Few women epitomize early rock and roll like the legendary R&R Hall of Famer Ronnie Spector. After all, she was once referred to as the “bad girl of rock and roll” (for reasons that predate me and I’m still trying to figure out, and which I’m sure pale in comparison to what today’s bad girls can get away with).
Thankfully though, we still have Ronnie around to remind us of her incomparable 60-year legacy!
On Sunday, December 9, Ms. Spector played a concert at the Arcada Theatre in the far western suburbs of Chicago to an intimate crowd of adoring fans who were thrilled to have her here.
With a mix of holiday classics and some of the hit tunes that made her and the Ronettes famous in the early 1960s, Ronnie Spector made it clear just how much she still loves two things: Christmas and performing.
She did both justice on this chilly pre-winter night, beginning with the Ronettes’ “Frosty the Snowman” (from the legendary Phil Spector Christmas album) and the first of many reflections of Christmases past while growing up in her hometown of Spanish Harlem, NY. Minutes later, she shared images of that childhood in a photo montage on the screen behind her as she sang “It’s Christmas Once Again.”
In the middle of those two songs, as things were heating up, she tackled a couple of 1964 hits: one of her own with the Ronettes (“Do I Love You?”) and one originally done by the Dave Clark Five – the song “Because” – which she had also covered in a version on her 2016 solo album English Heart. Ronnie’s 75-year-old vocal chords sounded somewhat strained on the latter, which is a song already known for its complex chord structure. Yet somehow that didn’t detract much from its classic sound – either that or we were just a very forgiving crowd, take your pick.
The fun continued with more nostalgic video footage – this time old black-and-white clips of American Bandstand with the late Dick Clark interviewing the original Ronettes. The original trio included Spector along with her older sister, the late Estelle Bennett (to whom Ronnie later paid a small tribute), and their cousin Nedra Talley, who left the Ronettes and made a career in Christian music before getting into real estate (in Virginia Beach, VA).
The two newer “Ronettes” onstage with Spector on Sunday were clearly not even born when the girl group was having its biggest success, yet they had all the moves (and the long hair) down pat. Naturally, Ronnie had the biggest hair in the building… and appropriately so.
Perhaps the night’s most notable performance was “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine,” a heart-wrenching tale of lost love whose original 1965 version by the Ronettes was steeped in the grandness of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production technique, but on this night was converted to a more understated ballad with flourishes of dramatic chord shifts during the chorus. Ronnie’s time-withered vocals couldn’t have better captured the song’s true essence of pain and loss.
Eventually more upbeat Christmas cheer followed with songs like “Sleigh Ride,” which the Ronettes made into a perennial holiday classic, and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (the last of the three Ronettes tunes she performed from the legendary Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You album). Ronnie also threw in lesser known songs such as “The Best Christmas Ever” and the finger-snapping “It’s The Time Of Year” for good measure.
There were some interesting non-Christmas covers in the mix, too, including Ronnie’s takes on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” and The Bee Gees’ first No. 1 single, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” which she dedicated to her late sister, Estelle.
However, other cover tunes were more intuitively connected to the living legend. During a spot-on rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” for instance, Ms. Spector told of how she met the late British singer and admired her for acknowledging the Ronettes’ early rock-and-roll influence and reminding Ronnie why what she did (for music) “mattered.”
When she later performed John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” during the encore, one couldn’t help but think of her notoriously abusive relationship with ex-husband Phil, who co-produced the classic tune for the late former Beatle and his wife Yoko while the Spectors were still married. This writer admired the strength it must have taken for Ronnie to pull it off, especially given the song’s already melancholy tone.
Of course, Phil Spector’s Wall-Of-Sound signature is all over the Ronettes’ earlier repertoire of hits (which predated his and Ronnie’s rocky marriage), and none of those was more anticipated than the biggest of them all, 1963’s “Be My Baby,” Ronnie’s signature tune and one that my ‘80s generation most associates with her 1986 interpolation of it on the chorus of Eddie Money’s tune, “Take Me Home Tonight.”
The older baby boomers out there reading this would have my head for invoking that Eddie Money tune in the same breath as the Ronettes’ classic, which stands alone as one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time!
I’m just glad we got to see its originator do it one more time… live and in person!
By the time it ended, Ronnie Spector had performed roughly 20 tunes (see list below) and put on a great show. If she’s in a town near you this Christmas season, go check her out and let her put you in the spirit!
Ronnie Spector’s Set List on December 9, 2018, at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL.:
- Frosty the Snowman (Ronettes)
- Because (Dave Clark Five cover)
- Do I Love You? (Ronettes)
- It’s Christmas Once Again
- Baby I Love You (Ronettes)
- I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine (Ronettes)
- Medley: What’d I Say (Ray Charles covet)/Turn On Your Love Light
- Sleigh Ride (Ronettes)
- So Young (Ronettes)
- The Best Christmas Ever
- Walking In The Rain (Ronettes)
- I Take What I Want (the band without Ronnie)
- How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (Bee Gees cover)
- It’s The Time Of Year
- Back to Black (Amy Winehouse cover)
- Be My Baby (Ronettes)
- (Encore) I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (Ronettes)
- Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon/Yoko Ono – Plastic Ono Band cover)
- I Can Hear Music