The news of Ronnie Spector’s death hit less than 24 hours ago, and tributes have already arrived by everyone from Brian Wilson to Darlene Love and Steve Van Zandt. “I loved her voice so much,” Wilson said in a statement, “and she was a very special person and a dear friend. This just breaks my heart. Ronnie’s music and spirit will live forever.”
Discounting a brief attempt to resurrect the act in the mid-Seventies, Spector’s group the Ronettes ended in 1967. She continued to perform their classics on solo tours during the past five decades, but in 2007 she finally had the chance to stand on the same stage as her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley when the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
It was a long-overdue honor that Phil Spector reportedly worked to prevent when he was a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Nominating Committee, but he was on trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson at the time, and no longer had any ability to stop it.
Keith Richards delivered their induction speech. He started by looking back to a 1964 English tour that the Rolling Stones embarked on with the Ronettes. Watching them rehearse before the shows kicked off was his first opportunity to hear the trio sing live. “I got a command performance all to myself,” he said. “I realized that despite Jack Nitzsche’s beautiful arrangements, they could sing all the way right through a Wall of Sound. They didn’t need anything. They touched my heart right there and then, and they touch it still.”
Ronnie Spector spoke first. “We waited so long,” she said. “I mean, we really waited long. We went through lots of ups and downs. … I never thought I’d get here, but here I am. I am blown away.” She then delivered a lengthy, gracious speech where she thanked her two bandmates, Cher, Jack Nitzsche, Murray the K, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, George Harrison, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Iovine, Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Steve Van Zandt, Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, Eddie Money, Keith Richards, and several others.
Estelle Bennett had a very difficult life following the dissolution of the Ronettes due to severe mental-health issues. She didn’t perform with her group that night, but she did deliver brief remarks following her sister’s speech. “I would just like to say thank you very much for giving us this award,” she said. “Thank you. I’m Estelle of the Ronettes. Thank you.” (Bennett died in 2009.)
Nedra Talley became a born-again Christian after the Ronettes ended and moved away from secular music, but she remained very proud of the group’s accomplishments. “I thank God that I’m here tonight,” she said. “And that we, as the Ronettes, are being acknowledged for what we gave. But I didn’t have any idea what we were giving. I was very, very young and I didn’t know that we were setting styles for girls. I thank every fan that kept us in their hearts and in their minds for all these years. Thank you for playing the music to your children and to your children’s children.”
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame bandleader Paul Shaffer reveres the Ronettes like few other groups, and he assembled an enormous band to recreate Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production for their performance that night down to the smallest details. Here’s the grand finale of “Be My Baby.” It was a spectacular way to wrap up the saga of the Ronettes.
If you’ll read the names that Ronnie thanked in her speech, you’ll notice that she skipped over Phil Spector for very understandable reasons. Not only was he her abusive ex-husband, he also spent decades taking as much credit for the success of the group as he possibly could, and doing everything in his power to deny her royalties. This was a night that was about the Ronettes, not him.
But after the performance, Paul Shaffer rushed to the microphone. “It gives me a lot of pleasure to read this note,” he gushed. “‘I’m extremely happy for the Ronettes. From the days of 1963 at Gold Star Studios, I wish them all the happiness and good fortune the world has to offer.’ And it’s signed ‘Phil Spector,’ ladies and gentlemen.” He walked away from the podium to very light applause. The camera doesn’t pan to Ronnie, Estelle or Nedra, but it’s a safe bet that they weren’t clapping.