It's Time To Recognize The Ronettes As Rock And Roll Pioneers

Mar 12, 2018
Originally published on March 12, 2018 10:00 am

On Sept. 28, 1963, The Ronettes performed on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. In the video, the curtain parts to reveal the three singers dressed in identical long-sleeved pencil dresses, their hair partially swept up in the same half-bouffant that would become part of their signature style. They sway their hips and arms awkwardly to the opening bars of "Be My Baby," and then Ronnie Spector, standing on the left, opens her mouth. When the camera zooms in, we see her embellishing the lyrics with gestures as she sings them: She points to an unseen audience member on the line "so proud of me" and cocks her head with a quick Monroe-esque pout on "turn their heads."

The micro-movements in the performance — swaying hips, lightly moving hands — were typical of the kind of directions 1960s girl groups received from their mostly male managers and producers, stemming from the polished synchrony of doo-wop singers. On the surface, The Ronettes look like teen girls who have been coached to move in unison and smile for the cameras — part of the reason The Ronettes are often classified as a quintessential pop group.

But classifying The Ronettes' sound as pop leans too heavily on the contents of the lyrics they sang (which they didn't write) and the instrumental layer behind their voices (which they didn't produce). If we focused instead on the way The Ronettes' vocal and visual choices moved the band away from the pristine expectations of tone and clarity (to say nothing of obedience) that characterize '60s pop girl groups, we could see them laying out a sneaky version of rock and roll disguised as pop. Through the way the group constructed its sound and look, The Ronettes embodied proto-rock transgressions, as their heavy eyeliner, poufed hair and natural New York accents all hint at. The lines between sonic genres are often more permeable than listeners allow, especially as rock was forming, and The Ronettes exposed and maneuvered those malleable boundaries.

The group's debut album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, was released in 1964, when Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett, her sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley were all in their teens. Their only studio album, Presenting... collected singles from the previous year, including "Be My Baby." Five of its twelve tracks had made it to the U.S. Billboard charts: "Be My Baby" (#2), "Walking in the Rain" (#23), "Baby I Love You" (#24), "Do I Love You?" (#34) and "(The Best Part Of) Breakin' Up" (#39). In addition to producing the album, Phil Spector wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs.

Their musical transgression centers on Ronnie Spector's voice, which prefigures the more free, less restrained style that (male) rock vocals would take up in the next couple of years — gravel rather than velvet, and untrained rather than classically molded. Her bombastic ways of singing — from rehearsing in the bathroom to making the sound booth a feminine-only space, to allowing her natural accent to ring true — pushed back against producer Phil Spector's Svengali-like control.

One of Ronnie Spector's most rock and roll vocal choices was all about taking up space. She spent three days recording her vocals for "Be My Baby," and her shyness as well as her sense of sound quality influenced her preparation: "I'd do all my vocal rehearsals in the studio's ladies room," she says in her memoir, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette (1990), "because I loved the sound I got in there. People talk about how great the echo chamber was in Gold Star, but they never heard the sound in the ladies room."

By finding refuge in the bathroom, she managed to carve out her own space and her own creative process in one of the most famous and demanding recording studios in the world at the time. Men (including Phil Spector and sound engineer Larry Levine) told Ronnie when to stop and start, and controlled the way the music, the beats and the depth of the sound interacted with her voice. But the architecture and quality of her sound, and the way her body and breath worked to produce it, were hers alone. This space, as Spector describes it, contained only her; men, the supposed arbiters of the developing rock and roll sound, explicitly weren't allowed in. The rootedness of rock in phallic guitars and loud, bulky drums ignores the way in which feminism itself — asserting a right to one's own body and voice despite the impositions of powerful men — is in line with rock's ethos of autonomy.

The way The Ronettes constructed their image against the grain of demureness expected of women is part of this rock rebellion, too. Teenage girls in the early 1960s, and especially Black teenage girls, were often expected to be demure and docile. Pop music was meant to signify good behavior, acceptable for family listening around the living room record player. Rock, however — even in its early stages — was sinuous and loud and full of entendre and hidden or suppressed stories. Black artists pioneered the sound and the freedom of rock and roll at the height of American segregation. Despite the rockist focus given to white male artists like Elvis, Buddy Holly and The Beatles, none of them would have existed without Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Little Richard. The Ronettes' bad girl look, with piled hair and heavy eyeliner, pushed aside the demureness of their uniform outfits and synchronized movements and pushed back against these gendered expectations, blurring genre lines and signaling a certain kind of refusal to submit.

In her memoir, Spector recounts how The Ronettes tweaked their appearance almost in real time backstage at Brooklyn's Fox Theater, starting in 1962. "Sitting around for hours on end in our dressing room at the Brooklyn Fox, we had plenty of time to work on our look:" darkening eyeliner, ratting hair, and layering mascara, she explains. The Ronettes also had help from their fans, who signaled buy-in for their visual rebellion; the audience loved it, Spector remembers, and their adoration impacted the look. "The louder they applauded, the more mascara we put on the next time," she writes. "We didn't have a hit record to grab their attention, so we had to make an impression with our style. None of it was planned out; we just took the look we were born with and extended it... Of course, we exaggerated [the look] on stage, because everything on stage has to be bigger than life."

These rock innovations formed the core of why The Ronettes were considered to be one of the "bad girl" girl groups, in stark contrast to groups like The Chiffons and The Shirelles. In Spector's memoir, she admits she didn't shy away from open sex appeal — as opposed to Doris Day's or Judy Garland's demureness. "We weren't afraid to be hot. That was our gimmick," she says. "When we saw The Shirelles walk on stage with their wide party dresses, we went in the opposite direction and squeezed our bodies into the tightest skirts we could find. Then we'd get out on stage and hike them up to show our legs even more." Even as The Ronettes were considered pop, the "bad girl" perception shows how rock elements were being allowed into pop in subtle ways. The "bad girl" image Spector and her bandmates crafted pushed the image of what a teenage girl should look like into powerful, quasi-drag territory.

Much of the critical discourse about the album, and about The Ronettes in general, misses a crucial fact: Spector herself repeatedly refers to the music she made as rock, not as pop or, really, as anything else stereotypically "girly." In her memoir, she marked out the interplay of softness and grit that the Ronettes exemplified:

"["Be My Baby"] is a rock and roll classic...[It] was a tough record, but it had a sweet side to it, just like the Ronettes. It was the kind of song a street kid would like. And a lot of them did. After that record, the Ronettes were bigger than ever with the kids on the street."

Interestingly, her explanation of the transgressive side of The Ronettes' look has an undercurrent of "good girl" values as well: "We may have looked like street girls, but I think the audience could tell that under all that makeup, we were really just three innocent teenagers," she writes. "And I think they liked that combination. The girls loved us because we were different — we followed our own style and didn't care what anybody thought. And the boys liked us for obvious reasons. The Ronettes were what the girls wanted to be, and what the guys dreamed about." They offered a rock sensibility to teens that didn't tread too far past what society expected, marking out a quiet rebellion in a restrictive context, not unlike the one their teenage girl fans navigated.

The masculinized story of control and credit that characterizes the Wall of Sound, and Phil Spector's over-emphasized role in crafting it, has resolutely left out the voices of the women making the most interesting part of the sound. The innovation history tends to remember is on Spector's part, rather than on the part of the singers he worked with; The Ronettes, in particular, had their rock and roll sensibilities railroaded out of their image by the importance placed on Spector's production. Listening to The Ronettes as rock allows us to hear their rebellion and their humanity much more sharply than we hear Phil Spector's influence. (It's still there, of course, but it takes a step back.) In the Bandstand video, Ronnie Spector's voice, with her Spanish Harlem accent, cuts through the layers of drums and jangles of the Wall of Sound arrangement. Her facial expressions add an extra layer of sass. Rather than doing exactly what's expected of her, she's subtly shifting the terms of acceptable, modest femininity, rebelling just like a rock star.

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