December 19, 2006

ronettes Lately I’ve found myself rediscovering – for only about the gazillionth time – just how much I love the sound of The Ronettes. Of all the girl-groups who came and went in a flash across the AM dial back in the early-to-mid-’60s, none matched the tough, mature, raw sexuality of The Ronettes. Led by Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett (center, aged 19), her sister Estelle (right, 20), and their cousin Nedra Talley (left, 18), The Ronettes were a product of the Washington Heights section of New York, cutting some initial mediocre records and working as dancers behind higher-profile performers and DJs in local clubs until they were discovered at the then-famous Peppermint Lounge in 1963 by legendary rock producer and impressario Phil Spector.

Unlike the innocent, “goody-goody” personas commonly associated with the girl-groups of their era, The Ronettes wore tight skirts and shiny dresses slit up the side, heavy mascara, and their hair piled way high, and oozed a mature, sexual sound. Whereas groups like The Chiffons (“He’s So Fine”), The Shangri-Las (“Leader of the Pack”), The Crystals (“Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Then He Kissed Me”), etc. were the girls next door in soft dresses and blue jeans, it didn’t take much to imagine the exotic, all-grown-up Ronettes in high heels and lingerie. Much of this can be attributed to two critical elements: the incredible voice of Ronnie Spector, and the powerful arrangements afforded their songs by Phil Spector.

As Richard Williams has written in the Phil Spector biography “Out Of His Head”, “When the Ronettes made their first [Phil Spector] single, it was immediately obvious they were to the bright, chirpy little Crystals what Elvis was to Pat Boone. They looked dangerous, a threat to any average male’s self-esteem, but despite the challenge in their eyes they performed love songs in which they pleaded to the boys. This marvellously piquant contrast between promise and performance was made possible because of the emotions roiling within Ronnie Bennett’s hugely quavering, massively sexy voice, a pure pop instrument the like of which no one had heard before.” (And I might add, since.)

To understand the power, style and sexuality the made The Ronettes so different and unique during their brief heyday, one need only listen to five particular records:

1. “Be My Baby”. Their first single recorded and produced by Phil Spector, “Be My Baby” defines and exemplifies what one can accomplish with a 2 1/2 minute pop record if you have the goods, the whole package. Jay Warner, writing on behalf of The Ronettes on the Vocal Group Hall of Fame website, describes the allure and the power of this record:

Their first single on Spector and Lester Sill’s new Philles label in July 1963 is a classic, the Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry/Phil Spector-penned collage of castanets, maracas, strings and Hal Blaine drumwork titled “Be My Baby.” Ronnie’s distinctive, seductive vocal delivery, along with her now-legendary “who-oh-oh-oh,” drove teen boys wild, while Spector’s production drove the single to chart success. The July review in Billboard stated, “This is the best record The Ronettes ever made, and more than that, it’s one of the strongest records of the week. It was made by Phil Spector, and he has transformed the gals into a sock singing group who handle this dramatic piece of material with flair. Backing has a stunning, rolling rock sound that’s bound to make the disc score with the kids.”

Boy did it ever, and not just with ‘the kids’, either. Brian Wilson, leader and producer of The Beach Boys, has called it “the most perfect pop record of all time”; legend has it he would listen to the record for days on end throughout his own creative heyday and beyond, to the point of driving his family crazy. What gets me about this production is Spector’s in! your! face! guitar-piano rhythm section and the strings during the song’s instrumental break. Simply stunning.

2. “Baby, I Love You”. The second Ronettes’ single, released just four months after “Be My Baby”. What I find most intriguing about this song, besides its unearthly piano intro (played, BTW, by rock legend and session player Leon Russell), is the just-this-side-of-chaos percussion that absolutely drenches every second of the recording and provides the powerful backup to Ronnie’s pleading vocal. Some, like Warner, believe this a more sophisticated and powerful performance than “Be My Baby”, and I’m inclined to agree. Notice how the song’s title advances The Ronettes’ persona and how one can picture teenage boys imagining Ronnie (or their own love interest) singing this song to them. That, my friends, is what classic rock n’ roll was all about.

3. “(The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up”. The third Ronettes’ single, released the same freakin’ month as “Baby, I Love You” (can you imagine any contemporary pop act conceiving of such a thing?). Boasting a heavy, insistent percussion and intricate backing vocals that “ooh” in and out with Ronnie’s heartfelt sexy lead (“C’mon baby…”), this, in my view, is the best they ever did and one of my all-time favorite pop tunes. Listen for the wicked cool harmonica that underscores the horns during the transitions between verses and chorus, and one of the best false endings ever done.

A quick note: Part of understanding what made The Ronettes’ songs work so well for them is the lyrics penned for Ronnie that advance their “tough girl, bad girl” persona. Consider the lyrics to “(The Best Part)…”, written by guys (Phil Spector, Pete Anders, and Vini Poncia), for guys. Care to guess who’s in charge of this relationship? (my boldings):

Baby, when we break up from a quarrel or a fight
I can’t wait to have you back and hold you oh so tight

Tell me why, I wanna know
Tell me why, is it so
That the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up
Best part of breaking up is when you’re making up
But after breaking up, be sure you’re making up with me

Every time you leave I get those teardrops in my eyes
They always seem to go away when you apologize

Tell me why, I wanna know
Tell me why, is it so
That the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up
Best part of breaking up is when you’re making up
But after breaking up, be sure you’re making up with me

Come on baby, come on baby
Don’t say maybe
Well it makes no difference who is wrong
Just as long as I’ll be with you

Baby I’ll be lonely ’til you’re back where you should be
‘Cause baby, I belong to you and you belong to me

Tell me why, I wanna know
Tell me why, is it so
That the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up
Best part of breaking up is when you’re making up
But after breaking up, be sure you’re making up with me

Come on baby, come on baby
Don’t say maybe

Sophisticated? Of course not. But notice how these are not your typical girl-group lyrics, where the singer is telling her friends about the boy she loves and/or can’t have. These lyrics are personal, insistent, pleading, and sung by girl directly to boy, in a way every adolescent could identify with, understand, and dream about.

4. “Do I Love You”. Considering the intricate, sax-and-rhythm driven power intro, this song – and Ronnie’s lead vocal – is much more mellow and understated than the previous three singles. Nevertheless, I find the overall sound mesmerizing and the vocals (lead and backing) incredibly sexy and romantic. The horns which drive the rhythm throughout employ some pretty inventive charts without distracting the vocals. A nice contrast from the “big sound” of their previous hits.

5. “Walking In The Rain”. Unlike the previous four songs, the primary attraction of this tune lies less in the performance then its message. Richard Williams: “Walking In The Rain” has the advantage of such a lovely lyrical idea [ed. note: by the legendary team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil] …the girl says she’ll know Mr. Right when he comes along because he’ll enjoy the same things she does, like “walking in the rain”. A simple, lovely thought couched in a tune and arrangement which are genuinely delicate, despite the weight of [Spector’s production]. While there’s nothing particularly unique or inventive here production-wise (other than, perhaps, the use of a little more echo), it’s a fine performance nonethess. (Note: the song is perhaps better known from its remake by Jay and The Americans, whose interpretation turned it into one of their biggest hits.)

Unfortunately for The Ronettes, the material following these songs didn’t quite keep up, and by 1966 pop music was moving in a new, more revolutionary, direction. Following the commercial failure of his majestic “River Deep, Mountain High” single (by Ike & Tina Turner and deemed “too black” for white radio, “too white” for black radio), Spector became increasingly dispirited and disinterested in the careers of those whom he had helped build. While The Ronettes continued to make some fine recordings – “When I Saw You”, “Keep On Dancing”, and “I Can Hear Music” (the latter turned into a mini-classic two years later by Carl Wilson’s production for The Beach Boys), their salad days had come and gone. Nevertheless, one need only hear one of their major hits between other songs of the period to understand just how unique and powerful their sound truly was, and why they’re considered one of the all-time great girl-groups in pop music history.

For those wanting to discover for themselves the greatness of the Ronettes, might I suggest “The Best of The Ronettes”. Or, if you want to hear their work in the context of a greater Phil Spector listening experience, I’d highly recommend checking out his “Back To Mono” anthology.

…Oh, did I mention their devilish version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” on Phil Spector’s Christmas album, “A Christmas Gift To You”? More on that in a future post. Given the time of season, very soon!

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:51 | Comments (0)
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