[NOTE: It’s been a while since I started a new category….Some of my friends are gonna be surprised that this wasn’t the name of my very first category….You know who you are! Any way, this category will be loosely defined as relating today’s headlines to the people-oriented history of rock and roll I try to emphasize in general….So it might get hairy at times.]
When Ronnie Bennett (at the left above) auditioned for Phil Spector (seated) with her vocal group (already called the Ronettes and here pictured with George Harrison and English publicist Tony King) Spector leaped off his piano bench and said. “Stop….That’s it. That is it.”
He was referring to what John Lennon would later call “the Voice.” and he very specifically meant the voice he had been waiting–and hoping–to find.
It was that voice–not, as has so often been assumed and reported, Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” production technique–that so captivated the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson when he first heard “Be My Baby” that it instantly became the standard by which he would measure the rest of his life (not to mention all that glorious music).
As Ronnie Spector, then, she became a legend and one of the most important vocalists of the rock and roll era.
Then she went away.
There were reasons.
She divorced Phil Spector in 1972.
He had forced her to quit performing years before. He had also kept her effectively locked up as a prisoner in his L.A. mansion. When she finally made her terrified break, it was running…on bare feet lest her shoes make noise on the driveway pavement.
In light of the daily reports this past couple of weeks concerning various forms of abuse directed at women and children (when she met Spector she was seventeen and so essentially both) by celebrity athletes, it’s worth remembering the price she paid. For anyone who had been paying attention, Spector’s eventual murder of Lana Clarkson was no more surprising than the recent video of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice cold-cocking his wife-to-be in a casino elevator. For some, the obvious is never really obvious unless they see it with their own eyes….or the body on the floor is actually dead (as opposed to merely knocked stone cold, as Rice’s wife-to-be clearly had been in the previously released video which did not show the actual punch). For the rest of us, the obvious is, well, obvious.
Twas ever thus.
The following is from Ronnie Spector’s autobiography, Be My Baby, which (as told to Vince Waldron) was published in 1990. It’s one of the finest–and most unflinching–of all rock and roll memoirs, not least because she told the world that, no, Phil Spector, didn’t coach her singing (he was a superb talent scout before he was anything else) and that, yes, he was very, very dangerous.
After our successes at Madison Square Garden and the Baths, I continued doing concerts with the girls through the rest of 1974. But nothing ever matched the excitement of those shows. We spent most of our time marching in and out of oldies revues, and that got pretty depressing after a while. I was barely thirty years old and everywhere I went people were calling me an oldie but goodie.
It drove me crazy–and it sure didn’t help my drinking problem any. I used to stand backstage at these rock and roll revivals and cringe when the emcee announced us as oldies singers. I’d be standing off in the dark somewhere in the wings and raise my Dixie Cup of vodka and Coke in a silent toast. “Here’s to little Ronnie Spector,” I’d whisper to myself. “An oldie. But a goodie!” I’d say it as a joke, but I can tell you there was nothing funny about it.
Whether it was for good or bad, my oldies career finally came to an end during the holiday season of 1974. That was the year Dick Clark signed the Ronettes to take part in a rock and roll revival show he was staging at the Flamingo Hotel. And I’ll never forget my nightmare in Las Vegas.
It was great to be working with Dick Clark again–his shows were always professionally run, and this was no exception. I rehearsed my numbers with Chip and Denise on stage in the late afternoon and we were dynamite. Dick and everyone on his staff were predicting that Vegas would be the start of a whole new career for the Ronettes.
And when I finally saw our name up in lights outside the casino, I began to think so, too. They do everything about ten times bigger than life in Vegas. So naturally, the marquee outside the hotel was about a hundred feet tall, with the names of all the groups in the show spelled out in letters twelve feet high. I’d never seen “The Ronettes” spelled out that big, and I loved it.
Dick gave us a dinner break between the afternoon rehearsal and our first evening show, so I took the elevator back up to my room to rest up. I was so high from the excitement that I didn’t think anything could bring me down. Then the phone rang.
“It’s me,” the voice said. He didn’t bother identifying himself. He didn’t need to.
“Phil?” I hadn’t spoke to him in so long that I actually thought he might be calling me to wish me well on the show.
“Veronica,” he said. “What in God’s name makes you think you’re ready to play Vegas?”
I should have known Phil would be up to his same old tricks. “Okay,” I said. “Is that all you called for?”
“No,” he said. “I just wanted to give you fair warning that tonight could be the last time you appear on stage in Las Vegas. Or anywhere else.”
He was talking so calmly, for a minute I actually thought that he was saying something sensible, and that I was the one confused. “What ARE you talking about?”
“I always said I’d kill you if you left me,” he explained. “And tonight I’m making good on that promise. In two hours you will be assassinated on stage at the Flamingo Hotel.”
“I’m calling the cops Phil,” I told him. “If you even try to set foot in the Flamingo, I’ll have you arrested.” I tried to stand up to him, but he just laughed in my ear. It was a sound that went right down my spine.
“You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to pull the trigger?” he said. “That’s what I pay hit men for. And I’ve hired six of them on this job. Three black and three white. You might spot one, but you’ll never be able to get them all. They’ll be at your show tonight, and I’ve offered a million-dollar bonus to the one who shoots the bullet that does the job.”
I dropped the phone like it was a dried fish and ran out of the room. I figured the whole think was just one of Phil’s dumb jokes, but it still scared the hell out of me. One thing I knew about Phil is that you couldn’t second-guess him. What if today was the day the guy finally did crack up?
I decided to find Dick Clark and get his advice. But by the time I got down to the showroom, he was already gone. I walked through the casino with my hands shaking so bad I knew I had to get something to calm me down before I rattled myself to pieces. So I walked into the bar for one quick drink. But in those days they were never quick. And it was never just one.
I grabbed my nose and sucked down a vodka and tonic, then I set my hands down on the bar. They were still shivering. “One more,” I told the bartender. I felt so much better after the second drink that I was sure a third would do the trick. Five vodka and tonics later, my problem was solved. I no longer had to figure out whether to go through with the show or not. Dick Clark would make that decision for me.
He tried to look the other way when I stumbled into the backstage area that night. But Dick couldn’t ignore the fact that I was too drunk to make it through even one verse of “Walking in the Rain,” at the final dress rehearsal. “Ronnie,” he said, steering me over to a quiet corner backstage. “You’re in no shape to go on tonight. I’m sending you up to your room.”
Dick Clark and I go way back–I did my first national TV appearance on his show. So when I saw that glint of disappointment in his eyes, that hurt almost as much as being fired.
“I’m sorry, Dick,” I slurred. “I just didn’t want the hit men to get me.” I was trying to give him an explanation, but it was useless. He had no idea what I was talking about, and he had better things to do than listen.
….that little incident pretty much killed the Ronettes as an oldies act.
Not in our hearts, though…Never in our hearts: