Southbank Centre’s ‘WOW – Women of the World Festival’ played host to Ronnie Spector and her ‘Beyond The Beehive’ night of singing, talking, laughing and crying. Like a woman creating the documentary of her life before your very eyes, the show switched between live music and anecdotes about her professional and personal struggles and triumphs, against a backdrop of projected videos and photography. Whilst this was a celebration of a career in music, it was also, very clearly, a lesson in sheer survival.
Ronnie Spector is, of course, best known as the lead singer of The Ronettes, the hugely successful all girl trio from the US, who rose to fame in the 1960s with the help of songwriter and producer Phil Sector and his Wall of Sound. Ronnie’s volatile marriage to Phil Spector and its impact on her career and sanity forms the central theme of struggle and sadness in this panoramic view of her life.
Opening with ‘Walking In The Rain’, Ronnie then begins to tell her story in chronological order between songs. Many of her tales are marked with a gentle humour. She describes how, as a teenager, she and her sister Estelle Bennet and cousin Nedra Talley (the original line up of The Ronettes) got heavily made up and dressed up in order to look old enough to get into the Peppermint Lounge in New York. Queuing up outside the club, their efforts to look the part paid off more than they could have hoped – they were mistaken for the dance act and invited on stage and Ronnie even got a chance to sing. As a result of the successful accident, they were taken on as a regular act. She recalls how they earned $10 a night each. “Back then that could buy a girl a whole lot of hairspray!” she laughs. “And if you’re wondering how I got my homework done – you can keep on wondering!”
As she plots her path from the early formation of the group through to chart hits and meeting, marrying and divorcing Phil Spector, she breaks every few minutes for a song that speaks to that part of the journey. Tracks include Cole Porter’s ‘Do I Love You?, ‘She Talks To Rainbows’ by The Ramones and ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ by George Harrison.
From anecdotes about sharing a dressing room and hairspray with Dusty Springfield to meeting an amorous John Lennon, the light-hearted moments soon become peppered with flickers of increasing interference and control by her husband. An early hint of the trouble ahead, is when Phil orders The Rolling Stones, who were support act to The Ronettes on a UK tour – just to give some perspective on how brightly her star was shining at this time – to stop speaking with Ronnie at all. Frightened by the warning, the men immediately comply.
She describes the fortress that the couple’s mansion became with high security fences and guard dogs, that would normally be designed to keep people out, becoming a way to imprison her. Frightening tales ensue of being locked in cupboards and put in a straight jacket. Forbidden from venturing out, Phil even took away her shoes so she’d have difficulty walking outside. She describes an increasing dependence on alcohol to cope with the seclusion – then darkly jokes that at least being sent to rehab was a temporary escape. Ronnie is clearly moved by relaying her story and wipes away tears on a number of occasions.
The dark years are finally turned when her mother helps her to escape and she files for divorce. But she describes how her attempts to re-establish her singing career were, more often than not, foiled by her still possessive ex-husband. She recalls how he threatened and undermined her and refused to give access to her back catalogue of work – even personally intervening to stop the The Ronettes from being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for many years.
But the struggles are balanced with happier times as Ronnie remarries and with the help of loyal friends and fans in music, begins to record and perform again. The arduous 15 year legal battle over royalties finally resulted in a $2.6m payout from Phil Spector to the band.
Whilst she talks, footage from television performances and classic black and white photographs of her – particularly in the 60s – capture the essence of the times. Photos of Ronnie with friends and fellow artists including Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and David Bowie remind us of her pop royalty status.
For an encore, she abandons the story-telling and belts out three numbers including a cover of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ which she introduces by thanking Amy’s mother, who is in the audience.
Expectations for her to play the famous ‘Be My Baby’ are finally met, as she closes the show with the song that has become her calling card.
Her powerful voice and energetic, flirty stage performance exudes confidence throughout the evening. She ends by saying that when we hear her voice, the message is that “you can go through hell and survive”. This woman of the world certainly has.
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Ronnie Spector. Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 9 March 2014. and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk