Ronnie Spector: girl group icon performs in the Bay Area

  • by Andre Torrez
  • Wednesday July 2, 2014
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"Pop art? What the hell is that?"

Ronnie Spector has no qualms when it comes to telling me how she likes her music. Or in this case, what she doesn't like.

"Gaga? Give me a fuckin' break."

It was only supposed to be a ten to fifteen-minute interview, but we went long; almost half an hour. That may not seem like a big difference, but with rock royalty on the phone, I knew that every minute with the girl-group icon counted.

A few days earlier I'd finished reading her tragically titled autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette. Published in 1990, her book is mostly filled with details of her success in the recording industry, which began over 50 years ago, and delves into her career's derailment due to the darker days of her marriage to famed producer and inventor of the Wall of Sound, Phil Spector.

The original bad girl of rock and roll turns 71 this summer, but first she has important business in the Bay Area. She's scheduled to play an intimate evening at San Francisco's Brick and Mortar Music Hall July 5, where the one and only Peaches Christ will serve as emcee.

Spector comes across as both feisty and genuinely energized about her upcoming gigs, where she'll be backed by a ten-piece band to reproduce those lavishly-layered signature sounds heard on many of her hits. Then it's off to Oakland's Mosswood Park Sunday, July 6 to headline this year's Burger Boogaloo. The annual two-day music festival is put on by the East Bay's Total Trash Productions in conjunction with Fullerton's wildly popular Burger Records.

Landing her as the headlining act is a major coup for the DIY-minded event that's been over a year in the making. On the surface it may seem like a mismatch for her to be playing to a crowd of mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings, but in reality she's making dreams come true. Many independent-label artists on the bill model their sound (and some their looks) after early rock and roll acts from The Ronettes' era.

I wonder if she knows how cool it is that she's playing the Boogaloo and why the timing is right this year. I imagine it's relatively underground compared to shows she's played, like at The Apollo for example. Even so, it's great exposure, possibly making her more relevant than any of her contemporaries who are subject to being reduced to playing the casino circuit.

"I don't book them. I just go!" she says matter-of-factly in her velvety, New Yorker accent. As prepared as I was, I was still anxious in the moments before she called. After all, this is the same woman that had The Rolling Stones as her opening act during The Ronettes' first tour of England in 1964. I was nervous about asking the wrong question or being offensive. With certain topics off limits (though she'd later address her first husband herself); there certainly was room for error. As anticipated, her Connecticut number lit up my phone and it was time to talk.

On the day we spoke, the U.S. Presbyterian Church voted to change their constitution to allow the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. One day later, the Obama administration announced regulatory changes to extend same-sex marriage benefits to federal employees.

"I was born and raised in New York. Who gives a damn?" she says reminiscing about seeing guys kissing guys back when The Ronettes were just playing coffee houses. Returning to San Francisco hits a particular reflective note for her.

"I said, 'Oh my God!' Gay people made us. I love it. People have caught up. People have a chance to be who they are."

In her book, she explains how gays (this being before LGBT was a term) were some of The Ronettes' biggest supporters. To this day she attributes that to what she suspects is their shared experience of being considered other.

The group, born out of Spanish Harlem, consisted of herself as the lead singer with sister Estelle and cousin Nedra on backup. The audience wasn't really sure if they were black, white or "Spanish" (she's black, white and Cherokee) and early on, record companies didn't really know how to package them for marketing purposes.

"We felt different in junior high and in high school. People would pick on me before we became The Ronettes. 'What am I?'" she thought of herself. Surely that otherness was the identifiable quality the gay community warmed up to.

Spector associated coming back to California as a homecoming of sorts, but not all her reflections are looked back on as being warmly sentimental. Sure, the Golden State was where she holed up in Gold Star Studios to record mini-symphonies like "Walking In The Rain" and "Baby I Love You," but it's also where she was virtually locked away in a 23-room, Beverly Hills mansion; kept from the stage, studio and the rest of the world during what by all accounts was her bizarre marriage to the overly-possessive Phil Spector.

The autobiography is definitely a page-turner. It reads like the stuff of legend, yet it remains a huge part of her past and is her reality. Writing it must have been cathartic, but as life goes on, you can either move along with it or stay stuck in the past.

By updating her story with her one-woman multimedia stage show, Beyond The Beehive, she continues her healing process. It's another autobiographical project that she's very proud of and has taken it to cities including; L.A., Chicago and London.

Much of her story is set in the 1960s, but the struggle of women finding their strength still resonates.

"In the '60s, men were producers, [women] were last," said Spector. "The problem with a lot of girls [at that time] you don't think about the money from royalties."

Embracing everything she's experienced, Spector incorporates her hits with music by her own teenage idol and influence, Frankie Lymon to collaborators like George Harrison. She admits it's an emotional ride.

"It's difficult," said Spector. "I have rehearsal with my band, but it's the audience that brings the emotion." She said they make her cry when she hears them groan during some of the more expository parts of the show.

Whether or not Phil Spector's slump, which he never seemed to fully emerge from, was by design as a way to hold Ronnie captive would be a case of he said-she said. Nonetheless, her determination to get on stage both preceded and outlasted him since he was convicted on murder charges in 2009.

The rejuvenation in her voice is clear and she sounds convincing when she says she's on her way up. She's been married 30 years to her husband and manager, Jonathan Greenfield, and seems really happy with her life.

"I feel free because I have a great husband, two adorable boys; everything I wanted in the '60s," she said.

Her husband Jonathan picks up on the line towards the end of our conversation to politely remind us that it's time to wrap it up. It sounds like Ronnie has another interview lined up right after mine. The end of the call is a bit chaotic with all three of us talking over one another. Jonathan wanted to make sure I had everything I needed and started hammering out details of some of her photos he was going to send me. Meanwhile, Ronnie, being the class act she is, just wanted to be polite and say goodbye. "Andre," she said, "I don't talk about pictures and that kinda thing." She told me it was a pleasure and hangs up. The next time I'll hear her voice live will be up on stage where she's always wanted to be.

Ronnie Spector performs at Brick and Mortar, July 5, with Nobunny, Milk N' Cookies, Harold Ray, The Sloths, and MC Peaches Christ. 1710 Mission St. $35-$55. 10pm.

Spector headlines the Burger Boogaloo music festival, July 5-6, at Mosswood Park in Oakland (Broadway at MacArthur).

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