In the great glorious junk shop of pop music, amid the shiny piles of kitsch, there are treasures to be found. If you’re a seeker, maybe you’ve stumbled upon a few that are truly beyond price: pearls so pure they defy explanation, stirring feelings far beyond mere gold-lust. Awe, and gratitude. Jealousy at the thought of another finding them. Anxiety at the thought of handling them too much or too roughly. Maybe even putting these into words feels wrong, like a betrayal.
For me that short list has always included “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes. You know the song, probably. Maybe you know that it was produced by the notorious Phil Spector, who died behind bars last year, and sung by Veronica Bennett, later to become Ronnie Spector, who died just months ago. On paper “Be My Baby” is nothing, a confection: it lasts for not even three minutes, just two forty-one, and boasts all of eight chords which every guitar novice knows, without so much as a bridge. It’s just one among hundreds of interchangeable models that rolled off the Brill Building assembly line in those days, most of them tossed together and pushed out in a matter of hours by songwriting teams hunting for the most direct route to the teenage wallet. The chorus is laughably banal even by those pre-Beatle standards:
(Be my, be my baby) Be my little baby
(My one and only baby) Say you’ll be my darlin’
(Be my, be my baby) Be my baby now
And despite all that I, a grown person, will confess to being moved to tears by “Be My Baby.” In fact, it stands out among songs in reliably moving me to tears, if I’m paying the right kind of attention. To make matters still worse, it’s hard to come up with any work of art, in any medium, that has such a direct and powerful effect as do these two minutes and forty-one seconds. I’m a man of culture, but if we’re talking personal attachment I’m saving Ronnie Spector from the burning building and leaving Bach to roast.
I can’t blame nostalgia, at least not the simple kind, as I was born nearly twenty years too late for the Ronettes. Nor have they played any part in my external life – no first dance, no wedding song, no favorite movie to sprinkle them with the pixie-dust of memory. But nonetheless this little tune has pursued me, since some long-forgotten first exposure in my childhood, saving for itself a sort of holy little alcove in my music library – seldom visited, but unassailable – all through the changing eras from Napster to iTunes to Spotify and beyond.
It wasn’t until I started reading reactions to Ronnie’s passing that I realized I was in good company – even great company. That’s when it occurred to me that coming to terms with these feelings might be a worthwhile thing to do. And that if one were to try to crack the code of “Be My Baby,” one would have to start with the man who has already spent his whole tragic life trying.
You’re Brian Wilson and it’s the Indian summer of 1963, and you’re cruising slow around Los Angeles in your brand-new ‘64 Grand Prix, ultramarine blue, with your girl by your side. You’re 21 years old and moving into your first house and the feeling of being in the right place at the right time is overwhelming.
Like every other bushy bushy blond kid from Santa Cruz to La Jolla, you’re relishing life at the center of the universe as the California Sound takes over the global airwaves. Unlike the rest, you’ve helped to build that sound yourself. The garage band you slapped together with your little brothers, your cousin and your high school buddy cracked the Top Ten for the first time back in January (with “Surfin’ USA”) and hasn’t left the charts since. Never mind that you could take or leave surfin’, personally. The rush of capturing a whole mythos in a bottle, and watching a million teenagers rise up thirsting for more, is all the fulfillment you can dream of at the moment.
You’ve got the radio on, 980 AM as usual, Top 40 with DJ Wink Martindale, and maybe he’s playing your song even: the lapping doo-wop ballad “Surfer Girl” was the first tune you really wrote yourself, in your head, and it’s shot to number 7 which hasn’t hurt your confidence. Then the waves recede and Wink queues up a number by a girl group you don’t recognize. A strong drum intro, boom, boom-boom, BLAM, and a verse comes in over a big, echoing backing track, with a distinctive voice on top: somehow both naive and sultry, with a girl’s kittenish nasality breaking into a woman’s assured vibrato. Lyrics nothing special, If I had the chance I’d never let you go, et cetera, but something about the way she’s singing right to you, and then the nice buildup over seventh chords to the chorus and then – Jesus –
You swerve the Pontiac over to the shoulder, clenching the wheel, gaping out through the windshield as the chorus finishes. “What was that?” you say to no one in particular, to the palm trees. “What was that!? That was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Judy Bowles doesn’t have the answer; she’s only sixteen, after all. So you go home and start figuring it out. You learn about Phil Spector, the phenom producer who’s only a couple years older than you are, who works out of L.A. but cut his teeth in the New York industry. You hear he’s working to perfect a strange new alchemy in the studio, tossing out conventions about capturing voices and instruments in favor of a transcendent, impressionistic effect he’s calling the Wall of Sound. By the end of the month you’re sitting in on a Spector session at Gold Star Studios on Vine Street, watching the maestro coax an impossible roar out of a dingy, crowded room of musicians for hire, feeling light-headed through the whole thing, and realizing that your urge to make music, to find a wrapping for the great formless within and gift it to the world, has thus far only amounted to a pitiful scrabbling at the surface.
Just four months later and you’ve prepared your own tribute to Spector’s masterpiece. “Don’t Worry Baby” opens with an echo of that heartbeat drum hook and launches into essentially the same chord progression, only with your sun-drenched lost-choirboy harmonies over the top. Instead of circling back to the root for the chorus like its predecessor, it shifts unexpectedly up to the key’s second chord, climbing to a higher plane to speak through the voice of the narrator’s girl. The song has a plot of sorts, something about drag racing and machismo, but for the first time its harmonic and rhythmic sophistication makes it obvious that that’s just a candy coating – that you’re after something a lot deeper now than deuce coupes and surfwax, something that in a few more eventful years you’ll come to call “teenage symphonies to God.”
Even the drag-racing stuff doesn’t kick in till the second verse, actually – it’s less of a coating than an afterthought. Instead you decide to start “Don’t Worry Baby” off with this portentous remark:
Well it’s been building up inside of me
For oh I don’t know how long
I don’t know why
But I keep thinking
Something’s bound to go wrong
The record heralds your arrival as a serious maker of music. It also heralds the beginning of a four-year tempest that will see you soar to the greatest heights of artistic reputation – with the Claptons and McCartneys of the world extolling your work as the summit of pop music – and meanwhile plummet to the depths of psychological wretchedness, depths from which you will never fully return. A sobbing breakdown on an airplane in December ‘64; an acid trip in ‘65 that seems to unlock a Pandora’s box of paranoid hallucinations; a promised magnum opus in ‘66 that collapses into the eternally fragmented ravings of a madman – these will become infamous, cautionary signposts in one of the definitive tragic myths of rock.
And through it all you’ll be chased, comforted, taunted, beckoned, and hounded by “Be My Baby.” You’ll pick that record apart in a thousand different ways, “like an adept memorizing the Koran” in the words of one baffled acquaintance, trying to isolate the raw ingredients of that feeling that nearly crashed your car on that first September afternoon. Then when analysis fails you’ll retreat to mysticism. You’ll shuffle around your Bel Air mansion swinging a plastic yellow duck-shaped tape player that plays nothing but that song. You’ll demand from your engineer a recording of nothing but the chorus alone, carefully spliced, on endless loop, then lock yourself in a pitch-black listening room with it for five hours at a stretch. You’ll insist to anyone who listens that that four-note drum lick spells out the secret ur-rhythm borne innately by babies and songbirds.
And you’ll obsess over Phil Spector, your guiding light, until Phil Spector takes a demonic sort of hold on your soul. The notion will start to nag you that visitors to your house might be Phil in disguise, come to judge or admonish you, to steal something precious or reclaim something undeserved. You’ll go to the movies and convince yourself that they’re speaking to you, that Phil’s behind them somehow, seeking to control you subliminally. After all, if he can spin up whole sonic worlds in which you can lose yourself completely, what is beyond such a man?
All the while your friends will come and go, but increasingly the latter. The remaining, still-functioning Beach Boys will keep coming back from tour to find you still here, ever more inward and inscrutable, smoking grass and huffing cans of Redy-Whip and dreaming up new musical ideas that are not just decidedly un-Beachy but maybe unplayable at all in this earthly realm. Sometimes they are playable, and there are triumphant moments in the studio, like that instrumental piece you dedicate to “the fire element.” At the session everyone gets a plastic fire helmet to put on; by the time they leave, they’re all slack-jawed at the brilliance of the music. Later you will learn that a building down the block burned down shortly after the session, and you’ll destroy the tapes, haunted by your own witchcraft.
With the Smile project falling apart, the public is left with the masterful Pet Sounds as your final statement, and its last track, “Caroline, No,” as your elegy for…well, everything left behind:
It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die…
Could I ever find in you again
Things that made me love you so much then?
Could we ever bring ’em back once they have gone?
A sample of a runaway train closes the album.
Somehow, at least physically, you’ll survive all this. Decades later, your creative career a distant memory, you’ll still be convinced that “Be My Baby” was the greatest thing you ever heard. You’ll recall, casually, when asked, that that first encounter with the song blew your mind. Then you’ll catch yourself and get serious. “In a way it wasn’t like having your mind blown. It was like having your mind revamped.”
“I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song,” you’ll go on, wistfully, “and I never did. I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.”
“Be My Baby” did not ruin Brian Wilson. But it’s fair to say that its revelation helped to awaken the savage cross-currents that would tear him apart. We needed him to be, seamlessly, the clean-cut falsetto kid in the candy-striped shirt and the homegrown genius to face off with the British Invasion; the harmonizing family man and the lone visionary at his piano; the eternal innocent to meet us at one end of the decade, and the drug-fueled shaman to see us through to the other. His climactic, doomed project, Smile, was to be somehow both an avant-garde deconstruction of the American experience and a paean to the spiritual power of laughter. The center could not hold; the pressure of trying to hold the entirety of the 1960s within one human frame was too much to bear. The California Sound, along with so many of our myths, stopped making sense about midway through. But those who had invented it were trapped there forever, or, like Brian, fatefully defined by the very act of trying to escape.
If a 21-year-old Californian was predisposed to read cosmic significance into his favorite song, it was in part because “Be My Baby” came into being exquisitely poised at a fulcrum of history. It’s been said way too many times about too many things, but it’s true.
The record entered the charts three days after Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, delivered to the largest demonstration ever seen in America. This was an experience that moved even a jaded James Baldwin to guileless hope: “it almost seemed that we stood on a height,” he said, “and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real.” The kingdom! We would be waiting long to hear that kind of talk again in secular discourse.
Those who distrusted King’s style of heroism could take solace in John Glenn’s more classically American brand, that square-jawed Midwesterner who had just recently penetrated space and helped realize for us a more physical kingdom. For a generation raised on John Wayne it didn’t hurt that he had symbolically whipped the Russians in the process. We responded with an earnestness that is hard to fathom now, as Tom Wolfe foretold:
John Glenn made us whole again! During his ticker-tape parade up Broadway, you have never heard such cheers or seen so many thousands of people crying. Big Irish cops, the classic New York breed, were out in the intersections in front of the world, sobbing, blubbering, boo-hoo-ing, with tears streaming down their faces. John Glenn had protected all of us, cops, too…[he] was the last true national hero America has ever had.
And then, not three months after “Be My Baby,” the President was gunned down in Dallas, a dark curtain fell on the age of innocence, and the nation had to grow up a lot more quickly than it had planned.
So the story goes, anyway. It’s a story that was sufficiently embedded in our collective unconscious, by the eighties, that the movie Dirty Dancing could roll the Ronettes over its opening credits and instantly evoke a lost Eden:
That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.
This monologue, and the ensuing sight of Patrick Swayze deflowering Baby and all of postwar America in the process, would have amused poet Philip Larkin, who wrote with some irony of the real revolutions of that “annus mirabilis”:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
Larkin’s choice of year, however mischievous, was hardly arbitrary. 1963 had a fresh and heady scent that was well-captured by two new books. In February The Feminine Mystique arrived to climb the picket fences and acquaint the nation’s housewives with the “strange stirring” in their bodies and souls. That summer saw the republication of the eighteenth-century porno Fanny Hill, sparking a legal fracas that eventually reached the Supreme Court and marked the “end of obscenity,” in the triumphant words of its defense attorney. Talking about sex was now a thing that one had the right to do, and if some were to be believed, maybe even the duty.
The young, blossoming Baby Boomers, beginning to catch on to their power over the culture, needed little encouragement in that direction. A good figurehead for their surging confidence was supplied by teenaged Welsh showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, who appeared in high court in June to discuss her involvement in a sex scandal that threatened to explode the British Cabinet. Lord Astor had denied having relations with her, she was informed at the stand. Surely the Establishment’s laborious construction of truth still carried some weight. He denied having relations! Mandy only giggled and said, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”
The music industry had long known that, in giving voice to teenaged sexuality, it had a monstrous, unfathomably lucrative tiger by the tail. The Elvis experience had helped them train it somewhat – cut it off at the hips when necessary – but the newer emergence of the “girl groups” had made their quandary excruciatingly acute. As soon as the phenomenon appeared around 1957, at a time when the mere expression of young female agency bore the threatening whiff of sex, the tastemakers set about putting together suitably small and safe containers in which to sell it.
Their first fumbling steps can be seen in the tale of the Harlem Queens, a talented quintet who honed their craft on the playground of P.S. 109, and whose oldest member was all of fifteen. “Mr. Lee” was a song they had written themselves, a deliriously catchy call-and-response number ridiculing their ugly fifth-grade teacher. Atlantic Records knew they were on to something, but we couldn’t have these little girls openly brandishing their authority on national radio. So the Queens were rebranded the Bobbettes, and the song’s titular ogre was made over as “the handsomest sweetie you ever did see.” The pasteurized version rocketed straight to the Top Ten in both the pop and R&B charts, the first by a female vocal group to do so. The deal it offered America was clear: we’ll give your daughters just enough energy to get their blood pumping, without promising them enough power to rock the patriarchal boat.
Not to be put in their place, the Bobbettes regrouped and recorded an astonishing follow-up called “I Shot Mr. Lee,” detailing in equally infectious couplets the dark sequel to their previous hit:
Whoa, whoa, whoa
We should’ve never, oh no
Six, seven, eight
Mr. Lee had a date
Nine, ten, eleven
Now he’s up in heaven
Shot him in the head
Boom boom, whoa oh
Atlantic wouldn’t touch it with a pole, so they jumped ship and sold it to an outfit called Triple-X Records, who got the last laugh by sending it to #52 on the Hot 100.
By ‘63 this effort to manage the female narrative was clearly running out of gas. The sexual tension in America was unbearable and the conventional representations of women in music were starting to reek of a desperate denial. That summer the charts were littered with records like “My Daddy Knows Best” and “Please Don’t Talk to the Lifeguard.” In “Down the Aisle” Patti LaBelle pledged implausibly to be “good and sweet till eternity,” while in “This Is My Prayer” Theola Kilgore begged the Lord to let her fill her man’s life with “sunshine and gladness.”
Meanwhile Motown decided to test the warming waters with “Heat Wave” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the sexiest female track to hit mainstream radio in remembered history. With lyrics like “Something inside / Starts to burning / And I’m filled with desire / Could it be a devil in me?,” over ominously rising chords and the magmatic burble of a baritone sax, the song would have been scarcely imaginable by a pre-Betty Friedan white America. And yet, and yet. To a modern ear, still there is something clearly missing. “Heat Wave” gets us going hard, takes us to the brink, and then in the promised land of the chorus…gently lets us down. Martha’s straining, pleading voice settles, and her orgiastic backing thins out into a harmless rinky-dink piano boogie.
Sometime soon, perhaps, a girl group would go all the way. For now, we’d have to imagine what that might sound like. This was in July.
It’s time now to stop and introduce the phantom lurking behind the story thus far – which means coming to terms with another man turned to myth. The unloved boy genius with the eternal chip on his shoulder, a wound that would goad him to wound others, again and again, helplessly and at last fatally. The wizard behind the curtain whose world-building smoke and mirrors couldn’t heal his own rotten soul. The pop Icarus whose listeners goaded him to fly too far, whose tragic fall would surpass even his disciple Brian Wilson’s in height and spectacle. The archetypal vengeful beta-male, whose poison blend of armored cynicism and visionary longing, all-embracing hunger and all-controlling perfectionism, would so perfectly encapsulate the masculine response to the cultural revolution. These are a few of the ways to see the man behind the Wall of Sound.
Harvey Philip Spector’s real journey begins on an April 1949 morning in the Bronx, at the age of nine. This is when his cheerful, ruddy-cheeked steelworker father sets off for work, pulls the family car into a vacant lot, runs a garden hose from the exhaust pipe through the window, and ends his own life.
It is a non-computable event, an act that dares not speak its name. “I picture the image of a deadbolt just slamming shut,” Phil’s first wife will offer many years later, to summarize his processing of it, or lack thereof. The family responds by burying the memory (biographers will debate when exactly the boy learned the truth of it) and running far, far away. As far away, it turns out, as West Hollywood, California, right into the innermost belly of the mythmaking beast that will shortly deliver the Beach Boys and so much else. Here big sister Shirley will set about grooming herself into a movie star. Phil himself, pale, scrawny and asthmatic, will set about somehow finding a place in a culture that glamorizes his polar opposite. And mother Bertha and her untreated trauma will set about micromanaging them both, with an increasingly shrill intensity that will both cripple her son’s confidence and drive him to forever assert it.
Phil is driven. He gets his hands on a guitar, a bar mitzvah gift. He learns to tune his radio dial to pick up the jazz and R&B and rockabilly that still feels dangerous. And he learns that in a youth culture with a fever for this liberating new music, learning to master it can serve as a back door to power. For this, of course, his hunger is insatiable. He wrangles meetings with professional L.A. musicians, hunting for connections and scraps of wisdom. He cobbles together groups of Fairfax High kids able to carry a tune and willing to muddle through his primitive compositions. He transmutes his nerd persona into that of a worldly, pimply impresario, a miniature version of the sort of man that might be shaping tastes in places like the Brill Building, for all anyone knows. And it works for him, he even gets a girlfriend, until his mother’s paranoid meddling and his own scary fits of jealousy scare her off.
The rare visitors to the Spector home are treated to an ongoing dramatic spectacle. Phil and Bertha stomp around the house, brandish knives at each other, take turns blaming each other for Ben’s suicide. Whenever another female figure enters his life, Bertha tracks down her phone number and calls every fifteen minutes to test her son’s loyalty.
But for the time being, more important than finding a girlfriend is finding a Big Break. He knows about the importance of a good hook, a turn of phrase that will drip off a DJ’s tongue; he’s named his latest makeshift ensemble the Teddy Bears, in a shrewd effort to capitalize on Elvis’s latest single. But that proves elusive in his songwriting, until inspiration comes from the last source he’d expected. Late one night in his bedroom, an unwanted memory wells up of his father’s gravestone back East. TO KNOW HIM WAS TO LOVE HIM, said the epitaph, which now rings true in a whole different way to a teenager fighting for validation. Phil starts humming the words over some slow doo-wop changes on his guitar, and before long he’s got a couple of verses about unrequited love. He calls his bandmates in a sweat, waking them up: “This is the one.”
And it is, though as usual, it takes America a little bit of time to catch up with Phil. The Teddy Bears get the song on record, at a little place on Vine Street called Gold Star Studios, for a session fee of $75. Their small label puts it out as a B-side of a peppier single. The single goes nowhere, but slowly DJs in places like Fargo start flipping the record and learning that their young listeners go wild for the melodrama of “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” Word spreads, and by Phil’s nineteenth birthday at the end of 1958, the song has shattered everyone’s expectations but his own by arriving at #1.
Now everyone wants to see the Teddy Bears – Phil (the smart one), Marshall (the handsome one), and sugar-voiced lead singer Annette, who’s still juggling tour dates with classes at Fairfax High. They’re brought in for a TV spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, then for another on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, which kicks off a whirlwind tour down the East Coast. It’s a dreams-come-true situation.
The trouble is that now that Phil Spector has willed his first dream into being, his will has been fully unleashed – and it’s a frightening thing to behold. Already anxious about maintaining his fragile foothold in a shifting business, he goes all-in on a cynical, opportunistic persona tailor-made to compensate for everything he lacks. His professional contacts are no longer “Mr. So-and-so” but “Hey you,” or “Hey, baby.” His fans ask about the inspiration behind the song; he sweeps his father’s sentimental influence under the rug and puffs himself up as a savvy hitmaker. His bandmates ask about the next steps for their career; he casually mentions he’s fired their drummer. Annette’s voice cracks in rehearsals for the Perry Como show, and Phil snaps, fists balled, hissing in her face: “If you don’t hit that note, you’re going to destroy me.”
Another formative event occurs shortly thereafter, on the East Coast tour, when a bunch of meatheads follow Phil into the men’s room after a show, hurl him to the floor in front of the urinals, and piss on him en masse. Putting the nerd back in his place. The memory will smolder at his core for the rest of his life, metastasizing over time into an obsession with guns and bodyguards and karate and always being the most powerful presence in a room.
Fast-forward just over a year and Spector, spurred on by these relentless devils, has somehow made his way to Broadway already. He’s finagled an apprenticeship with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, favored songwriters for Elvis and superstars of the Brill Building hit factory. “He’s strange, this kid,” their mutual L.A. acquaintance has warned them, “but you won’t believe how talented he is.” What the dubious Leiber and Stoller find in their office is a pint-sized, prematurely balding bundle of nerves who paces the floors compulsively, hauling a briefcase with a pencil, a ream of paper, a hairbrush and a loaf of bread. Against their better judgment they let him tag along – chipping in here and there on arranging and producing, filling in once in a while on guitar (notably the solo in the Drifters’ “On Broadway”), and occasionally getting himself in trouble by mouthing off in the studio to folks like Bobby Darin. “We used to put him on, ‘cause he was so funny,” one mentor will recall. “But he was very smart…You couldn’t figure him out, whether he was putting you on.”
Phil is learning, but what he really wants is to prove he belongs in the top echelon of the industry. No better way than to get his name onto the label of a 45, which is why he pesters Leiber for months to let him co-write a song. The older man puts him off and puts him off, until one evening Stoller cancels a writing date and the kid is hanging around as usual. So Leiber tosses him some lyrics, an unusually fanciful couple of verses about a girl from Spanish Harlem, and plays him some Ravel and Segovia for inspiration. Before he leaves that night, Phil has put together a hypnotic little tune with a spare baion beat and some very Latin prolongings of tension. It ends up getting recorded in the same session as “Stand By Me” and launching the distinguished solo career of ex-Drifter Ben E. King.
The words to this song, his first real taste of adult success, will linger long in Phil Spector’s mind and ultimately take on a whole new meaning:
There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
With eyes as black as coal that look down in my soul
I have to beg your pardon
I’m going to pick that rose
Jerry Leiber’s later remembrance of his arrangement with Spector – of having taken the kid in “for safekeeping” – is revealing. The few people who get close enough to gain something like trust invariably end up feeling protective, almost parental, towards the fragile soul behind the brash facade. “He was such an oddball that you kind of adopted him,” in the words of publisher Don Kirshner. “If he trusted you, I think he had the need to be mothered,” according to songwriter Ellie Greenwich. “It’s apropos, ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him,’” another colleague will reflect, “because without knowing him, there’s no way to love him.” But Phil’s need to be known by his allies, to let himself be cared for, is forever in conflict with his urge to treat them as pawns to be played off each other, footholds in his scrabble to the top of the heap. He brags constantly to anyone who will listen about the “deals” he’s cutting behind the scenes.
When the arrangement with Leiber and Stoller falls apart, it feels preordained. Frustrated by his limited room to operate, he first antagonizes them through a behind-the-back agreement with a rival publisher, then abruptly walks out on his contract on the flimsy premise that he’d been underage when signed. He’s gotten what he needs out of Manhattan. Now it’s time to head west again, to the open sky of southern California, where at the ripe age of twenty-one he will lay the first bricks of his new empire.
The endgame has never been a secret: Spector wants, needs, total control of the music-making process. Founding his own label is a start, accomplished by the stopgap expediency of partnering with a more established producer, Lester Sill, whose name provides the token suffix for the company’s: Philles Records. Soon enough, after a crescendo of mutual loathing, Sill will be cast to the wayside in characteristic backstabbing fashion – “bought out” for a sum that somehow never fully materializes, and then taunted with the “gift” of an unreleased record called “Let’s Dance the Screw.”
Meanwhile Phil is making himself at home again at his old favorite studio, Gold Star, in which he senses an ineffable genius loci that will help him realize his grandest visions.
It seems an unlikely place for magic, to say the least. A former dentist’s office wedged in next to a discount men’s clothes store, it’s awfully cramped by studio standards, with musicians packed into a low-ceilinged space about the size of a large living room. But the place has a reputation, among those in the know, for resourceful invention and happy accidents. It was here that a botched overdub turned into the startling effect that made a Top Ten hit out of “The Big Hurt,” the first use on record of flanging (two tracks duplicated but slightly and periodically out of sync). It also has a reputation for a “fat, funky” sound compared to its competitors, partly due to its stubborn adherence to old-school technology. In explaining their resistance to trading in vacuum tubes for transistors, Gold Star engineers resort to terms that transcend the acoustical: “A tube can expand…if you don’t have a tube and you hit heavy, suddenly it breaks up. But when you have a tube, it’s warm and emotional. It gets bigger and it expands. It allows for the impulse.” Allowing for the impulse: a statement of principle, one might say, for those bent on capturing and amplifying the teenage cri de coeur.
The place also has a secret. Tucked in behind the Studio A room is a smaller room, doorless and windowless, accessed only by a tiny crawlspace and furnished only with a single microphone and speaker. The walls are coated with a full two inches of a plaster concoction whose formula is carefully guarded. The whole chamber is carefully guarded, in fact; it’ll be decades before any outsider is allowed entrance.
The room has one purpose. Sound from the studio is pumped in, bounced off the uneven walls, and pumped back out. When the original track is merged with its collected reverberations, coupled with its ghost, the recording is infused with distance and size, as though transported to a concert hall or a cavern. Other studios have echo chambers – though they’re already an endangered species, as it’s been possible since the late ‘50s to ape the effect using nothing but electronics. But most everyone agrees there’s something about the Gold Star sound, some occult geometry or some magic juice in David Gold’s plaster or who knows what.1 Neil Young will later reflect: “It was spooky, that sound…You could lose yourself just listening to the depth. It was true magic.”
In that sound Phil Spector smells fertile ground for bringing to fruition the maniac idea that’s been plaguing him for years. To this point the recording studio has generally been seen as an impediment between listener and performer, and the goal of production has been to make the process ever more transparent, to document performance faithfully enough that the listener feels present. Given the limitations of the technology, this often requires making arrangements as sparse as possible. In the words of one arranger who works with Leiber and Stoller, the demand is always to “thin out the palette”: “There was always a give-and-take about what we should eliminate.”
Spector has a different dream – one so extravagant, perhaps, that it could have only been dreamed by someone still stuck in an unfulfilled adolescence. It’s a dream fueled by long nights listening to Wagner’s operas, of all things, wandering through the distant, myth-scaled soundscapes of the Ring cycle and burning with the frustrations of youth. What if, instead of thinning out your musicians, you piled them on top of each other to make a noise matching the intensity of, say, unrequited love? What if, instead of carefully separating your elements, you melted them all down until something new and fantastical emerged? What if, instead of deluding your audience into believing itself present, you made your epic created worlds so remote as to be inaccessible, and forced them into a state of eternal longing?
In order to bottle the teenage experience, he would have to go straight to the source. The first Philles Records single, “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” is recorded with the four Crystals literally still in their prom dresses, as they’ve come directly to the studio from the dance at Maxwell High. The record does well, but its chaste, gospel-tinged doo-wop does little to push the girl-group envelope. Spector will need something spunkier to make his mark.
The process is fitful. The next Crystals single is another commercial success and another creative dead end: “Uptown,” a class-conscious number with lyrics about tenements and uptight bosses, a sophistication that ultimately distracts from what Spector is after. And the record after that is a cringeworthy misstep. “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” a Gerry Goffin-Carole King composition, is inspired by their babysitter turning up bruised by a jealous boyfriend but insistent that he’d been in the right. The production is stark, dirgelike, and many listeners are horrified; as letters of protest start to pour in, Philles pulls it. Later to be lovingly covered by the likes of Amy Winehouse, “He Hit Me” is somehow both behind and ahead of its time. Its failure helps to focus Spector’s efforts towards more positive expressions.
A better opportunity arises when he gets his hands on “He’s a Rebel,” an upbeat track whose narrator defies the scorn of elders by pursuing a James Dean figure. “If they don’t like him that way / They won’t like me after today,” she proclaims cheekily over a singsong piano tinkle. The trouble is that Liberty Records, just across town, has the song too and is planning to launch their newest singer’s career with it; Phil will need to act fast. Unfortunately his stars, the Crystals, are stuck in New York. No matter; he rounds up a makeshift crew of backup singers and cuts it under their name anyway. The real Crystals are on tour in Ohio when they happen to catch “their” new single on the radio. The shock is quickly replaced by the realization that they’ll need to learn the tune in time for their next show.
It’s only the latest in a string of indignities for the young women, whose promised royalties have a habit of failing to materialize, and whose faith in their producer has been further strained by being forced to put their names and voices on “He Hit Me.” They won’t be the last of Spector’s retinue to develop the unsettling sense that they’re not fully real, merely place-filling characters in a draft of a fantasy world. (“Singers are instruments. They are tools to be worked with,” he will later put it bluntly.) But the ends are busy justifying the means. “He’s a Rebel” becomes Philles Records’ first number-one hit.
As 1962 flips uneasily to 1963, Phil’s creative fixations develop a new clarity. The next few records serve as a manifesto, in two parts. The adolescent impulse must be distilled to its simplest, most unencumbered essence; and its setting, the music behind it, must be nothing less than ear-crushingly epic. “Is it dumb enough?” he frets, often to his bemused yes-man Sonny Bono, about the latest lyrics being committed to tape. It takes Sonny some time to realize that by dumb Phil means something like pure.
Spector is not prone to introspection about his motives. But in an uncharacteristically open moment a few years later, he will confess: “I myself have a tremendous yearning. A yearning to be respected, a yearning to be accepted. I see this in the teenagers. Yearning to do things, to be someone, to be important and to be recognized. It’s most difficult to say exactly why anyone would respond to this music. But basically it’s an emotional music for an emotional generation.” The formula that he settles on, serving as the foundation of the Wall of Sound, is in essence a demand for recognition from an abandoned, belittled, but relentlessly yearning subject. If he can take the most banal expressions imaginable and exalt them to the level of art, then he will have won the most irrefutable victory. Over what or whom exactly – and whether they’re real or imagined – well, that is less clear.
Hunting for the perfect raw material, Phil hops another plane to New York. He’s heard rumors of a new songwriting team at the Brill Building, unproven as of yet, but perhaps bringing a new kind of energy to the table. If it’s the right energy, Phil will know. The first meeting does not go well.
Of the main characters in this story, odds are slimmest that you’ve heard of the songwriter Eleanor Greenwich. Her part is the trickiest to pin down. It’s enough that writers of the era are something like elves in the toy factory, interchangeable and secreted away by design. But Ellie’s age and gender ensure that her contributions will be obscured and cheapened at every turn. To judge them fairly requires a good bit of reading between the lines.
She was born in Brooklyn, less than a year after Phil Spector, and raised out on Long Island in the prototypical planned suburb of Levittown. Amid its labyrinth of cookie-cutter houses with their matching lawns and driveways, at the Disneyfied corner of Starlight and Springtime lanes, she thrilled to the sound of teen longing in the new pop music (“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she says unironically of first hearing “Earth Angel” at fourteen.) Half Catholic and half Jewish and “on the cusp of everything,” she moved easily between worlds and developed a fertile blend of reverence for tradition and indifference to convention. This was revealed early on by her choice of, and stubborn commitment to, an instrument: the accordion, of all things.
On that instrument she wrote her first songs, sparked by an unattainable crush (he a senior, she a freshman). Just like Spector was doing on the opposite coast, she found a few other Levittown High kids who knew their way around a tune, and eventually put together a trio: the Jivettes. And at seventeen she managed to find her way into a studio and record two original songs with RCA.
“Cha-Cha-Charming” and “Silly Isn’t It,” released under the name “Ellie Gaye,” were non-starters commercially and are remembered by modern reviewers as awkward relics, if at all. Me, I think these songs are great: the former showcases a unique combination of a precociously husky, assured voice and a playful, effervescent spirit, while the slower B-side features some choice Beatlesque harmonic moves that mark Greenwich already as a very advanced student of pop. In any case, this first foray into the industry ended in such demoralizing fashion that it would surely have ended the career of a lesser character. Already rejected from the Manhattan School of Music because they didn’t know what to do with accordion players, she regrouped, taught herself piano and enrolled at Queens College. But when she excitedly brought her own record to share with her first music class, the professor put it on the turntable and dragged his elbow across it in theatrical disdain. This was pop, not music. Grow up.
Ellie left that class, and that school, and, in another testament to her pluck, went to Hofstra instead and was crowned Spring Queen.
After a brief stint as a teacher she got herself in the door of the Brill Building. There she won over the likes of Leiber and Stoller with her energy and seemingly inexhaustible supply of ideas, and was thrilled to “negotiate” a position for herself at $100 a week. Her new colleagues quickly came to see her youth as an asset, and by using her impressive singing chops to crank out demonstration tapes of other writers’ tunes, she earned yet another title of honor as the “Demo Queen.”
When she forged a productive partnership with another composer (Jeff Barry) – who would shortly become her husband – it became even clearer that she brought something new to the all-too-predictable table. “Unburdened by the past,” Ken Emerson’s authoritative history of the period notes, the new team “took themselves and their music less seriously.” And while other professional songwriters sought to dress up young longing with worldly detail (as in the socioeconomic divides of “Uptown”), for Greenwich and Barry the longing is everything. In their songs “no distance divides desire from its object,” Emerson continues. “Gratification is instant because yearning intensely makes it so.”
Gratification is not instant, to say the least, when Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector first encounter each other. Asked to run through some song ideas for Spector, a still-new Greenwich is profoundly unimpressed with the young hotshot, who spends most of the session wandering in and out of the room and checking his hair in the mirror. Eventually she loses her cool and curses him out (“little prick” is the only detail to have survived), whereupon Phil storms off and, by all appearances, ends that relationship before it has begun.
But the music world is not a large one, and before long he’s back in the building, enticed by tips about a hot writer who he has no idea is one and the same as the girl who once told him off. The trouble this time is that Phil shows up at six in the evening for a meeting scheduled for two in the afternoon. He arrives to find a blonde ball of rage who has stubbornly waited there the entire time, and is quite unafraid to tell him about it. With that Ellie Greenwich seems to pass some invisible test, and she has Spector’s professional trust for good.
Their first hit together sets the tone. Barry and Greenwich offer up their most simplistic work in progress, a three-chord romp with giddily inane lyrics that – the writers apologize – are still joined together with placeholder nonsense syllables:
Yeah, my heart stood still
Yes, his name was Bill
And when he walked me home
Da doo ron-ron-ron, Da doo ron-ron
Don’t. Change. A. Thing. says Phil. At last, here was something dumb enough. Back at Gold Star he and his arranger spin up an irresistible everyone-on-the-floor intro, a thundering drum refrain, and a chugging baritone sax solo from the great Steve Douglas, and he concludes to Sonny after hearing the final mix: “That’s solid gold coming out of that speaker.” Riding high after “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the new team follows up immediately with “Then He Kissed Me,” upping the ante with galloping castanets and sweeping violins. The result is an echo-drenched classic that will be pressed into service for opening movie sequences for decades to come.
Arguably the final bricks in the Wall of Sound are laid with yet another record made during that feverish period – one that arises not from any collaboration at all, but from Spector noodling around on the guitar in a nostalgic frame of mind. A cheesy old Disney song comes into his head, and he discovers that it sounds kind of cool when transmogrified into a slow groove.
Following his custom, he brings in the session musicians to lay down the instrumental track before adding any vocals. As he prods his long-suffering engineer (Larry Levine) to keep gradually bumping up all the inputs, pressing for that turbocharged sound, Levine finally gets to the point of oversaturation where he realizes the sound will just be ruined if they roll tape. So he reluctantly yanks everything all the way down, and weathers the screeching meltdown from Phil, the control freak. Then he starts from scratch bringing the inputs back up one by one, trying to reproduce the original balance. He’s restored every instrument but one – the lead electric guitar – when Phil stops him short, insisting it’s perfect.
Levine’s protests are no good; you can technically still hear the guitar, after all, as a sort of grainy, fuzzy shadow bleeding through into all the other microphones. As usual Spector gets his way, and the record inspires a legion of imitators trying to reproduce that funky distorted sound. It’s a crucial step in his quest to establish the studio as an instrument unto itself – and to establish the most childish expressions as worthy of the Gold Star treatment. When Levine finally gets around to asking what the name of the tune is, and gets his answer – “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” – he nearly falls out of his chair. According to legend, when Phil brings the unreleased record to New York to show it off, one executive listens to the first ten seconds and offers him $10,000 for it on the spot.
Spector’s name is now spreading like wildfire, as both an entrepreneur and an auteur of a very new breed. But he’s not satisfied. None of his hit records thus far have quite tied together all of his innovations. And while he’s built up an impressive stable of performers, none of them have the unquestionable star power to really shake pop music at its foundations.
It’s at that moment, in a turn so serendipitous that it seems to stamp everyone involved with destiny, that a real-life rose actually emerges from Spanish Harlem. For Phil Spector, the job of picking her and growing her in his garden will consume the entire next phase of his life. And arguably his soul, too, although we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
So here I am at last handing off the story of “Be My Baby” to the person who, in my opinion, most rightfully owns it. Which means attempting to do justice to Ronnie Spector.
And that scares me, honestly, because how do you do justice to a woman so universally defined – and, ultimately, almost killed – by her status as an object of desire? That Ronnie herself defiantly and joyfully embraced that status, by all appearances till she drew her last breath, in a way only makes things more difficult.
Following the received wisdom, we might say that the only way to really comprehend her impact is to have been roughly thirteen years old in the fall of 1963. That’s how old Paul Shaffer was, long before any inkling of his career as celebrity bandleader, just a little nebbish sitting in his parents’ living room in Fort William, Ontario, when Ronnie stepped onto American Bandstand and ended his childhood at one stroke.
You can’t be thirteen again, but you can watch this performance online, as of today anyway. It was America’s official introduction to the Ronettes. The quality is fittingly grainy. Even if you, like me, have precious little context in which to place it, Dick Clark’s bizarre discomfort makes it clear that something is up. “They’re very interesting, they’re unusual because they make, I guess, what is native American music,” he fumbles. Then the curtain parts and they step out: Ronnie, her sister Estelle, and their cousin Nedra, in matching tight glossy dresses, dripping with eyeliner and extravagantly crowned with beehives.
By the first smack of the snare drum and the first quiver of Ronnie’s hips in response, or certainly by her first coquettish look into the camera – to ask the clearly rhetorical question “Oh, won’t you say you love me?” – Paul is done, succumbed to his first love. “Sweet as honey, wicked as sin,” he will later reflect, “she was the very definition of feminine heat.” In a recurring fantasy that long winter, the song will physically lift him up and carry him over frozen Lake Superior and all the way to Manhattan, where he’ll fall at Ronnie’s feet, only to lose the capacity for speech at the moment of truth. After all, “no Canadian man-child could hope to win the love of a lady who unabashedly demands, ‘Be My Baby.’”
“Oh my,” says Dick as the song fades out, and he attempts an interview with the girls, who lie that they’re all teenagers. (Ronnie is 20, Estelle 22.) After learning their names, he exhales: “I must frankly admit, I feel a little more comfortable now than I did a moment ago. I did an interview some years ago where nobody spoke English!”
The moment speaks volumes about how unprepared, and at the same time subliminally primed, America was for the Ronettes. They looked like nothing else on screen, unless you count Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra from earlier that summer, come to think of it: watch her gliding through her gigantic milk bath with her tauntingly bare shoulders and carelessly done-up hair and hieroglyphic makeup, and you’ll see a hint of the group’s visual lineage. If the Chantels and Shirelles and everyone else were carefully groomed and chaperoned pop princesses, with Ronnie and company we were in the presence of true queendom – and not only that but permitted a thrilling peek at it in its inner chambers, glancing round the golden screen like that skeezy old palace guard.
Little Paul Shaffer was joining good company, for the list of men and women to be electrified by Ronnie would be long and luminous: she would go on to make John Lennon swoon, David Bowie go “ga-ga,” and Madonna demand to look like she sounded. For Keith Richards she was “extraordinary, to hear, to look at, to be with,” while the other Stones recalled being stopped “dead in our tracks.”
“We were innocent and wild,” she once said by way of explanation, and elsewhere, even more simply, “We weren’t afraid to be hot. That was our gimmick.” Gimmicks or no gimmicks, it’s clear that her command of an audience was inborn. Look at the series of photographs that have remarkably survived of Veronica Bennett in her high school cafeteria, taken by the gifted street photographer Winston Vargas, at least one of which was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. She’s sitting, sipping milk from a carton, and looking down at the camera – in one shot seeming to laughingly roll her eyes at its adulation, in another looking over her shoulder at some other appeal for attention, and in a third simply making eye contact, in a way that is both imperious and poignantly vulnerable. She pleads to be known, and declares total control over the terms of that knowledge. It’s hard to imagine a better personification of the leading edge of adolescence circa 1960.
Knowledge of Ronnie is still a slippery business. The second thing that needs to be said about her is that she was a very active participant in her own mythologizing. That she arose from Spanish Harlem is an evocative centerpiece of her story, repeated ad infinitum in internet tributes – but did she? The Bennetts lived on West 151st, in Hamilton Heights. Her “Irish” father is invariably listed as black in historical records – what that means, I have no idea. As for the Cherokee blood she so often referred to, or the “dash of Chinese” she mentioned at least once, were they real? Does it matter? Are we meant to know? Ronnie grasped that the more her audience projected themselves onto her indeterminate skin, the more she grew in power.
The third thing that needs to be said is that she was seemingly born to seize microphones from men. It started with her father, of course, a drummer named Louis who went by the jazz handle “Honeydripper” and struggled mightily to let go of his failed career. He’d wanted a son but settled for his little “Butchie,” who happily tagged along to Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, cheering for Jackie Robinson and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” so lustily – at six years old – that the men in nearby seats would shut up and toss her popcorn as tribute.
Later we find her leaping onto the coffee table during family gatherings, sluicing attention from her father’s drunken flareups, to belt out songs like Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” that let her toy with little pent-up wordless ecstasies. Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh, my oh. Louis took off soon after that, around the same time that Ben Spector was taking off in a different way. Unlike the Spectors, though, Ronnie’s mother Beatrice Bennett, her formidable army of uncles, aunts, and cousins, and their beloved shared streets were well-positioned to give the child what she needed.
By the time Ronnie turned thirteen Hank’s yodel had been replaced by the excitingly ambiguous rock-and-roll croon of Frankie Lymon. Her bemusement over whether her new idol was black or white, man or woman, gave way to a pair of stunning revelations: not only was Frankie barely older than she was, he lived just twenty blocks or so uptown! These were the days when every lamplit street corner from here to the Bronx was getting staked out by a young doo-wop group, though it wouldn’t be calcified as a “genre” for several more years. For now, as it would be at the dawn of the hip-hop era, it was just young people making sweet noise with the only tools they had. Emboldened by Frankie and his motley backing crew of black and Latino street kids, Ronnie tested out her voice with a fresh self-consciousness in the echoing stairwell of her building, and decided that whatever “it” was, she might just have it, too.
She needed a crew of her own, of course, and the core of what would be called the “Darling Sisters” assembled quickly: her older sister Estelle, the quiet one with the keen style instincts, and their first cousin Nedra Talley, whose singing mother had been turned down by Duke Ellington and was determined the girls would not suffer the same fate. The three of them together were a microcosm of New York, with black, white, Puerto Rican, Asian, and Native American blood between them. Though at times they were tormented by schoolmates unsure of where to place them in the picking orders, their rise to the top was irresistible: Ronnie became a cheerleader, Estelle the valedictorian.
Around the time she turned sixteen they tacked on a few more cousins for good measure, including a boy to fill the Frankie Lymon role, and signed up for a talent contest at the Apollo. But when the moment of truth arrived and they stepped into the spotlight, their supposed frontman opened his mouth and nothing came out. Ronnie grabbed the mic and took the lead without batting an eye, and the newly minted girl group took first prize.
Winning the Apollo was a landmark victory, but there was a whole other world still to conquer down below 96th Street. For this they would need to be in the absolute perfect place at the absolute perfect time.
A curious thing about 1961, the year Ronnie turned eighteen, was that for a brief moment the hurricane of the rock-and-roll revolution developed an eye, a precise center of energy, at 128 West 45th in Manhattan. This was the address of the Peppermint Lounge, an undistinguished little gay bar tucked away off Times Square and run as a front by the mob. The Pep’s proprietors would have preferred to keep attention to a minimum, but unfortunately it turned out the place had one tremendous thing going for it: its house band, Joey Dee and the Starliters, were the best in the business at playing The Twist, and The Twist was in the process of setting the country on fire.
This was the first mainstream dance craze that freed dancers to express themselves individually, without deference to a partner, and suggestively, codifying the chaos that had surfaced in Elvis’s hips just a few years earlier. By successfully infecting the adult population it turned rock into a full-on pandemic. The scandal it caused in polite society could not be fully explained by sexual mores, for it had implications for racial gatekeeping too, as Eldridge Cleaver noted:
It was Chubby Checker’s mission, bearing the Twist as good news, to teach the whites, whom history had taught to forget, how to shake their asses again. It is a skill they surely must once have possessed but which they abandoned for puritanical dreams of escaping the corruption of the flesh, by leaving the terrors of the Body to the blacks.
All of a sudden in the fall of ‘61 high society needed to find a place to be seen Twisting, and when word got out that the Pep was the place, the lines outside began to swell and everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Truman Capote to (amusingly) John Wayne to (incredibly) Greta Garbo started showing up. A fully infected Jackie Kennedy demanded that a pop-up Peppermint Lounge be installed at the White House. And no sooner had the good news arrived in Upper Manhattan than Ronnie Bennett – of whom a friend would recall, “she wanted to be a star, more than anybody I’ve ever known” – knew she had to be there.
By now the Darling Sisters had been rechristened Ronnie and the Relatives, and had even signed with a label, Colpix, resulting in the single “I Want a Boy.” But the single had gone nowhere, and if there were any indications that the girls were stars in the making, they weren’t coming from Colpix. So it was with no realistic designs on a career break, only with designs on making the scene, that they squeezed into their matching taffeta dresses, teased their hair, stuffed their bras with Kleenex, and took the 1 train down to the Peppermint.
Fate had other ideas. When manager Louie Lombardi spotted the girls in line, he took them for a trio of dancers who had coincidentally failed to report that night. “You’re late! Get in here!” he barked, and they needed no encouragement – even when he thrust them on stage next to the Starliters and ordered them to start shaking. So fully did Ronnie inhabit the role that when singer David Brigati launched into Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” he half-teasingly offered her the microphone to see what she’d do. She brought down the house. By night’s end the Relatives had a steady gig for $10 a day apiece.
Now they had attention, and then some. When the Pep decided to open a Miami branch, they couldn’t do it without their newest prize assets. So they flew the girls down for an opening gala over their winter break from school. After watching them perform “What’d I Say,” master of ceremonies Bob Hope remarked admiringly, “The last time I saw anything shake like that was when Bing tried to get into one of Dorothy Lamour’s dresses.” Backstage, top New York DJ Murray “the K” pulled them aside and insisted they pitch in at the next installment of his wildly popular rock-and-roll revue shows in Brooklyn.
What they didn’t yet have was full respectability. As plans took shape for a Peppermint movie to capitalize on the craze (a “Peppermint Twist” single was already on its way to the top of the charts), Ronnie and company were considered and then rejected for the parts of the Starliters’ alter-egos’ girlfriends. The judgment of the casting director was a crushing echo of what they’d been hearing their whole lives: “They’re too light to play black girls and too dark to play white girls. The audience wouldn’t know if they were supposed to be black or white.”
Instead of accepting their lot, they doubled down on their look. Under Estelle’s adept guidance the hair got higher, the makeup more exotic, the slits up their dresses more threateningly deep. Looking for a new name to fit their maturing image, they pieced together letters from their first names to make “the Ronettes.” It was a brash appropriation of the patriarchal convention responsible for “Bobbettes” and “Marvelettes,” and it sounded like they looked: both aggressive and unapologetically feminine.
Where did all this come from? The only influence Ronnie ever pointed to was the sassy street glamour of the black and Latina girls she’d admire as they paraded past her window in Harlem – but that only defers the question. At this point Cleopatra wasn’t even out yet, so that’s no help in deconstructing the Ronette aesthetic. What were out were the first several French-language films of Brigitte Bardot. And because we know that Ronnie and the girls had seen and adored these films, it’s worth taking a moment to inspect this maybe improbable connection – and to appreciate the impact of Bardot, the original “sex kitten,” on the evolution of femininity.
Fortunately arch-feminist Simone de Beauvoir did a lot of that work for us, in a 1959 essay on Bardot that served as a subtle but commanding warning to the patriarchy. In assessing what she termed the “Lolita syndrome” (after Nabokov’s timely 1955 novel), she identified a quandary in which the postwar culture industry had found itself, and its attempt at a solution. It starts with the ominous signs of collapse in the wall between the sexes:
The adult woman now inhabits the same world as the man, but the child-woman moves in a universe which he cannot enter. The age difference re-established between them the distance that seems necessary for desire. At least that is what those who have created a new Eve by merging the ‘green fruit’ and ‘femme fatale’ types have pinned their hopes on.
The new starlet Bardot, “the most perfect specimen of these ambiguous nymphs,” was now sparking scandal with her frank young sexuality in movies like Et Dieu…créa la femme and Une parisienne. With a commandingly mature body but the hairdo of a “negligent waif,” Bardot’s characters wandered about barefoot but with a walk so “lascivious [that] a saint would sell his soul to the devil merely to watch her dance.” Her lack of memory, of historical context, imbued her with “the perfect innocence that is attributed to a mythical childhood.”
The gambit, then, was to restore the embattled security and vitality of the masculine viewer by presenting a new object of desire, a fully sexed adolescent ripe for the plucking and proper training by the right protector. But that turned out to be a far riskier proposition than its architects had imagined. For in the process of bringing this vision to the screen they in fact unleashed a powerful new kind of feminine subject – one that turned out crucially, in Beauvoir’s words, to be “not only unsophisticated but dangerously sincere.” As men watched Brigitte they lusted appropriately, but they also found themselves unsettled by her frankness, her refusal to allow the distance necessary for objectification. Freed from the trappings of jewelry and high heels and the rest, she confronted her audience only with her blank face and bare skin, and forced them to come to terms with themselves. The demystification of love and sex that this portended was cataclysmic: “As soon as a single myth is touched, all myths are in danger. A sincere gaze…is a fire that may spread and reduce to ashes all the shoddy disguises that camouflage reality.”
It’s not too hard to make out in the Ronettes a stylized homage to Bardot’s look (a look that Bardot herself was in the process of stylizing, as she entered a more mature phase of her career). The hair – piled high to proclaim its abundance, yet with locks escaping, cascading, conveying a lack of artifice. The outfits – simple, no-frills, shaped to frankly reveal the figure. The cat eyeliner – adding a witchy flourish, a nod to the power of the feminine. Together with the girls’ irreducible exoticism and Ronnie’s uniquely bivalent voice, the effect was incendiary. And of course Ronnie had said as much – “We weren’t afraid to be hot.” If anything got reduced to ashes as a result, it wouldn’t be their fault.
The Brooklyn shows were a smashing success, and Ronnie continued to prove she knew her way around any stage, hamming it up with Murray in impromptu skits between acts. But their recording career was still sputtering. Colpix had put out a few more singles under the Ronettes byline, trying it both with their main label and their rhythm-and-blues subsidiary (the one responsible for what had until recently been called “race records”). None of them had caught on, and it was clear by the end of 1962 that their interest in the girls was waning. Ronnie, Estelle, and Nedra started looking for a new way forward – and it was just then, after the latest triumph at the Brooklyn Fox, that a certain scrawny, quick-talking young producer happened to show up backstage.2
Spector asked the Ronettes to audition for him at Mira Sound Studios, just around from the Peppermint. The girls filed in at the appointed time and launched nervously into “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along,” hoping to impress him with their mastery of close harmonies. Phil waved it off and asked them to sing like they would when they were by themselves. Exchanging a glance, they started in on their heart song, the one with more of a claim than any other to have sparked their careers: Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” with Ronnie as Frankie. They’d hardly made it two lines in when Phil leapt up from the piano bench, seized by the sensation of the last piece falling into a puzzle.
That’s it, he yelled, stopping the girls short. That’s the voice I’ve been looking for. He may not have been able to put his intuition into words. But the sound emerging from this diminutive, self-assured nineteen-year-old, this flamboyant unpicked rose, poised with quivering vibrato on the very precipice of adulthood, was what he needed to fulfill his mission: to elevate the cry of youth to its full symphonic majesty.
The next few months were a dizzying crash course in life with Spector. His first advice was to ditch Colpix immediately, walking out on their contract by claiming they were tired of singing and ready to move on with their lives. (They embellished this bravely by claiming that Ronnie had nodes on her vocal cords and Estelle wanted to go into nursing. The label didn’t buy it for a second, but didn’t care enough to make them stay.) By March 1963 the Ronettes were signed with Philles and planning their first release – but this wouldn’t be a straightforward matter. The first recording they finished, “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love,” sounded terrific to the girls. When are we putting it out? they asked Phil. Never, he said. It’s not a number one.
Meanwhile they recorded lead vocals for a couple of singles that were released – under the Crystals’ name, which by now was all but a total abstraction. They believed in the methods behind Phil’s madness, but as spring turned to summer, it seemed they weren’t much closer to being stars.
One thing was growing closer by the day, and that was Phil’s and Ronnie’s relationship. The girl who had grabbed his attention with her voice was now holding on to it with a strange tenacity, and the technical challenge of capturing that voice on record was starting to meld with the personal challenge of somehow possessing her youthful spirit. Ronnie’s vocal rehearsals seemed to keep getting longer and more exclusive, eventually moving to her producer’s penthouse apartment, where under cover of his perfectionism he could have her more fully to himself. For her part – what can we say? Phil had his practiced charm, she had her burning hunger for fame. Perhaps there was something in the emergence of a male protector, after missing one for many years. But she called it love, until the last, and probably that’s where we should leave it.
In any case, Phil knew he was on thin ice. Their dalliance may have still been chaste enough, but when Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich rung up to the penthouse for their next jam session, he told Ronnie to make herself invisible. So it was from behind a closed door that she first heard “Be My Baby” – Ellie pounding out the basic idea on the piano, Phil and Jeff shouting out scraps of melodic nonsense, until somehow the hook coalesced between them. As usual, Phil knew it right away. It’s perfect for her, she would remember him saying. Because she’s like a child. She’s like a baby. Put that down. Be my baby.
Ear pressed to the door, Ronnie found herself staring down at several pairs of women’s shoes on the floor. That’s strange, she thought. But the next snippet of conversation put it out of her mind. Ellie had caught on: she was asking Phil if he maybe had a thing for his new starlet. “You like her, right?” “I love her,” was the answer. And for Ronnie, or at least for the narrative she would later weave to make sense of her long, strange life, those three words were the toll of the bell that sealed her fate.
(They’re my sister Shirley’s, said Phil when she asked later about the shoes. Stop snooping around where you don’t belong.)
This is all we have of the origin story of the song itself. Three of the people present are dead now, and the fourth isn’t talking: I’ve heard Jeff Barry asked point-blank about how “Be My Baby” was written, and his shrug makes it clear that for him it was just another commercial throwaway, one of a hundred “silly little things” as he once called his creations.
I believe that Greenwich was responsible for the musical backbone of the song, as she typically was – and we’ll be taking a deeper look at those chords, and how they knit together the whole meaning of the record, in a minute. For what it’s worth, years later she cut her own version, a lovely waltz tucked away on a forgotten sampling of Brill-era retreads. It’s hard to listen to it without gathering that she felt this one more intensely than her collaborators. Later still she would confess that even decades after the original release, that intro still gave her goosebumps.
As for Spector, while he was credited as co-writer and was certainly capable, guessing at his real involvement is always a fraught undertaking. (One of his notorious stratagems was to slap together disposable instrumental tracks and use them as the B-sides of his singles, putting himself in the byline to add to his trove of royalties.) But if it was indeed Phil who seized upon the line “be my baby,” then that is a very significant and enigmatic contribution. He knew of course that Ronnie would be delivering it, which is significant in itself: women singing directly to their romantic interests, as 13-year-old Paul Shaffer knew in his bones, was all but unheard of at the time. But he also thought of Ronnie herself as “the baby.” So what did it all mean to Phil, really, pronouncing these words? Was he speaking to his new obsession, or speaking through her, or fantastically projecting what he longed to hear from her, or what? Of course the answer is that it was all of the above, and I suspect there’s an irreconcilable ambivalence there, down at the very core of this man who so desperately needed to control his world and, at the same time, so desperately needed a parent.
“Be My Baby” was recorded in early July, 1963, at the height of the summer of Medgar Evers’ murder, Governor Wallace’s segregationist theatrics, and President Kennedy’s grand civil rights promise. It was also the summer of the ominous moral muddling of the Vietnam situation, the summer of monks setting themselves on fire to expose the cruelty of the (U.S.-backed) Diem administration and plant the seeds of its bloody (U.S.-backed) overthrow. It was a summer of dramatically clouded hope, in short, and amidst it all Phil made sure that Ronnie was singularly focused on rehearsing her part. She sang it to herself for weeks around New York, and then, when the summons came from L.A., she ducked into the LaGuardia bathroom to sing it once more before her flight.
On returning to the gate she found her mother Beatrice – who’d been booked to come along – emitting a long, uncharacteristic sigh.
“I think you’re at the age where you can sing ‘Be My Baby’ all by yourself now,” she said. “So I don’t think I’m gonna go all the way out there this time.”
Ronnie’s first stop in California was at the home of Jack Nitzsche, Phil’s brilliant arranger and a critical cog in his machine. Hearing her voice and listening to Phil’s effusions, he got it: this was the big one. Nitzsche worked feverishly over the next couple of days to pull together the lead sheets – no small task, given the number of musicians that would be involved.
Then began the rehearsals at Gold Star, strictly instrumental for now. The process had already been refined to a science. Assembling his favorite session musicians – by now an elite young outfit soon to be known as the Wrecking Crew – Phil would have started by drilling the guitarists, who might number as many as four and for this song included the supremely talented Bill Pitman and Tommy Tedesco. Once satisfied with their part, he’d move on to the pianos: Al DeLory, Leon Russell, Don Randi, all future legends in their own right. Ray Pohlman and Jimmy Bond would be brought in next on bass guitar, followed by the horns: Roy Caton on trumpet, Louis Blackburn on trombone, Steve Douglas and Jay Migliori on sax. By now the sound in the jam-packed Studio A would have swelled to a roar, and there was much shuffling of humans and microphones to get it perfectly balanced. Because the entire ensemble would be recorded to a single track, capturing them was a spatial challenge as much as anything else.
Once everything was assembled, Phil would have had them run through the song ad nauseam before so much as pressing record. Engineer Larry Levine had his own theory about why: the musicians needed to be broken in order to submit to the collective will. “He needed to get the guys tired enough so that they weren’t playing as individuals.” Another Wrecking Crew guitarist, Barney Kessel (a former hero of Phil’s now sucked into the master’s orbit), recalled admiringly how the producer would coax uncanny textures out of what was technically the simplest music, by melting his performers together until they were “swimming around like it was all down a well.” The connotations of sorcerous power would not have been lost on Spector.
The last musician on the scene, as always, was Hal Blaine. Blaine’s drums were vital and Phil wanted him fresh. As the story goes, he was in fact so fresh that he dropped a drumstick in the opening bar, missing his snare and accidentally transforming a two/four backbeat to a stark Latin baion. It’s impossible to imagine the record without it now, as the tension generated by that missing beat ties us instantly by a straining thread to the promised kingdom of the chorus. Along with Blaine’s other contributions – the charging rat-tat-tat every other bar that carries us headlong toward that release only to defer it yet again; the careening fills that finally deliver it – this would prove to be enough to make the drum track iconic and endlessly quotable all on its own.
And then came Ronnie. She was shooed off to the Gold Star ladies’ room on arrival, so the musicians wouldn’t be distracted by looking at her, and it was in that feminine sanctum that she put the final inspired flourish on her vocal part. Emboldened by solitude and tile acoustics, and channeling all the yodels of Hank Williams and the doo-wop gymnastics of Frankie Lymon, she devised on the spot the ecstatic Whoa-oh-oh-oh that would give the song its signature and most dangerous touch – cementing it as an ode not just to teenage longing, but in the words of one critic, to nothing less than “carnal triumph.”
Out on the studio floor, when it all came together for Ronnie’s first take – Blaine’s epic opening salvo, the echo-drenched band, and then her voice, unleashed at last in its rightful place – the effect was electric. The moment, remembered as a clatter of dropped instruments and a chorus of gasps and cheers, would occupy a place of honor in her memory. But it would be three grueling days of singing, with Ronnie peeking out from behind her music stand each time to gauge the reaction in the control booth, before Phil was satisfied with a take. That would be followed by another several days of confused banishment to her hotel as he put the finishing touches on the record. The unveiling of his prize possession to his colleagues seemed to have triggered something dark in him, and while it would be years before that darkness fully revealed itself, from this point forward he would control her availability to the world ever more tightly.
So Ronnie wasn’t around for the recording of the background vocals. Neither were the other Ronettes, who were supposedly to be flown out later, but quickly caught on that they were merely two more pawns to be deployed at Phil’s convenience. Instead this was the usual all-hands-on-deck approach, as everyone who happened to be hanging around the studio was hustled in and handed a sheet. That included the great, chronically minimized Darlene Love (whose group the Blossoms had been among those to record as the Crystals), along with Sonny Bono and his seventeen-year-old girlfriend Cherilyn, soon to be known as Cher (who had to keep backing away from the mic so as not to overpower the track). Jack Nitzsche’s wife Gracia was also on the floor and perhaps motivated Jack to produce what was quietly among his greatest arrangements.
The strings supplied the last layer on the cake. It was the first time Phil had rolled out a full orchestral section, and their rising swell over the chorus took the song to another level – Wagnerian, as he would have said. The normally prosaic Larry Levine found himself choking back tears when putting together the final mix. Despite Phil’s unease at letting her go, Ronnie was due back in New York to prepare for a tour with Joey Dee and the Starliters. It was the last she would hear of her song until August, when she and the Ronettes switched on American Bandstand from a hotel room on the Jersey Shore. “This one’s going to be the song of the century,” they heard Dick Clark say, the truest words he’d ever spoken, and then, as if in a dream, came that unmistakable, calamitous drumbeat. Boom, boom-boom, BLAM.
1 Gold Star’s echo system did have another unique feature, which was the way the “dry” input level was dynamically linked to the echo, such that quieter sections of a recording automatically got a stronger dose of effect. This trick created a powerful illusion of distance.
2 The first encounter between Spector and the Ronettes is another much-mythologized plot point. In a version repeated by many including (occasionally) Ronnie herself, Estelle cold-calls Phil in a fit of bravado. In an even more fanciful telling, the universe connects them serendipitously via a wrong number. I’ve taken Nedra’s memory to be the most reliable one.