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From the Land of Band Box Records

Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett & The Fabulous Ronettes

Still busy reading Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Bennett’s autobiography “Be My Baby – How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette” with Vince Waldron.

At the time of the book’s composition and publication, I am sure that Ronnie Spector considered it a tale of a very harrowing journey the world of rock and roll with one of the most bizarre music industry figures to ever hit the scene.

Little did she know what lie ahead after her final break with Phil Spector.  Looking back – she was very, very fortunate to emerge at all.  But that is Phil’s story.

When they were very young, driven by Ronnie insatiable drive to sing and perform, the sisters Ronnie and Estelle, joined by cousins Nedra Talley, sisters Elaine and Diane Mayes and a very young male cousin Ira, got a little taste future fame when they were granted a one song shot at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater due to the efforts of the Bennett’s mother.

The six kids were mesmerized (and frightened) by the prospect of facing the raucous and unpredictable Apollo audience who lacked any semblance of tolerance for any act displaying amateurism.

When the family (nameless as a group at the time) stepped onto the stage, Ira the designated lead singer so the group could appear more like Lymon’s Teenagers, completely froze up.  Realizing the calamity which was about to befall the six, Ronnie stepped to the front and, in a manner, saved the day.  The Bennett girls and cousins didn’t bring the house down that day.  If anything it was nothing more than a very humbling experience.  At song’s conclusion there was a smattering of reserved applause.  The girls, after all, were very, very cute and that most likely was the saving grace.

A Very Young Ronnie

We have all heard the story over and over regarding Frankie Lymon’s influence on Ronnie, and by her account, she may never had pursued a singing career had she not heard Frankie deliver his self-composed hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”.  She cites that song with her entire vocal approach to rock and roll.

Ronnie had two personal encounters with Lymon.  The first came when she was 12 years old and Frankie was 13 when Ronnie’s mother met Frankie at a diner and approached him inviting him to come to Ronnie’s birthday party.  It was a close-knit neighborhood and Frankie agreed to stop by.  Come the date, he didn’t make it, but sent two of his brothers much to the disappointment of Ronnie.

Several weeks down-the road, Lymon made a surprise spontaneous visit to the Bennett household, taking Ronnie completely by surprise.  It did not go well.  Even at the very early age, there were trouble signs for Frankie and he presented them to Ronnie when he took large gulps of alcohol in her presence.  In short order Lymon was advancing on Ronnie for kisses or more, much to her distress.  Fortunately an uncle arrived on the scene (the Bennett family was a very tight knit and large extended family) and Lymon was escorted from the house.  There was a second encounter with Frankie before he passed away that did not go well either.

Little Darlings

The Harlem experience provided reason enough for cousins Diane, Elaine and Ira to all excuse themselves from any further rock and roll adventures.  But Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra would forge ahead.  (Diane would later on join the group as an on-the-road fill-in for Ronnie, when she was busy laying down lead vocals, and when the group was booked for multi-star traveling performances such as Dick Clark’s “Caravan”).  Diane possessed the family-look and slid into the role usually without much notice.

The three all grew up in ‘Spanish Harlem’ and while never “street tough”, they were exposed to enough to forge the consummate ‘girl group’ persona.  All three girls were of mixed race origins.  Throughout her biography, Ronnie makes reference to them being ‘half-breeds’, a designation that set them apart from many of the female groups of the day and sometimes was a barrier to being accepted fully as a black group by other blacks.

For a short time, the Bennett girls and Nedra would assume an appropriate moniker the “Darlings” for they were certainly that.  Then soon they came to the attention of record producer Stuart Philips who led the trio to Colpix Records where they would release a string of largely unnoticed tracks, now taking the name of “Ronnie and the Relatives” and soon, after a large family gathering and a name barnstorming, first the “Rondettes” quickly amended to “The Ronettes”.

The Phil Spector connection due to the direct efforts of Ronnie who knew where Spector was working as a composer in New York, and took the initiative to request an audience.  The Ronettes were stunned to learn that Specter was already familiar with them via their appearances at New York’s Peppermint Lounge working along side of Joey Dee and the Starliters as a dancing and sometimes singing group.  Phil was very smitten with the girls and that was that.

They found a way out of their Colpix contract and were quickly secured by Specter.  Their first-time-out effort on Spector’s Philles label would be their biggest moment in the sun “Be My Baby” rising to number 2 on the Billboard charts in August of 1963.  Seven more singles and one album would follow into 1966, none of them cracking the Top Ten.

But the Ronettes were very popular and always well-received on the road with in-person appearances.

Image result for phil spector prison

Spector in Corrections

The biography takes us up to her successful break from the abusive and overly domineering Phil Spector.  He was perhaps a genius in the studio – “wall of sound” and all of that – but was no doubt behind the scenes a monster.  In 2003 Spector committed murder and was sentenced to prison where he remains to this day.

Ronnie had a brief encounter with a recording opportunity with the Beatles’ Apple Records, and a few tracks composed by Spector and George Harrison.  Ronnie did not like either track, not being able to make any sense of them.  The music buying public agreed and the record went nowhere, and the Apple affiliation was done.

The Ronettes made one final public appearance with Ronnie and Nedra performing the hits, and Estelle present but unable to join in due to illness.   She passed away losing a bought with cancer.  Nedra settled down, raised a family and became a real estate agent.

Ronnie survived surfacing from time to time performing and recording with others stars, successfully marrying, raising two sons, and continuing on – right into 2016 releasing an LP of British hits titled “English Heart”.

Ronnie’s Failed Sojourn with Apple Records

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