Episode 110: "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes
Episode 110 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Be My Baby", and at the career of the Ronettes and Ronnie Spector. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Little Saint Nick" by the Beach Boys.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
I say Ray Peterson's version of "Tell Laura I Love Her" was an American number one. It wasn't -- it only made number seven.
As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.
A lot of resources were used for this episode.
Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara Miniskirts and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette by Ronnie Spector and Vince Waldron is Ronnie's autobiography and was the main source.
Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson is a good overview of the Brill Building scene, and provided me with the information on Barry and Greenwich.
I've referred to two biographies of Spector in this episode, Phil Spector: Out of His Head by Richard Williams and He's a Rebel by Mark Ribkowsky.
And information on the Wrecking Crew largely comes from The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman.
There are many compilations available with some of the hits Spector produced, but I recommend getting Back to Mono, a four-CD overview of his career containing all the major singles put out by Philles.
If you want something just covering Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes, The Very Best of Ronnie Spector covers all the Ronettes hits and the best of her solo career.
And the AFM contract listing the musicians on "Be My Baby" can be found here.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
Today we're going to take a look at the record that, more than anything, ensured Phil Spector's place in popular music history -- a record that changed the lives of several people who heard it for the better, and changed the life of its singer for the worse, and one which has the most imitated drum intro in the world. We're going to look at "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes:
[Excerpt: The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"]
Before I start this one, two things need saying. The first is that this episode, by necessity, deals with spousal abuse. As always, I will try to discuss the issue with sensitivity, and touch on it as briefly as possible, but if you worry that it might upset you, please either skip this episode, or read the transcript to see if you'll be OK listening to it. I imagine that very few people will be upset by anything I say here, but it's always a possibility.
And secondly, I'd like to apologise for this episode being so late. I had a major disruption in my personal life over Christmas -- one of those really bad life events that only happens once or twice in most people's lifetimes -- and that made it impossible for me to get any work done at all for the last couple of weeks. I'm now able to work again, and this should not be anything that affects the podcast for the rest of the year.
Anyway, enough about that, let's get on with the story.
The story of the Ronettes begins when Ronnie Bennett, a mixed-race girl from Harlem, became obsessed with the sound of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers:
[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"]
Ronnie became the Teenagers' biggest fan, and even managed to arrange a meeting between herself and Lymon when they were both thirteen, but had her illusions torn away when he turned up drunk and made a pass at her.
But that didn't stop her from trying her best to imitate Lymon's vocals, and forming a vocal group with several friends and relatives. That group had a male lead singer, but when they made their first appearance on one of the Harlem Apollo's talent shows, the lead singer got stage fright and couldn't start singing when he got on stage. Ronnie stepped forward and took over the lead vocal, and the group went down well enough even with the Apollo's notoriously hostile audience that a smaller group of them decided to start performing regularly together.
The group took the name Ronnie and the Relatives, and consisted of Ronnie, her sister Estelle, and their cousin Nedra Talley. They originally only performed at private parties, bar mitzvahs and the like, but they soon reached the attention of Stu Phillips at Colpix Records, a label owned by the film studio Columbia Pictures.
The first single by Ronnie and the Relatives was not a success -- "I Want a Boy" came out in August 1961 and didn't chart:
[Excerpt: Ronnie and the Relatives, "I Want a Boy"]
And nor did their second, "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead":
[Excerpt: Ronnie and the Relatives, "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead"]
Those records did apparently sell to at least one person, though, as when Ronnie met President Clinton in 1997, he asked her to sign a record, and specifically got her to sign an album of those early recordings for Colpix.
While the girls were not having any commercial success, they did manage to accidentally get themselves a regular gig at the most important nightclub in New York. They went to the Peppermint Lounge, just as the Twist craze was at its height, and as they were underage they dressed up especially well in order to make themselves look more grown up so they could get in.
Their ruse worked better than they expected. As they were all dressed the same, the club's manager assumed they were the dancers he'd booked, who hadn't shown up. He came out and told them to get on stage and start dancing, and so of course they did what he said, and started dancing to the Twist sounds of Joey Dee and the Starliters:
[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, "The Peppermint Twist"]
The girls' dancing went down well, and then the band started playing "What'd I Say?", a favourite song of Ronnie's and one the group did in their own act, and Ronnie danced over to David Brigati, who was singing lead on the song, and started dancing close to him. He handed her the mic as a joke, and she took over the song. They got a regular spot at the Peppermint Lounge, dancing behind the Starliters for their whole show and joining them on vocals for a few numbers every night.
Inspired by the Bobbettes and the Marvelettes, Ronnie and Estelle's mother suggested changing the group's name. She suggested "the Rondettes", and they dropped the "d", becoming the Ronettes.
The singles they released on ColPix under the new name did no better than the others, but they were such an important part of the Peppermint Lounge that when the Lounge's owners opened a second venue in Florida, the girls went down there with the Starliters and were part of the show.
That trip to Florida gave them two very different experiences. The first was that they got to see segregation firsthand for the first time, and they didn't like it -- especially when they, as light-skinned mixed-race women, were read as tanned white women and served in restaurants which then refused to serve their darker-skinned mothers.
But the second was far more positive. They met Murray the K, who since Alan Freed had been driven out of his job had become the most popular DJ in New York. Murray was down in Florida for a holiday, and was impressed enough by the girls' dancing that he told them if they were ever in New York and wanted a spot on one of his regular shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre they should let him know. They replied that they lived in New York and went to those shows all the time -- of course they wanted to perform on his shows. They became regular performers at the Brooklyn Fox, where they danced between the other, bigger, acts, sang back…