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Be My Baby
When AM radio was king in the early ‘60s during my early-teen years, I would control the radio from my “shotgun” seat when riding with a parent. Out of habit when a favorite song hit the airwaves, my left hand would reach for the knob and crank up the volume. The response was always the same. “Do we need to hear it that loud?” a near-shout emanated from the driver’s side.
Back then, I couldn’t explain why the incomparable bass drum from the foot of Hal Blaine on the opening notes of the Ronettes’ Be My Baby warranted the attention. Nearly sixty years later, I would simply say the intro led to one of the greatest hits of the decade, and perhaps, of all time. Over the course of two minutes and forty-two seconds, the pounding drumbeat, scores of guitars, numerous pianos, bass, multiple saxophones, a complete string section and invited background singers supported the voice of Ronnie Spector, pleading “Won’t you please…be my baby!” I was hooked.
For years, I wanted to believe she beckoned me and only me. That is, until I recently read a piece in the New York Times. “I was driving and I had to pull over to the side of the road — it blew my mind,” said Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys when he first heard Be My Baby. “It’s the greatest record ever produced.” (1) Apparently, we got the same message. If the song caused Wilson to pull over and listen, my radio indiscretion was its equivalence.
Vindicated, I now slide the knob to the right when my iPhone randomly selects the song during gym workouts…with headphones, I have no reason to ever turn it down.
Singer Ronnie Spector entered the world as Veronica Bennett on August 10, 1943 – two years after her older sister, Estelle. They were the multi-racial children of parents, Beatrice, who sported a Cherokee and Black heritage while their father Louis, was white. The Bennett family lived in Spanish Harlem with their Grandmother and thirteen of her mother’s brothers and sisters – which never presented a shortage of family members to bond with. The one cousin with whom Veronica was closest was Nedra Talley. On Sundays at her grandmother’s home, family members would visit and celebrate with food and song.
“It was all so exciting, especially to a little girl like me,” Ronnie recalled in her memoir, Be My Baby, co-written with Vince Waldron, “I’d stand in Grandma’s living room watching everyone rehearse, and I would be amazed. Four of my uncles would be harmonizing like the Mills Brothers in one corner, while three aunts worked up an Andrews Sisters number in the other. Another aunt would be throwing her leg up in ballet movements in the kitchen while someone else practiced an accordion in the bedroom. On weekends that house turned into a little do-it-yourself Juilliard.” (2)
Young Ronnie caught the spirit and would perform solo or with sister Estelle and cousin Nedra. Singing solo at the age of four and arranging songs with cousins at eight, she welcomed the spotlight and bathed in the center of attention. By the time Ronnie was fourteen, she added two other cousins, Elaine and Diane to the group as they performed hit songs of the day at their Sunday family shows.
When cousin Ira was added to the group, they eventually secured a slot on Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Ira, two years younger and not equipped to handle the task at hand, froze when the group took the stage. The house band was into a few bars of Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love when Ronnie came to Ira’s rescue. “I just strutted out across the stage, singing as loud as I could, Ronnie recalled. “When I finally heard a few hands of scattered applause, I sang even louder. I knew that they wanted me to entertain them, and that made me feel like a star. After that night, there was no question that it was where I belonged.” (3)
Shortly after the Apollo experience, Ira retired and Diane and Elaine’s mother nixed a future in the music business on religious reasons, With the blessings of their respective mothers, Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra pursued their musical dreams and took singing lessons twice a week. A small-time agent by the name of Phil Halikus heard them and was able to book them for some work.
By the spring of 1961, after a year of numerous bar mitzvas and sock hops, Halikus secured the girls an audition for a record deal with Stu Phillips at Colpix Records. Phillips definitely had the chops as he produced the Marcels number one hit, Blue Moon. It took but one song before Phillips told the girls, “That sounds okay,” he said. “I’ll give you a shot.” (4)
In June of 1961, the girls, now known as Ronnie and the Relatives, entered New York’s Colpix Studios for their first recording session. Four tracks were recorded – I Want a Boy and What’s So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen — which became their first single — and I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead and My Guiding Light — songs chosen as their follow-up single. Both singles stiffed. Another session six months later produced similar results.
Rather than return to bar mitzvah and sock hop circuit, the girls decided to take a different route. In 1961 New York, the Peppermint Lounge was the place to be. Though underage and with the help of eyeliner, blush and lipstick, the girls made their way to the stage as dancers backing the group Joey Dee & the Starliters. When Ronnie was offered the mic during a rendition of What’d I Say, she made the most of it, and brought the house down. That performance led to a job as dancers for $10 a night per girl. Dee invited the girls to perform with his group at least once a night as they became a part of his show.
L-R: 1963 photo of Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra.
Photo courtesy of Giles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images.
Now known as the Ronettes, the girls accompanied Dee and his group for a gig at Miami’s Peppermint Lounge where they were approached by Murray “the K” Kaufman, the world-renowned disc jockey at New York’s WINS. Murray, whose primetime radio slot of 7-11PM broke numerous hit records, ran a show for teenagers featuring a number of artists at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater. He hired the girls in the spring of 1962 as dancers and background singers for various groups on the bill and they would eventually sing a song or two if it meant keeping the show moving.
With tight dresses, generously applied mascara, layers of eyeliner on their faces and their teased hair piled high on their heads, the Ronettes developed a style that went against the grain for this generation’s teenage girl groups. Ronnie referred to it as a street look.
“My mother always told us to look for a gimmick that would make us stand out from all the other groups, something that made us different,” Ronnie stated in her book. “We didn’t have a hit record to grab their attention, so we had to make an impression with our style. We took the look we were born with and extended it.” (5)
Their look was one thing they could control. Not having a hit record was someone else’s responsibility. Unhappy with Stu Phillips and Colpix, Estelle and Ronnie devised a plan to take control of the careers— they would cold call the hottest producer in the business and ask for an audition. That man was Phil Spector.
By the start of 1963, the 23-year old wunderkind already scaled the charts with To Know Him Is to Love Him by Teddy Bears in 1958 and again with He’s A Rebel by the Crystals in 1962. Hearing that Spector had a penthouse apartment above his New York office, Estelle made the call and much to her surprise, his secretary put her through to the man himself and a meeting was scheduled the next evening at Mira Studios.
Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra met Spector for the first time in a darkened studio as he had seen them perform a number of times at the Brooklyn Fox. He knew exactly who they were. Sitting behind a piano, Spector asked the girls sing for him. When Ronnie belted out the first verse to Why Do Fools Fall in Love, the previously mild-mannered producer leaped to his feet. “Stop!” he shouted. “That’s it. That is it! That is the voice I’ve been looking for!” (6)
Not only did he find the voice, but he also found a future wife. After numerous group rehearsals where Spector would dismiss Estelle and Nedra for some private moments with Ronnie, it was time for Spector to meet Ronnie’s mother and discuss his intentions about her career. When the record producer gave his spiel about how he was the person to make Ronnie’s singing dreams a reality, Mrs. Bennett put on the brakes. “I’m glad you like my daughter’s voice,” Mom said. “But the Ronettes are a group. Now, if you want to take the three Ronettes as a group . . . well, then we can talk.” (7) From that point, any discussion included the group. One hurdle was cleared but another still remained…the girls’ contract with Colpix.
After much discussion, Beatrice Bennett and Spector agreed that she would make the call to the record company under the pretense of the girls returning to school. Within a week, the girls were granted a release from their contract and in March of 1963, signed a new deal with Spector’s Philles Records. With the rehearsal schedule still in effect, Spector found Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love, penned by songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (Spector did receive songwriter’s credit as well). It was time to make a record.
The Ronettes with Phil Spector in the Gold Star Studio for their first recording session in 1963.
Photo courtesy of Ray Avery/Getty Images.
With the Ronettes at Gold Star Studio in Los Angeles, Spector recorded Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love but failed to release it. When Ronnie approached him about it a few weeks later, he told her, “It’s a good song,” he told Ronnie. “But it’s not a number-one record.” (8) He had another song in mind — another from the Barry/Greenwich team. The song was Be My Baby.
After weeks of rehearsal, Spector had Ronnie fly to Los Angeles for the recording session. There was no need for Estelle and Nedra as they were told their parts would be recorded later. The date credited for the recording session was July 5, 1963. (9) In her biography with Vince Waldron, Ronnie stated it took much longer than that.
“It took about three days to record just my vocals for Be My Baby. I was so shy that I’d do all my vocal rehearsals in the studio’s ladies’ room, because I loved the sound I got in there. People talk about how great the echo chamber was at Gold Star, but they never heard the sound in that ladies’ room. And, between doing my makeup and teasing my hair, I practically lived in there anyway. So that’s where all the little “whoa-ohs” and “oh-oh-oh-ohs” you hear on my records were born, in the bathroom at Gold Star.” (10)
Gold Star Studios were custom-built with the focus on its echo chambers. According to co-owner David Gold, the room was “about 20 feet by 20 feet shaped as 18-foot trapezoids. The walls were thick, specially-formulated cement plaster on heavy isolation forms. Entry into the chamber was through a series of 2x2 foot doors.” (11) Studio A at Gold Star measured 19x24 with a 13-foot high ceiling. (12) The sound produced in the studio was the heart and soul of a Phil Spector production. The studio worked as another musician for him. And he worked his musicians hard.
Before Spector ran tape on Be My Baby, he built the backing track with rehearsals of each instrument in an effort to get the microphones in the proper place. Engineer Larry Levine explained the process.
"Phil would start off with the guitars — usually three or more — and have them play the figure that was written on the lead sheet. Once he thought it sounded OK, he would bring in the pianos. And when everything fit, he'd bring in the bass. He always brought in the instruments piecemeal in the same way.” It was time-consuming method that was characteristic of nearly every Spector session. "We almost never got into rolling tape before we got into overtime on a session," the engineer confirmed. (13)
Last in order would be the drums. Spector described his method.
“I always had ideas for the drum sounds that were different each time. There were times when (drummer) Hal Blaine would sit for hours, and never play a lick, and/or wait outside the studio while I would get everyone else sounding the way I wanted; I would build (the track) instrument by instrument, adding them slowly, on top of each other, with the drums being last. (14) The studio acoustics, the layered instruments and the multitude of background singers comprised Spector’s famed Wall of Sound.
Hal Blaine had his own recollection of the Be My Baby sessions.
“It’s said that Phil made the orchestra run through it 42 times before he pressed record. But a lot of that was theatrics: he wanted the musicians half-crazy, right on the edge. It was the opposite with the drums. I was like a racehorse straining at the gate. But he wouldn’t let me play until we started recording, because he wanted it to be fresh. That famous drum intro was an accident. I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick. Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: ‘Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!’” (15)
Once the instrumental backing track suited Spector, it was time for Ronnie to add her vocal. The producer was just as demanding on her performance as he was the musicians.
“We didn’t have to work hard to get Ronnie’s performance,” explained studio engineer Larry Levine to writer Richard Buskin in a 2007 Sound on Sound magazine article, “but we had to work hard to satisfy Phil. He’d spend an inordinate amount of time working on each section and playing it back before moving on to the next one, and that was very hard for the singers.” Levine would also add: “I always commiserated [with the singers] because Phil didn’t pay too much attention to them. He treated them as if they were another instrument. I mean, they weren’t ill-treated, they were just ignored.” (12)
After Ronnie completed a take, she peered from behind a mike stand to gauge the reaction from Phil and Larry in the control booth. “If they were looking down and fooling with the knobs, I’d know I had to do it again,” Ronnie stated in her biography. “But if I saw they were laughing and yelling ‘All right!’ or ‘Damn, that little girl can really sing!’ I’d know we had a take.” (16)
Engineer Larry Levine handles the board while Phil Spector stares through the glass into the studio.
Photo courtesy of Ray Avery/Getty Images.
There was a sign that hung outside the studio door that read “No admittance. Private session.” But if someone of renown managed to make their way through the door and to the control room, Spector was happy to hold court and drag them into the studio to take part in the session as a background singer. In the particular case of Be My Baby, the roster included Sonny Bono, Cher and Darlene Love — to name a few.
Be My Baby debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on August 31, 1963 at #90. (17) In seven weeks, the song climbed to #2 where it plateaued for three weeks behind Sugar Shack by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. (18) This would be the highest chart position attained of any of the eight singles by the Ronettes on the Philles label. (17)
There have been a number of accolades over the years since the release of Be My Baby that attests to the song’s staying power. The song played an intregal part in the plot of soundtracks from movies and TV shows. Mean Streets (1973), Quadrophenia (1979), Dirty Dancing (1987) and Baby Mama (2008) are four movies where the song is featured while the TV shows include Moonlighting (twice, 1986 and 1987), The Wonder Years (1990), How I Met Your Mother (2007) and Glee (2010). (19) The list of honors and acheivements is interesting and noteworthy.
• Dick Clark stated on American Bandstand that Be My Baby would be “the song of the century.” (20)
• The single sold more than two million copies in 1963. (21)
• In 1999, the song was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame. (22)
• In 2004, the song was ranked 22 by Rolling Stone in its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. (23)
• In 2006, the Library of Congress honored the hit song by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry. (24)
• In 2007, the Ronettes were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (25)
• In 2013, BMI, the songwriter’s agency, had estimated the song had been played over 3.9 million times. That’s 17 continuous years of hearing the song being played back to back. (1)
• In 2017, Billboard rated the song #1 on their list of 100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time. (26)
According to Wikipedia, here’s a list of musicians and singers who played or sang on Be My Baby. (9) The musicians were part of the famed Wrecking Crew. Note the other two members of the Ronettes didn’t appear on the final recording.
Louis Blackburn – trombone Hal Blaine – drums
Sonny Bono – backing vocals Frank Capp – percussion
Cher – backing vocals Al De Lory – keyboards
Steve Douglas – saxophone Ellie Greenwich – backing vocals
Carol Kaye – bass Darlene Love – backing vocals
Fanita James – backing vocals Jay Migliori – saxophone
Gracia Nitzsche – backing vocals Bill Pitman – guitar
Ray Pohlman – bass guitar Don Randi – piano
Leon Russell – keyboards Bobby Sheen – backing vocals
Tommy Tedesco – guitar Nino Tempo – backing vocals
Ellie Greenwich presents her rendition of Be My Baby.
According to namnoiz, the person who posted the video on YouTube, "The video is compiled from 5 live and pre-recorded shows that aired over various networks between 1963 and 1966, including some promotional photographs and tour posters from the same time period." The clip also includes a stereo backing track.
1) Marc Spitz, New York Times, Still Tingling Spines, 50 Years later, August 16, 2013. Link.
2) Ronnie Spector with Vince Waldron, (2014), Be My Baby, Words in Edgewise Publishers, Page 32, Link.
3) Spector/Waldron, Page 68.
4) Spector/Waldron, Page 79.
5) Spector/Waldron, Pages 107-110.
6) Spector/Waldron, Page 134.
7) Spector/Waldron, Pages 140-141.
8) Spector/Waldron, Page 155.
9) Wikipedia, Be My Baby, Link.
10) Spector/Waldron, Pages 161-162.
11) Dave Simons, (2006). Analog Recording: Using Analog Gear in Today's Home Studios. Backbeat Books. pp. 67–69.
12) Richard Buskin, (April 2007), Sound On Sound, Classic Tracks: Phil Spector The Ronettes ‘Be My Baby.’ Link.
13) Buskin, 2007.
14) Gavin Edwards, (2006), Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, Three Rivers Press. Excerpt link.
15) Dave Simpson, (November 17, 2015), The Guardian, How We Made The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, Link.
16) Spector/Waldron, Page 162.
17) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, (2003), Record Research Inc., Page 604.
18) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties, (1990), Record Research Inc.
19) IMDB, The Ronettes, Link.
20) Spector/Waldron, Page 167.
21) Joel Whitburn, Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-2004, (2004), Record Research, Inc., Page 500.
22) Wikipedia, List of Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipients A-D, Link.
23) Rolling Stone, The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, (2004), Link.
24) Library of Congress, “Be My Baby — The Ronettes,” (2006), Link.
25) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Ronettes, (2007), Link.
26) Billboard, 100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time: Critics’ Picks, July 10, 2017. Link.
Nedra, Ronnie and Estelle.
Photo courtesy Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images.
© 2020 Jerry Reuss