Ronnie Specter 1961 The Apollo Theater
“Talking Style With Ronnie Spector, the Quintessential ’60s Girl-Group Star VOGUE By Kristin Anderson Ronnie Spector says of her current management, with a wicked laugh: “They know, after three weeks—‘Get her onstage or she’ll go crazy!’ ” Indeed, Spector is an entertainer in the purest, most classic sense of the word; visibly intoxicated by her audience’s affections, and giving every ounce on stages across the world for more than 50 years. When the group stormed Britain in their early days, fans went wild for the three girls from Spanish Harlem, who counted The Rolling Stones among their opening acts. Seeing her perform recently at New York’s City Winery, it was hard not to be struck by both the electricity of her presence and the timelessness of her act. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. She recalls of her Glastonbury set this past summer: “[The crowd] knew every word to ‘Be My Baby,’ and they were, like, eighteen!”
Almost as noteworthy as those pipes, the prolific touring, and hits like “Walking in the Rain”? The Ronettes’ inimitable style. The wiggle dresses, mile-high beehives and inky slashes of Cleopatra liner set the trio instantly apart from their peers like the Shangri-Las and served unmistakably as the foundation for Amy Winehouse’s signature look. But before the late Winehouse was back in black, Spector found a (perhaps unlikely) cachet among punk legends to-be who grew up girl-group-worshipping adolescents, from the Ramones and the Misfits to the New York Dolls’s Johnny Thunders. Spector still looks every bit the part on stage, in head-to-toe black and a mightily teased bouffant. Chalk the longevity up to an unwavering path built on signatures and showmanship. “I slipped through the cracks or something,” she joked on our call recently. “Everyone in showbiz fifty years ago would have never thought they’d still be around today—and most of them aren’t.” Ronnie Spector, though, is not most people.
Here, the singular singer sounds off on the group’s style from their earliest days, her punk admirers, and playing the part of the bad girl. The Ronettes have such a legendary, singular look. I’d love to hear about how that emerged in the early days of the band. You always looked a bit tough, but still feminine.
People would always say, ‘They were beautiful, but they were bad girls!’ That was just an image. Nobody understood: We didn’t have a hit record when the Shirelles and all the other girls had a hit record. We lived in Spanish Harlem, and we’d look out the window; I’d see the Spanish girls, and the Puerto Rican girls, and the black girls, and that was the look I wanted! I wanted to look street and tough, because I wasn’t, and neither were the other Ronettes! [laughing] We had a grandmother who watched us like a hawk. We could go down to the lobby and wait for our parents to pick us up—that was as far as we could go outside! I’d see these girls with their eyeliner and teased hair, and the black girls—the way they walked and held their cigarettes. It was like, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to look like!’ So the three of us went on stage like that, but we were actually very innocent and pure, and had parents who told us what to do and what not to do. It started for me with Frankie Lymon, when I first heard “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and I knew I had to sing. Every day after school, we’d go to my grandmother’s, and because the lobby had an echo, when I was eight years old, I was like, ‘Wow! I can really sing!’ Our parents couldn’t afford to send us to singing school, or dancing school—we never had those luxuries at all. Our first outfits, one of my aunts made [them]. We would tell her what we wanted: slits up the side! Underneath, [though,] we were so innocent and just regular girls. It was really weird that people would call us bad girls—and the name stuck! Early on, when you were just starting out and speaking with record labels, were you ever told to change, or tone down the group’s signature look?
No, we were so young—I think Nedra [Talley] was only 14, I was 17. We sort of developed our own style; we didn’t want to look like the Shirelles or other groups, who had flared dresses on or skirts, so we did the opposite: really tight. Because we didn’t have a hit record then. We did a Murray the K show, [with] Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Shangri-Las. He had like 10 top acts, and we were called Murray the K’s Beautiful Dancing Girls, and we would sing songs like “What’d I Say,” anything to make us dance. And the audience liked us better than all the groups that had hits! [laughing]
When you restarted your career again [in the ’70s, after a hiatus from performing], had your look evolved?
I always kept very basically simple clothing; onstage, I always like one color, two tops. My hair’s a little bigger now, because you have extensions, which you didn’t have in the ’60s, but I still kept a very [similar] look. My hair and my makeup is everything. Then once I put on my heels, whoa! I’m ready for the stage! I still wear the same stuff I would have worn on the streets, except it’s a little animated: The pants are a little flared, the tops have a little shine to them. When I go grocery shopping, I don’t wear my hair big, but it’s still the same style. Everybody recognizes you today, and everybody has the phone [to] take your pictures. [laughing] They don’t ask for your autograph anymore, they ask for your picture. So when I go grocery shopping, I have to put a little blush on, a little lipstick, comb my hair and make a little bouffant. Your cover of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” [by Johnny Thunders] is incredible. In the ’70s, punk rockers started emulating your style [and paying homage musically, too]. What was your reaction? Did you love it right away?
Loved it right away! Joey Ramone—he helped me produce “Memory.” And Johnny Thunders, I actually met him at a gay club, Continental Baths, where I was performing. He was crying throughout my whole show, and I’m saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ So after, I went over and they introduced me to him and he was still crying, [feigns Queens accent] ‘Oh, Ronnie, Ronnie!’ I was out of show business for like, seven years. I hadn’t been on stage, and I didn’t know who anybody was. I was shocked when I came back to New York and Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen—all these people knew me! I started my whole career back through John Lennon, of all people. Are there any artists out there today whose look you admire?
Do you know what I can say I don’t admire? Everybody changes their look. One day they have blonde hair, the next day black hair, red hair. It’s confusing. I stick to my own style. It’s a bit much today, as far as I’m concerned. I would tell every artist, bring it down. Because people won’t remember you if you have your hair one way one month and another the next unless you have huge hit records like Beyoncé or Rihanna. Little girls think they can actually become that, but what they don’t know is they have an army of people with them. I have one little assistant who goes everywhere with me to help me dress—that’s it! I don’t ever look at other girls and say, ‘Oh, I want to look like that.’ No, I want to look like Ronnie. So I do everything I can in my power to make Ronnie look good. ”
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