Ronnie Spector has died. As the lead singer of pivotal ’60s girl group The Ronettes, and later an influential solo artist in her own right, Spector spent 60 years charting her own course in the music industry, powered by a career-long “bad girl” vibe, and a voice that stayed powerful and clear across the decades. Per Variety, Spector died on Wednesday of cancer. She was 78.
The Ronettes were a family act, and as such the group’s origins came early: Weekly visits to their grandmother’s New York home by sisters Veronica and Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley, singing songs to entertain their family. The trio began formally performing together in their teenage years, and continued into adulthood, working as dancers and singers in the New York club scene. (It was during this period that the trio solidified their signature look, deploying elaborate eye makeup that was dwarfed only by their towering hairstyles.)
After a few disappointing studio releases, The Ronettes made a decision that would have a massive impact on their careers, and on young Ronnie’s life in particular: They called then-rising record producer and label owner Phil Spector and convinced him to give them an audition. Instantly enamored of Veronica Bennett’s voice, Spector signed the group immediately—although his perfectionist and controlling nature led him to shelve or re-label the first few recordings the group did for his Philles Records label.
That changed in July 1963, when Spector brought “Be My Baby” to the group. Meticulously arranged, the song was first and foremost a platform for Ronnie Bennett’s voice, wailing her desire to make her “baby” happy as a chorus (including Cher, in her first-ever studio recording) croons in support. The song was an instant hit, transforming The Ronettes into a household name that swiftly topped the Billboard charts. The song has since been enshrined in the Library Of Congress’ National Recording Registry; Ronnie later named her memoir after it, acknowledging the massive impact the song had on her life.
Although they’d never capture the same lightning in a bottle as “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes were now an established entity on the musical landscape of the 1960s; later hits included “Baby, I Love You,” “The Best Part Of Breakin’ Up,” and “Walking In The Rain.” As the decade progressed, though, their popularity began to lag behind that of other girl groups—most notably The Supremes.
Spector himself seemed oddly unwilling to release or promote their music; critics have attributed this at least in part to romantic jealousy, as he and Ronnie had begun a romantic relationship in the preceding years. Said jealousy and control issues hit an inflection point in 1966, when The Beatles offered to have The Ronettes—still a popular and respected group, despite flagging record sales—tour with them across America. Spector refused to allow Ronnie to join the tour; she was instead replaced by her cousin Elaine, who’d performed with the group in its earliest days.
Unable to crack their previous success (and sick of seeing songs they’d recorded, but had shelved by Spector, end up being hits for other artists), The Ronettes broke up in 1967. Veronica Bennett married Phil Spector the next year, adopting the name Ronnie Spector for the rest of her life and career. The latter of which swiftly ground to a halt, as her husband, producer, and label owner became bound and determined to keep her out of the studio, and to himself.
The details of Ronnie Spector’s first marriage—enumerated in her 1990 memoir—are horrifying. Spector pulls no punches on her ex-husband’s violent and reclusive nature, describing years of psychological torment at his hands. She eventually escaped their marriage and his mansion—barefoot, since Phil had reportedly confiscated her shoes as one of many tactics to keep her from leaving—in 1972. She later claimed that she forfeited her rights to all The Ronettes’ royalties in their 1974 divorce proceedings because Spector—who died last year in prison, after being convicted of murder in 2009—had threatened her with a hit man if she didn’t.
Free of her ex, Spector got back to the world of music. A brief attempt to revive The Ronettes (sans her sister or cousin) went nowhere in the 1970s, leading her to embark on a solo career. Although occasionally dismissed as an “oldies” act, Spector continued to spark with younger artists, many of whom had grown up on her music. Collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Money, Joey Ramone, and more ensured that Ronnie Spector’s voice was never far from the radio dial. In 2011, she recorded a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse (herself deeply influenced by the girl groups Spector helped make famous) by recording a cover of Winehouse’s 2006 hit “Back To Black.”
Ronnie Spector never broke—in voice, or spirit. The “bad girl of rock and roll” just kept singing, fueling a career marked with a combination of grace, wit, heartache, and, above it all, a voice that never stopped soaring. She, her sister, and her cousin were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007. Her death was announced today on her personal web site, along with a note that, “In lieu of flowers, Ronnie requested that donations be made to your local women’s shelter or to the American Indian College Fund.”