Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)
The Ronettes, despite the clear emphasis on lead singer Veronica Bennett (later Ronnie Spector), were, first and foremost, a family. Contrary to ideas that the group was put together via the traditional girl group cattle-call, Veronica Bennett, Estelle Bennett and their cousin, Nedra Talley, began singing together when they were merely children, performing numbers for friends and family at their grandmother’s house.
“By the time I was eight,” Ronnie Spector remembers, “I was already working up whole numbers for our family’s little weekend shows. Then Estelle would get up onstage and do a song, or she’d join Nedra or my [other] cousin Elaine and me in a number we’d worked out in three-part harmony.”
As the girls grew older, they became enamored of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and other popular groups of the day. The Bennett girls, with Talley and two other cousins, Diane and Elaine, took their grandmother’s sing-outs one step further and, with her help, formed a group, choreographing dance moves and orchestrating five-part harmonies to jukebox favorites, “Goodnight Sweetheart” and “Red Red Robin”. Inspired further by Frankie Lymon, they invited another cousin, Ira, a male, to join the group and signed up for Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Billed to perform Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” with Ira singing lead, they took the stage at the Apollo Theatre to a notoriously skeptical and antagonistic crowd. The band began to play and the first verse approached. Ira froze. Ronnie acted.
“I strutted out across the stage,” she remembers, “singing as loud as I could. When I finally heard a few hands of scattered applause, I sang even louder. That brought a little more applause, which was all I needed.”
After the tumultuous night at The Apollo, Elaine, Diane and Ira left the group. Veronica, Estelle and Nedra remained together under the moniker Ronnie and The Relatives. The group enrolled in vocal lessons and performed at local dances, parties, and formal occasions. It is as Ronnie and The Relatives that things began to happen for the three young girls from Spanish Harlem.
They played the right shows, shook the right hands and signed to Colpix Records, which lead to a regular set at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, a feat considering that the girls were still underage. They disguised themselves to be “at least twenty-three” years old every night in order to shirk suspicion and ease their admittance.
During this period of masquerading at the Peppermint Club, the girls adopted the name the Ronettes, and when they decided to end their contract with Colpix Records due to lackluster sales and less than enthusiastic label support, they took the name with them.
Estelle called popular Record Producer Phil Spector, who granted them an audition. He admitted to seeing them perform several times prior and that he had been considerably impressed.
Midway through the group’s first audition for Spector, a rendition of their first Apollo amateur night performance of Lyman’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”, Spector, who had been accompanying them on the piano, jumped from his seat in excitement. “That’s it! That’s it,” he screamed. “That’s the voice I’ve been looking for!” He, of course, was referring only to Ronnie.
He courted her as a solo act but Ronnie’s mother, daughter of their original mentor and tutor of age-defying make-up in their Peppermint Club days, refused, saying that they go together or not at all. Spector agreed and The Ronettes jumped ship at Colpix to join Phillies, Spector’s label, and set about making their first record, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, a record that, for reasons incomprehensible to the author, is criminally out-of-print and has never been issued on CD, despite holding a place in history as one of the most influential records ever produced and #427 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Records of All-Time.
“Be My Baby” was the group’s first single. It went straight to the Top Ten, cresting at #2 on the Billboard Top 100. There was no denying it. The Ronettes had broken it wide open. The song’s effect was permeating. It garnered constant radio play. Brian Wilson recorded “Don’t Worry Baby,” as a tribute to it. It’s one of the most iconic intros in all of music. Bum. Ba-bum. Crack. Bum. Ba-Bum. Crack. And it comes on, a sonic assault so dense, so reverberant it can only be “The Wall of Sound”, a technique invented by Phil Spector specifically with AM radio and mono jukeboxes in mind, featuring four-to-five guitars playing the same part in unison, two basses doing the same, thickly layered percussion, occasionally strings and horns, often in numbers more akin to an orchestra, and all recorded in an echo chamber, plenty of reverb applied. Beneath the spicy Spanish Tinge of castanets and shakers, you hear it: that thick-but-airy, miles-deep sound, pushing upon your ears like a swift dive in the deep end, Ronnie Spector’s angelic, soul-affirming voice casting down to you like a leaden life preserver, floating slowly across the sky for just a moment before breaking the water’s surface, then sinking all the way down, through the mix, to you and facilitating your ascent into the bright, clean air above.
The group’s second single was “Baby, I Love You”. Due to a scheduling conflict, only Ronnie sings on the record, backed by Darlene Love and Cher, who was, believe it or not, a permanent backup singer for The Ronettes. Leon Russell, of Joe Cocker and Leon Russell and The Shelter People fame, a massively brilliant and underappreciated artist in his own right, guests on piano, which is featured prominently on the intro but soon is mostly lost to the Wall of Sound. Like “Be My Baby,” “Baby, I Love You,” is dense, nearly asphyxiating, but considerably more intricate rhythmically. Spector uses many more layers of percussion to cut through the mix like the ‘chuck, chuck’ of a train on its tracks, segmenting the sound, syncopating the strings and emphasizing the bass, providing a colorful, low and buoyant sound to support and lift Ronnie’s voice above its churning engine.
“Walking In The Rain,” is a haunting, Beach Boys-esque slow burn, which Ronnie issued gracefully in a single take. Its Grammy-winning special effects are instantly recognizable. A startling, artificial thunder-clap introduces the record and echoes over the canvas like the flank of a raincoat, carefully escorting the band, Nedra, Estelle, and later Ronnie to the center. Her poised, woeful cry matches perfectly the melancholy arrangement. One pictures her standing at a window, rained in on what would’ve otherwise been a beautiful Saturday out, wishing only to say ‘to hell with it’ and share a walk in the rain with her man, “wishing on the stars above and being so in love,” but she has no man, she cries. “Johnny, no, no he’ll never do,” and “Bobby, no, it isn’t him, too” because, unlike her, he’ll never love “walking in the rain,” she dreams, imagining the perfectly soaked suitor, compelling every man to get a little wet if that’s what it takes.
The standout of the record is not “Be My Baby,” although it is perhaps comparably famous. “Breakin’ Up” is a jaunty jolt of inspiration that strikes like a medicine ball to the stomach of one’s senses. The interplay of Ronnie’s beautiful, soaring lead lines and Nedra and Estelle’s undulating counterpoint makes for the most stirring, impressive vocal performance on the record. Full of the rubbery, bouncing quality present in the best McCartney, the rhythm of “Breakin’ Up”, reminiscent at times of a blues shuffle, with its simple quarter notes leading to two swung eighth notes and into periodic breaks, is addictive and masterfully crafted. Clocking in only at a trim 2:25, the constant counting and interspersed swing and rupture of the rhythm and gradual fade-out allows the song to appear to stretch, like counting every step in a short walk, making it seem more like a meal than a bite and lending just enough variation for perpetual replay appeal.
Ubiquitous classic, “Chapel of Love,” closes out Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica. Rhythmically it is every bit as impressive as “Breakin’ Up”, but for its collective complexity, rather than its basic structure. The arrangement of the auxiliary percussion (castanets, claves and tubular bells) when juxtaposed against the drum kit compounds the simple 4/4 rhythm and transforms it into a propulsive, shuffling forward roll, driving The Ronettes’ excessively square, unisonous and patient harmonic expressions onward and onward, effecting a feeling like that of a montage, as if they truly were heading to the chapel, as a family, fretting and fussing in joy, anxiety and anticipation in the minutes before the clear separation of two lives: a single girl and woman, and a married adult and wife, but coming to terms with the two and celebrating them together.
But unlike the ever-present nature of friends and family, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica is almost a ghost. Nearly impossible to find as a cohesive, properly ordered collection, one could purchase a Ronettes greatest hits compilation, and there are many, but the author, at the behest of the simple purity of the music, implores you to at the very least assemble the tracks in their sequence, as in the method of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and the sequencing of nearly every record, but not so with most greatest hits compilations, there is purpose in order, standing in perpetuity fundamental to the listener’s enjoyment.
The Ronettes broke up soon after Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica. They toured briefly with The Beatles, issuing a few singles and managing to record another slew of songs, but as most of us now know the true Phil Spector thanks to his 2009 murder conviction, it is no surprise that he, out of deep love for Ronnie and profound insanity, declined to release said songs, putting The Ronettes on indefinite hiatus for fear that, as a result of their popularity, they might outgrow him and Ronnie leave him. Despite the darkness that surrounds the fallout of this record, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica is rife with the pure ecstasy of a frozen moment, a moment where family first made it, as one, and all was well. It is the kiss of familiar lips on the seal of the all-too-short career of one of the greatest girl groups, and one of the greatest musical families, ever to enliven wax.