Remembering Ronnie Spector

A look at her solo records

by Marshall Bowden

Ronnie Spector’s run with the Ronettes was surprising short, from 1963, when they changed their name to The Ronettes and signed with Phil Spector’s Philles Records through 1966 when Ronnie was forced to stay home by a jealous Phil Spector while they opened for The Beatles. Her subsequent years being cut off from the music business and performing had to be devastating, not only in terms of what she endured from day to day at the hands of her abusive now-husband, but because she was a natural performer. “That’s my whole life, performing” she told Patrick Prince in a 2011 Goldmine piece.

The many tributes to her rightly honor the signature recording, “Be My Baby” but they don’t mention in any detail the level of inspiration that she provided to many songwriters and performers in rock and roll. For a group of influential rock performers who came after, Ronnie was the classic female rock and roll performer. Bruce Springsteen and his guitarist, Steven Van Zandt, were certainly influenced by the sound of Ronettes recordings and by Phil Spector’s wall of sound. Billy Joel wrote “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” with her in mind (she later recorded it). Cher had to have noticed Ronnie’s slit skirts and bad girl mascara (the two were actually friends in the studio); ditto for Chrissie Hynde and Amy Winehouse.

Genya Ravan, leader of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, was eager to produce Ronnie’s solo album Siren, released in 1980. To Ravan, Ronnie fit perfectly into the night life underworld of New York City represented by Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Mink Deville, The Dead Boys, and the Cherry Vanilla band–members of whom provide the backing band–she gave Ronnie a sound that was simply a more raw, stripped back version of what she had done with The Ronettes. The record is one of the best, maybe the best, Ronnie Spector solo record.

In 1986 Ronnie Spector charted as a featured singer on Eddie Money’s hit “Take Me Home Tonight.” That was enough to land her a record deal with Columbia, and in 1987 she released Unfinished Business, a record that featured many prominent studio musicians as well as appearances by Paul Shaffer, Susanna Hoffs, and Eddie Money. The record had a modern eighties sound that unfortunately did not fit with Spector’s performance style, so despite some good material and a host of backup talent, I can’t recommend it.

In 1989 she recorded the EP Something’s Gonna Happen, a selection of five tunes by Marshall Crenshaw that featured Crenshaw, his brother Robert, Joe Jackson bassist Graham Maby, and backup vocalists The Pussywillows. This is well worth seeking out, and you can stream it as well. Unfortunately, it didn’t get heard at the time as it went unreleased until 2003.

She closed the eighties out quietly, working on a Dirty Dancing concert tour. She published her autobiography Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness in 1990 but didn’t release any new solo recordings until the end of the decade, when the Joey Ramone-produced EP She Talks to Rainbows was released. The recording was a deeply personal project for Joey, who was battling the cancer that would take his life in 2001. Joey had recorded a version of “Baby I Love You” that was included on The Ramones album End of the Century, produced by Phil Spector. The Ramones got a firsthand look at Spector’s craziness when he held the band at gunpoint during sessions for the record. 

She Talks To Rainbows features two songs penned by Joey Ramone–the title track (from the Ramones’ final album Adios Amigos!) and “Bye Bye Baby,” on which he also sings. There’s a transcendent version of “Don’t Worry Baby,” one of Brian Wilson’s most successful songs that was inspired by his love for “Be My Baby.”

The two most poignant performances on She Talks To Rainbows are the ballads “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” and “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine.” The former is the signature song penned by Johnny Thunder and released on his highly recommended 1978 album So Alone.

Its poignant lyrics seem to reference Thunders’ career and his romances with groupies and heroin, though Nina Antonia’s authorized biography Johnny Thunders…In Cold Blood says that it was written much earlier in his life. None of it matters, because this is the ultimate cabaret ballad to come out of the downtown NYC punk rock period, and it calls for a certain weatherbeaten attitude as well as a voice that betrays experience, which makes it a perfect vehicle for Ronnie:

Feel so cold and all alone,

Cause baby, you’re not at home.

And when I’m home

Big deal, I’m still alone.

“I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” is a song written by Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry/Phil Spector that was recorded by The Ronettes in 1966. It’s one of the more dramatic Ronettes records, with Phil Spector’s vaunted ‘wall of sound’ in overdrive. The song’s lyrics are of the pain the singer feels at the hands of a cruel lover who has left. “You took the blue right out of the sky” Ronnie sings over a swelling string section backed with angelic chorus, brass section, and cacophonous percussion that echoes from the depths of the soul. “All of my dreams I dreamed with you/Now they will die and never come true…” the lines seem so prophetic in an eerie, creepy way. “I wish I never saw the sunshine/’cause if I never saw the sunshine/then baby/I wouldn’t mind the pain.” The track was the beginning of Ronnie’s enslavement. Not only does Spector make her sing about the isolation and pain she is about to feel as he cuts her off from her career and the world, but he also shelved the song, not releasing it until an album of rarities in 1985.

On She Talks To Rainbows we are treated to a live version recorded in Tokyo, Japan, 1999. Ronnie sings the song with just as much conviction as on the derailed Ronettes version, but it’s a survivor’s version, one delivered from a stronger position. Ronnie Spector loved to perform live and she wasn’t one to let a good song go even if was sometimes painful to sing.

In 2006 Ronnie released the album The Last of the Rock Stars, kind of a full album followup to She Talks to Rainbows though it lacks some of the warmth of the EP. Nonetheless, it is the kind of honorarium that is afforded a legendary performer being acknowledged and supported by some of those who were influenced by said legend. Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Nick Zinner, The Raveonettes, and others help make this a memorable affair worthy of a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. 

But for my money, Ronnie Specter’s best solo recordings are Siren, She Talks To Rainbows, and Something’s Gonna Happen. It took time for her to realize and accept her influence. Fortunately she got the opportunity to work with artists who were influenced by spirit and her performances. 

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