At 70, the original bad girl of rock 'n' roll is having the time of her life
LEFT OF THE DIAL How do you address a woman who toured with the Rolling Stones as an opening act, while being chased after by a baby-faced John Lennon? Who had five singles in the Top 40 by the age of 21? Who perfected the beehive hairdo two decades before Amy Winehouse was even born?
"Call me Ronnie," purrs Ronnie Spector, age 70, on the other end of the line. You can almost hear the hairdo.
The woman who influenced performers like Billy Joel, Patti Smith, and Joey Ramone is calling from a suburb near Danbury, Conn., where she lives with her manager/husband of 30 years, Jonathan Greenfield. Their life is a quiet one. Spector — who, as the lead singer of the Ronettes, perhaps the most iconic girl group of the early '60s thanks to hits like "Be My Baby," has been described as the original bad girl of rock 'n' roll — likes to read and watch movies. She goes grocery shopping, does a little cooking, goes to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Three times a week she goes to an office and dictates responses to her fan mail to an assistant (she doesn't like to use the Internet much herself). She doesn't drink (never has, she says), but she still smokes (Marlboro Reds).
Okay, and every now and then she'll catch up with her old friend Keith Richards, who lives 15 minutes away.
For the past two years, the '60s icon has also been on tour again: Her one-woman stage show, "Beyond the Beehive," chronicles her tumultuous life from childhood onward, punctuated with songs, stories, behind-the-scenes dirt and dishing. She'll bring elements of that show to the Bay Area July 4 weekend, when she performs at Brick and Mortar Music Hall Sat/5 (in a ridiculously fabulous-sounding evening hosted by Peaches Christ) and at Burger Boogaloo in Oakland's Mosswood Park Sun/6.
So: Why would someone who's lived such a full life — not to mention a self-described homebody — put herself through the rigors of a touring stage show at a time in her life when she could be resting on her laurels? Or at least, one might think, just resting?
"Because I love it — it lets all of my emotions out," says Ronnie, sounding straight-up girlishly, genuinely excited. "When I first started, of course, I was scared to death: I've been on stage singing since I was a little girl, but I never had to sit down and talk to an audience. Now, I feel so good after I do that show. I go through the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them everything, and I'm nervous every time, but I love it."
A little like on-stage therapy, no?
"I stopped going to therapy when I started 'Beehive'!" she cries. "Who needs a psychiatrist? My show is my therapy. The audience loves it, I love it, and I get to tell them things I never got to talk about.
"Because a lot of stories from my life — ooh, if walls could talk..."
FROM HARLEM TO HOLLYWOOD
Born to a Cherokee and African American mother and an Irish father, a drummer, on Aug. 10, 1943, Veronica Bennett grew up in Spanish Harlem, in a large, working-class family that served as her first audience.
"When I was 7 or 8, me and eight of my cousins were in the lobby of our building and I was singing 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love' — the sound was great down there, the tall ceilings — and my cousins all started clapping," she recalls. "And I thought, I got it! From that point on, all I thought about was singing. I didn't do homework. The teachers were calling my house saying 'She's just singing for the class.' It was all I cared about." She spent hours singing with her sister, Estelle Bennett, and cousin, Nedra Talley, the trio that would go on to become the Ronettes.