RON­NIE SPEC­TOR

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

People (USA) - - CONTENTS - By JOR­DAN RUNTAGH

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.

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