When I was a kid growing up in New York City in the '60s, there were only two groups that mattered: The Ronettes and the Four Seasons. The Beach Boys were from a place where teens drove cars and surfed. My friends rode bikes and played stickball. Parents were the ones who drove cars in New York and had to move them to different sides of the street each day to avoid tickets. The Beatles also were foreign—they came from a place where people talked funny and seemed chipper all day long. Neither group did moody or brooding very well.
By contrast, the Four Seasons looked and sounded like the older brothers of our friends who hung out at the candy store and pizza shop. They were slick, sharp, passionate and coolly adult-looking. The Ronettes seemed like their girlfriends. They had secretary hair, they pouted, they were exotic looking (Italian? Spanish? Jewish? black? white?) and they had strong New Yawk accents. For example, on The Best Part of Breaking Up, Ronnie Bennett (before she married Phil Spector) unashamedly pronounced quarrel as "quaw-will." Or on Walking in the Rain, she said "she-eye" for shy. And Ronnie's "ooo's" at the end of lines quivered slightly, like she was about to bust into tears.
Summer weekends as a kid were spent heading out to Jones Beach in the back of a stifling hot Rambler with my brother Danny and a green-and-white Coleman cooler between us filled with ice, sodas, sandwiches and Yodels. My parents were up front, their eyes glued on the car in front of us.
In the days before cell phones, the only way you wound up on the jam-packed sand with your friends is if your parents were swift enough to follow their neighbor's car out to the beach and other friends could follow yours. The caravan had to drive slowly, as though in a funeral procession, and arrive unbroken. Otherwise, you were sure to pull into one of the massive parking lots alone. As far as I could tell, it was as painful for parents to be stuck with their kids all day alone as it was for kids to be alone with overprotective mothers and exhausted fathers.
But enough nostalgia. I tell you all of this because Sony Legacy has just released The Very Best of the Ronettes, which is one in a series of releases showcasing producer Phil Spector's work in the early '60s. Spector's "Wall of Sound" technique of recording artists was great and all, but the artistry of the Ronettes was a cut above his other acts. No knock against the Crystals, Darlene Love, Bob. B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans or the rest. For me, no group resonated as deeply or as sincerely as Ronnie Bennett, her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley. The Ronettes were heartbreakers and risk-takers, singing with first-hand knowledge of rickety fire escapes, lipstick application and leather jackets.
According to the liner notes by Lenny Kaye, the Ronettes came to attention of Phil Spector by accident. Recalled Ronnie:
"We were supposed to do a background for Del Shannon, and my sister was making a call and she dialed the wrong number. Phil Spector answered. And so he says, 'Who's this?' and she said, 'Who's this?' and he had heard of us. He asked if we would be interested in doing a background session for one of his groups, and we met the next night at studio on 49th St. [in New York]. He wanted to hear how we sound. And we never did that background..."
Reissue producer Rob Santos has done a masterful job of giving these recordings a fresh lease on life. For years, the only digital recording was an early '90s effort from ABKCO, remastered under Phil Spector's supervision but oddly lousy. One suspects that the remastering technology at the time was in its infancy and prevented the result from being more dimensional and dynamic. Since then, Spector never allowed the recordings to be touched. One suspects that his conviction and imprisonment has changed his perspective on the reissue. I can tell you that the new CD has a warmth and glow that sounds mighty close to the sonics on the original 45-rpms.
Dig Born to Be Together. Or When I Saw You. Just breaks your heart how great this material sounds now. Or Do I Love You and Walking in the Rain. For me, it's the sound of open fire hydrants, handballs thwacking against cement walls and buses accelerating gruffly after picking up passengers. Which is pretty funny, since these girls from New York's Washington Heights (where I grew up) made these records at Gold Star in Hollywood.
My only quibble is that How Does It Feel was left off the collection But no worries. I'm sure it will be on a complete Ronettes package down the road. I, for one, can't wait.
JazzWax tracks: The Very Best of the Ronettes (Sony Legacy) is available at iTunes or here. There are three other CDs in this new Very Best of series: Darlene Love, The Crystals and Phil Spector 1961-1966. All were compiled and produced by Rob Santos.
JazzWax clip: Here's Walking in the Rain, recorded in September 1964. Talk about drama...