Ronnie Spector is more than her powerhouse voice, more than her tumultuous marriage to one of the most notorious producers-turned-accused-murderers of all time, and even more than the mile-high hairdos she popularized in the ‘60s. She is a portrait of resiliency and success in the most unlikely circumstances.
Her recent two-night residency at City Winery in New York City was a reprise of her “Beyond the Beehive” performance last summer. The word “performance” may not capture the event exactly, however. Instead, the audience was treated to a multimedia inside look at Spector’s life, growing up in Spanish Harlem as a self-proclaimed “halfbreed,” awestruck by the Puerto Rican girls with their long cigarettes, high-slitted skirts and, oh yeah, hair teased to heaven. (Sound familiar?) An eclectic set list spanning every decade of Spector’s career was augmented with home movies, rare photos and performance footage of Spector, the Ronettes, and the famous folks that surrounded them.
She recounted her rise to nearly overnight superstardom in the ‘60s, hobnobbing with the Beatles and Rolling Stones (including sharing the story of her mother cooking breakfast for Mick and Keith when they turned up on her family’s doorstep), touring, and, of course, recording all of those beloved Ronettes tunes. She belted out a handful, including “The Best Part of Breaking Up,” “Walking In The Rain” (her favorite), and “Do I Love You” (my favorite).
Spector didn’t hesitate to address the elephant in the room — her infamous ex-husband and producer, Phil. She pulled no punches, displaying his wigless mugshot on the screen for the whole room’s amusement, eliciting boos, laughter and mocking catcalls. She spoke about him with the frankness of a woman who’s just had a hundred-year gag order removed. Her candidness revealed key incidents from the insanity of her six-year marriage, including the famous gold coffin incident, putting her in a full-leg cast in order to trap her in their mansion, to her barefooted escape with her mother in which the two ladies ran from the house down to the Sunset Strip. Unfortunately, Phil’s hold extended long after their 1974 divorce; even now, he forbids her from performing what are arguably her biggest hits, “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You” in her “Beyond the Beehive” shows.
But, as Spector demonstrated, her career did evolve and continue, despite her ex-husband’s best attempts at sabotage. Famous friends and admirers like Bruce Springsteen, Joey Ramone, Billy Joel and Eddie Money featured her on some of their biggest tracks. Included in the set was the George Harrison-penned “Try Some, Buy Some,” a song Spector recorded on the Apple label, intended to launch her as a solo artist. A few tracks from her 1999 EP, She Talks to Rainbows, were featured, including the title track (a Ramones cover) and Johnny Thunder’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” an adage that Spector may know better than anyone.
As she concluded her performance, she made a point to recognize that the final outcome is all that really matters. In closer “Girl from the Ghetto,” Spector declared freedom, mostly from Phil (“I hope your hell is filled with magazines/and on every page you see a big picture of me”), but also from all the critics who wrote her off for one reason or another. Whether she was shimmying around the stage, wiping away a tear at one of her countless bittersweet memories, or running her fingers through that still-teased mane, she communicated not only the raw power and emotion of her life, but also proved that there’s still fire in the underbelly of the original “bad girl of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Photo by Frank Grimaldi, via City Winery.