We Are all Her Babies: Ronnie Spector Was the Voice of New York

Ronnie Spector, circa 1964 Photo by James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There are singers who speak to us for and about New York, people who will never rep another city. For me, it has always been Debbie Harry, Mariah Carey, and at the root, Ronnie Spector. Straight out of Spanish Harlem, Spector died Tuesday at 78 after a brief battle of cancer. In the early Sixties, with her sister Estelle Bennett and her cousin Nedra Talley, Veronica Bennett formed and drove The Ronettes, the one girl group that ruled them all. They embodied a certain half-mad teenage longing and established the standard for mascara bravado, the embrace of style as armor and emotionality as psychic moat. Her story has been tied to that of Phil Spector like the innocent to a bucket of concrete, as you would be, too, if you were imprisoned by a convicted murder who stole your shoes. Time will not be kind to a guy who liked echo, because the music favors the woman who held sway over pop music. Chrissie Hydne’s vibrato? Lifted whole hog from Ronnie. That undying love in the reflective aluminum glow, that quick-before-they-catch-us Capulet tremble? That’s Ronnie, passed down directly into Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Money and Joey Ramone and Johnny Thunders. If Amy Winehouse took the sweaters and the swagger and the liquid liner, it was the boys who submitted fully to Ronnie. Nobody gets more melodramatic about Saturday night than a boy with a new jean jacket.

You really don’t need to strain to remove Phil from the picture. The Ronettes discography is small and fat-free—the Ramones took that bit, as well. Ronnie songs just go, hit the high points, and stop. The concentration of musicality in these records is astonishing—legendary drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer both played on “Be My Baby,” which might be the coolest credit of all time. Ronnie blended the sense of submission and mastery both, rarely sounding like any of her paramours were going to win the day. Listen to “Do I Love You?” and you hear Ronnie throw “Would I die if you should ever go away?” way up high, bending “die” as if it’s sort of a silly idea, because she’s singing about the bond itself, the moment of courtship, and who would want that to end? When she and Estelle and Nedra sail out on “yes I love you,” it’s smooth, unbothered, because that boy doesn’t much matter. It’s all in the game itself, the dance of blinkered love, where the next one is the boy for all time and every date is with destiny itself.

Her life after the Ronettes was rich and unpredictable, and partly hampered by her years of litigation to reclaim profits from her records. The chart peak was her duet with Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight,” a top ten hit in 1986 notable because the song itself pays tribute by introducing both Ronnie and her best-known song: “Baby, just like Ronnie sings—be my little baby,” and there was Ronnie in the video, defeating the Eighties obsession with fans blowing upwards. She stuck with the tight dress and her hair did not move.

Before Mariah, Ronnie was the Christmas champion. She held court repeatedly on David Letterman and performed live Christmas sets almost every year. There are good solo recordings from the past thirty-odd years but the one I play most often is her version of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” released on Kill Rock Stars in 1999. “And even though they don’t show, the scars are so old, and when they go, they let you know.” Joey Ramone does the background singing in the outro, and hearing their two accents blend is pure pleasure. One Bowery ghost and two New York legends combined to give voice to the most New York quality of all—not giving up while also not pretending. That they’re all of them gone now is hard to believe, though a fact remains. They all sang like Ronnie, and were all her babies.