One night in 1961, the girls dressed in tight skirts and with their hair piled high, stood in line at Joey Dee's Peppermint Lounge on New York's 45th Street. The club's manager mistook them for a singing trio that hadn't arrived and took them inside. They were ushered on stage where they belted out a version of Ray Charles' "What I Say", even using the choreography they had been working on. The girls took the club by storm and were signed on the spot to appear regularly for grand sum of $10 a night. The Darling Sisters were also booked to perform at the Miami Peppermint Lounge, where they were spotted by New York disc jockey, Murray 'the K' Kaufman. He booked them for his touring company and his Brooklyn Fox shows, billing them as Murray the K's dancing girls.
Meanwhile, Phillip Halikus set up their first recording session through Stu Phillips at Colpix Records. Colpix renamed the trio Ronnie And The Relatives and issued their first single in the Summer of 1961, "I Want a Boy". The song got some local radio air time, but nothing more. The next single, "I'm On The Wagon", listed the girls as The Ronettes. They also recorded an album's worth of material for Colpix, but it wasn't released until their glory days. In early 1963, they recorded their third single called "Good Girls", which showed continued recording maturity and a developing sound. Between their other activities, the girls found work by singing back-up vocals for artists like Bobby Rydell, Del Shannon and Joey Dee.
There are two conflicting versions of what happened next. The first is that Estelle, while dialing a phone number for confirmation of a recording session, dialled the wrong number and wound up talking to Phil Spector. One thing led to another and he supposedly asked the group to do a demo for him. After hearing them, he wanted to immediately produce a Ronettes record. The other less romantic version is that 16 Magazine staffer Georgia Winters introduced Spector to the girls while he was in New York talent hunting. Whichever was true, Spector was taken with Ronnie's hard but sweet sound and saw the bad girls in beehives as an act he could build an image around. Up until that time, girl groups rarely had an identity or even their pictures on the sleeves of their 45s. That changed with the Ronettes.
The first single on Spector's Philles label in July, 1963 turned out to be the classic, "Be My Baby". Ronnie's distinctive, seductive vocal delivery drove teenage boys wild, while Spector's production pushed the single to chart success. By October it had climbed to #2 in the U.S. and reached #4 on the UK charts. Phil Spector had a unique way of recording songs. Instead of having one guitarist, he would have five or six and three pianos, double drums, dozens of strings and a choir of background singers. He would often record everything back on top of itself to double the sound, and sometimes double that recording until he was satisfied that the sound was full enough. His studio musicians were nicknamed The Wrecking Crew and included Hal Blaine on drums, Sonny Bono on percussion, Leon Russell on keyboards, Glen Campbell on guitar, Billy Strange on guitar, Nino Tempo on sax and many others. The background singers could be anyone who was there at the time.
In November of 1963, hand claps, pounding drums, and Leon Russell's insistent piano playing introduced the most powerful Wall Of Sound record yet, "Baby I Love You". The Ronettes held there own in a sea of orchestration, but not without some support. Spector added the backing voices of Darlene Love and The Blossoms, Ronnie herself, and Cher, over dubbing them until he had twenty to twenty five voices, balancing out the dense instrumental tracks. "Baby I Love You" charted on December 21, 1963. It reached #24 in the States, and #11 in Britain.
In November, the Ronettes toured with Dick Clark's Caravan of stars and then returned to New York to record the memorable Christmas album, "A Christmas Gift for You". With two hits in the UK, the group flew to England in February, 1964 and toured with The Rolling Stones. While they were there, they met The Beatles.
That same month they released "The Best Part of Breaking Up". It reached number thirty nine in the States and number forty three in England before Spector returned to the high powered teen rock with "I Do Love You". The British Invasion was taking its toll on American groups and the song only reached number thirty four in the U.S. and thirty five in Britain. When the Ronettes returned to the U.S., Fab Four were right behind them. Sensing the fierce competition to American groups, Spector test marketed Ronnie as a solo act, issuing two singles under the name Veronica on his label. The first release was a remake of The Students' classic ballad "I'm So Young" and a Barry/Greenwich/Spector composition, "Why Don't They Let Us Fall in Love", each backed by The Ronettes. Poor reviews resulted in them being pulled from the market almost immediately after their release.
In November 1964, The Ronettes recorded "Walking In the Rain", their most dramatic ballad. The Mann/Weil/Spector written record reached #23 and won a Grammy for Best Sound Effects, the only Grammy that Phil Spector ever received. With radio waves flooded with English rockers, American girl groups were suddenly out of fashion. 1965 saw "Born to Be Together" stall at #52 and "Is This What I Get for Loving You?" climb to #25. Meanwhile, The Ronettes also sang back up on the Righteous Brothers' classic ballad "You Lost That Loving Feeling". Their LP, "Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica", could only reach #96 on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart.
Phil Spector had a clever practice of putting an instrumental on the 'B' side of his 45s, so as to keep the disc jockeys from flipping the record and taking attention from the 'A' side. However, desperate for another hit, he abandoned this practice for the single "Is This What I Get" which was paired with "Oh, I Love You". His move failed and the record went nowhere. In September 1966, Jeff Barry was given the reins for the only non-Spector produced single on Philles Records (and the group's last Philles 45) "I Can Hear Music". By the end of 1966, too many failures had piled up and The Ronettes disbanded. Nedra married a radio station program director Scott Ross and Estelle married producer/songwriter Teddy Vann. In 1968, Ronnie married Phil Spector, who forced her into virtual retirement, allowing her to release only the occasional single, all of which flopped.
In 1971, under Spector's direction, Ronnie recorded "Try Some, Buy Some" for The Beatles' Apple label. It was to be her last charting record, reaching #77 in the Spring of 1971. In 1973, with her marriage on the rocks, Ronnie returned to performing. She appeared as Ronnie And The Ronettes at Richard Nader's Rock and Roll Revival show at Madison Square Garden. The new female trio included Denise Edwards and Chip Fields. That Fall, Stan Vincent produced a single of The New Ronettes on the Buddah label, "I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine". This song was a re-recording of a song that the original Ronettes had done for Spector in 1965. Spector didn't release his version until his 1976 "Rare Masters" LP came out in the U.K.
After years of Ronnie's accusations of spousal abuse, the Spectors' marriage ended in divorce in 1974. In 1976, Ronnie sang backup for Bruce Springsteen at his New York Palladium performance. This led to E Street Band member Miami Steve Van Zant producing and arranging a 1977 single with Ronnie Spector and The E Street Band titled "Say Goodbye To Hollywood". The song, written by Billy Joel, rocked with Ronnie's most inspired vocals since the early Spector days, but it never charted. In 1978, Ronnie tried again with a song called "It's a Heartache". Unfortunately, the record was beaten to the charts by Bonnie Tyler's version, which hit #3.
In 1980, Genya Ravan produced Ronnie on a fuzz toned wall of sound rocker called "Darlin'" for her own Polish label. In 1986, she recorded with Eddie Money, "Take Me Home Tonight," which put her back in the spotlight, as it reached number four. Columbia Records issued a 1987 Ronnie Spector LP with the song "Dangerous" backed up by The Bangles. Throughout the eighties, she performed as one of The Legendary Ladies Of Rock And Roll. CBS-TV aired a special called Grammy Legends on December 11th, 1990, that included Ronnie singing "Say Goodbye to Hollywood".
In 1998, the three former members of The Ronettes launched a law suit against Phil Spector, claiming that he cheated them out of their royalties. They sued for breach of contract, lost and future earnings and ownership of original recordings. Ronnie Spector testified that The Ronettes had not received any royalty payments from Phil Spector since 1964, except for $14,000 which they split evenly among themselves. Taking the stand as a hostile witness, Phil Spector said that the cost of recording the twenty-eight songs made by The Ronettes far exceeded his income, and the group actually owes him money. "Philles Records is still owed a considerable amount of money by the Ronettes," Spector said. The long-running litigation between the two sides came to a head in July 2000, when the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division finally awarded The Ronettes $2.97 million in back payment of royalties going back to 1963.
Phil Spector's troubles were just beginning, however. On February 3rd, 2003, actress Lana Clarkson was killed by a gunshot at Spector's home and he was taken into custody to answer to murder charges. After two trials and many lengthy delays, he was found guilty on April 13th, 2009 and sentenced to nineten years to life in prison. Spector appealed the decision, but in May, 2011, The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction. On August 17th, of 2011, the California Supreme Court refused to review the Court of Appeal's decision. Spector will be 88 years old before becoming eligible for parole.
While Spector was awaiting trial, The Ronettes were finally inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on March 12th, 2007 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards inducted the trio. Ronnie Bennett and Nedra Talley performed "Baby I Love You", "Walking In the Rain", and "Be My Baby". Estelle Bennett was present to accept her award but declined to perform.
In 2011, after the death of Amy Winehouse, Ronnie Spector released her version of Amy's hit "Back to Black" as a tribute and for the benefit of the Daytop Village addiction treatment centers. She regularly performed the song as part of her live act during her UK tour in 2015. In 2016, Ronnie released a new CD called "English Heart", her first album of new material in a decade. The collection featured her renditions of songs made famous by artists from the 1960s British Invasion. It peaked at #6 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart and received favorable reviews.