ll never be successful without him. It made me say, ‘Wanna bet?’ ”
The road back wasn’t easy, but she rebooted her career in the ’70s and sang on the 1983 Eddie Money hit “Take Me Home Tonight.” That same year she wed producer Jonathan Greenfield, who had attended one of her comeback concerts as a smitten teen. Today they share two sons—austin, 36, and Jason, 35. “My mother died knowing she left me with the right person,” she says. Life in the Connecticut suburbs gave her a second chance at love and family, but the call of the stage is never far. “I’ll be standing at the grocery store and ‘Walking in the Rain’ comes on. I want to scream, ‘That’s me!’ ” More often than not, “all I can think about is my next show,” she says. “I’m never stopping. I couldn’t sing then, but I’m damn sure singing now!”
‘WHAT I WENT THROUGH THEN MADE ME THAT GREAT TODAY’ —RONNIE SPECTOR
THE VETERAN “My career has lasted over 50 years,” says Spector (in 2018 and, inset, far left, with the Ronettes in 1964). “How many people can say that?”
PRISONER OF FAME Phil Spector (with Ronnie, above, in 1963 and, left, ca. 1966) made her the keystone of his wall-of-sound productions but kept her isolated in the studio. “I was never around people. He made sure of that.” Her best friend was Cher, then a backup singer. “We became really close,” she says of the future star. “We’d tell each other secrets.”
SOURCE OF STRENGTH Ronnie (in 1977) credits her mother, Beatrice, who died in 1998, for her resilience. “Everything she said is in my head always: ‘Don’t let men control you’ or ‘Be your own person.’ ”
WITH THE BEATLES Phil hated Ronnie’s friendship with John Lennon.
COMEBACK “I won,” says Spector (ca. 1970). “Phil’s where he is, and I’m going all over the world.”
ROCKER MOM Ronnie with (from left) son Austin, husband Jonathan and son Jason.
LEGENDS The Ronettes at their 2007 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.