As the nucleus of the Ronettes, Spector — who died on Wednesday at 78 — made hit songs that memorialized adolescent romance in real time, and they were built to last. Her soon-to-be husband, the infamous producer Phil Spector, was quick to credit the Ronettes’ success to his signature “wall of sound” treatment, but for all of his studio bricklaying, it was ultimately a misnomer. Walls are flat, smooth, static. Ronnie Spector’s voice was sumptuous, tough, alive. Plus, as her friend and Connecticut neighbor Keith Richards noted when the Ronettes were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, her voice shot “right through” the center of it anyway.
Before Richards was a pal, he was a fan. Same for Brian Wilson, the Beatles, Lou Reed and the Ramones. The Ronettes’ only studio album — 1964’s “Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica” — shows exactly why, with Spector singing everything exactly right, pleading without forfeiting her strength, piercing without compromising her sensitivity. The effects are fantastic. In the second verse of “Be My Baby,” when she promises to “adore you ‘til eternity,” Spector isn’t falling in love so much as striding directly into it. During “Walking in the Rain,” she finds a way to telegraph her soppy heartsickness over boomy thunderclaps. And throughout the crash and clatter of “I Wonder,” she sings so beautifully about anticipation, conjuring relentless daydreams stampeding through teenage heads.
The music she recorded before turning 21 should have made Spector a long-term presence in pop, but her husband stopped that from happening by building real walls around her, essentially imprisoning her in his Beverly Hills chateau, subjecting her to years of horrific abuse. She finally escaped in 1972, and in 2000, when the Ronettes successfully sued their producer for $2.6 million in unpaid royalties, it wasn’t really about the money. “It was about winning back me,” Ronnie told the music critic Jenn Pelly in 2019. “I gave birth to those songs in the studio.”
When Ronnie Spector returned to the studio in the 1970s, she was more of a legend than a star — and she made those roles go fantastically blurry in 1986 with “Take Me Home Tonight,” a duet with Eddie Money in which the leading man tries to woo the object of his affection by citing rock-and-roll scripture: “Listen honey, just like Ronnie sang …” Then Spector appears in the mix to sing the words, “‘Be my little baby.’” It’s the sort of metaphysical-dialogue-as-pop-lyrics magic trick that Lana Del Rey has built an entire catalogue around — strange and beautiful proof of the way songs coexist in our lives, our memories and our imaginations.
And let’s not forget that Mr. Money was 14 years old the summer that “Be My Baby” changed the world. In the summer of 1986, he was in his late 30s, still aspiring to the intensity of the Ronettes’ desire. These songs, as durable and important as they feel, are like living memories that way, and they remain a part of us, just like Ronnie sang, “’til eternity.”