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Ronnie Spector and the greatness of the girl groups

Friday 1/14/22

With Ronnie Spector’s death, we have an opportunity to redress a crucial component of rock and soul history, that’s way too often overlooked. Spector, the lead voice of the Ronettes, and the artist responsible for the clarion, connective beauty of 1963’s “Be My Baby,” is inevitably discussed in relation to her ex-husband, Phil Spector, the brilliant producer—and also obvious psychopath—behind that oh-so-formidable Wall of Sound.


Phil Spector’s approach was nothing short of Wagnerian, but in the context of pop. Talk about mixing musical metaphors. The humanity in Ronnie Spector’s voice, though, is what made the number work, with its power to cut through the throbbing din. The din was magical, but only because Ronnie Spector allowed it to be so. She provided the intimacy. That voice reached out and took a warm, reassuring hold of you as you listened.


But we must make sure to understand how important girl groups were to the history of popular music. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, get the credit for that first wave of rock and roll, and then the obvious “heavies” come along—Beatles, Stones, Who, Hendrix, etc. There was a gap of dross at the start of the 1960s, save those girl groups.


The Ronettes were one, and so were the Shirelles—who number as one of the finest American units of all-time—and the Chantels. These groups helped teach the likes of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, and Grateful Dead how to sing harmonies. They had brass and strut, swagger and confidence, and so much in the chops department, singing-wise. They mastered vocal polyphony, and they helped a lot of teenagers find a place of belonging, and I bet, too, a many adults over the decades.


But they’re never talked about as the all-timers, like a Zeppelin, a Who, the bands we’ve just touched on, and they ought to be. I think that’s what I’m taking from Ronnie Spector’s death.

A few years ago, here in Boston’s North End, I remember she was singing at one of the street feasts. I was saddened that she had to take on a gig like that, but maybe she simply loved singing to an audience, and that was one that was handy.


The Beatles were virtually alone among the English bands in openly obsessing about the girl groups. And no, that’s not me “girling” anyone, because these formidable women counted themselves as members of girl groups. The “girl” was all-encompassing. Orson Welles once said that the best art is necessarily feminine, by which he meant, you can save that blustery, false machismo of a Hemingway. Art needs to have a sensitive, welcoming side, and that was the Ronettes. Sensitive and welcoming doesn’t mean weak and less formidable. It means real, and free of artifice. Long on heart.


Take some time and dip into this overlooked vein of rock and roll history. The Beatles figured out who they were, in part, because they listened to the girl groups, and though they were a band of young men, they had plenty of the girl group vibe, too.


You won’t encounter more of that sustaining vibe than in the music Ronettes, and those Ronnie Spector lead vocals. Be their baby, and you’ll find that your appreciation of just how amazing the girl groups were grows up awful fast.