Ronnie Spector and Christmas music may fit together as well as Miles Davis and jazz or Hank Williams and country music.
Spector performed her first Christmas show 31 years ago in New York City and is still going strong this holiday season. She has already performed five Christmas shows in four states in the past 11 days and has four more upcoming in Texas, New York, and Connecticut.
“I first fell in love with Santa when I was little girl,” Spector tells me. “I loved his outfit and thought it was pretty cool that he had a whole sackful of toys. So I was a Christmas nut since then. I was lucky to have a bunch of Christmas hit records they play on the radio every year, but it's only for that short period of time. So, it's the only time I get to do those songs, which makes it special, and I toss in my other hits, a surprise or two and, boom, it's a party!”
This year’s Christmas party includes Spector playing with the Ronettes for the first time since the 1970s. The legendary ’60s girls group, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, was renowned for the hit songs “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain,” and “Baby I Love You.”
“We did a few warm-up dates over the summer to see how things felt,” Spector says. “It felt natural and then I knew it was the right time for me to do it again.”
The Ronettes today are Zhana Saunders and Gnomi Gre’ — a different duo than in the group’s heyday.
“The original Ronettes were my sister Estelle and my cousin Nedra,” Spector says. “We were a family act and very close.”
Estelle Bennett died from cancer in 2009. Nedra Talley is a Virginia businesswoman who released a solo album in 1978 and sang on Roger McGuinn’s four-CD 2005 release, The Folk Den Project 1995-2005.
So why reform the group with two new Ronettes?
“I perform because I love the stage and pleasing my audience,” Spector explains. “The Ronettes help me have fun out there, and, for me, it has to be fun, or why bother?”
In August, the new Ronettes released a single, “Love Power,” which is billed as a call for unity in a divisive world.
“It's the kind of message the Ronettes should be putting out there today,” Spector says. “We always sang about love.”
It’s a single, because it's easy to release a single, “and records don't really sell today like they once did,” Spector says. “If there is a reason to make an album, if we really have something to say, then we'll do it.”
Spector says the original Ronettes recorded two albums, but albums weren’t the flavor of the day.
“In the early ’60s, it was all about the singles, and it may even be back to that now,” she says. “I am proud that the Ronettes have the No. 1 girl group song of all time, according to Billboard magazine this year, and how all our recordings have held up."
“I never listen to my records, so I don't have an impression of them. I keep performing those songs, so they are like children. They get older and how you relate to them changes a bit. You still love them, but it's not the same relationship it was in 1964. I was in the car the other day listening to Sirius radio, and they played a Ronettes song I hadn't heard on the radio in a while. I thought, wow, that sounds pretty cool! So I guess that made an impression on me.”
Spector undoubtedly made an impression on Billy Joel who, in 1976, wrote "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" as a tribute to her. The following year, she recorded the song backed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and it was issued as a single by Epic Records.
Critics loved Spector’s team-up with Joey Ramone on the 1999 EP She Talks to Rainbows. Ramone produced the album, which included covers of Johnny Thunders and Brian Wilson songs, and duetted with Spector on “Bye Bye Baby.”
What are the legacies of Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes in the history of pop music?
“I don't think I am the person to answer that question,” Spector says. “If Amy Winehouse was alive, she would be a good person to answer that. I hope the answer would be ‘she wasn't better, just different.’ ”
The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 — the same year Patti Smith was inducted. A year earlier, Spector and Smith sang together on “There is an End” — a song on Spector’s first full-length CD in 20 years, The Last of the Rock Stars.
Spector says “it was great” to work with Smith.
“We've known each other since the ’70s, and, back then, Patti would call me up on stage to sing at CBGB,” Spector recalls. “It was really interesting to watch how she got into ‘There is an End.’ We are very similar vocalists but have a totally different approach. I remember how perfect the differences in our approach worked. She definitely made me give a stronger performance and go beyond what I normally would have sung, especially at the end. It made the recording better. We sang the bridge together, but I said, ‘No, Patti sounds amazing, take me out of there.’ Patti had the perfect feel for that song.”
Spector says she likes the album because it's different from all the other records she has made, and her favorite song on the album is probably “Out in the Cold Again.”
“It was a Frankie Lymon song, and he was my idol,” she says.
Frankie Lymon was the 13-year-old lead singer of the 1950s doo-wop group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. He preceded Stevie Wonder as the first black teenage pop star and sang the group’s big hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”
Spector saw Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers perform live in Philadelphia. She says it was the best concert she ever attended, and Lymon was the only performer she saw live who influenced her singing.
“They were so good live on stage — their routines killed me,” she says. “The Vibrations (a Los Angeles-based five-man pop-soul group) were great on stage, too.”
What’s next in the New Year for Ronnie Spector?
“I hope to continue to do what I love — sing rock ’n’ roll.”