When Ronnie Said ‘Be My Baby,’ The Answer Was Easy. Yes.
When Veronica Bennett was 14 years old, growing up in Spanish Harlem, she became enchanted with Frankie Lymon, the 12-year-old lead singer of the Teenagers, whose “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” had sent a bolt of electricity through the popular music of 1956.
“I just loved him,” she said 30 years later. “I would fall asleep wrapped around the radio. I had planned our wedding.”
Less than a decade later, tens of millions of young boys would know how she felt. Ronnie Bennett was now on the radio herself, as the lead singer of the Ronettes, and Ronettes songs like “Be My Baby,” “Walking In the Rain” and “The Best Part of Breaking Up” threw off the same sparks.
So did Ronnie Bennett. If rock ’n’ roll had an “It Girl” in its first three decades, that would be Ronnie Bennett, later Ronnie Spector, later Ronnie Greenfield. She was and will be, forever, endlessly exotic.
Veronica Bennett Greenfield died Wednesday, age 78, after what the family said was a short battle with cancer. No musical image from the mid-1960s, including that of the Beatles, will remain more indelible to anyone who grew up in those years and owned a radio.
Ask Keith Richards, Southside Johnny, Amy Winehouse, Eddie Money, Joey Ramone, Genya Raven, Steve Van Zandt, John Lennon, Madonna, Dion, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Billy Joel, Patti Smith or Bruce Springsteen — figuratively, if necessary — because they’re only a few of the artists who fell in love with “Be My Baby” and Ronnie Spector.
Analyzed purely on paper, Ronnie Spector had a fairly standard rock ’n’ roll career. She formed a singing group as a teenager, did some backup dancing to get noticed, cut a couple of records that didn’t do much, then broke through with a big hit, in her case “Be My Baby.” A couple of years of stardom followed, then as tastes and circumstances changed, stardom faded. Over the next years and decades, she launched comeback projects with modest success, joined in several collaborations and did live shows, while her music was featured in films and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That’s all accurate. It just doesn’t capture the full drama, because her life had a wild card: Phil Spector, who produced her biggest hit records and to whom she was married from 1968 to 1972.
She had a much longer and happier marriage to her second husband, Jonathan Greenfield. They married in 1982 and remained together the rest of her life, adding two sons of their own to the three children Ronnie and Spector had adopted.
But it was Spector who made her world explode — at first for better, later for worse.
As the head of Philles Records, he produced all her hits with the Ronettes. More than half a century later, they remain masterpieces. From Hal Blaine’s bum-ba-bum-boom drum solo that kicks off “Be My Baby” to the wistful harmonies of “Walking In the Rain” and the sheer fun of “Sleigh Ride,” Phil put wonderful music around Ronnie’s voice.
He became less wonderful after they married, and those stories have become part of rock ’n’ roll psycho-lore. He adopted 6-year-old twins for them and presented them to Ronnie as a surprise. He locked her in the house, surrounded it with barbed wire, threatened her with guns and told her he would kill her if she tried to leave. Maybe worse, in her eyes, he wouldn’t let her record.
“Everything he did was to keep me in the house,” she said in a 1987 interview. “He wanted a housewife. I left him because I didn’t want to be Ozzie and Harriet.”
Eventually, she said in 1992, she put Phil behind her. “I got rid of the bad part — the marriage,” she said. “I kept the good part — the music.”
Greenfield, a soft-spoken and private man who began as Ronnie’s manager, gave off the slight, understandable hint that he couldn’t believe he was the one guy out of millions who eventually married Ronnie. He was solicitous, attentive, protective and mainly, she said, “He knows how much performing means to me. Phil wanted to kill my career. Jonathan promotes it.”
Ronnie was a performer for 65 of her 78 years, and while she spoke warmly of parenting and family life, a run like that doesn’t happen by accident. It was, she said, the driving force of her life.
“I love to perform,” she said in 1987. “A lot of people love the money. I love the singing. I was talking to Little Anthony, whose voice I love, and he was going on about his ‘projects.’ Who cares? Sing ‘Tears on My F — -ing Pillow.’
“I remember going to the Apollo Theater and hearing the Moonglows. I could feel the music. That’s what I want for my audiences.”
Ronnie grew up in Spanish Harlem, with a mother who was African-American and Cherokee and a father who was Irish-American.
“I was a halfbreed,” she said with a laugh. “Nobody cared. The people around me were white, black, Spanish, everything. We heard every kind of music.”
Her large extended family encouraged Veronica and her older sister Estelle to sing, and a year after Ronnie began planning her wedding to Frankie Lymon, they joined with their cousin Nedra Talley to form the Darling Sisters.
Female groups like the Chantels were part of the mix then, and as the Darling Sisters became the Ronettes and attended George Washington High School, they would play at local dances and events.
“A lot of the boys wanted us for their bar mitzvahs,” Ronnie recalled. “So we played bar mitzvahs.”
After graduation they landed a record deal with Colpix, where they recorded a couple of singles that went nowhere. They did better as dancers, scoring a gig at the hip midtown Peppermint Lounge and catching the eye of popular WINS deejay and hustler Murray the K.
“We did the Peppermint Lounge for $10 a night,” Ronnie said. “You’d see Chuck Jackson and Tom Jones. Black and white. It was a good place to meet people.”
An even better place was the Brooklyn Fox, when Murray the K hired the Ronettes to dance at his annual 10-day Christmas show.
“I just wanted to go backstage and see everyone,” said Ronnie. “Chuck Jackson, the Shirelles, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick. It was great.”
She added that she had no illusions about why she and her group were there.
“We’d be up there behind Little Eva or Little Peggy March,” she said, “to give the guys something to look at. We had those slit skirts.”
Then they met Phil, who really could launch their career. He also immediately launched an affair with Ronnie, as he had previously done with other female artists. He was also married, though Ronnie said he never mentioned that. At first, Ronnie later said, it was the quintessential romance, her boyfriend producing the love songs she was singing to him.
In fact, she said, the whole stardom scene, while it didn’t last all that long, was like an extended dream.
They toured with, among others, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Ronnie remembered “sitting up all night with John Lennon, talking. He would say, ‘I’m just a Cockney, I can’t believe all this is happening.’ He was very honest. He’d talk about how dumb he was.”
Back home in the studio, she said, “It was like a fantasy. I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to think. Everything was done for me. If I wanted Fritos and a Pepsi, Sonny Bono was there to fetch them for me.”
Once these three women who had shot from Spanish Harlem to international fame shook their beehives and glanced around, things looked a little different. Nedra and Estelle left the group in 1967 and Ronnie started wondering if there should be more to all this.
“I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion on anything, including the music,” she said. “I would add things, suggest things. [The great session drummer] Earl Palmer said he started his beat from the way I walk. The band would start its sessions from me singing to them. But I never got any credit.”
Ronnie nominally started a solo career in 1964 with a wonderful rendition of the Students’s song “So Young.” Phil Spector didn’t push it much, however, in part because he saw himself as the artist on his productions, with singers no more than just another instrument.
After Ronnie married Phil, she barely recorded at all. In 1971 she did sign with Apple and cut “Try Some, Buy Some” with her admirers Harrison, Lennon and Ringo Starr, but it was not a hit and an album she recorded was not released. It wasn’t until the mid-‘70s, when she fell in with the Asbury Park crowd of Southside, Van Zandt and Springsteen, that she felt she was getting noticed again.
“I think Bruce was pumping me for information,” she said with a laugh. “He would ask me about how we made our recordings. I like Bruce.”
She returned to the charts in 1986 with a cameo vocal on Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” But the rest of her career was primarily built on live performances, including an annual Christmas show.
“I don’t care at all about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” she said in 1987, years before the Ronettes were finally inducted. “I’m more interested in my audiences telling me they still like hearing me.”
Part of the reason she struggled to get back in the game, she said, is that “I like real rock ’n’ roll and a lot of that died with the British Invasion. ‘Hey Jude’ is a great song, but it’s not rock ’n’ roll. ‘Satisfaction’ versus James Brown is like night and day. I went to a Madonna show, and I love Madonna, but it was all choreography. Where’s the rock ’n’ roll?
”People used to ask the Ronettes, ‘Why don’t you look more like the Supremes? They’re classy.’ I’d tell them we’re classy, too, it’s just a different kind of class. They’re going to Vegas. We’re rock ’n’ roll.”
Rock ’n’ roll it would be, she said, “until people don’t want to listen to me any more.”
In the bigger picture, Ronnie said all the crazy turns and even the Phil factor had led her to a happy life.
“If you’d told me that I’d be in my 40s with a husband, a career and kids, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said in 1987. “But that’s what I have. This is my dream now.”
Not surprisingly, it came at a price. During her years with Phil, she recounts in her autobiography, she was drinking enough to send her to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
She never took drugs, she said. She did smoke a lot of Marlboros. “My voice has gotten a little raspier,” she acknowledged in 1992.
She also spent many years ensuring she’d still look good in slit skirts, even when she didn’t wear them any more.
During her 1987 interview, she declined lunch, saying, “I had an éclair this morning, so I won’t eat for the rest of the day. It’s important to stay in shape. I weigh 93 pounds and I have to keep a good body. I try to be very careful what I eat. I get plenty of exercise looking after the kids [then 6 and 7].
For the record, Veronica Bennett did finally meet the boy who started it all and the boy she planned to marry, Frankie Lymon, before his death in 1968.
“Without Frankie Lymon, I would not be on this path,” she said. “But when we met, I finally had to ask him to leave. I felt bad about it, but I think he drank a whole bottle of Scotch. Drugs killed the boy I loved.”
It’s a tough business. Ronnie could reel off the names of artists who didn’t get paid and songwriters who never got credit. “[The Motown team] Holland-Dozier-Holland were songwriters,” she said. “I mean, writers. But they never got the credit they should. The people who don’t create the music are the ones who get rich.”
Still, she said, she made the right call for her life. “I wouldn’t have missed this,” she said, “for anything.”