The ultimate girl group – outside of Motown — during the ‘60s was the The Ronettes, a trio featuring lead singer Ronnie Spector, her older sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley. During that era, the Spanish Harlem-based singers had nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became Top 40 hits. Among the most well known are the Grammy Award winners, “Walking in the Rain” and “Be My Baby.”
Back in the day, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds opened for Spector and The Ronettes. In 1966, The Beatles invited them to join their last U.S. tour and comedian Richard Pryor opened for The Ronettes’ last live show.
Collaborations with some of the world’s most well-known music makers occurred during the decades that followed. Spector sang on Jimi Hendrix’s “Earth Blues” and released a single, “Try Some, Buy Some” that George Harrison wrote and produced with a backup band that included Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr. She released another single, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” that Billy Joel wrote for her, backed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. “Take Me Home Tonight,” Spector’s 1986 duet with Eddie Money, was nominated for a Grammy Award. In the 2000s, she continued to record and also did a well-received autobiographical one-woman multimedia show in New York City and London.
Spector is still going strong. Prior to taking the stage of the Robert E. Parilla Center for the Performing Arts at Montgomery College-Rockville with current Ronettes — New York-based Zhana Saunders and Philadelphia’s Gnomi Gre — at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2, she answered some questions for CultureSpotMC.com.
Did your family encourage you to perform when you were a child?
My family loved watching me perform; they would put me up on the coffee table when I was 5 years old and I’d perform for them. My aunts, uncles and cousins were my first audience, so in that way, they did encourage me.
Did your mixed heritage influence your singing?
If anything did, it was my neighborhood, lots of different sounds, looks, dancing and music that shaped my fashion and style. Lots of Latin music pouring out of the apartment windows, music was everywhere.
What kind of music did you listen to?
I grew up listening to rock & roll and Doo Wop. In New York City, vocal groups were all over the place — from Little Anthony and the Imperials to Arlene Smith and the Chantals. My inspiration was Frankie Lymon, who lived a few blocks up from me.
My cousin and I would go down to the luncheonette next to City College and we’d dance to Little Richard’s ‘Rip It Up’ on the jukebox, and the college kids got a big kick out of it since we were so young.
My grandma’s Philco radio was where I heard all the rock and roll music, I had my head stuffed into the speaker, and Grandma would yell at me, “Veronica you’re going to go deaf.”
I didn’t go out much to see live music because mom didn’t like us going out, but I did get to the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, and my mom worked next to the Apollo Theatre, and from time to time, we’d go over and watch some of the shows there. I remember waiting for my mom at work and seeing lines around the block for James Brown, and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that is so cool. Maybe one day I can have people coming to see me!’
How did you start off?
Singing in the lobby of my grandmother’s building. It had this really high ceiling and incredible echo. I sang lead and my cousins would sing back-up for me. That’s the first time I could hear myself, and I thought, wow, I could do this!
Did you take lessons or have training in voice or dance?
No, The Ronettes were self-taught, no choreographer or singing coach. We got everything right from the street and took it to the stage.
What are your proudest accomplishments?
With The Ronettes, I guess that our influence is still seen and felt out there, whether it’s the look or style we created, or my vocal style. It’s hard to last in this business, and 58 years after The Ronettes first made a record, people are still paying attention. It’s amazing that we had our first top 40 single in over 50 something years this past January.
I just came back from touring overseas to sold-out shows, so people are still showing up; that’s something I’m really happy about.
As an individual, probably the fact that I came back from an abusive relationship and have been able to overcome obstacles and keep moving forward. Or, when a girl or anyone comes up to me and tells me that my story inspired them, and helped them get out of a bad relationship and move on; that makes me proud.
What have been your favorite collaborations and why?
My version of ‘Hollywood’ backed up by the E Street Band because that helped re-start my career in the ’70s, and my duet with Eddie Money, ‘Take Me Home Tonight,’ because it was a huge hit and video, and brought me back in the ’80s. I absolutely love my recording that I did with Patti Smith, and the song Tim Rice did with me, ‘Farewell to a Sex Symbol’ is also a fave cause it’s so different from anything else I ever recorded.
What is your performance schedule like these days?
We’ve been pretty busy; we wrapped up our Christmas tour on Dec. 23, then went to Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, did a few dates down in Florida to warm-up from all that cold weather in the UK, and now we’re back at the Parilla Center. We are busy keeping rock and roll alive.
What will be on your program at the Parilla Center?
We are doing Ronnie and The Ronettes shows, all the reviews have been incredible, the crowds go crazy. It’s a different show than anyone else does. There is a multimedia component to it, and as I like to say, ‘I’m no better, just different,’ and so is our show!
As part of the Montgomery College’s Guest Artist Series, Ronnie Spector and The Ronettes will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at Robert E. Parilla Center for the Performing Arts, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. Tickets are $55, $50 for faculty and staff, and $45 for students. Call 240-567-5301 or visit http://mcblogs.montgomerycollege.edu/reppac/ronnie-spector.