The wild world of Ronnie the Ronette: A cocaine-fuelled romp with Bowie, a dalliance with John Lennon – and Phil Spector’s threat to ‘assassinate’ her… updated autobiography gives glimpse into late singer’s rock ‘n’ roll life
As the lead singer of vocal trio the Ronettes, Ronnie Spector helped bring a hot, sexy edge to the Sixties girl-group sound.
She was the muse and would become, notoriously, the prisoner of producer husband Phil Spector.
Before she died in January at the age of 78, she updated her sensational autobiography – an astonishing glimpse into the hedonistic excesses of her rock ’n’ roll life…
The Ronettes, were signed by legendary music producer Phil Spector in March 1963.
Once he had us, we became his obsession. And pretty soon Phil and I were boyfriend and girlfriend.
He wasn’t what some people would call handsome. Even though he was only 22, Phil already had a receding hairline and almost no chin. But he had great eyes. They looked deep, like he could see right into you.
I thought he was adorable.
Our first single, Be My Baby, hit the charts in the last week of August 1963. After that, the thrills only got bigger. We started a tour of Britain in January 1964.
We must have been quite a sight in the Heathrow waiting room – three black American girls sitting with their legs all crossed the same way, our three identical, enormous hairdos piled a foot or so over our heads.
On one of our first nights there, we met the Beatles at a party in Mayfair.
The Ronettes, were signed by legendary music producer Phil Spector in March 1963. Once he had us, we became his obsession. And pretty soon Phil and I were boyfriend and girlfriend
‘You’ve got the greatest voice,’ George Harrison told me. ‘We loved it the first time we heard you.’
The guys had just seen us on TV, and they couldn’t stop raving about it. ‘You were great,’ said John Lennon. ‘Just f***in’ great.’
Somebody put on some records, and the Beatles asked us to teach them all the latest American dances. Every time we’d start to dance, John would come over and say, ‘I don’t know if I’ve got this one yet, Ronnie. I may need some extra instruction.’
It didn’t take me long to figure out that he liked me. Before I knew what was happening, John dragged me upstairs. We talked about fame and kissed for a couple of minutes on a window seat that looked out over all the lights of London.
For me, that was a pretty big deal. I know it might seem hard to believe now, but I hadn’t done much more than kiss a guy on the lips up until then, and that included Phil.
Romance was everything, and sex was still a mystery. But the way things were going on that window seat, it didn’t look like it was going to stay that way for long.
‘Do you think we could go back down to the party?’ I asked. I knew it sounded corny, but I couldn’t think of what else to say. John didn’t seem too upset, though, and we danced and had a great time for the rest of the night.
A few days later the Ronettes set out on a tour of England with the Rolling Stones, but although we rode in the same bus as them, no matter what we did we couldn’t get those guys to talk to us.
We sat there with John and George until it got dark outside. A lot of the people who’d been hanging around during the afternoon had already left or been kicked out, and as I looked around I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more young girls in the suite than when the press were hanging around earlier
After about three days of this, I went to their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. ‘Hey, I know this is England,’ I told him, ‘and I hear that people over here are supposed to be kind of cold. But you guys could at least say hello once in a while.’ Andrew looked at me with a kind of sideways grin, like he was trying to decide whether to give me an honest answer or not. ‘Darling, we’d all love to talk to you. But we got a telegram just before the tour started that forbids us from fraternising with you.’
‘A telegram? From who?’ I asked. But the truth is, I already had a pretty good idea.
‘From Phil, darling,’ Andrew explained. ‘We aren’t to speak to you before a show, or afterwards –or there’ll be dire consequences.’
‘Andrew,’ I interrupted. ‘Phil’s not here. You tell the Rolling Stones that if they don’t start talking to us, there’ll be dire consequences all right – from us.’
I think he got the message. I’ve stayed friends with Keith Richards ever since.
Beatlemania hit America when the Fab Four landed at John F Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964. John Lennon left special instructions with the front desk at the Plaza Hotel to let the Ronettes up.
The scene in the Beatles’ suite was amazing. They had an entire floor of the Plaza at their disposal, and there was food everywhere you looked. ‘We’re prisoners up here,’ John explained, ‘so they have to feed us well.’
We sat there with John and George until it got dark outside. A lot of the people who’d been hanging around during the afternoon had already left or been kicked out, and as I looked around I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more young girls in the suite than when the press were hanging around earlier.
I noticed that people seemed to be flocking into one of the bedrooms. John walked over and grabbed my hand. ‘C’mon,’ he said. ‘Don’t you want to see what’s so interesting?’
The room was crowded, but when people saw that I was with John, they kind of moved aside, and that’s how I got my first clear view of the naked girl on the bed. I moved in for a closer look, and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. This girl was lying on the bed, and one of the guys in the Beatles’ entourage was having sex with her – right in front of all these people, while a guy with a camera snapped away.
I have to admit, I was fascinated by the whole thing. I was still a virgin, so this was educational for me. John sat down on this big stuffed chair and pulled me down on his lap. That’s when I realised how excited he was getting. I may have been dumb back then, but I knew when it was time to get up off a guy’s lap. So I did.
We went into John’s private bedroom. He pointed to a big window that looked out over Central Park and asked, ‘Do you remember the window in London?’
I would’ve been perfectly happy just sitting there, but I could tell John was already too worked up for sightseeing. He stood behind my chair and let his hands fall down on the back of my neck.
‘John,’ I said, trying desperately to find my best no-nonsense voice, ‘I’ve got to tell you something.’
‘Not now, love,’ he said as he slipped his hands under my unbuttoned collar.
‘Oh, no,’ I insisted, ‘I’d better tell you now.’
‘I know all about you and Phil,’ he interrupted. ‘I just thought you and I might have something, too.’
My eye just kept drifting over to the king-sized bed that was less than four feet away. I mean, I did have a mother who warned me about these situations.
‘John,’ I told him, ‘I think we’ve got a great friendship. But sometimes a guy can seem more like a brother than a boyfriend. And that’s the way I think of you.’
He just stood there staring at me with a blank expression. I gave him a little wink and said, ‘I’ll see you.’ Then I walked out. I was already in the hotel hallway when John slammed the bedroom door shut.
The next day John called my house acting like nothing had happened. ‘We’re going to make an escape today, and we want to get some real New York food. Where should we go?’ I knew this was John’s way of apologising, so I played along. ‘I know just the place,’ I told him. ‘If you don’t mind coming up to Harlem.’
That night John and George picked up fellow singer Estelle and me in a limousine for a feast of ribs and chicken at Sherman’s Barbecue on 151st and Amsterdam.
They might have been mobbed at the Plaza, but the Beatles were no big deal up in Harlem. The people at Sherman’s took one look at these two guys with their long hair and funny clothes and went back to their ribs.
One of my closest friends in those days was Cher, the girlfriend of Sonny Bono – who was Phil’s gofer at the time. I must admit, when I first saw this skinny young kid with her long black hair and thick mascara, I just assumed she was a call girl from the hotel we were in. Then Sonny introduced her and I was so embarrassed.
Cher and I would meet in the bathroom at Gold Star [the Hollywood recording studio where Phil Spector created his ‘Wall of Sound’] to tease our hair and share black eyeliner and gossip. And as time went on, we began to see that we had a lot more in common than just bangs and make-up.
Sonny was jealously possessive of Cher. And when I got out to California, I started to notice that Phil could get pretty possessive of me, too. I found that out when I made the mistake of going out to get a hamburger with Sonny. We were only gone for about a half hour, but when we got back to Gold Star it looked like an earthquake had struck. All the music stands had been knocked over, there were pieces of broken glass everywhere and a long, thin ribbon of recording tape stretched the length of the room like a streamer.
‘Watch out, guys,’ Cher warned. ‘Phillip is having a fit.’
But it was too late to get away – Phil was waiting for us in the hallway. ‘Where the f*** have you girls been?’ Phil shouted.
He grabbed my arm and pulled me into the studio, where he could yell at me in private.
‘What made you think it was OK to go out and get hamburgers with Sonny?’ he hissed. ‘You really amaze me sometimes, Veronica.’ (My real name was Veronica Bennett.) ‘You just f***ing amaze me.’
Then he turned and walked away. He didn’t say anything else about it, but I knew he would still be steaming for the next few days.
Some of these mood swings were fuelled by work.
River Deep – Mountain High was a song that Phil recorded with Tina Turner in March 1966, and it was a great record. It should’ve been one of Phil’s biggest hits, but at the time that record was Phil’s first flop.
Phil was crushed.
He was so depressed he didn’t go near the studio for months.
He’d lock himself away in his upstairs study for days on end, only coming out to eat or sleep. Sometimes I’d hear him talking on the phone, doing business. Other times he’d just sit there playing his records in the dark.
I didn’t question Phil when he starting taking the steps that would eventually keep me a prisoner in his house.
I didn’t even realise he was doing it until it was too late.
When he installed an intercom between our bedroom and his study, I knew that was his way of trying to keep an eye on me, but I didn’t think it was any big thing.
Unfortunately, once you give up a little bit of your independence to someone, it’s hard to draw the line later.
I learned that lesson the first time I failed to answer when Phil buzzed me, because I was in the bath.
He was furious, and a few days later workmen came and installed an intercom box in every room of the mansion, including bathrooms.
Imprisoned in that house, I finally gave up my dream of ever singing again. I’d sit in the TV room all day with my soap operas and a bottle of wine I bought in secret and hid from Phil in the toilet cistern.
Everybody assumes Phil must have beaten me all the time to keep me there at the mansion with him. But physical abuse was not his style. Psychological torture was his speciality – name-calling, shouting, cursing, those kinds of things.
And I’ll tell you, there were times when he shouted so much that I almost wished he would just go ahead and hit me.
I’d had such high hopes after we adopted a little boy, Donté, but soon I realised nothing was going to change. I wasn’t any happier just because I suddenly had a baby to share my misery, and soon I was drinking all the time.
When I finally walked out, my lawyer Jay Stein booked my mother and me into a room at the Beverly Crest Hotel in Beverly Hills. A few days later he served Phil with divorce papers, and then he went over to the mansion to pick up my things. But when Jay got back to the hotel, all he had was one tiny overnight bag.
‘According to Phil,’ he replied, ‘this is all the clothing you had in his house.’ I opened the little bag and nearly cried. All Phil sent over were three shirts, a pair of trousers, a pair of knickers I’d never seen before, and an enormous women’s bra that obviously wasn’t mine. Jay just stared at the underwear and shook his head, saying: ‘Why do I get the feeling that Phil’s not going to be a very good sport about this divorce?’
Through John’s ex-girlfriend May Pang, I met David Bowie after his concert at Madison Square Garden in March 1976. I thought David was a little strange, and I could tell that he had a pretty high opinion of himself. But for some reason I was attracted to anyone who had that much confidence
Since Phil didn’t want the divorce in the first place, he was always coming up with new stunts to slow things down. When the court ordered him to pay me $1,300 a month in support payments, he had the first month’s payment sent over to Jay’s office in nickels.
I was finally granted my divorce in February 1974. As far as I was concerned, Phil came out the real winner: he got custody of Donté.
‘How could they have given my baby to that crazy man?’ I asked my mother.
I was only 30 years old, and I had so much love to give. I decided to go right back to work, touring and singing in oldies shows. But that ended the night I played at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
I was so high from the excitement of playing Vegas that I didn’t think anything could bring me down. Then the phone rang in my hotel room. ‘It’s me,’ the voice said.
He didn’t bother identifying himself. He didn’t need to.
‘I always said I’d kill you if you left me,’ he said. ‘And tonight I’m making good on that promise. In two hours you will be assassinated onstage at the Flamingo Hotel.’
I dropped the phone like it was a dried fish and ran out of the room. Five vodka and tonics later, I no longer had to figure out whether to go through with the show or not.
I was too drunk at the final dress rehearsal to make it through even one verse of Walking in the Rain, and that little incident pretty much killed the Ronettes as an oldies act.
Things didn’t really turn around for me until the day I bumped into John Lennon outside the Dakota apartment building on Central Park West, where he lived with Yoko, in the spring of 1976. He was so thin and fit I almost didn’t recognise him until he called out, ‘Ronnie Ronette!’
‘John,’ I said, ‘you look great!’
‘I feel great,’ he said, beaming. ‘I’m just a happy little housewife now, with not a care in the world. Or is that househusband? Anyway, I’ve got nothing to do all day but sit at home and play with my new baby. And I’ve never been more contented.’
Through John’s ex-girlfriend May Pang, I met David Bowie after his concert at Madison Square Garden in March 1976. I thought David was a little strange, and I could tell that he had a pretty high opinion of himself. But for some reason I was attracted to anyone who had that much confidence.
He took me to a party filled with hip types who spoke with British accents and wore $1,000 watches. Most of them were hanging around a long glass coffee table that was literally dusted with a thick white powder. From all the stories I’d heard about this stuff, I expected some kind of magic. But all it did was make my nose run.
A guy led me to a huge bedroom where I found Bowie sitting on the floor, completely naked, popping cassettes, one after another, into a portable tape player. We made love right there on the floor, and we didn’t even bother to kick the cassettes out of the way.
I tried to go to sleep afterwards, but there was so much noise that I finally just reached over and slipped my blue jean skirt back on.
‘Where’re you off to?’ he asked.
‘Back to reality,’ I said. ‘I’m going home.’
He said he could do with a little peace and quiet himself, but I got the feeling that wasn’t all he wanted. His limousine dropped us off at my place, and we were back on the floor within two minutes.
The doorbell sounded louder than a fire alarm when it woke us up the next morning. ‘Can’t you stop that bloody noise?’ David growled from under a pillow.
I glanced at the clock. ‘It’s not all that early, David. It’s already a little after noon.’
That’s when it hit me. I was supposed to be rehearsing with two new members of the Ronettes at noon. I buzzed up these two skinny black girls, one tall and one short. I had them wait in the living room while I ran back to check on David. But he was gone.
Sure enough, I ran to the front window just in time to see him disappear into a cab.
‘Your boyfriend?’ the short girl asked.
‘Not exactly,’ I said. And then I couldn’t resist. ‘That was David Bowie.’
‘Oh. Uh-huh,’ the tall one said. ‘Sure.’
Gradually, over the coming years, I stopped drinking and rebuilt my career. In 1978, I met my second husband, Jonathan Greenfield, and we had two children.
And in 1985, I filed a lawsuit against Phil Spector and his record label to reclaim missing royalties.
Of course, Phil spent a fortune to fight the lawsuit, which is one reason it ended up dragging on for years, including 17 appeals, but in 1999, the Ronettes were awarded $2.6 million in royalties.
After the case, I didn’t hear from Phil again as long as he lived – although I know he spent years doing everything he could to keep the Ronettes out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By 2007, when we were finally inducted, Spector had been charged with murdering actress Lana Clarkson. In 2009 he was found guilty and jailed for 19 years.
I was at home on January 16, 2021, when I heard a guy on the radio announce that ‘music producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector has died in a California prison hospital.’
Believe it or not, my first reaction was… nothing.
Oh, I thought. OK. Then I went right on doing what I was doing, getting ready to go out with my husband Jonathan to celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary.’
© Ronnie Spector
Be My Baby by Ronnie Spector is published by Macmillan on May 12, priced £18.99. To order a copy for £17.09 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before May 8. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
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