When the girls were young teens, as if to say "Okay, let's see what you've got," Ronnie and Estelle's mother, a waitress at a restaurant next door to the Apollo Theater, managed to get the girls a spot on the bill at the legendary venue's amateur night. They didn't win that evening's competition, but the audience applauded (as opposed to throwing tomatoes), and Spector still remembers the feeling. "That was it. It was the toughest crowd in town, and they liked us," she says.
The rest is show business history: The signature eye makeup and impeccable on-stage style. Hordes of shrieking fans during appearances on American Bandstand. The UK tour on which the girls spent evenings flirting and dancing with the Beatles. Bottles upon bottles of hairspray.
And, of course, the group's relationship with wunderkind producer Phil Spector, the man responsible for the "wall of sound" instrumentation that makes so many '60s records sound so beautifully, chart-toppingly lush. "Be My Baby," a song Brian Wilson has called the best pop song ever made (at 21, he was driving when he first heard it and had to pull over), is considered the first pop record to use a full orchestra, with horns, multiple pianos, and guitars layered generously over each other. Backup singers included Darlene Love and a then-unknown couple named Sonny and Cher.
To be sure, Spector was ahead of his time. But 30 seconds of any Ronettes song will tell you everything you need to know about what made the group stand out from the pack.
As the Time magazine writer Michael Enright once put it: "Ronnie had a weird natural vibrato – almost a tremolo, really – that modulated her little-girl timber into something that penetrated the Wall of Sound like a nail gun. It is an uncanny instrument. Sitting on a ragged couch in my railroad flat, I could hear her through all the arguments on the street, the car alarms, the sirens. She floated above the sound of New York while also being a part of it...stomping her foot on the sidewalk and insisting on being heard."
It's that same combination of vulnerability, sex appeal, and determinedly tough-as-nails I've-been-through-hell-so-don't-test-me bravado that still attracts fans to her shows some 50 years later — despite the fact they've probably already heard a good chunk of the story.
Her low points are well-documented: the nightmarish marriage to a jealous Phil Spector that, according to her 1989 memoir, involved death threats and the young singer being physically locked in his mansion. Then rehab, which she later said was just a means of escape from her ex-husband (who, it must be mentioned, as of this writing, is five years into a 19-year sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson — after a trial in which at least five female acquaintances recounted him holding them at gunpoint).