In 1963-64, The Chiffons put four songs on the Top 40 list, including “He’s So Fine,” a No.1 hit.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, one style of music that began to dominate the American music charts and permeate youth culture of that day came from the “girl groups.” Comprised mostly of three-to-four young females, typically teenagers themselves, the girl groups of the late 1950s through the mid-1960s were mostly African American, though some white groups scored hits, too. They were named The Crystals, The Shirelles, The Ronettes, and more. A few lone performers with and without female backup, also carried the “girl group” sound, and were considered a part this genre.
The distinctive sound of the girl group songs filled the air in those years, and seemed to be everywhere. The music spawned the sales of millions of records, creating a number of millionaires – though often not the performers themselves, who were frequently short-changed and manipulated in the process. More on that later.
Jacqueline Warwick’s 2007 book, “Girl Groups, Girl Culture,” with The Shirelles on its cover.
Still, the 1960s girl group phenomenon resulted in a compressed period of musical innovation with lasting results. The songs and performances pushed the bounds of the industry at the time and became a key source of innovative song writing and composition, as well as novel forms of instrumentation. But most of all, “the girl group sound” had a fresh and optimistic buoyancy to it, with lyrics that were mostly innocent and naive – of the “girl–dealing-with-boy” variety – though some songs also offered social commentary. There had been girl groups in previous decades, dating to The Andrew Sisters of the 1930s and 1940s, The McGuire Sisters of the 1940s and 1950s, and similar acts. But what distinguished the 1960s “girl group” phenomenon was its distinctive sound and the huge Baby Boomer market that sent the music to the top of the charts.
Music critic Greil Marcus, writing of the girl groups in 1992 for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, has noted: “The music was perhaps the most carefully, beautifully crafted in all of rock and roll – one reason why none of the twenty or so best records in the genre have dated in the years since they were made.” Now, more than 50 years old at this writing, the girl group music of the 1960s continues to have wide appeal and staying power.
According to some sources, there were over 1,500 girl groups that recorded in the 1960s. Of these, about two dozen or so went on to become significant hit makers. What follows here is an overview of some of the more prominent girl groups that emerged during the 1958-1966 period, along with a healthy sampling of songs from that era (more than a dozen), and some description of the songwriters, producers, and businesses involved in the music making.
Group photograph of The Chantels in the late 1950s.
Among the earliest of the girl groups were The Chantels with their powerful 1957-1958 hit, “Maybe,” featuring Arlene Smith singing lead. The group was established in the early 1950s by five girls, then students at St. Anthony of Padua school in The Bronx.
The original five members of The Chantels consisted of Arlene Smith (lead), Sonia Goring, Rene Minus, Jackie Landry Jackson, and Lois Harris. By the summer of 1957 The Chantels were signed by record producer George Goldner, owner of End Records. Their second single, “Maybe” was released in December 1957, and by January 1958 it became a top hit, reaching No. 15 on the Billboard chart and No.2 on the R & B chart. “Maybe” sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc. One profile of the group in liner notes for the PBS collection, The Doo Wop Box, noted: “Their records were not terribly sophisticated from a production standpoint, but then just listen to Arlene Smith’s voice and tell us if you really need anything else.” Smith was 16 years old when “Maybe” was recorded.
The Shirelles shown on a later 1992 Ace compilation album of their greatest hits.
However, The Shirelles, the girl group shown on the book cover above, and in later years on the album cover at left, are often regarded by rock historians as the opening act of the 1960s “girl group era,” and perhaps more representative of the girl group sound that followed in those years.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”-1960-61
Although the Shirelles had recorded a few songs as early as 1958, their hits didn’t start coming until 1960. Among their first popular songs was “Tonight’s The Night,” co-written by lead singer, Shirley Owens, a song that entered the Top 40 in mid-October 1960. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was a Shirelles’ No. 1 hit of December 1960-January 1961 that remained in the Top 40 for 15 weeks. During 1961-1962, four more Top Ten hits followed for the Shirelles: “Dedicated to The One I Love,” a No. 3 hit in February 1961; “Mama Said,” a No. 4 hit in May 1961; “Baby It’s You,” a No. 8 hit in January 1962 written by Burt Bacharach, Hall David and Barney Williams; and “Soldier Boy,” a No. 1 hit in March-April 1962. In all, over a two-year span, The Shirelles would put 11 hits in the Top 40, and five in the Top Ten.
“Baby It’s You”-1962
The Shirelles ascendency came primarily in the early 1960s, during the “Kennedy years,” a time when America was riding high on the promise of a new young president named John F. Kennedy. And despite the Cold War clench and very serious civil rights issues then emerging, the popular music of the day, including the Shirelles’ songs and those of other girl groups, added a certain buoyancy and optimism to the soundtrack of that time.
The Shirelles began as four high school friends in Passaic, New Jersey – Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris, and Beverly Lee. They originally formed under another name in 1958 and were first signed by Florence Greenberg, who later ran the Scepter record label. Greenberg brought in producer Luther Dixon, who added string arrangements that improved the Shirelles’ sound, helping them produce the hit songs “Tonight’s the Night” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.”
Top 40 Hits
“Tonight’s the Night”
October 1960, #39 “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”
December 1960, #1 “Dedicated to The One I Love”
February 1961, #3 “Mama Said”
May 1961, #4 “Baby It’s You”
January 1962,#8 “Soldier Boy”
March /April 1961, #1 “Foolish Little Girl”
April 1963, #4
Their big hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin – one of the famed Brill Building song-writing teams in New York city, where a steady stream of pop hits originated during the 1950s and 1960s (see sidebar later below). “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is sometimes credited as the first major girl group hit of the rock era and was also the first all-girl song to ever hit Billboard’s No.1 position. The song’s lyrics also ventured into new social territory raising the question all girls wanted answered after one night’s romance. Reviewing the song for AllMusic.com, Bill Janovitz has observed:
…The song is a masterpiece of pop songcraft… [King and Goffin] deftly handle controversial subject matter: the long-term concerns of a young woman involved in a physical consummation of love. Goffin’s lyrics address the issue in a direct manner, neither ham-fisted nor nudging with innuendo. The artful lyric is simply conversational; polite conversation — ladylike: “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure?” What a stunning couple of lines. Faced with the restrictions of early-’60s AM pop radio both in content and song length, King and Goffin squeeze an impressive amount of substance and significance from an economical, 14-syllable couplet. We realize that this very human need, this act of love, can be perceived as a meaningless satisfaction of physical desire, devastatingly disappointing to another who experiences the same moment as a consummation of a deep emotional commitment. These mere two lines sum up the impact that two people can have on each other’s feelings. “Tonight with words unspoken,” sings the narrator, ”You say that I’m the only one.” Words unspoken? She is vulnerable, perhaps kidding herself, and she knows it; she is wishing for the best…
Three of The Marvelettes, shown performing in the 1960s.
Also in the early 1960s came The Marvelettes, five girls from a Michigan high school glee club – Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Wanda Young, and Juanita Cowart (with some changing personnel). They signed a Motown Records contract on the Tamla label in 1961.
Motown was the black-owned record label founded by Detroit’s Berry Gordy. A former auto assembly-line worker, Gordy began Motown with a $700 loan in 1959 and built it into a recording empire using three adjoining Detroit row houses as his studio. By 1964, Motown was the nation’s largest independent producer of 45-rpm records, selling 12 million records a year, with Motown girl groups accounting for an important share of that total.
“Please Mr. Postman”-1961
The Marvelettes were the first girl group act of Motown Records, and the first Motown group with a No. 1 hit – “Please Mr Postman” — which hit the No. 1 spot on December 11, 1961. It stayed on the pop charts for nearly six months. “Mr Postman,” later covered by the Beatles, was followed by several other Marvelettes’ Top 40 hits, including three more in 1962 – “Twistin` Postman” at No. 34; “Playboy” at No. 7; and “Beachwood 4-5789″ at No. 17. “Too Many Fish in the Sea” was a No. 25 hit in 1964, and “Don’t Mess With Bill” cracked the Top Ten at No. 7 in 1966. Another Marvelettes song that received some attention on the R&B charts, reaching No. 24 in the spring of 1963, was “Forever,” with Wanda Young Rogers singing lead.
The Cookies of Brooklyn, NY had two Top 40 hits in 1962-63, including “Chains.”
Among other groups sometimes considered as part of the 1960s’ girl group era were The Exciters, The Sensations, The Cookies, and The Paris Sisters. In October 1961, Priscilla, Albeth, and Sherrell Paris of San Francisco had a No. 3 hit, “I Love How You Loved Me,” and another Top 40 hit in March 1962, “He Knows I Love Him Too Much.” In February 1962, The Sensations of Philadelphia had a No. 4 hit with “Let Me In” on Chess Records’ Argo label, with Yvonne Mills Baker singing lead.
In December 1962-January 1963, The Exciters, a three person group with one male, scored with a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tune, “Tell Him,” which rose to No.4 and two decades later was used on The Big Chill soundtrack. Carole King and Jerry Goffin wrote for The Cookies girl group, a Brooklyn, New York threesome of Dorothy Jones, Ethel McCrea, and Margaret Ross, helping them produce the No. 17 hit, “Chains,” in the fall of 1962. The Cookies also sang backup vocals on the 1962 Little Eva hit song, “The Loco-Motion” (also by King/Goffin). But in early 1963, the Cookies scored a Top Ten hit with another King/Goeffin tune, “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby,” which rose to No.7 on the Billboard chart.
Another of the early 1960s groups were the Orlons – first formed as an all girl group in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1950s, but later added one male. Rosetta Hightower sang lead for the group, joined by Shirley Brickley, Marlena Davis and Stephen Caldwell. The Orlons had three Top Ten hits in 1962-63 – “The Wah-Watusi,” No. 2 in June 1962; “Don’t Hang Up,” No. 4 in the fall of 1962; and “South Street,” No. 3 in 1963.
Girl group record producer Phil Spector had his first million-dollar payday in the early 1960s with The Crystals.
Enter Phil Spector
During the 1960s, the “girl group sound” began to be influenced and molded by a young record producer named Phil Spector who had previously recorded in the late 1950s with his own short-lived group, The Teddy Bears. Spector would become famous in the 1960s for his lavish instrumentation of girl group and other pop recordings; a technique that came to be known as “the wall of sound.” He became a master at composing appealing orchestral-like treatments for rock songs, giving them a full, lush sound with little “empty” air. He would later call these productions “little symphonies for the kids.” Spector was also a control-room maestro who became skilled at multi-tracking which he used to craft his “wall-of-sound” productions. “Whenever you hear a ‘60s-era production with echoey voices, five or six guitar parts, nearly as many keyboards, and perfectly aligned maracas and other percussion shaking and rattling underneath, it’s safe to assume that the enigmatic Spector created it, or inspired it,” writes Tom Moon in his book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.
The Crystals were the hot girl group in 1961-62 with hits such as: "Uptown," “He’s A Rebel” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” which are sampled below.
In 1961, when he was just starting out with this own record label, Philles, Spector signed a group named the Crystals. There were actually two sets of personnel who recorded as the Crystals at Spector’s direction. More on that in a moment. The Crystals, in any case, came on strong in the 1961-1963 period with a series of hits, including: “There’s No Other Like My Baby” (1962, No. 20); “Uptown” (1962, No. 13); “He’s A Rebel”(1962, No.1); “Da Doo Ron Ron”(1963, No. 3); “Then He Kissed Me” (1963, No. 6); and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” (1963, No.11). The Crystals made Spector a millionaire; he was 21 years old.
Initially, the Crystals had formed in 1961 with five girls, most of them just graduating from high school – Barbara Alston, Mary Thomas, Dolores “Dee Dee” Kenniebrew, Myrna Girard and Patricia “Patsy” Wright. Their first hit was November 1961′s “There’s No Other Like My Baby,” co-written by Spector and Leroy Bates, with Barbara Alston on lead vocals. This song had been recorded on the evening of three of the girls’ high school prom, as they came to the studio still wearing their prom dresses. The Crystals’ next hit, “Uptown,” was written by Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and it included a little attitude and some class issues woven into the lyrics. Spector added flamenco guitar and castanets. But “Uptown” was upbeat in sound, featuring Barbara Alston on lead, and it became a top hit. After “Uptown,” one of the group’s members, Myrna Girard became pregnant and was replaced by Dolores “LaLa” Brooks.
Darlene Love with Phil Spector, 1960s.
However, for the Crystals next song, “He’s A Rebel,” Spector recorded singer Darlene Love and her backing group, The Blossoms, as “The Crystals.”
“He’s A Rebel”-1962
Reportedly, the real Crystals were unable to travel from New York to Los Angeles fast enough to suit Spector, who was then racing to beat Vicki Carr to market with her version of the song. Since Darlene Love and the Blossoms were based in L.A., Spector used them to recorded “He’s A Rebel” as The Crystals. “He’s a Rebel” hit No. 1 in November 1962. The “Crystals” follow-up single –”He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” which hit No. 11 — also featured Love and The Blossoms.
Dolores “LaLa” Brooks with Phil Spector, 1960s.
In 1963, the real Crystals, with LaLa Brooks singing lead, then recorded “Da Doo Ron Ron,” a Top 10 hit in both the U.S. and the U.K. Upon hearing the final playback of “Da Doo Ron Ron” in the studio, Spector reportedly remarked to Sonny Bono, later of “Sonny & Cher” fame but then a production assistant: “That’s gold. That’s solid gold coming out of that speaker.”
“Da Doo Ron Ron”-1963
The follow-up Crystals’ single, “Then He Kissed Me,” also cracked the Top 10. Both of the 1963 hits – “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me” – were co-written by Phil Spector with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. The lead vocals were sung by Lala Brooks.
The Crystals, however, weren’t the only girl group Spector was working with. He also produced songs for the earlier-mentioned San Francisco group, The Paris Sisters. And once performers were signed with Spector, he would sometimes use them interchangeably with other groups, or as background singers, or for specially-created groups to put out one or two songs. Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, for example – with Darlene Love, Fanita James and Bobby Sheen – had two Top 40 hits for Spector’s Philles label in 1962 and 1963 – “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” No. 8 in December 1962, and “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart?,” No. 38 in March 1963.
The Ronettes of the 1960s at the top of their game, circa 1963-64. Click on photo for separate story.
But one girl group Phil Spector became especially attached to was a new group from New York’s Spanish Harlem named The Ronettes. The Ronettes story is covered separately at this website in more detail –including song samples, the group’s biography, an account of Spector’s stormy relationship and marriage with lead singer Ronnie Bennett, and some later legal battles.
“Be My Baby”-1963
Suffice it to say here that the Ronettes were one of the key girl groups of the 1963-1964 period, turning out a series of hit songs that helped define that era, including “Be My Baby” of October 1963, one of the key genre-defining girl group songs.
Girl Group Songs
“There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”
Jan 1962 / The Crystals / #20 “Uptown”
Mar 1962 / The Crystals / #13 “He Knows I Love Him Too Much”
Mar 1962 / The Paris Sisters / #34 “He’s a Rebel”
Nov 1962 / The Crystals / #1 “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”
Jan 1963 / The Crystals, #11 “…The Boy I’m Gonna Marry”
May 1963 / Darlene Love, #39 “Da Doo Ron Ron”
June 1963 / The Crystals / #3 “Then He Kissed Me”
Aug 1963 / The Crystals / #6 “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home”
Sept 1963 / Darlene Love / #26 “Be My Baby”
Oct 1963 /The Ronettes, #2 “A Fine, Fine Boy”
Nov 1963 / Darlene Love, #53 “Baby, I Love You”
Nov 1963 / The Ronettes, #24 “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”
May 1964 / The Ronettes, #39 “Do I Love You?”
Aug 1964 / The Ronettes, #34 “Walking in the Rain”
Dec 1964 / The Ronettes, #23
_______________________ Phil Spector produced songs; not a complete list.
Added to the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in 2006, “Be My Baby’s” description in that listing reads: “This single is often cited as the quintessence of the ‘girl group’ aesthetic of the early 1960s and is also one of the best examples of producer Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ style. Opening with Hal Blaine’s infectious and much imitated drumbeat, distinctive features of the song, all carefully organized by Spector, include castanets, a horn section, strings and the able vocals of Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett. Enhancing the already symphonic quality of the recording is Spector’s signature use of reverb.”
Phil Spector, in any case, became a dominant girl group producer, churning out hit after hit with The Crystals, The Ronettes, Darlene Love, and others. He also worked with non-girl groups during the same period, including the Righteous Brothers, and a few years later, Tina Turner.
But from 1962 through 1964, Spector’s girl group sound was all over the charts. He produced at least 15 Top 40 girl group hits in those two years, some of which are listed in the table at right.
Spector worked with other songwriters on many of these hits. The Brill Building team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, in particular, worked with Spector on a number of girl group hits. Among the songs they co-wrote with Spector were: “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me” for the Crystals; “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You” for the Ronettes; and also Darlene Love’s “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Going To Marry.”
In addition, Spector also produced a Christmas album using the Ronettes, Darlene Love and others to record traditional Christmas favorites in the girl-group /wall-of-sound style – an album that is still popular to this day. Phil Spector the person, however, is quite another story, whose quirky and sometimes violent behavior has been widely written about elsewhere. In 2009, after two trials in Los Angeles, he was convicted of second-degree murder of actress Lana Clarkson and is presently serving a sentence of 19 years to life. But during his 1960s heyday, Spector had magical abilities in the recording studio.
Beyond the Phil Spector-produced girl group songs, there was additional activity in 1963 and 1964 with artists such as The Chiffons, Martha & The Vandellas, The Angels, The Jaynetts, and others. More on those groups in a moment. But first, some background on New York’s “Brill Building” writers and producers and their role in the girl group era.
“Brill Building Pop”
Brill Building entrance in New York city at 1619 Broadway.
Behind the success of a number of the 1960s girl groups were teams of songwriters and producers who worked out of New York City’s Brill Building and related offices north of Times Square. In the 1930s, after the Brill Brothers clothing store had successfully operated at that location for many years, a bigger building was completed, intended for stock brokers and bankers. However, with the Depression, it became a rental building instead, housing primarily music publishers and writers.
By 1962, the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses of one kind or another. In fact, it became a place where the complete music making process – from song idea to finished record demo –could be completed in a manner of days. At the Brill Building, a song and melody could be written, musicians hired, demo cut, record companies and publishers contacted, managers and promoters hired. By the early 1960s, the “Brill Building method” of song making exploded with a frenzy of pop music production, as hits soared to the top of he music charts. In the process, some of the Brill Building writers, producers and publishers became quite wealthy.
Brill Building songwriter Carole King at piano, along with husband and composing partner Gerry Goffin, far right, on song collection CD cover with other songwriters.
Songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin worked for a Brill Building music company just up the street, at 1650 Broadway. They were among more than a dozen young writers in their late teens and early twenties who came to work for Aldon Music, a company formed by music men Don Kirshner and Al Nevins in 1958. Aldon churned out pop lyrics and music for client record labels such as Columbia, Atlantic, RCA and ABC. The King/Goffin team, hired in 1960, would soon turn out some big girl-group hits such as: “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for The Shirelles (#1, 1960), “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons (#5, 1963), and a string of others. But as a young married couple in their 20s, they also worked at other day jobs while they wrote music. Then came their first big hit and their lives changed, as Carole King has recalled: “When ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ sold a million [copies], we went, ‘bye-bye day job!’” Jerry Goffin remembered that day too, as he was then working for a chemical company: “Carole and [Don Kirshner of Aldon Music] arrived in Donny’s limousine at the chem factory and told me I didn’t have to work anymore. And he gave us a $10,000 advance and we got credit cards, and I’ve never had to do an honest day’s work since.”
Brill Building writers Barry Mann at the piano, with Cynthia Weil (left) and Carole Kind, 1965.
Phil Spector, famous for his “wall of sound” productions described earlier, also spent time at the Brill Building. He came in 1960 to learn the trade assisting the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had written a long list of hit songs in the 1950s for the likes of Elvis Presely, Lavern Baker, the Coasters, the Drifters, and others. Leiber and Stoller helped to blend rhythm & blues music into rock ‘n roll and pop recordings.
Another songwriting team – Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – also worked for Aldon Music and wrote a number of girl group hits, including: “I Love How You Love Me” for the Paris Sisters (#5, 1961); two for The Cyrstals, “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”(#11, 1962) and “Uptown”(#13, 1962); and “Walking In The Rain” for The Ronettes (#23, 1964 w/Phil Spector).
Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, another Brill Building team who also worked with producer Phil Spector, wrote several girl group hits, including two for the Crystals and one for Darlene Love described earlier. They also co-wrote several others with Spector including “Be My Baby” (#2, 1963) and “Baby I Love You”(#24, 1964) for The Ronettes, and “Chapel Of Love” for The Dixie Cups (#1, 1964). Barry and Greenwich also did two for the Shangri-Las – “Leader Of The Pack” (#1, 1964 w/Shadow Morton) and “Give Us Your Blessings”(#29, 1965).
1960s’ album cover for “The Raindrops” that featured Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry.
Sometimes the Brill Building writers would drift into releasing songs themselves. That happened in early 1963, when husband-and-wife team Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry recorded a demo titled “What a Guy,” a tune Barry had written for The Sensations. But Jubilee Records opted to have the Barry/Greenwich demo released as the single under the group name The Raindrops.
As a result, “What A Guy” hit No. 41 on the Billboard chart. A follow-up, “The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget,” did even better, reaching No. 17.
The Raindrops sound was “girl-group” in style, with Greenwich singing lead with double-tracked harmony parts, and Barry providing bass vocals. Although they also released an album, the Barry/Greenwich excursion into recording as the Raindrops ended by 1965, around the time they became involved with writing songs for Red Bird Records.
The Dixie Cups recorded their No 1 hit, “Chapel of Love,” on the Red Bird record label in 1963.
Red Bird was a record label owned by another songwriting team, Leiber & Stoller, along with George Goldner, a producer. Red Bird recorded hits such as the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” and the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music also had a record label – Dimension – a label that produced girl-group and other hit songs.
As for Brill Building writers moving into recording themselves, Carole King proved to be rising star on that front, later producing a long line of her own hit songs and albums – including the Grammy-winning and best-selling 1971 album, Tapestry.
By 1965-1966, the talents of Brill Building writers and others like them were becoming less important as groups such as the Beatles, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys were setting the tone for other upcoming artists who wrote their own material. For some, the girl-group era ended with The Supremes’ song “You Can’t Hurry Love,” released in the summer of 1966.
Cover of Rich Podolsky’s 2012 book on Don Kirshner & the pop music biz.
Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music, meanwhile, did quite well during the 1960s, making many millions, thanks in part to girl group hits. Between 1959 and 1966, Kirshner’s enterprise published some 500 songs, 400 of which had made the music charts. In April 1966, for example, he had 25 songs on the Billboard charts, including the reigning No. 1 song at the time by the Righteous Brothers, “You’re My Soul and Inspiration.” Kirshner’s songs by then had sold some 150 million recordings. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, meanwhile, who had written some of Kirchner’s hit songs – including the Righteous Brothers No. 1 hit, “You’re My Soul and Inspiration” — had just signed a five-year $1 million contract with Kirshner that April 1966. Since Aldon Music by then had been sold to Columbia Pictures-Screen Gems, and Kirshner named v. p. of publishing and recording, the talents of writers like Mann and Weil would be turned more toward music for television and film. King and Goffin, for example, had a No. 3 hit for the TV group The Monkees with “Pleasant Valley Sunday” in 1967.
Yet for a moment in time, the “Brill Building” methodology of churning out pop girl-group and other hits with teams of songwriters and producers, worked phenomenally well.
The Chiffons girl group of the 1960s shown on a album cover featuring their greatest hits.
The Chiffons were another group of teenage girls who began singing together in high school – in this case at James Monroe High School in The Bronx, New York. Originally formed in 1960 under earlier names, the group then included lead singer Judy Craig, Patricia Bennett, and Barbara Lee. Two years later they added Sylvia Peterson, and by 1963 adopted The Chiffons as their name.
“He’s So Fine”-1963
Their first hit, “He’s So Fine,” went to No.1 on the Billboard chart from March 30 – April 26, 1963. It sold over one million copies and is also known for its signature “doo-lang, doo-lang” refrain. The song was written by Ronald Mack and produced by The Tokens, who in 1961 had the No.1 hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
In 1963-64, The Chiffons would put three other songs on the Top 40 list: “One Fine Day, which rose to No. 5 in the summer of 1963; “A Love So Fine,” which hit No. 40 in October 1963; and “I Have a Boyfriend,” which charted at No. 36 in January 1964.
Cover of CD for “Billboard Top Hits of 1963,” lists three popular “girl group” songs from that year.
“One Fine Day,” was penned by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who had intended the song for Little Eva but decided The Chiffons were a better fit. The song also has a signature piano segment credited to King. The Chiffons would have another Top 10 hit a few years later, in May 1966, with “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” which rose to No. 10.
“One Fine Day”-1963
The year 1963 was among the most important and prolific years for the girl group sound, with hit after hit. Also in 1963, a young female singer from New Jersey, Lesley Gore, had a June No. 1 hit with “It’s My Party.” She followed that with three more Top Ten hits – “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” a No. 5 hit in July; “She’s a Fool,” another No. 5 hit in October; and “You Don’t Own Me,” a January 1964 No. 2 hit. Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” is viewed as one of the era’s more female-assertive tracks and also signaling a new direction. The Angels, also from New Jersey – Phyllis and Barbara Allbut and Peggy Santiglia – had No. 1 hit in August and September of 1963 with “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
“Sally Go Round The Roses”-1963
Also in 1963, The Jaynettes girl group from the Bronx – Ethel Davis, Mary Sue Wells, Yvonne Bushnell and Ada Ray – had the infectious No. 2 hit with “Sally Go Round the Roses” in September/October. This song has a haunting, hypnotic quality for some listeners, due in part to studio production techniques utilizing reverb coupled with a layering of numerous female vocals. The song, a performance favorite of Grace Slick prior to her Jefferson Airplane days, is also said to have been an influence on singer Laura Nyro.
Martha and the Vandellas on a 1964 record sleeve cover. Click on photo to visit their story at this website.
In Detroit, Michigan, meanwhile, Berry Gordy’s Motown music center was churning out girl group hits as well. And one Motown group that broke big in 1963 was Martha & The Vandellas – a threesome consisting of Martha Reeves, Annette Beard, and Rosalind Ashford.
Martha and her ladies scored three big hits in 1963 – “Come and Get These Memories,” a No. 29 hit in the spring; “Heat Wave,” a No. 3 hit in August; and “Quicksand,” a No. 8 hit in December. Martha & The Vandellas would turn out nine more Top 40 hits over the next three years – among them: “Dancing in the Street,” a No 2 hit in 1964; “Nowhere To Run,” a No. 8 hit in 1965; and “Jimmy Mack,” No. 10 in 1967. See “Motown’s Heat Wave” at this website for a separate story covering Martha and the Vandellas and their music. Next: a brief section on girl group difficulties in the record-making process.
“Girl Group Woes”
Rights, Royalties & Recognition
As buoyant and uplifting as girl group music may have been for millions of listeners, behind the scenes, in the production and management of that sound, there was a somewhat less happy scene unfolding. The girls themselves were often treated as pawns in the process. Though, to be sure, the top girl groups experienced elevated stardom and celebrity, traveled the world in some cases, and were certainly not deprived. Still, a number of the girl groups – especially those younger ladies in their teens and early twenties –“…I was fifteen years old. What do I know about conflict of interest and making a recording deal?” – Nona Hendryx / She’s A Rebel became dependent on the producers and the songwriters for their recordings and their careers. And because they were young, they lacked the experience and social skills to advance their concerns.
According to a conversation with Nona Hendryx of The Bluebells, as relayed in Gillian Gaar’s book, She’s A Rebel: “We would record songs, and listed on the [recording] as the writer would be his [the owner/producer’s] eight-month-old grandchild! It was just ridiculous. He owned the recording studio, he owned our contracts, we had his lawyers… I mean, talk about conflict of interest! But I didn’t know anything about conflict of interest. I was fifteen years old. What do I know about conflict of interest, and making a recording contract deal?” Hendryx also explained. “We got ripped off really badly over the years, especially from the Bluebells era… We ended up with nothing but our name – I don’t know who had the brains enough to ask for that at the time, but somehow we ended up with the name so we could work without any limitations. But we lost a lot of the money we were entitled to.”
When the Shirelles discovered in 1964 that their trust fund had evaporated, they went on strike.
Typically, when it came to contracts, the girl groups fared poorly. And because in many cases they were so flattered to be discovered and professionally recorded, and then became so involved in the music scene swirling around them, they didn’t always realize what was happening, or too often, simply trusted what they were told. So when it came to copyrights, publishing recognition, and compensation, the girl groups were often last in line.
In 1963, The Shirelles learned that a trust holding their royalties – money they were supposed to receive from their Scepter Record label on their 21st birthday – did not exist. The money, they were told, had been spent on production, promotion and touring. The Shirelles went on strike and would not record. After a lawsuit and countersuit in the mid-1960s, an agreement was reached, but the damage had been done. The Shirelles believed they were lied to and deceived. In an interview some years later, Shirley Owens of the Shirelles would explain that their manager and record label owner, Florence Greenberg, had put on a “mother routine” which the girls had fallen for completely.
Some of Motown’s Marvelettes in happier times.
In 1967, after Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, the Marvelettes stopped receiving their royalties. Some of the surviving members and families later sued Motown to get their royalties – which they then had to spilt with a New York company that helped them in the litigation.
The Shangri-Las were another short-changed girl group. As Gillian Garr reports in She’s A Rebel: “Despite their hits and frequent tours, the Shagri-Las saw little of the generated profits, which were eaten up in the black hole of management and studio costs.”
The Shangri-Las of the mid-1960s reportedly saw little of the profits generated by their hits.
In the 1980s, the royalties and rights battle began heating up after a former music agent named Chuck Rubin created Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation to provide legal referrals and support for artists seeking back royalties. Rubin, a researcher with skills in digging up old contracts and master tapes, had found that during the ’50s and ’60s many rock artists – male and female alike – were short changed. According to Rubin, “it was the exception to the rule if they were paid.” The Shirelles, Ronettes, and the Vandellas are among the girl groups who have worked with Rubin’s organization in seeking back royalties.
Phil Spector, for one, would be sued by at least three of the girl groups he worked with. The Crystals sued Spector for unpaid royalties, but lost their case, although they did salvage the rights to their group name, enabling them to continue working and use the name in performances. In 1993, Darlene Love sued Spector for back royalties, and a New York Supreme Court jury ruled in her favor in 1997, but because of the statute of limitations in New York State, awarded her $263,500 for royalties going back only to 1987. The Ronettes, who also sued Spector in later years, fared little better, and that case is covered in more detail in the “Be My Baby” story a this website.
Rosalie “Rosie” Hamlin waged a long battle over decades for her royalties.
Girl group members who wrote their own songs sometimes had to fight for years to get their music publishing rights as song authors. Rosalie “Rosie” Hamlin of Rosie and The Originals, who wrote the No. 5 hit “Angel Baby” in 1960 at age 15, was not listed as the song’s author on the record label at the time it was a hit. Hamlin also found in her contract that she was ineligible to collect record royalties for the song because she was not listed as the songwriter. And although Hamlin did manage to obtain the copyright to her music in 1961, there were decades of battles that followed over royalties.
Beyond the royalty wars and legal disadvantages the girl groups faced, there were also other issues, ranging from lack of media notice (female acts were not promoted or covered by the media and music press then as much as male artists, who in the industry’s words were “easier to sell”), to racism and sexism that were then much more prevalent. And due in part to the formula/production-line nature of song-making in those years, managers and producers did not always acknowledge the talents of their charges or treat them with professional respect in the recording process, sometime regarding them as interchangeable parts to be plugged into the pop music machine wherever they were needed.
Still, despite the woes and difficulties girl groups faced in their careers, most were generally happy to have been a part of the process and to have had the professional help that made their careers possible – inadequate, short lived, and poorly compensated as some of those careers surely were.
Sheet music cover for The Toys’ 1965 hit song, “A Lovers Concerto,” Stateside Records.
By 1964-65 the girl group sound was beginning to give way to other popular sounds. With the arrival of the Beatles in 1964, and the “British invasion” of other U.K. artists thereafter, the market began to shift to the newer music. The Beach Boys and the “surf sound” were ascending then as well. Still, there were girl group hits in the mid-and late 1960s. In addition to groups such as Martha & the Vandellas and The Supremes from Motown, who had hits through the mid- and late-1960s, there were other girl groups also reaching the charts.
From Los Angeles, Carol and Terry Fischer and Sally Gordon, 15 and 17 year-olds who comprised The Murmaids, had a No. 3 hit song with “Popsicles and Icicles” in January 1964. The Dixie Cups, three girls from New Orleans – sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin, Joan Marie Johnson – recorded “Chapel of Love” for Red Bird Records in 1963. By early June 1964, the Greenwich/Barry/ Spector song had soared to No. 1, remaining there for three weeks and selling more than a million copies. The Dixie Cups would have three more Top-40 hits in 1964 and 1965.
The Toys, a girl group from Queens, NY, had a major No. 2 hit in October 1965 with “A Lover’s Concerto,” which was based on the melody of Johann Sebastian Bach’s classical piece, “Minuet in G major.” The Toys’ song – whose early lyrics include: “How gentle is the rain / That falls softly on the meadow / Birds high up in the trees / Serenade the flowers with their melodies” – was a million seller in 1965.
Cover of 1995 CD from RPM Records, U.K., “The Shangri-Las: Myrmidons of Melodrama,” which includes 33 of their tracks with annotation.
In some cases, the look and lyrics of the girl groups that did emerge in the mid- and late-1960s, were different than what had gone before, losing a bit of the sweetness and “boy wonderment,” with a few groups adopting more of a tough girl look.
The Ronettes had started a change in look with their hairdos, tight skirts and Cleopatra style make-up. But in 1964, a Queens, New York group named The Shangri-Las took the look and sound in something of a new direction.
The Shangi-Las were a white group, formed in 1963 by two sets of sisters – Mary Weiss (lead singer) and Elizabeth “Betty” Weiss, and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. The girls were still 15-to-17 years of age when their parents signed their contract with George “Shadow” Morton of the Red Bird record label in April 1964. They produced a series of songs that were mini-melodramas covering topics such as lost love, forbidden love (“Leader of the Pack”), teenage angst, and related themes that became quite popular in the U.S. and U.K..
1965: The Shangri-Las, in boots & leather, at radio station WHK, Geauga Lake Park, Cleveland, Ohio. Photo, George Shuba.
“Remember (Walking in the Sand),” was The Shangri-Las’ first big hit, about a girl receiving a letter of rejection from her former love. Released in July 20, 1964, “…Walking in the Sand” shot up the charts quickly, reaching No. 5 by September 26th. In the U.K., the song also charted, reaching No. 14 that fall.
“Remember…Walking in The Sand”-1964
Next, with the help of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich at the Brill Building, Morton produced the Shangri-Las’ follow-up record, “Leader of the Pack,” which hit No.1 in the U.S. on November 28, 1964. It also hit No. 1 in Australia and No.11 in England. Although the group toured with other major rock acts and appeared on several TV shows, by 1966 their releases began to falter in the U.S., although they remained popular in England and Japan. They also influenced some 1970s punk rock-era acts such as the New York Dolls and Blondie, and later, the Go-Go’s. “Leader of the Pack” later recharted in the U.K in 1972 at No.3 and again in 1976 at No. 7, giving the Shangri-Las the distinction of being the only American vocal group to ever hit the upper reaches of the British Charts three times.
The Supremes in 1965: from left, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard
One girl group that emerged out of Detroit’s Motown music scene in the mid-1960s just as the Beatles and British invasion were coming on — and would go toe-to-toe with those groups on the music charts – was The Supremes.
In the late 1950s, the teenage threesome of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard had formed their singing group while living in Detroit’s Brewster housing project. Initially they used another name during their high school years, but by January 1961, after signing with Berry Gordy’s Motown they changed their name at Gordy’s suggestion. They became “The Supremes,” a name credited to Florence Ballard. However, their first recordings at Motown – in fact, more than nine in a row – fell flat and went nowhere.
The Supremes’ first No. 1 hit, “Where Did Our Love Go,” sold more than 2 million copies.
But then came “Where Did Our Love Go” in the summer of 1964 – a tune that had been rejected by the Marvelettes. But when that song went to No. 1 and sold over 2 million copies, The Supremes were on their way. It was quickly followed that same year by two more No. 1 hits: “Baby Love” in October and “Come See About Me” in December.
More top hits kept coming for the Supremes in 1965, 1966 and 1967. In fact between 1964 and 1967, the Supremes compiled one of the best all-time female recording track records in popular music history: releasing fifteen singles, all of which, except for one, made the Top Ten. In addition, ten of these songs were No. 1 hits. The Supremes’ success brought television exposure beyond what the other girl groups had received, as they appeared not only on teen shows such a Shindig and Hullabaloo, but also The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. “Unlike other so-called girl groups,” observed The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll in 2001, “the Supremes had a mature, glamorous demeanor that appealed equally to teens and adults. Beautiful, musically versatile, and unique, the original Supremes were America’s sweethearts, setting standards and records that no group has yet equaled.” They also became important symbols of black success, and as The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia noted, “they were often seen at Democratic political fundraisers, for President Lyndon Johnson, among others…”
Album featuring The Supremes singing their hit songs composed by Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland team.
The Supremes, and all of Motown had the benefit of a talented three-person team of writers/produces known as “Holland-Dozier- Holland,” or “H-D-H” – a team consisting of the two brothers, Brian and Edward Holland and Lamont Dozier. During their tenure at Motown, from 1962-1967, Dozier and Brian Holland were the composers and producers, while Eddie Holland wrote the lyrics and arranged the vocals.
“Come See About Me”-1964
H-D-H produced ten of The Supremes’ No. 1 singles, including: “Baby Love”, “Stop! In the Name of Love”, ”You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and the 1964 hit sampled above, “Come See About Me.”
The Supremes were nurtured by Gordy’s Motown organization, and like other groups there, they were put through the “Motown finishing school” receiving professional guidance in dance, etiquette, and fashion. However, some of the other Motown groups charged that the Supremes were given special attention by Berry Gordy, given the best songs, and helped along with more spending. And as was later learned, Gordy and Diana Ross had become involved in the mid-1960s.
The Supremes performing "My World Is Empty Without You" on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1966: Diana Ross (right), Mary Wilson (center), Florence Ballard (left).
By August 1967, The Supremes were renamed “Diana Ross and The Supremes.” A few months earlier, Cindy Birdsong, a perfomer with another girl group from Philadelpia, Patti LaBelle and The Blue Belles, had replaced Florence Ballard, who had left The Supremes in April 1967. The new group continued to turn out hits, producing 19 Top 40 hits through 1977 – two of which were No. 1 one hits: “Love Child” in October 1968 and “Someday We’ll Be Together” in November 1969.
The Supremes — and Diana Ross later on her own — went on to separate careers, continuing to record and release songs beyond the 1970s, with reunion tours and some personnel changes in later years. Yet in terms of the classic 1960s’ girl group sound, The Supremes are often put in their own separate category, considered not typical of the teenage girl groups of that era, but rather, representing a somewhat more sophisticated and polished sound, with songs covering somewhat more adult themes. Still, the market reach of The Supremes for both teen and adult listeners was huge and stretched over several decades.
Other Girl Groups. Among groups and solo female artists not mentioned in this article that are sometimes included in girl group listings are: The Ad Libs, The Caravelles, Claudine Clark, Dee Dee Sharp, The Jelly Beans, The Pixies Three, Reparata and the Delrons, The Starlets, Mary Wells, and The Velvelettes. And beyond these, of course, there were hundreds of other girl groups that recorded during the 1960s, but for whatever reasons, did not achieve major notice.
The Crystals girl group of the early 1960s shown on the cover of a London Records EP recording.
Girl Group Legacy
The girl groups of the 1960s occupy something of unique niche in the history of rock `n roll music. They were singing groups that typically did not write their own songs nor play the musical instruments that powered those songs. Nor was the girl group sound a long-lasting genre. In fact, with the exception of The Supremes, it was a pretty compressed period; one that some historians mark as coming between Elvis Presley’s induction into the U.S. Army in 1958 and the Beatles’ rise in early 1964.
But that demarcation may be too simplistic, as “girl group music” of one form or another, as shown above, persisted well through the 1960s. And although the rise of the Beatles and the British invasion were factors, there was also something else: the way popular music began to be produced around that time. Groups such as the Beatles – but also extending to folk, surf, and solo female artists who began their rise in the mid-and late1960s – were artists who wrote and performed their own songs. That was an important change in the means of production, as it fundamentally altered and outdated the Brill Building and Motown methodologies – the “assemblers” who had previously brought all the moving parts of pop song-making together. Girl group music also leaned on a formula of similar and repeating types of sound, song titles, and lyrics which could only be sustained for a few years before listeners yearned for something new. Still, the girl group sound made its mark and had its impacts. In some ways the era marked a unique coming together of voices, producers and writers – a once-in-a-great-while crossing of paths and talents that briefly produced some beautiful and lasting music.
The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” was a No. 1 hit for 4 weeks, June 1965.
As for the audience of that era, the verdict was clear and unequivocal: it was simply good music. The Boomer kids, growing up with the girl group sound, voted for it overwhelmingly with their dollars, sending the pop music business to a place it had never been before. And beyond those crazy kids, even a few serious music critics years later would extend their kudos.
Greil Marcus, writing in 1992 for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, then enthusing over some memorable moments from the girl group oeuvre, mentioned, among others: “…the piano on ‘One Fine Day’…the unbelievably sexual syncopation of the Shirelles’ ‘Tonight’s The Night’; the pile-driving force of ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’; the good smile of the Crystals’ ‘He’s Sure The Boy I Love’ – a smile that stretched all across America in 1963.” Marcus also added in his commentary:
…It was utopian stuff – a utopia of love between a boy and a girl, a utopia of feeling, of sentiment, of desire most of all. That the crassest conditions the recording industry has been able to contrive led to emotionally rich music is a good chapter in a thesis on Art and Capitalism, but it happened. That utopian spirit has stayed with those who partook of it – the formal style of girl-group rock has passed, but the aesthetic is there to hear in Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Book of Love, Bette Miller….
And later, as historians dissecting the girl group era would acknowledge, there was something there worth saving. In the Library of Congress cultural preservation program, girl group songs are among those listed on the National Recording Registry, including, so far, The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” There will, no doubt, be others to come. More common kudos for girl group music comes in other forms, too – the use of their songs by other artists being a prominent one. A number of girl groups songs have been covered by other artists, some of which have become hits themselves, but usually in most cases, bringing the music to new listeners.
Cover photo of the Beatles on their March 1995 EP that included The Shirelles’ song, “Baby It’s You.”
Cover Versions. The Beatles, for one, have covered several of the girl group songs. Early on, The Beatles used the Shirelles’ song “Baby It’s You” as part of their stage act from 1961 until 1963. They also recorded the song in February 1963 for their first album, Please Please Me. A live Beatles’ version of “Baby It’s You” was later issued as a part of a four-song EP in 1995 that rose into the Top Ten in both the US and UK. Another Shirelles song, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” was given a boost by a 1967 cover version by The Mamas & the Papas with Michelle Phillips on lead. This version went to No. 2 in both the US and UK.
Mamas & Papas-Cover Version
The group Smith in 1969 and The Carpenters in 1970-71 also released versions of The Shirelles’ song ”Baby It’s You.” More than 20 other artists have also recorded the song. Similarly, The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” has been recorded by a long line of artists – from The Chiffons in 1963 and song co-author Carole King on her 1971 Tapestry album, to Amy Winehouse who recorded a slowed-down, jazzy version for the 2004 film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
Record jacket for the April 1967 Beach Boys single, “Then I Kissed Her,” a cover of a Crystals song.
Some of The Crystals’ songs have also been widely covered. In 1965, the Beach Boys recorded “And Then He Kissed Me” with the re-worded title “Then I Kissed Her,” and included the song on their Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) album. Al Jardine sang lead on the song. Two years later, in April 1967, the Beach Boys released the song as a single in the UK where it charted at No. 4.
Singing duo Sonny & Cher also covered “And Then He Kissed Me,” issued on a French four-song EP in 1965.
And Bruce Springsteen covered the song in some of his live performances in 1975 under the title, “Then She Kissed Me.” He also used the same song in more recent years, opening a concert with it in August 2008 in St. Louis, and performing it by request in Sunrise, Florida during a September 2009 encore performance.
Linda Ronstadt’s “Heat Wave,” 1975.
“(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” the 1963 hit song by Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas, has some interesting cover history as well. Linda Ronstadt had a No. 5 hit with the song in November 1975, and Phil Collins released a single version of “Heat Wave” in September 2010.
The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian revealed in 2007 how he sped up the three-chord intro from “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” to come up with the intro for the Spoonful’s 1965 hit, “Do You Believe in Magic.” And in recent years, the song has been used by at least five contestants on American Idol.
Many other 1960s’ girl group songs have similar histories of cover-version recordings; only a sampling has been offered here.
The 1996 film, “One Fine Day,” used The Chiffons’s popular 1963 song of that name in the film score.
Film & TV Music. The 1960s girl group songs have also been used extensively in TV and film productions. The Shirelles “Soldier Boy” was used in the 1979 film The Wanderers as well as the 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July. The Ronettes “Be My Baby” was used in the opening segments of films such as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets of 1973 and Dirty Dancing of 1987. It was also used in episodes of TV’s Moonlighting show in 1987 and The Wonder Years in 1990, as well as an entertaining Levis’ jeans TV ad in 1989. The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” was used in the 1990 film Goodfellas and also during the opening credits of the 1987 film comedy Adventures in Babysitting, when Elisabeth Shue dances to and lip-syncs the song. It is also said that this Crystals song song inspired a famous front-page headline, “And Then He Kissed Her” which ran in London’s The Sun newspaper on July 30, 1981, the day after Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married.
Martha & the Vandellas’ song “Heat Wave” was sung by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1992 film Sister Act, and also featured in Backdraft of 1991 and More American Graffiti of 1979. “A Lover’s Concerto” by The Toys was used in the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, and “One Fine Day” by the Chiffons was used in the 1996 film by that name starring Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney. The Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You” is part of the soundtrack for the 1995 Hugh Grant-Julianne Moore film Nine Months, and the soundtrack for the 1999 film A Walk on the Moon featured a remake of the Jaynetts song, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses.” And this is only a partial list.
Gillian Gaar’s “She’s A Rebel,” 1992.
Girl Group Books. Among books that cover or include 1960s’girl groups as a subject are, for example: Alan Betrock’s 1982 book, Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound; Gillian Gaar’s 1992 book, She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll; John Clemente’s 2000 book, Girl Groups: Fabulous Females That Rocked the World; and Jacqueline Warwick’s 2007 book, Girl Groups, Girl Culture. Laurie Stras, a senior lecturer in music at the University of Southampton in the U.K. has edited a 2011 anthology that explores 1960s girl singers and girl groups in the U.S. and the U.K. – She’s So Fine: Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class in 1960s Music. Academic and trade journal articles have also delved into various aspects of the 1960s girl-group era, a few of which are listed below in “Sources.”
Girl group members themselves have taken up the pen to tell their own stories of their years in the music business, some of them turbulent tales. Among these books have been, for example: Mary Wilson’s 1986 book, Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme, written with Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard; Ronnie Spector’s 1990 book, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette; Martha Reeves 1994 autobiography with Mark Bego, Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Pop Diva; and Darlene Love’s 1998 autobiography, My Name Is Love.
Peter Benjaminson’s book, “The Lost Supreme,” about Florence Ballard.
Added to these are girl group books written by outside authors, such as: Marc Taylor’s 2004 book, The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group; J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2007 biography, Diana Ross; and Peter Benjaminson’s 2008 book, The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard. There have also been several books written about Phil Spector’s life and work, among them, Mark Ribowsky’s 1989 book, He’s a Rebel: The Truth About Phil Spector – Rock and Roll’s Legendary Madman, and Mick Brown’s 2007 book, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector. In 2005, Ken Emerson wrote a book about the Brill Building scene – Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. Former Brill Building songwriter and singer Carole King has written a 2012 memoir titled, A Natural Woman. A number of books have also covered Motown’s history, including Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, and Peter Benjaminson’s 2012 book, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.
Broadhurst Theatre playbill for the 2011 play, “Baby It’s You.”
Stage & Screen. On Broadway and in Hollywood, girl group stories have been told, and more are in development. Perhaps the most famous of the stage productions so far has been Dreamgirls, a 1981 Broadway musical based in part on the rise of performers such as The Supremes, The Shirelles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and others. In the play, a young female singing trio from Chicago named “The Dreams” become music superstars. The musical was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards and won six. Dreamgirls was also made into a successful Hollywood film in 2006, starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Danny Glover, and others. The film won three Golden Globes and two Oscars.
In April 2011, Baby It’s You!, another musical with girl group roots, debuted on Broadway. This production featured the music of The Shirelles and offered the story of their manager, Florence Greenberg and her Scepter Records, the recording label Greenberg started when she signed The Shirelles. This production ran for 148 performances, opening at the Broadhurst Theater in April 2011 and closing that year in September.
Years earlier, in 1985, a Broadway show titled Leader of the Pack, dedicated to songs co-written by Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and based on her life, also ran on Broadway where it was nominated for a Best Musical Tony.
2013 playbill from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for the Broadway show, “Motown The Musical.”
Another Brill Building writer, Carol King, will be celebrated in a Broadway production scheduled to open in 2014 titled, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Sony/ATV Music Publishing is involved in the production and the musical score will include songs by Carole King and Gerry Goffin as well as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. And most recently on Broadway, opening in April 2013, has been Motown: The Musical,” which celebrates the musical legacy of Berry Gordy and the Motown music catalog, including Motown’s girl groups.
So the 1960s’ girl-group beat lives on – in various forms and venues – staying alive for the future. But for some who lived through that time and actually experienced the music making in those years, there’s no substitute for the real thing. LaLa Brooks who sang lead on several of The Crystals big hits in the 1960s, gave an October 2011 interview with Mindy Peterman of the Morton Report during which she reminisced about working in the studio with Phil Spector and the parade of live musicians and singers who came together back then to produce the songs. Similar scenes were common at Motown and the Brill Building. That era is gone now, and those recording sessions can never be repeated, but Brooks is sure that the sound they made back then was special and unique, and she was glad to have been a part of it:
“…I remember there were so many people in the studio. That was fascinating. Just to sit outside the studio in the seating area before I put on the vocals and seeing all the musicians just playing live, which they don’t do today. I think that was an experience. So many of the young artists now, they’re using all kinds of computers and some kind of technology. They lose that gift that I had in the studio with Phil [Spector] with all the musicians at one time playing.”
Still, the sound from that time – the music, the voices, the beat – much of it has been captured, etched, recorded, and digitized for all time. The legacy is there for the listening. And as more distance is put between that time and those songs, it does appear that the era, and the music made then, will stand out in a good way. And however accidental, serendipitous, and/or opportunistic that music making may have been, the “girl group sound” remains a gift for the ages.
For other stories at this website on the history of popular music please visit the Annals of Music category page or go to the Home Page for additional story choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
“Martha and the Vandellas/Martha Reeves,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 613-614.
“The Toys,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 1,000-1,001.
Mark Ribowsky’s 2007 book on Phil Spector.
Katy June-Friesen, “The Real Dreamgirls: How Girl Groups Changed American Music,” Smithsonian.com, February 1, 2007.
“The Shangri-Las,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, p. 876.
“The Supremes/Diana Ross & the Supremes,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 960-963.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Sound of the Sixties,” Time, Friday, May 21, 1965.
Richard Williams, “Sweet Nothings; The Lyrics Are All about Boyfriends, the Melodies Only a Few Bars Long. Why Are the 1960s Girl Groups Still So Enchanting?,” The Guardian, Friday, January 20, 2006.
Laurie Stras (ed), University of Southampton, UK, She’s So Fine: Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class in 1960s Music, Ashgate, September 2011, 284 pp.
The Ronettes at the top of their game, circa 1964-65, from left: Nedra Talley and sisters, Estelle & Ronnie Bennett.
One of the defining rock ‘n roll songs of the 1960s – a song notable for its role in advancing a new sound that changed pop music – is the Ronettes’ 1963 blockbuster, “Be My Baby.” It was sung by three young girls from New York’s Spanish Harlem who came be known as the Ronettes – sisters Estelle and Ronnie Bennett, and their cousin, Nedra Talley. More on the ladies in a moment.
In 2006, the U.S. Library of Congress chose the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to be added to the National Recording Registry. The song is also ranked at No. 22 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” published in 2004. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys – no slouch when it came to composing ground-breaking 1960s’ music of his own – has called “Be My Baby” one of the greatest pop records ever made and is his “all-time favorite song.” Wilson was in his car when he first heard the tune on the radio, and being the composer and arranger that he was, stopped the car to give the song a closer listen. “I had to pull off the road,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. The choruses blew me away…” Wilson, in fact, wrote a famous Beach Boys song, “Don’t Worry Baby,” initially as a follow-up intended for the Ronettes, but it was turned down for that purpose.
Music Player “Be My Baby” – 1963
“Be My Baby,” in any case, was a musical production tour de force circa 1963, and it became part of a game-changing new sound then sweeping through pop music. The song, in addition to the Ronettes’ vocals, had some storied talent in its making. It was co-written by one of those well-regarded 1960s’ writing teams who worked at New York city’s famed Brill Building music center – Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Another co-author of the song was studio wunderkind Phil Spector, who most notably produced the song’s lush instrumentation. Spector had also signed the Ronettes to his Philles record label earlier that year. More on Spector in a moment.
"Be My Baby", 45 rpm version, on Philles record label, 1963.
Released as a single in August 1963, the song gradually rose on the U.S. music charts, hitting No.2 on the Billboard pop chart by October, and also No. 4 on the U.S. R & B chart, and No. 4 in the U.K. “Be My Baby” sold millions of copies, both in the 1960s and since then, having been used in the opening segments of films such as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets of 1973 and Dirty Dancing of 1987. In 2009-10, a cover version of the song was being used in a Cialis TV drug ad, but that version of “Be My Baby” should not be confused with the original, which for many 1960s’ listeners, there can be no substitute.
“Be My Baby” is also part of the American soundtrack that marks a time in U.S. history when the nation was both optimistic and a bit more innocent than it is today; a time right before the murder of a young and promising president, John F. Kennedy, who was shot dead in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963.
But “Be My Baby” is also a story about the people who made the music; a story about the lives and careers of those involved with the Ronettes during the 1963-66 period and beyond. A few intense and difficult relationships followed, along with the demise of the Ronettes’ group, ill health for one member, a prominent divorce for another, and a protracted legal battle over royalties and licensing rights. What follows here is some of that history and group biography. First, the good times.
The Ronettes as young Bronx school girls, from left – Nedra Talley, Ronnie & Estelle Bennett, circa 1961-62.
Ronnie Bennett and her sister Estelle, along with cousin Nedra Talley, began singing together as teenagers in Washington Heights, New York. They were all influenced at an early age by family members, many of whom were involved with or aspired to music and/or show business. Ronnie, who would become the group’s lead singer, remembers getting the music bug at a very early age: “My mom had seven brothers, and six sisters, and they all had, you know, show business… And they were playing Sam Cooke, and I’m like four years old [and saying], ‘I wanna do that’. So my uncles made me a spotlight from the Maxwell House coffee [can]. The first audience was my family: my girl cousins, boy cousins and my mom’s brothers and sisters. When I heard that applause, I got chills and I knew that was what I wanted to do…”
Early Ronettes shown here in a promotion with New York disc jockey, Murray the K, 1960s.
Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra began singing together as they listened to all kinds of music at home — from Frankie Lymon and Little Anthony and the Imperials, to Rosemary Clooney. Their grandmother would put the three of them in a room and encourage them to harmonize. In 1959, their mother, Beatrice, entered them in talent show at the Apollo Theater which they won as “The Darling Sisters.” Ronnie was then 16, Estelle 17, and Nedra 13. Not long thereafter they started appearing at local hops and charity shows. By 1961 they were being featured in a dancing and singing act a New York’s Peppermint Lounge during the “twist” dance-craze. They also performed with Clay Cole’s “Twist-A-Rama” shows and toured with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, whose song “Peppermint Twist” was then popular. New York city’s famous disc jockey of that era, “Murray the K,” had also discovered them, and had them appear in his “rock ‘n roll revues” held at the Brooklyn Fox Theater.
The Ronettes, early 1960s, from left: Ronnie Bennett, Nedra Talley, and Estelle Bennett.
The girls soon developed their own style and their own distinctive look. To begin with, all three were of mixed-race decent; all young beauties. Ronnie and Estelle were the children of a white father and a mother of African-American and Cherokee descent. Nedra Talley was black, Indian and Puerto Rican. They also developed their own dress style, part for their dance and performing lounge act, and part personal statement. They each had “big hair” as it was called – tall, black beehive hairdos – and they used a Cleopatra-style dark eye makeup. Their dresses and skirts were tight with slits up the sides, a near Oriental look. They projected, in part, a “bad girl” look, fashioned from the girls they saw on the street, though they themselves were kept off the street. But at school sometimes, they were bullied for their mixed-race looks. By 1961-62, they had cut a few unsuccessful records with the Colpix record label, then known as “Ronnie and the Relatives” before changing to “The Ronettes.” Around this time, a hot popular song titled, “He’s a Rebel,” by another girl group named The Crystals, was at the top of the charts. That song was produced by a 19 year-old recording studio whiz named Phil Spector who also owned a new record label named Philles.
Phil Spector in L.A.’s Gold Star studio control room; Larry Levine at controls of 12-channel mixer, early 1960s. Ray Avery/Redferns.
Phil Spector, who once sang and played guitar with a late-1950s’ group called the Teddy Bears (had the No. 1 hit in 1958, “To Know Him is To Love Him”), found his true calling as a record producer, a talent that would make him a millionaire by the time he was 21. Spector had caught the Ronettes’ singing act when they appeared at one of the Brooklyn Fox Theater shows. He liked what he saw and heard in that show and filed it away. He had noticed that even though these girls had no songs on the radio or popular records for sale in the stores, they still generated enthusiastic applause. Later, Estelle Bennett got the idea of calling Spector, thinking that maybe the guy who fashioned a No. 1 hit for the Crystals could do the same for the Ronettes. Calling from home after she and Ronnie had been talking in their bedroom, Estelle got through to Spector himself and he agreed to meet with them. Spector had remembered their act from the Brooklyn Fox. He became especially taken with Ronnie Bennett’s voice, and she later recalled that he had been searching for a certain kind of sound:
“When he first heard my voice, I remember he came to one audition to see if I sounded as great as he thought I did, and he saw us at this little club… [W]hen he came to a rehearsal, and I sang one of Frankie Lymon’s songs, he knocked the bench over from the piano and said, ‘That’s the voice I’ve been looking for.’… I’ll never forget that. And that’s just before they went in and wrote ‘Be My Baby.’”
The Ronettes at work in the studio, early 1960s, from left: Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra.
At first, Phil Spector wanted to sign only Ronnie Bennett. Beatrice Bennett, however, insisted it was a package deal – all three or none at all. So in early 1963, the Ronettes became part of Phil Spector’s Philles Records, signing their contract in March that year. When they started to work with Spector, the girls first served as background singers for others acts, including: Darlene Love with Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, Little Eva, Del Shannon, Bobby Rydell, Joey Dee, and others. But soon the Ronettes got some of Phil Spector’s undivided attention.
Wall of Sound
The Ronettes with Phil Spector in L.A. recording studio, 1963.
In the summer of 1963, Spector and the Ronettes would begin work on “Be My Baby” and other songs. Spector’s Philles label had already been recording on the West Coast at the Gold Star studios in Los Angeles by this time. Spector was then in the process of crafting a distinctive sound which had already been used on some earlier recordings. This sound would become notable in all of his work – both in his “girl-group”songs and later work he did with artists such as the Righteous Brothers and Tina Turner. The sound – sometimes described as the “Spector sound” – was unmistakable. It was big and full with lots of brass and drums; a sound that would seem to surge from the speakers. It became known as “the wall of sound;” a sound that had not been heard in popular recording to that point.
The Ronettes -- Estelle, Ronnie & Nedra -- with Phil Spector in L.A. recording studio, 1963.
Spector combined multiple pianos, guitars, saxaphones, and horns with studio mixing and over-dubbing. The typical line-up of musicians and instruments in an early 1960s’ Spector session, according to one account, included “a drummer, two bass players, three or four keyboard players, four guitarists, three or four reeds, two trumpets, two trombones and any number of people who could help out on per- cussion.” Spector’s instrumentation filled all the space in a song without killing the vocals, while incorporating a good driving beat. The result of this orchestration and studio wizardry often had a clear demarcation in the song, producing an almost “wall-of-music”-like effect. Spector once described his productions as “Wagnerian” and also called them “little symphonies for the kids.” New York Times writer Glenn Collins, years later, would acknowledge Spector’s successful technique, describing it as “overdubbing squadrons of guitars, pianos and percussion instruments in a wave of hormone- thrilling noise.” And indeed it was. Ask any aging baby boomer who grew up in that period. Rock music, in any case, would never be the same after Spector; it would no longer be the thin-sounding guitar and drum-based music of the 1950s. Spector changed things, and his technique lifted the quality of rock and roll, making it more complex and more musical.
Phil Spector and Ronnie Bennett working on Ronettes music in L.A. recording studio, 1963.
Spector had a talented group of musicians working with him in the studio – though they were not necessarily well known at the time. These musicians included, for example, Hal Blaine on drums, Leon Russell on piano, Glen Campbell on guitar, and a half-dozen others, all highly regarded. On some productions, Spector would also use any number of background singers, including Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn Sarkisian, before they became famous as the “Sonny & Cher” duo. Spector’s first work with the Ronettes resulted in a song titled, “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love.” But this song was put on the shelf for a time while they tried to come up with something Spector felt was more marketable.
The Ronettes with Phil Spector in L.A. studio, 1963.
By July 1963 the studio work began on “Be My Baby.” Spector wanted to make the recording a showcase for Ronnie Bennett’s voice, but he also developed some stunning musical accompaniment in production, using a variety of instruments. The drum beat is particularly prominent at the opening, and is key throughout, but there are also castanets and maracas mixed in, giving the song an exotic and calypso effect. Strings are included near the end, and in fact, “Be My Baby” was one of the first times Phil Spector used a full orchestra string treatment at the Gold Star studio. And of course, also notable on “Be My Baby” were Ronnie Bennett’s vocals, and her “woh-oh-ohs” that became trademark for this song, and in variation, for other songs that followed. One later listener of Phil Spector’s productions, and an awe-struck discoverer of Ronnie Bennet’s voice, was Michael Enright, who later became a Time magazine correspondent, offering this description of Ronnie Bennett’s voice:
“…Ronnie had a weird natural vibrato – almost a tremolo, really – that modulated her little-girl timbre into something that penetrated the Wall of Sound like a nail gun. It is an uncanny instrument. Sitting on a ragged couch in my railroad flat, I could hear her through all the arguments on the street, the car alarms, the sirens. She floated above the sound of New York while also being a part of it – …stomping her foot on the sidewalk and insisting on being heard.”
Ronnie Bennett, 1967 photo.
Not least among the influences in the making of “Be My Baby,” however, was the chemistry then going on between Spector and Ronnie Bennett. Spector, then already married, had fallen for Ronnie Bennett’s voice from the start, but he soon fell for the whole person as well. “Their courtship provided the raw material and the emotional spark behind many of the Ronettes’ recordings,” according to music writer David Hinckley. Ronnie herself would later say the same thing; that their personal relationship inspired Phil in his writing and arrangement of the Ronettes’ early songs, and especially “Be My Baby.”
In the studio, however, Phil Spector was a hard-charging, no-nonsense producer, putting his singers and musicians through the wringer at times. One report has it that he made the musicians on “Be My Baby” do many dozens of takes before he was satisfied with the result. “According to legend,” says one account, “42 run-throughs took place over the course of four hours before Spector gave [studio engineer Larry] Levine the go-ahead to roll tape on ‘Be My Baby’…,” adding however, that this was “fairly conventional for a man who used the studio as an instrument in itself.” Ronnie Bennett and Spector had spent several weeks in New York rehearsing the song prior to Ronnie’s flying out to L.A.’s Gold Star studio. She was the solo Ronette in the “Be My Baby” vocals session. “Be My Baby” would become a worldwide hit… It would sell more than two million copies in 1963 alone. It then took about three days to record her performance to Spector’s satisfaction. “We didn’t have to work hard to get Ronnie’s performance,” explained studio engineer Larry Levine to writer Richard Buskin in a 2007 Sound on Sound magazine article, “but we had to work hard to satisfy Phil. He’d spend an inordinate amount of time working on each section and playing it back before moving on to the next one, and that was very hard for the singers.” Levine would also add: “I always commiserated [with the singers] because Phil didn’t pay too much attention to them. He treated them as if they were another instrument. I mean, they weren’t ill-treated, they were just ignored.” However, the hard studio work on “Be My Baby” paid off. The July 1963 edition of Billboard music magazine reviewing the song called the Ronettes a top singing group “who handle this dramatic material with flair,” adding that the song’s backing “has a stunning, rolling rock sound that’s bound to make the disc score with the kids.” Indeed it did. “Be My Baby” became a worldwide hit, reaching No. 2 on the U.S. pop chart and No.4 on the R&B chart by mid-October 1963, and No. 4 on the U.K. charts the following month. It would sell over two million copies in 1963 alone. The Ronettes were on their way and were soon being sought out in hot demand to sing and make personal appearances.
Caravan of Stars
Program booklet, Dick Clark’s "Caravan of Stars," 1963.
That November the Ronettes briefly joined Dick Clark of American Bandstand and his “Caravan of Stars” traveling show. Clark was well known as the host of the nationally televised American Bandstand dance show by then, which he had begun hosting regionally from Philadelphia in 1956. But he also began in 1959, a traveling road show of early rock ‘n roll that went to various regions of the country. The music stars of the day piled into a bus with Clark as they moved from one venue to the next. This was in the days before the big rock concerts and stadium productions, and the performers did make much money – maybe $500-$600 a week, or $1,200 to a headliner. Ronnie Bennett would later recall the Ronettes’ travels with Clark on the bus:
“…What people don’t know is that when Dick Clark wasn’t doing American Bandstand, he was on a little dinky bus along with all the other acts, whether it was Little Eva or Frankie Avalon or Bobby Rydell, and it was so much fun. I love Dick Clark – when we went on our first tour with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, he only had a little bunk in the front to lay down in, and he would give me or the other two Ronettes the bunk, and he would let us lay down and he would stand next to the bus driver or with his wife. He didn’t demand anything just because he was the great Dick Clark. You could tell that he wanted everybody to make it. He was a man, and he was rich and he had his own TV show every Saturday – but to actually see this man on a bus, with all the groups, and not letting any of the groups go into hotels when they would give the black groups a hard time. I remember going inside diners and getting hamburgers for a lot of the black guys – I never thought about black or white until I traveled on the Dick Clark tours, and I saw people afraid to go into a restaurant because of the color of their skin and what might happen to them if they did.”
Phil Spector’s 1963 Christmas album, featuring his various artists in songs that have become seasonal favorites.
In November 1963, the Ronettes recorded an album of Christmas music in New York with Phil Spector – A Christmas Gift for You. This album featured songs by the Ronettes, Darlene Love, the Crystals, and Bobby Sox & the Blue Jeans – each group shown on the album cover emerging from Christmas gift boxes. In one of those classic moments of bad timing, the album happend to be released at the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which dampened its reception given the grieving national mood. However, in subsequent years, and to this day, several of the Spector-produced and Ronettes-styled rock-n-roll Christmas songs from this album – including, “Sleigh Ride”, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “Frosty the Snowman” – have become Christmas classics and popular seasonal favorites.
The Ronettes' "Baby, I Love You," 1964.
“Baby, I Love You”
By 1964, Phil Spector was now managing the Ronettes as well as producing their songs and selling their records. “Baby, I Love You” — the Ronettes’ second single and the follow-up to “Be My Baby” – had been recorded in late 1963. Also written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector, it featured Ronnie and a contingent of musicians including Leon Russell on piano with backing vocals from Darlene Love, Cher, and others.
Music Player “Baby, I Love You”-1964
Some music critics categorize this song as “industrial strength” wall-of-sound, though still masterful, with Ronnie’s voice floating above the thick instrumentation. Spector used extensive over-dubbing on this recording until he had the equivalent of 20-25 voices to compliment and balance out the dense instrumental tracks. “Baby, I Love You” first charted in late December 1963, peaking at No. 24 on the Billboard chart in January 1964 and No. 11 on the U.K. charts in February.
U.K. tour bill, Ronettes & Rolling Stones, January 1964.
By December 1963 and early 1964, with their two singles in the U.K. Top 20, the Ronettes had become quite popular in the U.K. and they began a tour there. On the tour, the Ronettes were the top of the bill, with the Rolling Stones providing their opening act. They were among the first girl groups to produce anything close to hysteria in British audiences. The U.K. press ran headlines like, “Girls Scream at Stones, Boys for Ronettes.” While in the U.K., they also made a much-noticed appearance on the I-TV pop show, Ready, Steady, Go! On the tour, the Ronettes traveled with Rolling Stones in a van as they went to various performances in the U.K. “I remember times when the fog was so thick, we’d have to pull over,” Ronnie would later report. “Keith [Richards] and I would walk up to some stranger’s house to ask for a cup of tea!” Ronnie, in later interviews, would further elaborate on some of their travels:
U.K. poster bill for Ronettes, Rolling Stones & others, January 1964.
“…We were headliners over in London, and … the Rolling Stones, they were our opening act… So that’s how we met them actually. And we all traveled together. They were great guys. And I loved Keith. He loved me. My sister was usually with Mick … and Nedra was with Brian, you know. But we all were together… Like, having dinner together and eating. There was not a lot of sex and all that kind of stuff going on with us. I think that came later on with the [Stones'] groupies and all that. But with us, there was none of that… unfortunately (laughs). My mother toured with us everywhere, so I didn’t get really a chance to do anything, but I didn’t want to then…”
Back in the States, as well, the Ronettes always traveled with at least one family member. According to one report, when they were playing a two-week date in Wildwood, New Jersey, they were asked to stay over an additional week. And when that suggestion became a more forcible proposition, one of the Ronettes’ aunts, along as chaperone, called back home to a contingent of several burley uncles to come to the rescue and get the girls home.
1960s photo of Ronettes & Beatles who appear to be, from left: John Lennon, Estelle Bennett, George Harrison & Nedra Talley.
But during their trip to the U.K, the Ronettes were also introduced to The Beatles, and had spent some personal time with them during the tour. There was at least one night of dancing with John, George and Ringo, as Ronnie later recalled, noting that Paul McCartney was then involved with Jane Asher. Estelle and George Harrison had paired off in the dancing, as Ronnie rememberd that evening, while she spent some time with John Lennon. The Ronettes, in fact, having befriended the Beatles on their first tour of Britain, were on hand February 8, 1964 to welcome the Beatles in New York as they arrived for their first U.S. visit and their Ed Sullivan Show appearance. As for the Rolling Stones, on a subsequent visit they made to New York in the 1960s, Ronnie’s mother would end up cooking for them at her home.
More Hit Songs
1964 Ronettes’ singles, “Be My Baby” and “Do I Love You” on the Phil Spector Int’l label, 7" Belgium issue.
In April 1964, the Ronettes and Phil Spector, released another single — “The Best Part of Breaking Up.” It rose to No. 39 on the U.S. charts and to No. 43 in the U.K. However, with the next recording, Spector returned to the more high-powered sound he had fashioned in the first two Ronettes’ hits.
Music Player “Do I Love You”-1964
In the summer of 1964, “Do I Love You,” a joint composition by Spector and writers Vinnie Poncia and Pete Androli, was recorded by the Ronettes. The song’s production is especially noted for its powerful introduction. And despite reaching only No. 34 and No. 35, respectively in the U.S. and U.K., “Do I Love You” is regarded by many critics as one of Spector and the Ronettes’ best recordings. The song opens with finger snapping and hand clapping, with Ronnie singing her “oh-oh’s,” backed by a lush chorus and full instrumentation.
A radio-DJ copy of a Ronnie Bennett song on Phil Spector’s label in 1964.
During 1964, Spector was also doing some test-marketing of Ronnie Bennett as a solo act – using the name “Veronica” and issuing two singles of her music on the “Phil Spector” record label. One of the songs was a cover of an earlier ballad, “I’m So Young,” and the other, a Jeff Barry / Ellie Greenwich / Phil Spector song titled, “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love.” Each of these was also backed by the other two Ronettes. A sample DJ-only copy of the latter song appears at left. However, these songs were only on the market very briefly, pulled back almost immediately after release. Spector, meanwhile, was also getting some attention in the media, as one article by writer Tom Wolfe in 1964 described him as “the first tycoon of teen.” Spector by this time was already a millionaire.
A London-label EP with four Ronettes’ songs, including “Walking in the Rain.”
“…In The Rain”
In November 1964, Spector and the Ronettes released their fifth single, a dramatic ballad titled, “Walking in the Rain.” This song was written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Phil Spector, with Ronnie’s vocals done in one studio take. The song opens with the sound of a recorded thunder storm and continues with the sound of rain throughout, an effect that was unique for its time.
Music Player “Walking in the Rain”-1964
“Walking in the Rain” rose to No. 23 on the Billboard pop charts and later won a Grammy for its innovative use of the ‘rain’ sound effects. Ronnie would also mark this song as a personal favorite. “It was my favorite,” she said in a 2009 interview, “because it was the first song that I sang in a slow [way] … so people could really hear my voice.” In another interview, she also stated “it was a more mature emotional recording than my previous records. I really felt I was developing as an artist after recording it, plus I did the vocal in just one take.”
Ronettes' album of 1964 featuring mostly their hit singles.
In 1964, an album of the Ronettes songs, mostly incorporating their singles to date, was released under the title, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica. This was still the era when the 45 rpm single was the dominant form of pop music marketing rather than the album. This Ronettes album, however, charted at No. 96 on the Billboard album chart, not an exceptional showing. The album, in some ways, marked the end of what some have called the “golden period” for Spector and the Ronettes – running for about 16 months between September 1963 through December 1964 — when the Ronettes placed five singles in the Top 40. By this time as well, the British invasion was coming into full force – in fact, through most of 1964 – as the Beatles and other U.K. artists began capturing the pop charts with a new sound.
The young Ronettes -- minus the beehive hairdos -- performing sometime in the 1960s.
In 1965, the Ronettes continued to record and tour, also making some appearances on television, including a CBS special and also on the NBC pop music show, Hullabaloo, April 27, 1965. However by this time, Phil Spector was also working with other artists. The 1965 song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” produced and co-written by Spector for The Righteous Brothers, became a big No. 1 hit. And by early 1966, he was also working with Tina Turner. That year Spector produced the Ike & Tina Turner song “River Deep-Mountain High,” which he regarded as one of his best productions. The Ronettes by this time were being moved more or less to the back burner by Spector, with some of their productions, such as “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine,” held back from release.
Ronnie Bennett and Phil Spector, meanwhile, were pretty much a couple by this time. Spector was also still the manager of the Ronettes. However, in 1966, he began to control the career of his wife-to-be by limiting her outings and performances. During the summer of 1966, on the Beatles’s last U.S. tour during the month of August, the Beatles had specifically requested the Ronettes as their opening act. But Spector would not allow Ronnie to go on the tour, and replaced her with one of her cousins.
“I Can Hear Music,” by the Ronettes, September 1966, their last single on the Philles label, which was then shut down.
Back in the studio, Jeff Barry produced the last Ronettes single for the Philles label, “I Can Hear Music,” released in September 1966. There were also reports that Spector had vacillated about how much to promote the Ronettes, having released some earlier Ronettes-recorded songs such as “Chapel of Love” to other groups (Dixie Cups, No. 1), and not putting as much marketing muscle behind the Ronettes’ songs “Walking in the Rain,” “Is This What I Get For Loving You?”(1965, No. 75) and “I Can Hear Music”(No. 100), each of which charted higher as cover versions for other 1960s’ artists. In 1966, Spector also recorded two Ronettes songs co-written by Harry Nilsson, “Paradise” and “Here I Sit,” but sat on the tapes for decades. And by September 1966, Spector had suffered a major disappointment when Tina Turner’s “River Deep-Mountain High” – a produc- tion he regarded as one of his best – fared poorly on the U.S. music charts at No. 88, though rising to No. 3 in the U.K. That’s about when the Philles label was formally shut down and the Ronettes would disband. Also in the mid-60s, Nedra Talley married New York radio station programming director Scott Ross, while Estelle Bennett married road manager Joe Dong.
Ronnie & Phil
Ronnie Spector as she appeared on the covers of some 1971 Apple label recordings.
In 1968, Phil Spector left his wife to marry Ronnie Bennett. The two lived together in Spector’s 23-room Los Angeles mansion. During the marriage, Ronnie would complain that Phil was neglecting her career, as she had ambitions for a solo act. She noted in a later interview: “…I was naïve and vulnerable. I was a girl from Spanish Harlem – he thought he could take advantage, and he did. And I was vulnerable, ’cause I loved to sing…” She would say to him, “you know I love singing, so why aren’t I doing shows?” And he would respond, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll have another hit.” This kind of thing went on for years, according to Ronnie.
During their marriage years, however, there would be two singles produced featuring Ronnie. In 1969, “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” was released as a Ronettes song, “featuring the voice of Veronica.” In 1971, “Try Some, Buy Some,” another single by Ronnie Spector, was released on the Apple record label. Phil Spector had begun working with the Beatles in London in 1969, helping produce their Let It Be album, but it appears at least some of the Beatles played a role in helping Ronnie get “Try Some Buy Some.” In 1971, Beatle George Harrison wrote and co-produced this song with Phil Spector for Ronnie on the Apple label. The song also has the distinction of having all four Beatles playing on the track.
Back in the States, meanwhile, Phil Spector’s behavior toward Ronnie in their marriage grew increasingly erratic and controlling. Ronnie wanted to continue her singing, but Spector refused to book recording sessions for her. Beyond that, he wouldn’t allow her to leave the house without his permission. He became psychologically abusive, allegedly threatening to kill her, monitoring her phone calls, and forbidding her to read books or see friends. In the marriage, Phil Spector’s behavior toward Ronnie grew increasingly erratic and controlling. Spector reportedly carried a gun on occasion during this time as well. The couple separated in 1973 and divorced in 1974. However, Ronnie had developed a serious drinking problem that interfered with her attempts to relaunch her career. Still, through the 1970s – using Ronnie Spector as her recording name – she did some occasional solo recording, tried reforming a Ronettes group with two new singers for a time, and did some backup-singing for Bruce Springsteen. In 1977 she recorded a cover version of a Billy Joel song, “Say Goodbye To Hollywood.” In 1980, a solo album Siren was produced and she also cut some tracks with the E-Street Band, including “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (see image, later below). In 1986 she had a No. 4 hit duet with Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight,” in which she incorporated the chorus line from 1963′s “Be My Baby.” She and Money also had an MTV music video for the song, and they performed it on American Bandstand and at the American Music Awards. In 1987, another solo album, Unfinished Business, was issued. But neither it nor her earlier album, Siren, had charted.
“Dirty Dancing’s” soundtrack album, with “Be My Baby,” spent 18 weeks at #1on the Billboard charts; sold 42 million copies.
In 1986 a very popular film named Dirty Dancing starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey had come out using 1960s’ music in its soundtrack. The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” was featured in the film’s opening and the song enjoyed some renewed market life as a result. In fact, the Dirty Dancing album spent 18 weeks at No.1 on the Billboard album chart, sold 42 million copies worldwide, and became one of the best-selling albums of all time. But none of the money from these sales came to the Ronettes. This and other developments – including use of Ronettes’ songs on numerous 1960s compilation albums, videocassettes, films, TV shows, and advertising – raised issues about the Ronettes’ song rights, licensing fees, and past royalties never paid. In 1987, the Ronettes filed a lawsuit against Phil Spector over these issues, but the case bogged down in red tape and legal maneuvering for nearly a decade before coming to trial. More on this case in a moment.
Hardback edition of Ronnie Spector’s 1990 book, “Be My Baby,” Harmony Books.
In September 1990, Ronnie Spector published a book about her life as a Ronette and her marriage with Phil Spector. It was written with Vince Waldron and titled, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness. Cher wrote a forward to the book and Billy Joel did the introduction. The book drew praise from a number of reviewers and it became a modest best-seller. “An insider’s look at the madness and glamour of an explosive period in rock…,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly. Jon Wilde of London’s Blitz Magazine called it “One of the three greatest rock ‘n roll memoirs…” Some critics compared it to Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme and Tina Turner’s I, Tina – books that also told stories of singers overcoming adversity.
Alan Light for Rolling Stone described Ronnie Spector’s book as “an entertaining, often disturbing autobiography…” And the San Francisco Chronicle described it as “an unflinching look at a dream that turned into a nightmare.” A subsequent paperback edition followed, and more than a decade later, Onyx Books republished the book in a revised and updated version released in 2004.
Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne, who had occasion to read the book some years later in 2007 wrote: “…I couldn’t put the book down…. Ronnie was an absolute prisoner in her own mansion, surrounded by staff. She had nothing to do all day but drink, and drink she did. Phil had lost interest in her career. He told her not to talk to the servants…. Ronnie and Phil’s marriage was one of day-to-day madness, from which she ultimately escaped in bare feet. She ran down the hill to Sunset Boulevard and caught a taxi out of his life forever.” Ronnie, years after her flight from Phil, eventually remarried and had two sons with new husband, Jonathan Greenfield, living with their family in Connecticut. But the old battles with Phil Spector continued to wend their way through the courts.
Ronnie & The Clintons 1997
In June 1997, Ronnie Spector was one on several artists – including Chuck Berry, Lyle Lovett, Michael Bolton, and Eartha Kitt – who performed at the G-8 Summit, the gathering of leaders from the world’s eight most powerful nations then being held in Denver, Colorado. “And after the show was over,” Ronnie later explained to Chuck Miller at GoldMine magazine, “the Secret Service came up to me, and I hear the guy on the speaker phone saying, ‘The President would like to see Ronnie Spector, please.’ And so you hear my name all over the place, saying, ‘The President would like to see Ronnie Spector.’” Shortly thereafter, Ronnie was escorted to the President’s chambers, where Bill and Hillary Clinton greeted her, a visit which she imparted as follows:
In 1997, Ronnie Spector autographed a copy of an early Ronettes’ 1960s Colpix album for President Bill Clinton at his request. (Actual signed album may vary from the version shown).
So when I walked in there, he just opened his arms and gave me the biggest grin and he started singing ‘Be My Baby’ to me. And it was so amazing… I don’t care what anybody says, I love President Clinton so much, he was the nicest guy I ever met. That’s why I hated that thing with Monica Lewinsky….”
“But with me, he was so nice, he hugged me and he was so happy. And he was a little flirtatious, but in a nice way. Nothing at all dirty or sexual, he was so nice. Later on, I did a show in front of the Washington Monument, and he sent his security guards over to give me a copy of one of my albums, for me to sign for the President. It was the most amazing thing. And after I signed it, when I got home, I had a letter from him. And I have it framed in my living room, saying ‘Thanks Ronnie, I love your voice, I love your records, thanks, Bill Clinton.’ With the President’s seal and stuff. And the album I autographed for him was the Colpix album – the one before I did before ‘Be My Baby.’ Which was so weird to me – I thought I was the only one that bought that album.”
By 1998, the Ronettes’ now decade-old lawsuit against Phil Spector – legally titled, Greenfield v. Philles Records, Inc. – had made its way to trial in New York. The Ronettes’ had sued Spector for unpaid royalties since 1964, and for unpaid income made from his licensing of Ronettes’ music in movies, television, advertising, compilation albums, reissues, and other uses. The Ronettes were seeking $10 million in damages for breach of contract as well as former and future earnings from their original recordings.
Cover of 1991 “Phil Spector: Back to Mono” CD boxed set of four discs from ABKCO, which included seven of the Ronettes’ songs.
The Ronettes charged that they had received only one royalty payment from Spector in 1964, for $14,482.30. And beginning in the 1970s, portions of the Ronettes’ songs began showing up in movies, TV shows, and TV advertising. Among these uses, for example, were films such as Mean Streets (October 1973) and Dirty Dancing (August 1987);episodes of the 1980s TV show Moonlighting; and TV ads for American Express, Levis, and other companies. Phil Spector, as holder of the legal rights to Ronettes’ songs under his original 1963 contract with them, could arrange for and license such uses at will. And he did so regularly, in all of the cases mentioned above and more, making millions in the process. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Spector was reportedly taking in more than $1 million a year in licensing fees from his Ronettes’ and other songs. The Ronettes, in their lawsuit, claimed Spector wasn’t authorized by the 1963 contract to use their music in these various venues.
As the trial proceeded in June of 1998, each side presented its arguments. “Phil Spector was a boy genius in music, producing, assembling, marketing girl groups,” said the Ronettes’ attorney, Alexander Peltz, “but he was also a genius in greed, vengeance and spite.” “He’s totally cheated us for 35 years.” - Nedra Talley Ross on Phil
Spector, 1998. Peltz said the Ronettes’ efforts to recoup earnings from Spector had been fruitless. Spector, for his part, said the Ronettes owed him money for production costs. Taking the stand at the trial, Spector said that the cost of recording the 28 songs made by the Ronettes far exceeded his income, and the group actually owed him money. “Philles Records is still owed a considerable amount of money by the Ronettes,” he contended. The Ronettes, of course, saw this quite differently. ”He’s totally cheated us for 35 years,” said former Ronette, Nedra Talley Ross at the time of the trial, then 52 years old and owner of restaurant and an importing business in Virginia.
In court, Spector’s attorney, Andrew Bart, also stated that Ronnie Spector had signed away her portion of the group’s earnings in her 1974 divorce settlement. Ronnie Spector had indeed signed the 1974 divorce settlement that included a clause forfeiting all future record profits. However, in her court appearance she said the settlement with Spector was made under duress. Phil Spector, she explained, held her as a virtual prisoner when they lived together at his estate. Ronnie stated in court that she feared for her life, explaining that Phil had threatened her with guns and hit men. He would confiscate her shoes to keep her from leaving the estate. In fact, she had fled Spector’s estate barefoot around the time of her divorce “so as not to arouse Phil’s suspicions.” She also stated in court that she was “fearful for my life,” explaining that Phil Spector had threatened her with guns and hit men. He once threatened to have her killed unless she gave up custody of their children. “‘I’m going to kill you,’” Ronnie said, quoting her ex-husband on a telephone call he made to her. “‘I’m going to have a hit man kill you if you don’t drop all these charges.’” When the two were married, they had adopted three boys – an infant son and two six-year-old twins. But in the divorce, Ronnie gave up the children. Phil Spector, for his part, denied that he kept his wife as an involuntary prisoner and he rejected the hit man allegations, saying ”I’ve heard them over the last 20 years.” And as for back royalties due the Ronettes, Spector said he would concede to owing, at most, $350,000 in unpaid royalties.
In June 2000, the court’s ruling came down from Justice Paula Omansky of State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Omansky, while noting that Spector’s contributions to the Ronettes’ success could not be underestimated, for he was the composer of their songs and creator of the sound that made their recordings famous. The Ronettes’ lawsuit also sought ownership of the 28 master recordings of the songs they made with Spector in the 1960s. Still, she found that Spector had underpaid the Ronettes based on his 1963 contract with them. She also found that Spector, as the rights holder of all Ronettes recordings, had made millions of dollars from them in ways not authorized by the 1963 contract. She said the contract covered only royalties on sales of phonograph records, but that Spector had sold the recordings for use as background music in movies and advertising, and had licensed without authority the group’s master recordings to third parties — for “oldies” compilations, video- cassette recordings, and the like. The Ronettes’ lawsuit also sought ownership of the master recordings of the 28 songs they made with Spector from 1963 to 1967. But Judge Omansky denied this request, writing in her decision that “rescinding the 1963 recording contract and taking ownership of the masters away from Spector is not warranted.” She did rule that the Ronettes were entitled to $2.6 million in royalties plus interest.
Although Ronnie Spector recorded songs in her solo career, she noted during the1998 royalties trial that Phil Spector’s restrictions on her performing Ronettes’ songs had hurt her career.
After the ruling, Ronnie Spector commented she was generally pleased. “I worked very, very hard making those records in the ’60s,” she said. “I just didn’t know I’d have to wait 37 years to get paid for my efforts.” Still, she felt the damage done to her career by Phil Spector’s control over the song rights and restrictions on her had been substantial, including not being able to perform her songs on TV. Phil Spector, meanwhile, appealed the court’s ruling.
The case by this time had attracted outside interest – with the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group, joining Spector’s side and urging the court to uphold his ownership claim in the 1963 contract as absolute. Joining the Ronettes in a friend of the court brief was the Recording Artists Coalition, a nonprofit group formed to help artists gain their legal rights. In November 2001, Spector’s appeal was denied, as the court upheld the lower court’s verdict and the $2.6 million award. Spector then appealed that ruling as well, taking the case to the New York State Supreme Court. This time, Phil Spector won.
In October 2002, a five-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals said it found the Ronettes’ plight sympathetic – i.e., earning less than $15,000 from their 1960s’ songs that topped the charts and made them famous. Still, these judges found the 1963 contract with Spector to be the governing authority giving him unconditional rights to the recordings, including future uses of those rights for whatever purpose. In the end, Phil Spector won. The 1963 contract he made with three young teenage girls prevailed, giving him full control over all rights and future uses of the Ronettes’ songs. ”[T]he unconditional transfer of ownership rights to a work of art includes the right to use the work in any manner…,” said the ruling, “unless those rights are specifically limited by the terms of the contract.” This is what the Ronettes had given Phil Spector and Philles Inc. when they were teenagers back in 1963. It didn’t matter, for example, that the subsequent and various uses of music in film, advertising, video, etc. weren’t common in the 1960s, or even known about or invented in some cases. Since nothing was said in the contract about such “future rights and uses,” and lacking some stipulation that the Ronettes should receive a specified share of those rights, the Ronettes received, and will continue to receive, nothing from those uses. Phil Spector got those as well. On top of this, the judges in this final appeal also reversed the lower court’s ruling that the Ronettes were entitled to the music industry’s standard 50 percent royalty rate on sales of records, tapes, and compact discs. Again, the court reverted to the 1963 contract and the specified royalty rate of an average of 3 to 4 percent. Thus, the $3 million award first given the Ronettes from the lower court was substantially reduced. After lawyers’ fees, each of the Ronettes took home something around $100,000, and perhaps a bit more.
Hall of Fame
The Ronettes performing in the mid-1960s, from left: Estelle, Ronnie, and Nedra.
Another outgrowth of the split between Phil and Ronnie Spector, in addition to the battle over royalties and song rights, was Phil Spector’s alleged blocking of the Ronettes from entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. First established in the mid-1980s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducts a small number of artists and other influential music industry players into the Hall each year. The first group was inducted in January 1986 and included Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Currently, groups or individuals are qualified for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Phil Spector, for his music production talents, was inducted in 1989, and he also became a member of the Board of Governors. However, Spector was reported to have deliberately prevented The Ronettes and Darlene Love from being nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Both Love and the Ronettes had been eligible for nomination for a considerable period. And both Love and the Ronettes had sued Spector for back pay and royalties.
In any case, Phil Spector soon had much bigger problems. In 2003 he was arrested for the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson at his California estate, leading to a second degree murder charge. After a 2007 mistrial, he was convicted in 2009, and was given a prison sentence of 19 years to life, which he is currently serving.
The Ronettes, meanwhile, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, 2007 at the 22nd annual induction dinner. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was their presenter. Among those present at the ceremony was Nedra Talley Ross’ mother, Susan, who was one of those family members who had worked hard for the Ronettes in their early days, banging on doors to help get the group noticed.
In February 2009, Estelle Bennett was found dead in her apartment. She reportedly died from colon cancer. She was 67 years old. Bennett was found by Kevin Dilworth, a friend and former Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper reporter. “I think she really just died of a broken heart,” said Dilworth in one interview following her death. “After [the Ronettes] disbanded in 1966, I don’t think she was ever right again…” Dillworth added that the only time he really saw her come to life was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of March 2007: “When they came out of the main ceremony… when she walked down the hallway, and the paparazzi … all the flashing cameras, and the people asking for autographs … her eyes just lit up. She was so excited, and she was back on top of the world again. But she went right back to anonymity.” Former Ronette and cousin Nedra Talley Ross, reported that Estelle had led a hard life, struggling with schizophrenia and anorexia.
Estelle Bennett in happier times, 1963 L.A. studio.
Estelle was the quieter of the two Bennett sisters, Ronnie being more the extrovert. When they were in school, Estelle did her homework and kept up with her grades. Ronnie chose to focus on her singing. Estelle was also quite into fashion in her younger days, always reading Glamour, Vogue, or some other fashion magazines. Estelle was valedictorian at her George Washington High School graduation in Manhattan. She eventually studied at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. But Estelle also loved her role in The Ronettes and the success the group enjoyed in the 1960s. During those years, Estelle also had her share of male suitors. As cousin Nedra Talley Ross recalled: “She was not pretentious at all, but she carried herself with a sophistication that a lot of guys thought was really sexy. And she had a very, very good heart.” Among those Estelle had dated were Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Johnny Mathis, and George Hamilton.
But when the success of the Ronettes came to an end, Estelle took it hard. Her cousin, Nedra said that “Estelle did not want the Ronettes to end.” After the group broke up in 1966, and after Ronnie married Phil Spector 1968, Estelle seemed to lose her moorings. In the mid-1960s, Estelle had married as well, to road manager Joe Dong. And she tried a bit of a solo career for a time, but it never took off. Thereafter she left music and her life began sliding into another world. At one point, Estelle Bennett was hospitalized with anorexia. Not long thereafter her grip on reality began to loosen considerably. In recent years, according to her 37 year-old daughter, Toyin Hunter, Estelle sometimes wandered the streets of New York, telling people she would be performing with the Ronettes at a particular nightclub. Hunter explained she had never really known who her mother was. “From the time I was born she suffered with mental illness,” Hunter said, “I never really got to know Estelle in a good mental state.”
The young Ronettes in the 1960s – from left, Ronnie, Estelle & Nedra.
During the legal fight with Spector, fellow 1960s singer Darlene Love was called as a witness, and one day at court she saw Estelle. “She didn’t remember me,” Love said. Estelle Bennett had been homeless for a time as well. Love also recalled seeing Estelle at the Ronettes Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2007. “They cleaned her up and made her look as well as possible…She looked the best she could for somebody who lived on the street. It broke my heart.” But all agreed that in her prime and growing up, Estelle had been a force in creating the Ronettes’ style and act – and that she had a heart of gold. “Not a bad bone in her body,” said her sister Ronnie in a press statement. “Just kindness.”
“Estelle had such an extraordinary life,” said her cousin, Nedra. “To have the fame, and all that she had at an early age, and for it all to come to an end abruptly. Not everybody can let that go and then go on with life.”
The Ronettes’ Legacy
“Best of the Ronettes” CD issued on the ABKCO label, September 1992.
The Ronettes’ music lives on to this day as part of the special sound that came out of the early 1960s’ music scene. It was a productive time for new music of all kinds then, and the Spector-Ronettes sound still resonates today, being discovered by new generations of listeners and revered as well by any number of musicians and producers who acknowledge its influence. “I was a big Phil Spector fan when I was in high school,” said singer Bob Seeger in a 2007 interview. “I was a junior in high school in 1962, so it was “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes,” he said. “All those Spector [songs] with the big drums and the big productions. I love the way Ronnie sang too. ” Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen have both cited the Ronettes and Ronnie Bennett as an influence.
Ronettes’ songs have been covered by numerous groups. “Be My Baby” alone has been covered by at least a dozen or more artists, including Andy Kim, who had a 1970 chart hit with it. The song has also been covered by: John Lennon, The Lightning Seeds, the Bay City Rollers, Blue Öyster Cult, We Are Scientists, Psyched Up Janis, Maroon 5, Glasvegas, Ivy, Linda Ronstadt, Whigfield, Ultima Thule, Jason Donovan, Travis and Remi Nicole. The song’s opening drum beat has also been appropriated by a number of artists. “Baby, I Love You” has been covered by Cher, The Ramones, Linda Ronstadt, Nicky Onidis and Bad Boys Blue, among others. In 1969, an Andy Kim cover of this song became a Top Ten Billboard hit and earned gold record status. In 1973 in the U.K., Dave Edmunds released a version that rose to No. 8 on the U.K. singles chart. And Phil Spector produced a 1980 Ramones’ version which also rose to No. 8 on the U.K. charts. “Baby I Love You” is also on the soundtrack of the 1995 Hugh Grant-Julianne Moore film Nine Months.
Of the three Ronettes, only Ronnie continued to perform after the group broke up in the 1960s. And there is more detail on Ronnie’s career at her website and elsewhere on the web, as well as her biography mentioned above, available through Amazon.com below and other outlets on the web.