50 Years of The Ronnettes’ ‘Be My Baby’: An Oral History
In August 1963, Brian Wilson had to pull off the road because the song coming from his car radio overpowered his ability to drive. The same thing happened to America. That month, the sounds of musical and social change manifested in the form of four beats, four syllables, and four unmistakable “whoa, oh, oh, ohs.” The arrival of “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes was so vivid the song became instantly synonymous with the term “wall of sound.”
In the early 1960s, gender roles were corroding and all-female vocal ensembles (“girl groups”) grew in popularity. The songs encompassed a “wall of contradictions” that young female listeners faced in real life. Were women supposed to be obedient or defiant? Were they rebels or wives? These new questions were as mystifying as the luminous chiffon and choreographed dances typified by the groups.
“By My Baby” stood apart because of its unseemly assertions of love. Spector summons reverberant romance in the song, which splays out a whole orchestra – strings, guitars, a swathe of singers (including a young Sonny and Cher!), drums – wrapped around a single voice: “For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three,” she sings.
This history of “Be My Baby” is written in three chapters: rock pioneer Hal Blaine was Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew drummer responsible for the incendiary drum introduction. Twenty-five years later, Eddie Money revitalized the song and restored Ronnie Spector’s career with “Take Me Home Tonight.” And finally, the inimitable, Ronnie Spector: the vocalist who will be waiting for us, ‘til eternity.
New York City: Ronnie Bennett grew up a few blocks away from her teen idol, Frankie Lymon, who lived on 165th Street. She met him at a party when she was 13. Later, she formed the Ronettes with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley.
Ronnie Spector: I owe my career to Frankie Lymon. When I was thirteen and heard “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” I was in love with that voice. I didn’t know if it was a boy or girl, I just loved it. I would sit in my grandmother’s house and play it over and over. You had the McGuire Sisters growing up, the Andrews Sisters – that’s who my grandmother wanted us to be like. But it was Frankie Lymon. That was the voice I wanted to be. I listened to him every day after school until I got every lyric down and every melody line down and that’s how I started singing.
Hal Blaine: I was living in the State Theater in Hartford, seeing every dance and theater act, singers like Frank Sinatra, everybody. And I became a drummer. The Ronettes were beautiful little Puerto Rican ladies from New York. When I went in to do the session, this was their session. I was no different than the guy who puts the doors on the General Electric refrigerators.
Spector: We had a different look. We were multi-racial, number one, so we had naturally long hair, we didn’t have to wear wigs and all that stuff. And then came my voice. And when we met Phil Spector, he said, “That voice. I have to have that voice.”
Gold Star Studios, Los Angeles: “Be My Baby” was produced by Phil Spector, the “Tycoon of Teen,” written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and backed by Spector’s session musicians, The Wrecking Crew.
Blaine: We went in, our little Wrecking Crew. Phil tagged us the “Wall of Sound.” Jack Nitzsche was the arranger. I didn’t know [at the time] that Jeff Barry was also a songwriter for “Be My Baby.” I was happy to hear that. So many drummers refused to play that “dirty, filthy, nasty music,” I came along out of the Count Basie Band, and I’d play anything, you know, if it paid money it paid money.
Phil would come out and the players would be like, ‘What’s this kid [doing] telling me what to play?’ These guys were the top players. But they understood that [Spector] was right in what he was doing. It took about four to five hours to finish a record. If we started at four or five, we’d finish around eleven. At that time, Phil would go with Larry Levine, always the same engineer, and he would mix that record all night. Then by four or five in the morning, he got right in the car and took it straight to radio stations before anyone else could think of recording that same song. That’s where Phil was ahead of his time. By the time they played it, the song was already a hit and people were buying it.
August 1963: “Be My Baby” reaches No. 2 on U.S. Billboard Pop Singles Chart and No. 4 on the R&B Chart and becomes a crossover sensation.
Spector: “Be My Baby” — that was like giving us gold. [Before that song] we were just dancing girls, we worked at the Peppermint Lounge. But when we had the hit record it was just — like “Oh my God.” Our parents were happier than we were. It was amazing.
Blaine: Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco, and I worked in nightclubs, six to seven nights a week for seventy to eighty dollars. All of a sudden, it was like we fell into a vat of chocolate. It was an amazing time. All of a sudden we’re making $1,000 a day. It’s like becoming a superstar in the movies. Arrangers, producers, engineers would say, “This music is just a guide for you. Do whatever you feel is right for the song.” People eventually were coming from all over the world to record with The Wrecking Crew. Drummers were calling and asking, “What did you do?” And I’d say, “Man, it’s just a backbeat. All you’re doing is playing a backbeat. It might be a straight eighth, it might be a shuffle song, but you’re still playing a backbeat. That’s what makes people dance. If we made people feel good, we had a good hit.
Eddie Money: I grew up with the girl groups — the Shirelles, the Crystals — but everybody had a big crush on Ronnie. I used to watch the Ronettes at the Brooklyn Fox Theater! DJ Murray the K! I was fourteen or fifteen years old and with a bunch of kids from Brooklyn who were stealing cars and sitting on telephone books so they could reach the pedals.
August 1986: Eddie Money’s hit “Take Me Home Tonight” features Ronnie Spector and “Be My Baby” after nearly a decade of silence and near career-collapse.
Money: When we put out “Take Me Home Tonight” and it got to the part “just like Ronnie says,” Columbia Records wanted me to use Walter Davis from Walter Davis and the Motels. But I said, “You know what, we’ve gotta get Ronnie.” The song had two choruses in it: “Take me home tonight” and “Be my little baby.” So I called her and I said, “I’ve got a song that’s a real tribute to you with this chorus of ‘Be My Baby,’ so what are you doing?” And she says, “Well, I’m doing the dishes.” She’d dropped out of the music business, she got married, had a couple kids. But I said, “You gotta come out and do this song with me.”
— Sarah Grant for Radio.com