Ronnie Spector: For Every Kiss You Give Me, I’ll Give You Three

This article was originally written by Chuck Miller for Goldmine magazine in 1998.

At the center is a voice. A voice that could wring emotion out of any lyric; a voice that could capture an audience and share the emotions of ecstacy and pain and love and longing. A voice that has evolved over the past four decades of performing – a voice that captured rock singers and producers and presidents and servicemen and family members and music lovers all over the world. It was a coquette’s voice, packed in Salome’s body and powered by the diesel engine of rock and roll.

It was born in the street corner serenades of Spanish Harlem; it grew alongside a Wall of Sound; it almost lost the sunshine in a California hothouse; but it came back even stronger, thriving with the Boss and Eddie Money and a whole new audience. And today, armed with the energy of a new record label and the support of her husband, her family and three generations of fans, Ronnie Spector is back on stage and back in the record stores – ready to take back her place in the tapestry of rock and roll history.

“Just before I go on stage,” said Ronnie, “my heart starts beating hard, and it’s like ‘oh no…’ – and then you get out there, and after that first song and going into the second song, that’s when it all starts happening for me. That’s when I know if I have the audience or not, and I can usually tell in the first couple of songs if I have them. Once you take the stage, it’s like you don’t have any problems, you don’t think about your children, you don’t think about your husband, you don’t think about anything but the people in the audience and pleasing them. I feel I have to give them my all, because they paid to come see me. It’s a love relationship you have with your audience – they give love to me, and it makes me love them. It’s impossible to not have that.”

An entire generation first heard Ronnie’s voice as the lead singer of the doo-wop bad-girl trio the Ronettes, as she cooed “Be My Baby” in the summer of 1963. But some music fans say her singing career began on August 10, 1943, when Veronica Bennett, on her first day of life, sang at the top of her lungs at the maternity ward. Ronnie grew up in Spanish Harlem, New York’s true melting pot. “I went back to the neighborhood three years ago, when I was doing a piece for Entertainment Tonight. I loved being in Spanish Harlem, because at night you heard the Tito Puente records and the Spanish music that was lulling me to sleep. I grew up hearing the music outside the window.”

Veronica loved hearing music so much, she would perform her own living room concerts for her family, singing top 40 songs of the day like “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” or “Jambalaya” for them. Her mother, Beatrice Bennett, made ends meet by working as a waitress at King’s Donuts in Spanish Harlem.

One day during her shift, Bobby Schiffman, whose family owned the legendary Apollo Theatre, entered the donut shop and started up a conversation with Ronnie’s mother. That conversation lead to an opportunity for Ronnie and her sisters and cousins to appear at Amateur Night at the Apollo. At the age of 14, Veronica Bennett, her sister Estelle and her cousin Nedra Talley, practiced for their first performance in front of a non-upholstered audience. Feeling that a trio wouldn’t be enough, they added two more cousins, Elaine and Ira, and took the stage at the Apollo.

Unfortunately, once the curtain went up, lead singer Ira was hit by stage fright. With the orchestra playing “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” Ronnie took charge – she grabbed the microphone from Ira’s hands, and sang a four-star performance that won over the discerning Apollo audience.

By 1960, the trio of Veronica, Estelle and Nedra started working with a small time agent, Phil Halikus, who had connections with the Brill Building and its team of songwriters. For almost a year, Halikus got the girls – now known as the “Darling Sisters” – their first paying gigs, birthday parties and bah mitzvahs. Within a year, Halikus upped the ante and introduced the Darling Sisters to Stu Phillips of Colpix Records, and the girls recorded their first 45’s.

Many of the songs recorded at the Colpix sessions were either Top 40 standards like “Silhouettes” or Brill Building assembly-line product like “You Bet I Would,” written by a young Carole King. Colpix released one single from the recording sessions, “Sweet Sixteen,” credited to “Ronnie and the Relatives,” and the girls bought as many copies as they could for family and friends.

But despite Ronnie and the Relatives’ enthusiasm, “Sweet Sixteen” sold very few copies, and it was back to the bar mitzvah circuit. “Most of the songs I recorded for Colpix I really didn’t understand, because we were too young. The only song I liked was ‘(What’s So Sweet About) Sweet Sixteen,” because I was sixteen, and I didn’t have a hit record, so I was very depressed because of it. So certain songs I could relate to. But we didn’t have a say-so in picking our songs back then.”

But by that time, Ronnie wanted to move forward – she wanted to go to the Peppermint Lounge, the top dance club in New York City and home of the “Twist” dance. In 1961, the Peppermint Lounge was the place to be at and to be seen. Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra took a chance and went to the Peppermint Lounge, hopefully to find a job performing or singing in the club.

When the front door guard saw the three girls, their hair teased high and their hem lines even higher, with two of them looking suspiciously under age to enter a club that served alcohol, he went inside to get a manager. The manager came out, saw Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra, and asked, “What are you doing out here on line? You’re already late!”

Instantly, the girls were whisked into the Peppermint Lounge, and placed on stage to dance behind Joey Dee and the Starliters, who were performing that night. The manager had mistaken Ronnie and the Relatives for some dancing girls that he had hired, and when those girls didn’t show up and these girls did … opportunity knocked, and Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra all made the most of it. They danced behind Joey Dee, and when Ronnie was offered the microphone during a performance of “What’d I Say,” she excitedly tore into the song, to the amazement of the band and the audience. Eventually the girls were welcomed as regulars at the Peppermint Lounge.

“You never saw people taking drugs at the Peppermint Lounge,” said Ronnie. “It’s like a different world now, because drugs are so much a part of everything. In the 60’s, when I was in the Peppermint Lounge, I never smelled a joint, I never saw people taking drugs – I saw people having fun. And it was not like – let’s drink and take drugs to get the feeling of the beat. It was none of that. When people drank there, it was because you had been dancing so long, the drink was just to quench your thirst – whether it was a soda or scotch. But it was certainly not a ‘let’s go there to get drunk’ place. In the 60’s, everything was fun. And that’s what’s missing now, I think.”

By then, the girls had also changed their name – no longer the Darling Sisters or “Ronnie and the Relatives,” at the suggestion of Ronnie’s mother, the girls took their first names and combined them into the “Ronettes.”

Joey Dee took them to Florida, where they helped him opened the Miami branch of the Peppermint Lounge. During one of their performances, the Ronettes caught the eye of Murray “the K” Kaufman, the legendary New York disc jockey. Kaufman immediately hired Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra for his shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre, were teenagers could pay $2.50 for the pleasure of seeing ten to fifteen Top 40 artists of the day. On those shows, the Ronettes were introduced as “Murray’s Dancing Girls,” and also sang backup for other artists on the show. The Ronettes had their own time on stage, and their performances – unbridled sensuality coupled with tough doo-wop harmonies, with their high-teased hair and thick Spanish Harlem eyeliner and slitted miniskirts – was so different from the demure appearances of girls like the Shirelles or the Chantels that it captivated the crowd.

In the audience at the Brooklyn Fox was a young producer who already had some hits to his credit, Phil Spector. He enjoyed the concerts at the Brooklyn Fox, and noticed the reaction that many of these acts had with the kids in the audience. He also noticed the with no songs on the radio and no singles in the stores, the Ronettes still generated enthusiastic applause.

One afternoon, Estelle and Ronnie were talking in their bedroom, discussing getting back into a recording studio and making records again. Eventually, Estelle got the idea to call Phil Spector – and that maybe the man who had a #1 hit with the Crystals could get them a #1 hit as well. Within an instant, Estelle got the phone number for Philles Records, and told the secretary she wanted to speak to Phil Spector himself. Amazingly, the secretary put the call through directly to Spector. Spector knew about the Ronettes from the Brooklyn Fox shows, and gladly offered them a chance to record for him.

Originally, Phil only wanted to sign Ronnie to a contract, but Beatrice Bennett said that the Ronettes were a package deal – sign all three or none at all. So in 1962, Veronica Bennett, Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley became part of Phil Spector’s Philles Records.

The Ronettes arrived at a most opportune time – Phil Spector’s artists were benefitting from a “Wall of Sound,” a multitracked, overdubbed aural symphony Phil used as the smorgasbord to highlight his singers, with his “wrecking crew” of session musicians like Hal Blaine on drums, Leon Russell on piano, and Glen Campbell on guitar. And the stable of writers Phil used – Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Pete Andreoli and Vinnie Poncia – were among the top tunesmiths of their day.

The Ronettes were also among a new wave in pop music, as girl groups like the Angels, the Shangri-Las, the Chiffons and the Orlons were bringing female pop music harmony from its “I wish I had a boy who loved me” malaise into a lyrically tougher edge; why wait for Richie or Potsie when you can demand – and get – Fonzie or Chachi.

Even though the Ronettes rehearsed and recorded songs like “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love,” Phil Spector looked instead for a song he felt would showcase Ronnie’s powerful voice in the best possible light. One day, when Phil invited Ronnie to his New York penthouse apartment, then disappeared for a while, Ronnie could hear Phil working around a piano with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich on a new song. Through the walls of the penthouse, all she could hear was “Be my baby, be my baby now…”

It was the missing piece to the puzzle.

Recorded in July 1963 at Gold Star Studios, Phil Spector’s acoustically favorite recording setting, “Be My Baby” had all the earmarks of a great hit – a booming hooky intro and chorus, the thick “Wall of Sound” background, all centered around Ronnie’s voice – a song sung not in passive tense (“I want him”), but in the active tense (“I want you”). It was a song aimed at every teenage boy who wanted to date a different kind of girl – not the prom queen, but the tough girl who could clobber her adversary like Mae Young could defeat the Fabulous Moolah.

That summer, “Be My Baby” took off like a rocket, taking root on every radio station and TV dance party. It eventually reached #2 in Billboard and #1 in Cashbox, and people in the Peppermint Lounge were slow twisting to a brand new hit. Suddenly the Ronettes went from being “Murray the K’s Dancing Girls” to headliners at the Brooklyn Fox and at the Apollo Theatre.

“On the marquee, the Ronettes’ name was as big as the words APOLLO,” said Ronnie, “and I was in shock. When I was a little girl, my mother worked right next door as a waitress, and I had to come there every day after school and be stuck in the employment lounge of the donut shop, and the Apollo was everything to me. The lights, the excitement, that’s where you saw people laughing. I was 10, 11 years old, watching all these happy people and lines around the block. So the Apollo, to me, was like my God, it’s like royalty if you go over there. If the audience loved you, the whole world will love you if the Apollo loves you. I used to watch people going into this place, all my young life, from 7, 8 years old, and saying, there must be some incredible performers in there, to have all these lines of people outside. And mind you, the people were not all just black people, they were white, Chinese, Spanish – of course, today, they say the Apollo is for Black stars. But when I was a little kid growing up, I saw white, black, Spanish, Chinese, everybody standing on line. It wasn’t like a black place to go – in my mind, as a little girl, that’s all I saw is those lines, and I saw people from every color.”

But when the Ronettes headlined that evening, a riot broke out among rival ethnic gangs over what nationality the girls really were. One all-black gang said the Ronettes were black like them, while a Hispanic gang said the girls were Spanish, like them. The girls were indeed multi-racial – black, white, Spanish, Chinese, a family tree of many different roots – but when they took the stage that night at the Apollo, they were accepted by all races and nationalities in the audience.

With their success, the Ronettes were booked on an international tour, and a new group called the Rolling Stones were their British opening act. When the Stones made their first concert appearances on American soil, Ronnie brought them into her home in New York, where Beatrice cooked homemade breakfasts for them. Ronnie never lost contact with the Rolling Stones, especially lead guitarist Keith Richards.

Flash forward to December 1998, when Ronnie Spector performed a Christmas show in New York. She sang a mixture of three decades of her hits and classics, then “special guest” Joey Ramone joined her for a duet on “Baby I Love You.”

Then, Ronnie points to stage right and says “Our next guest needs no introduction…”

And Keith Richards, guitar in hand and ready to rock, hits the stage. He hugged Ronnie, sang a Chuck Berry classic, and closed with “Be My Baby.”

For Ronnie, the memories of working with Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones flooded back like a bright light in a dark room. “I love Keith Richards,” said Ronnie. “He’s raw and he’s real, and seeing him at the Christmas show, it was like I saw him a few weeks ago. It was like we still had that same vibe, I could tell that once he hit that stage, him and that guitar. And it was just like it was in the 60’s, a 30-year flashback, the most amazing feeling.

“It was more than that though, because before they came to America and stayed in my house and slept on the floor, we toured with them – they were the nicest guys, and we just kept up a relationship, either through mail or faxing or phone calls through years and years and years. When I saw Keith last year, all those feelings came running back to me. It was sort of sexual – I felt like he was saying to me, ‘Where have you been?’ – I felt his compassion for me, in other words. We were both married of course, but if we could have spent one night together … The look I had in my eyes, and the look I knew he had in his eyes, it was like ‘If we could only have one night together, forget about our wives and husband and kids, just me and you, babe’ – it was that feeling.

“I’ve always loved the Rolling Stones’ music, and if I do listen to something, if I go over to my sister-in-law’s house and stuff, I put the Rolling Stones on. I love their music, they stayed the same, which has made them great. Mick is out there, shaking his tush, and it’s so good to see people that are just out there, rocking and rolling, and that’s why they’re great and they always have an audience.”

It’s a sweltering summer Saturday in Central Park, the temperature as hot as your true love’s first kiss. Rollerbladers and bicyclists and dog walkers travel up and down the pathways; sunbathers increase their tans on Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. As four thousand people fill the seats for the first performance of “Summerstage 1999” – a free concert series featuring a variety of artists and musicians – Ronnie Spector gets ready. She had already wowed the parks volunteers and stagehands at the soundcheck; and as New York oldies disc jockey “Cousin Brucie” Morrow called out her name, she took the stage.

With every song she sang, the crowd cheered and begged for more. She sang all the classic oldies – “Baby, I Love You,” “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” “I Can Hear Music.” By the time she got to her signature song, “Be My Baby,” there were four thousand Ronettes in the audience, all singing backup.

A hundred yards away from the Summerstage is Strawberry Fields, an enclave in Central Park dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Ronnie remembered the Beatles – her career intertwined with the Fab Four’s so much she could almost be considered a fifth Beatle.

In December 1963, when the Ronettes made their first UK tour, executives from Decca Records (the Ronettes’ UK label) introduced the girls to the Beatles – and the early stages of Beatlemania. The Fab Four danced with the Ronettes all night, and before long, Estelle and George Harrison had paired off, while Ronnie spent some quiet time with John Lennon.

“Paul McCartney was with Jane Asher, they were engaged,” said Ronnie. “This was before Beatlemania took place, when they were just playing in clubs in England, I saw Paul and Jane sitting there, and I was dancing with George and Ringo and John, but Paul was sort of spoken for – and he’d be sitting there in a corner with Jane, and she was a TV star back then. She came from a very influential family, so he sort of did what she said back then.”

Ronnie and John’s conversations eventually brought them closer than friends, but both had other commitments – John had a wife and a baby on the way; and Ronnie was spending more personal time with Phil Spector. But throughout their lives, Ronnie and John never lost contact with each other – and eventually, John helped Ronnie in her solo comeback.

In 1963, a young singer-songwriter named Brian Wilson fell in love with “Be My Baby,” and attempted to write a follow-up record that the Ronettes could record. “That’s my all-time favorite song,” said Wilson in Rolling Stone. “When I first heard [‘Be My Baby’] in my car, I had to pull over to the side of the street to listen to it. It blew my mind.”

Wilson brought a demo of “Don’t Worry Baby” to Phil Spector, who rejected it in favor of his own compositions. Ronnie still remembered that day in the studio, with Wilson peeking through the window and waving at her, begging her to listen to his new song. “In those days, the producers wanted their own writers to write their own material. Brian Wilson didn’t care, he wrote ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ especially for me, after he heard ‘Be My Baby.’ I was very hot coming off a #1 record, ‘Be My Baby,’ and so Phil and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry wrote ‘Baby, I Love You,’ while Brian Wilson wrote his song as if it was tailor-made for my voice and everything. In the early 60’s, the writers and the publishers were the main key that determined what your next song was. But ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was a song that when I first heard it, I almost fell off the chair. It was such a perfect follow-up to ‘Be My Baby.’ You know what I mean? ‘Be My Baby,’ and then next, ‘Don’t Worry Baby,’ how sexy is that? That is just so sexy.”

Disappointed but nonetheless undaunted, Wilson took the song back to the Beach Boys, whose version became a Top 40 classic.

Meanwhile, after putting the finishing touches on “Baby, I Love You,” Ronnie joined the rest of the Ronettes on tour with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars (replacing her cousin Elaine, who had been singing lead in Ronnie’s absence).

“What people don’t know is that when Dick Clark wasn’t doing American Bandstand, he was on a little dinky bus along with all the other acts, whether it was Little Eva or Frankie Avalon or Bobby Rydell, and it was so much fun. I love Dick Clark – when we went on our first tour with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, he only had a little bunk in the front to lay down in, and he would give me or the other two Ronettes the bunk, and he would let us lay down and he would stand next to the bus driver or with his wife. He didn’t demand anything just because he was the great Dick Clark. You could tell that he wanted everybody to make it. He was a man, and he was rich and he had his own TV show every Saturday – but to actually see this man on a bus, with all the groups, and not letting any of the groups go into hotels when they would give the black groups a hard time. I remember going inside diners and getting hamburgers for a lot of the black guys – I never thought about black or white until I traveled on the Dick Clark tours, and I saw people afraid to go into a restaurant because of the color of their skin and what might happen to them if they did.”

Although Philles Records held their own on the pop charts with the major labels like RCA, Capitol and Decca, they were still a small independent company, and financial success was only as good as their last hit 45. For Phil Spector, that meant every song had to be in instant hit – and the only way he could guarantee payment from the network of independent distributors was to produce hits that would dominate the airwaves and sell lots of copies. This drive for perfection, along with endless rehearsals and an end-justifies-the-means method of business, invariably drove wedges between the producer and many of his artists. He would record studio groups like the Blossoms, and release their material as “Crystals” hits. Even on the Crystals’ debut LP (Philles 4003), Ronnie Bennett’s unmistakable – and uncredited – voice can be heard singing lead on ‘The Twist” and “The Mashed Potato.”

In 1963, Spector harnessed many of his artists – the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, to an all-star Christmas album. A Christmas Gift for You(Philles 4005). The Ronettes sang “Frosty The Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “Sleigh Ride.” Although the record itself stiffed on its first release (John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, taking much of the Christmas mood out of the country), over the years the album has become a perennial holiday favorite, with the Ronettes’ tracks popping up on rock stations the way Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and Elton John’s “Stepping Into Christmas” return like clockwork.

But if a Philles song didn’t become a hit out of the box, sometimes it was yanked right out of the catalog. When a Darlene Love song, “Stumble and Fall,” didn’t receive encouraging sales, it was replaced – catalog number and all – with the Ronettes’ “Walking In The Rain.” “Walking In The Rain,” with Ronnie’s vocals recorded in one take, became not only a huge Top 40 hit, but also became a successful marriage of voice and music and sound effects (the crash of thunder surrounding her in a recorded evening shower with the boy of her dreams).

By 1966, the Ronettes were booked for a tour through Germany. At an army base in Gelnhausen, the girls got ready for their show – and discovered their audience were wall-to-wall GI’s who were a continent away from their wives and girlfriends – and took out their testosteronic excitement on the Ronettes.

“I was afraid of Germany because of Hitler, because we heard all these terrible stories about Hitler when I was a kid. And before we went on tour, Phil wrote me a letter, saying, ‘How could you go to Germany?’ Because he was Jewish. But we were playing for the American soldiers. To go all the way over there and see how great it was, and to see how hungry those guys were to see a girl – three of us, all decked out with the slit skirts and the long hair and the eyeliner out to there. I was used to people being shocked with our look. But over there, to play for all men that weren’t having sex at the time – my God, we three thought we had created sex for them! Men were having orgasms on the floor!! I never forgot it, because they were so passionate towards us. One of the MP’s said, ‘Ronnie, you’ve got to get out of this place, they’re rioting, they’re throwing bottles and rocks!’ These guys were so in awe – their mouths had dropped and their eyes were as huge as 50-cent pieces, that’s how I remember their look – the look of LUST!!”

Eventually the professional and personal relationships of Phil Spector and Ronnie Bennett grew closer and closer, and they married in 1968. Mr. and Mrs. Spector moved to a Los Angeles mansion, where servants waited on Ronnie hand and foot. But before long, that California mansion became a claustrophobic prison – the day after their wedding night, workers surrounded the mansion with barbed wire and an electrical fence. Soon after that, the grounds became the domain of attack dogs, and woe be to any visitor.

Ronnie became a prisoner in her own mansion, a songbird with golden handcuffs and a platinum muzzle. Performing was out of the question; she was now Veronica Spector, multimillionaire producer’s wife. Whatever Phil thought she wanted, he bought for her – including three kids (including making Ronnie wear a pillow under her dress when people came over to the mansion so they would think she was pregnant) and a car (with its own inflatable replica of Phil Spector to ride shotgun in case somebody thought she was driving alone). In her book Be My Baby, she recounts stories of how she suffered from bouts of mental and emotional abuse at the hands of Phil Spector, and she eventually turned to an open liquor cabinet in the hopes of making the pain stop.

While Ronnie was shuttered in the mansion, many of the Ronettes’ biggest hits were re-appearing on the pop charts, albeit in radically different interpretations from the original “Wall of Sound” productions. Jay and the Americans had a Top 40 hit with “Walking In The Rain,” while the Partridge Family added that song on as an album track. Cissy Houston had an R&B hit with “Be My Baby.” And Andy Kim recorded two Ronettes songs – “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You.”

But Ronnie remained record-less – until 1971, when she crossed paths with the Beatles again.

Phil Spector had been working with John Lennon and George Harrison on their post-Beatle albums, and eventually signed Ronnie to a recording contract with Apple Records. As part of Spector’s deal with Apple, the former Beatles requested – and got – a recording contract for Ronnie Spector with Apple. She flew out to England, excited to record a George Harrison song like “My Sweet Lord” or “Here Comes The Sun.” What she got was something entirely different – a slow ballad called “Try Some, Buy Some” (Apple 1832).

Although the song did climb the Billboard charts, eventually peaking at #77, “Try Some, Buy Some” was a radical departure from previous Ronettes hits – the lyrics barely made sense (Ronnie tried her best with the song, but she never figured out who “Big Fry” was), the key was way out of Ronnie’s vocal range, and the tempo was as slow as a madrigal. There were plans for a proposed Ronnie Spector album featuring input from Lennon and Harrison, including a version of “You” that ended up on Harrison’s Extra Texture album, but the project never got off the ground, and Ronnie was flown back to the Spector compound.

“Try Some, Buy Some” reappeared once more, this time as recorded by Harrison on hisLiving in the Material World album. “[Phil] liked my ‘Try Some, Buy Some,'” said George Harrison in a Musician interview, “so we orchestrated it and knocked off a B-side for a Ronnie single on Apple in ’71 (“Tandoori Chicken”) … We also did a song which I later used on Extra Texture called ‘You.’ It was high for me, singing it, because I wrote it in Ronnie Spector’s key and put my vocals on the instrumental track we’d completed. [A proposed Ronnie Spector album] didn’t come out, because Phil couldn’t last in the studio for more than a few hours. We did about four very rough backing tracks. I loved those Ronettes records and those Phil Spector records. I still do.”

With the claustrophobia from being Phil’s trophy wife in a maximum security mansion bearing down on her, Ronnie found unique ways to escape – get so drunk that Phil would send her to a detoxification center; or spend nights at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Even Beatrice Bennett, Ronnie’s mother, came out for a visit and saw her daughter was an emotional train wreck. In 1972, Ronnie Spector, with the help of her mother, finally escaped the mansion. She had to leave barefoot; Phil had confiscated all her shoes. Two years later, the Spectors were divorced.

After Ronnie finally left Phil for good, she attempted to resurrect her career. Neither Estelle nor Nedra were interested or able to resume being Ronettes, so Ronnie hired two new singers, Denise Edwards and Chip Fields, as new Ronettes. With new producer Stan Vincent, she recorded two singles for Buddah – “Lover Lover” (Buddah 384) and a remake of “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” (Buddah 408), and, with Fields and Edwards behind her, headlined a Madison Square Garden Richard Nader oldies show.

“Chip Fields and Denise Edwards weren’t family, they were two girls that I hired when I came back from California because the other two Ronettes didn’t want to sing any more. So I had to go out and find two new Ronettes. One of the girls that sang background with me, you know Kim Fields from The Facts of Life? Chip Fields was her mother, and she was one of the 70’s Ronettes. I remember going down to Harlem once, and Chip Fields was there with her manager, and they had this youth center for all the little kids in the neighborhood. And Chip and her manager would show all the girls in the youth center, there this is what you should look like to be a proper lady – meaning me. And I was very proud that they used me as an example of how you should look, talk, act and everything.”

Sitting in the Madison Square Garden audience, among the thousands of music lovers and oldies enthusiasts and doo-wop afficionados was a high school student named Jonathan Greenfield, who attended the show on his birthday. When Ronnie and the Ronettes took the stage and began their set, Greenfield was captivated – by Ronnie’s voice, by her sex appeal, by her very essence.

After the Madison Square Garden show, Ronnie and her new Ronettes, along with a three-piece band, headlined at New York’s Continental Baths. The crowd of towel-draped men loved Ronnie’s show, to the point where she exhausted her set list and started singing songs like “Superstition” and “Love Train.” “In true Bette Midler style,” said Melody Maker reporter Vicki Wickham, “‘tacky’ was the word, but it was glorious tack! … Ronnie always could sing. She still can … There’s definitely a place for Ronnie and the Ronettes in all our lives – and Ronnie at the Baths was perfect.”

In the audience one night at the Baths was a singer-songwriter named Johnny Thunders, who was better known to the patrons of CBGB’s as one of the members of the New York Dolls. Thunders loved Ronnie’s songs, and the emotion of her voice and the passion of her performance nearly brought him to tears. The paths of Ronnie Spector and Johnny Thunders would cross again after the Continental Baths – but not for another 25 years.

But returning to performing was difficult, more difficult than Ronnie could imagine. The divorce proceedings were anything but amicable; one night in Las Vegas, before she took the stage, Ronnie received a phone call from Phil Spector, who told her he hired a hitman to take her life that night. She began to drink more, hoping the alcohol would drown her fears – but it only intensified them. By 1975, Ronnie had disbanded her new Ronettes, and left the world of rock and roll behind.

Meanwhile, a new wave of Ronette-mania was rising – this time among East Coast musicians who grew up with the bad-girl-group sound of the Ronettes and pursued a career in the hopes of meeting somebody like Ronnie Spector.

Through her friendship with John Lennon, Ronnie met producer Jimmy Iovine, who was working on a new album for a band from Asbury Park, New Jersey, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The musical energy the Jukes put out captured Ronnie’s attention, and eventually Iovine recorded her in a duet with Southside Johnny, “You Mean So Much To Me,” which later appeared on the Jukes’ debut album, I Don’t Want To Go Home. “I had nothing to do,” said Ronnie in Creem magazine, “so I went down there. And I freaked! You see, once I see music and lights there’s this urge; I can’t help it. They were singing and I started singing.”

Also in the recording studio that day was Bruce Springsteen, who had always been fascinated by Phil Spector’s production work. Ronnie and Bruce became fast friends, as Springsteen asked her tons of questions about who performed on what Crystals record, or how many guitars were used on a Righteous Brothers track. At that same time, a staffer from Epic Records, Steve Popovich, offered Ronnie a demo of a Billy Joel song – with Joel singing in a very high register, almost in Ronnie’s vocal range.

It turned out that Joel had specifically wrote the song with the Ronettes in mind. So armed with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and the Billy Joel song, Ronnie Spector began work on the single “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (Epic 50374), the first recording with the E Street Band sharing a label credit. Although the record failed to chart, it is still considered by both Ronnie Spector fans and Bruce Springsteen fans as a watershed masterpiece – at a time when The Boss wasn’t even supposed to be recording, at least not legally. “When I recorded ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood,’ Bruce was getting sued, that was during the three years that he wasn’t supposed to do any recording or writings, because he was having those management programs. You see him on the picture sleeve with the E Street Band, but they don’t have his name anywhere, because he had given up all his royalties and rights to his writing, and he was in court trying to win all of that back. So while you’re in court, you cannot perform or write because it would only go to those people that he was suing.”

Bruce played shows with Ronnie Spector as his special guest, and they sang “Be My Baby” together in Asbury Park and East Rutherford and New York City, where she did a six-night stretch with Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Palladium Theater. “Many nights he was so confused, because he was so upset, he didn’t know the record business – like none of us really know it when you’re first getting in it, and you don’t know how people can steal from you and rip you off. He’d talk at length about it. We went to dinner a lot, he’d talk about how he didn’t know how cruel this business was until he signed these contracts with these people that ended up taking all of his songwriting away from him. I’ve been in and out of touch with Bruce and the band since the 70’s, especially the band members and all that, seeing them here and there. Some of them work on the Conan O’Brien show, and I’ve done shows with them, so I’ve seen them throughout the years.”

Even after “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” stiffed, Ronnie Spector accepted an invitation by Epic staffer Steve Popovich to record a version of a new song called “It’s A Heartache” in Nashville, with hopes of it hitting the country charts. On August 16, 1977, Ronnie recorded the song in Nashville (Elvis Presley died that day; Popovich withheld news of the King’s sudden death from Ronnie and the studio musicians, many of whom had recorded with Elvis, so that Ronnie would get at least one day of unaffected recording time). “It’s A Heartache” (Alston 3738) was released in March of 1978, but two different up-and-coming singers, Juice Newton and Bonnie Tyler, also recorded the song, and Tyler’s version eventually won the three-way cover war.

Even though Ronnie’s recording career was stumbing, her personal life was on the upswing. After meeting Jonathan Greenfield backstage at a production of The Neon Woman, a fast friendship turned into a solid relationship. By 1983, Mrs. Veronica Greenfield had found happiness as a wife and mother, while Jonathan became her manager and professional agent – as well as her support, her sounding board and her rock of Gibraltar.

Meanwhile, another person stepped up to offer Ronnie a recording contract. Genya Ravan, once a member of the Brooklyn girl group Goldie and the Gingerbreads, owned her own independent label (Polish Records), and wanted to produce a new wave/punk album which would introduce Ronnie’s music to a new audience. The album, Siren, took over two years to record – in an attempt to fit in with the new wave/punk/reggae sound permeating radio stations in the late 70’s, Ronnie and Genya went through thousands of demos. With the exception of one “nostalgic” track, “Happy Birthday Rock and Roll,” the rest of the songs on Siren were a melange of rockabilly, reggae, and punk tracks, including a remake of the Ramones’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” (Coincidentally, that same year the Ramones remade the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You” on their Phil Spector-produced Edge of the Century album).

Despite Ravan’s good intentions and high hopes, Siren didn’t even chart. Critics gave the record lukewarm reviews, the record was hampered by a bizarre, in-your-face promotional campaign – for example, DJ’s received copies of the first single, “Darlin'” (Polish 202) that were actually wrapped in a “Support Polish Records” jockstrap.

“Obviously, the record wasn’t a hit, obviously Genya didn’t know what songs to really pick out for me. But I’ve seen her in the last couple of years, and we say hi and stuff. It’s like we let bygones be bygones. That album wasn’t ahead of its time, if you’re talking about Siren. I just think it was something for me to do – I was still going through my divorce, and I think I needed to do Siren to continue to work and not let my voice go away. So I did a lot of stuff just to stay out there in the rock and roll world.”

Flash forward to the spring of 1986, and rock singer Eddie Money was recording tracks for his new album Can’t Hold Back. One of those tracks, “Take Me Home Tonight,” would incorporate the refrain from “Be My Baby” into his song. Money, who was a big fan of the Ronettes, contacted Ronnie and told her that the only person who should sing “Be My Baby” on his song should be the girl who sang it in 1963. Ronnie agreed to do the vocals, integrating her voice with Eddie’s refrain.

Six months later, the song was released – and became a huge success. Not only was “Take Me Home Tonight” (Columbia 06231) the first Top 10 hit of Eddie Money’s career, but it brought Ronnie Spector back to radio stations for the first time in over 20 years. Ronnie and Eddie made a video of the song, where Eddie sings in an empty arena and Ronnie joins him at the end. The video was in heavy rotation on MTV, and Ronnie became an overnight video star. “The whole concept of the Eddie Money video is because there was no audience. If you see in the video, with my being on the very end of the record, it didn’t make sense for us to be singing together on stage. And that’s what’s so cool about it. Eddie and I are very good friends, he’s a hell of a guy, he has a great rock and roll voice, and he’s one of those guys who’s a kidder, but he’s also a family man, he has five kids, he’s another one of those people that has to have a home life in order to have a good stage life. You have to have something to go home to. And I think that’s why people like Eddie Money, Springsteen, me – all of those people that have both a home and a career can continue today. You don’t get so way away from the world, because you’re with your kids. So you have these two lives – when you’re so aggravated with the business, you can just be with your family.”

Eddie and Ronnie performed “Take Me Home Tonight” together on “American Bandstand”; they appeared together on the American Music Awards. And through the success of that single, Columbia Records offered Ronnie Spector her own recording contract – her first deal with a major label in over a decade. The album, Unfinished Business (Columbia 40620) featured another Eddie Money/Ronnie Spector duet, “Who Can Sleep?” as the first single, as well as songwriting contributions from Susannah Hoffs and Desmond Child. Ronnie even added her own take on Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love,” and the Diane Warren / Desmond Child track “Love On A Rooftop” had “smash hit” written all over it.

Unfortunately, once again the album and both its singles failed to chart. But this time Ronnie wouldn’t give up on her comeback. She eventually wrote her autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, Or My Life As A Fabulous Ronette (Harmony Books, 1990). Co-authored with Vince Waldron, the book pulled few punches as it provided readers with a glimpse into the world of Philles Records, Ronnie’s first marriage to Phil Spector, the aftermath, and her rebirth. Critics loved the book, comparing it to Mary Wilson’sDreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme and Tina Turner’s I, Tina as singers who overcame the odds and captured their piece of the rock music pie. Be My Baby became a best seller, and it sent a signal to the world that Ronnie Spector may have been had her ups and downs – but she was getting up again.

She also continued to perform, headlining an HBO special, “Legendary Ladies of Rock,” singing show-stopping harmonies with Belinda Carlisle and Grace Slick. When the motion pictureDirty Dancing made “Be My Baby” a radio hit all over again, Ronnie joined a Dirty Dancingconcert stage show for a worldwide tour. She was also inducted into the New York Music Hall of Fame, where she and her “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” songwriter Billy Joel shared the induction stage. And on a Tim Rice-composed album, Tycoon, Ronnie sang the torch song track “Farewell to a Sex Symbol.”

In 1990, joining fellow music veterans Freddie Cannon, Ben E. King, Mitch Ryder, Lesley Gore, Little Anthony and Brenton Wood at a “Magnificent 7” outdoor concert in Los Angeles’ Pacific Amphitheatre, Ronnie Spector took the stage to cheers and applause. She belted out her classic hits – “Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You,” “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” – and when she sang “Walking In The Rain,” the skies opened up and a shower drenched the crowd, proving that Ronnie Spector’s music is popular among the heavenly multitudes.

Ronnie’s voice has always been the hallmark of her performances – even somebody who only knew the Ronettes from the radio knew Ronnie’s voice like an aural fingerprint. The voice was influenced in Spanish Harlem, when a teenage Veronica Bennett was awestruck by Frankie Lymon’s style and charisma when he fronted the Teen-Agers. In her youth, Ronnie played Teen-Agers records on her living room phonograph, singing to an imaginary audience songs like “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and “I Promise To Remember” and “I Want You To Be My Girl.” She made up her own introductions and dedications and stage patter for her living room concerts, and before long she knew she wanted to be a singer like Frankie Lymon.

When “Be My Baby” was dominating the pop charts, Lymon called Ronnie and complimented her on the song. A compliment from her teenage idol? For Ronnie, that was like receiving manna from heaven. And when he visited the Bennett household one afternoon, Lymon asked Ronnie how she got those killer phrasings and vibrato in her voice. Ronnie couldn’t imagine that the man whose voice she emulated on those old 45’s was now asking her how she developed such a distinctive voice.

In 1991, Ronnie paid tribute to Lymon by performing his song “Creation of Love” onStreet Carols, a Christmas album by the doo-wop band Stormy Weather (Street Gold 1352). Featuring contributions from the Chi-Lites, the Spaniels, Jerry Butler and Gene “Daddy G” Barge, the album became a holiday doo-wop treasure. With Stormy Weather on backup vocals, Ronnie re-interpreted Lymon’s tender ballad into a passionate Christmas love song. “I love my regular Christmas songs, so I’m satisfied that my songs get played every Christmas. But ‘Creation of Love’ was a Frankie Lymon song, and this album gave me a chance to do a Frankie Lymon song. And I love doo-wop, all the stuff I grew up on. And when they called, I said of course I’ll do that, it’s Frankie. How could I refuse? That’s why I did it – it was all those voices, the doo-woppers were the pioneers of rock and roll. The voices meant everything then. I do think that people who did the doo-wop stuff, none of them got a fair deal, as far as royalties and writing songs. Years later, I did this Mysteries and Scandals show about Frankie Lymon, and I met Herman Santiago, one of the original guys, and I freaked out because I knew him and Frankie and the other guys because I lived in the neighborhood where they sang on the street corners, and they had all those hits, and now here’s this guy with nothing. Morris Levy couldn’t have written all those songs, because the Teen-agers were on the street corner singing those songs. I think all of those artists got totally ripped off. I thought I had it bad in the 1960’s, but these guys had it worse.”

In 1997, when Ronnie Spector performed at the G8 Summit, a gathering of the leaders of the eight most powerful nations in the world. Spector’s performance was part of a showcase of 20th-century popular music, as Chuck Berry dusted off his duckwalk, Lyle Lovett crooned his most soulful ballads, Michael Bolton stretched for his high notes, and Eartha Kitt purred through “C’est Si Bon.” When Ronnie took the stage and rocked through her classic hits, the leaders of the free world gave her a standing ovation.

“When we were doing this,” said Ronnie, “we were all backstage in the hallway, because they had this big marching band, The people on stage included Chuck Berry, Eartha Kitt, Michael Bolton, all these people, all on stage. And a whole 50-piece band. And when I finished singing, I had to stay on stage because you have to wait for the President and all the other leaders to stand up and leave before you could even move off the stage. There was so much security, it was amazing. They had dogs checking under chairs, and it blew me away because it was something you hear about but you really never see.

“And after the show was over, the Secret Service came up to me, and I hear the guy on the speaker phone saying, ‘The President would like to see Ronnie Spector, please.’ And so you hear my name all over the place, saying, ‘The President would like to see Ronnie Spector.'”

So Ronnie was escorted to the President’s chambers, where Bill and Hillary Clinton greeted her with open arms. “So when I walked in there, he just opened his arms and gave me the biggest grin and he started singing ‘Be My Baby’ to me. And it was so amazing, because he’s so tall – but so nice. I don’t care what anybody says, I love President Clinton so much, he was the nicest guy I ever met. That’s why I hated that thing with Monica Lewinsky. He’s only human – here’s a guy that does nothing but work, business, running the country, and if a girl comes into his office and has on thong panties and pulls up her dress, and you’re the President, you don’t even have time to hardly spend time with your own wife, and someone comes in like that – he’s still only a man.

“But with me, he was so nice, he hugged me and he was so happy. And he was a little flirtatious, but in a nice way. Nothing at all dirty or sexual, he was so nice. Later on, I did a show in front of the Washington Monument, and he sent his security guards over to give me a copy of one of my albums, for me to sign for the President. It was the most amazing thing. And after I signed it, when I got home, I had a letter from him. And I have it framed in my living room, saying ‘Thanks Ronnie, I love your voice, I love your records, thanks, Bill Clinton.’ With the President’s seal and stuff. And the album I autographed for him was the Colpix album – the one before I did before ‘Be My Baby.’ Which was so weird to me – I thought I was the only one that bought that album.”

It’s Friday evening, the 17th of September at the CMJ Music Marathon, a weekend convention of cutting edge musicians, radio stations and promotions people. At a club called the Threadwaxing Space, the record label Kill Rock Stars has gathered their most popular talent for a label performance showcase.

Despite the miserable weekend weather caused by a visit from Hurricane Floyd, groups like Two Ton Boa and Bratmobile entertained the crowd. Then, after the Bratmobile set, Kill Rock Stars’ newest signee – Ronnie Spector – took the stage.

With every song, the crowd cheered. With every ballad, there were tears in a thousand eyes. “The CMJ performance by everyone was incredible,” said Maggie Vail, director of Publicity and Advertising for Kill Rock Stars. “Ronnie made me cry – twice – when she was performing, she was so good. It was one of those nights when you get chills. The crowd was full of young girls mixed in with some older ones, when Ronnie started playing. There was a lot of enthusiastic response for her. This was a punk club, the PA system was terrible, but her voice was incredible.”

With the release of her new 5-song EP, She Talks To Rainbows (Kill Rock Stars 348), Ronnie Spector has taken the next step in her return to the rock world. The album, co-produced by Joey Ramone and Daniel Rey, is a mixture of classic ballads and rockers, and showcases Ronnie’s emotional yet sincere vocals as a female rock maven.

“To me, Kill Rock Stars are all about the music,” said Ronnie. “They allowed me to put out a rock and roll record, period. Other labels wouldn’t have let me have my own say. And I just love the label’s name – Kill Rock Stars – it just kills me, I love that. Sleater-Kinney (one of the Kill Rock Stars groups scheduled to tour with Ronnie this year, along with labelmates Catalaca and Bangs), I saw them recently at the Irving Plaza. I thought wow, they’re different from what’s on the radio. They have a sound, and that’s what it’s about. They do their own thing, which I respect, plus they’re unique in a world of blandness.”

Joey Ramone wrote both the title track on the EP and a duet with Ronnie on “Bye Bye Baby.” “I met Joey in the 1980’s, and that’s when the Ramones were kinda hot there. And he had recorded ‘Baby I Love You,’ [on the Phil Spector-produced Ramones’ Edge of the Century album] which is one of my original songs with the Ronettes. So he wanted to meet me, and I wasn’t doing much in the 80’s, and he called me up and we went down to this studio. They were doing a video, so he wanted me to sing “Baby I Love You” with him. And that’s how we hooked up, and then I didn’t see him for a couple of years, because the Ramones were all over the world and touring, and selling out every place. So I didn’t see him for a few years. And my husband was listening to some CD’s in the car, and he heard ‘She Talks To Rainbows,’ and it was written by Joey Ramone. And so he came home and said to me, ‘You gotta hear this, this record is so meant for you.’ And when he played it for me, I freaked out over it. I got in touch with Joey, met him down at a club near the Village, and we started talking, and he got more interested and I got more interested.

“This was the first time I was actually involved musically in an album, not just as a singer. Before, I was never involved with producing and how we were going to record a song, but with Joey and I we had all that, and it was so great, just to be able to be part of a record for a change. I was so used to the way it was done in the 60’s, and the way producers and stuff handled you. With Joey, he wasn’t jealous if it was a woman in the production studio, offering ideas. It’s such a different world now in the music industry.”

One of the tracks on She Talks To Rainbows is a remake of the Beach Boys’ classic “Don’t Worry Baby.” It also became one of Ronnie’s favorite songs, as she used the lyrics and refrain as her own motivational force – whether it was battling Phil in court or surviving her own depressions, Ronnie used the Beach Boys’ music – including “Don’t Worry Baby” – as positive motivation.

“When I would hear that record, it would make me not worry. You know what I mean? I had so many problems in the 70’s, and the Beach Boys song was what kept me alive, literally. And I hear stories that Brian Wilson listened to the Ronettes songs when he’s home, all my records. But no one knows how much ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ did for me, when I was in my slump in the early 70’s. I had to listen to Brian Wilson’s music to keep me going – literally, if ‘Don’t Worry Baby,’ didn’t exist, I’d probably wouldn’t be here today.”

And recently, the song has come full circle, as Brian Wilson finally got to hear – 35 years after he originally wrote the song – how “Don’t Worry Baby” would sound with Ronnie Spector on lead vocal. “It was funny, because someone called me and said turn the TV on, Brian Wilson is listening to your version of ‘Don’t Worry Baby.’ And I turn on the TV, and there’s Brian Wilson saying ‘Wow, that’s Ronnie Spector, she sounds cool.’ And I freaked out, because it’s my new version of it – and it’s just amazing about how Brian Wilson got me out of my slump, and my songs kept him going. It’s so psychic or weird or something, isn’t it? Almost spooky.”

And today, the song is part of her new CD. “The reason for recording it now is that my Mom just passed away,” said Ronnie in a London Times interview, “so when I sing ‘Don’t worry, baby, everything’s going to be all right,’ I’m my mother, singing to me. She went through everything with me. I wish I could give her a copy.”

Another track on the CD, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” allows Ronnie to wring every drop of emotional energy out of Johnny Thunders’ heart-wrenching lyrics. “We would go through songs, and we’d play stuff and Daniel Rey knew what I liked and what I didn’t like. And I just said that’s the song I wanted to sing. I didn’t know about Johnny Thunders, that he was the one that was sitting in the Continental Baths crying at every song I sang on stage one night, but I loved that song. It was just so me. My mother had just passed away, and I couldn’t put my arms around her any more, so it meant so much to me. And then later I found out of course it was the great Johnny Thunders. It was the melody, it was the lyrics. From the first words, ‘It doesn’t pay to try,’ it was just like wow, it was so great.”

But to be a female rock and roller, one has to deal with a lot of men – men who can control a woman’s career, for better or for worse. Ronnie Spector admits she had it tough – but through it all, she still wants a fair chance at the rock and roll prize, a fair shot to the top of the charts. But when she does get to the top, Ronnie wants to use her past experiences to help those up-and-coming musicians and singers to prepare themselves for the future. “I know that I’ve gone through some tough times, and I’ve been looked down on when some male performers have done twice as worse as I have. But they’ve been given a second chance. That’s the double standard that exists. When you complain, it stops you from being positive. You talk about all this girl power and stuff, like the Spice Girls claim to have – to me it means nothing, if it doesn’t help the average girl singer, then it’s just another marketing tool created by the industry, which is run by men! So where’s the girl power? For the women who helped create the industry, Ruth Brown has more girl power than anyone, because she fought hard against people like Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, who were ripping her off, and then saw to it that the Rhythm and Blues Foundation helped those people who needed help. That’s real girl power. Compassion after going through hell. If you don’t have a cause, if you’re not doing it for a good cause that will be there after you’re dead and gone, what’s the point with saying you have girl power? If you have the power, that means you have money. And money brings you the ability to open things. That’s what Ruth Brown did. What does girl power mean if you don’t do something with it?”

Even today, Ronnie can turn on the radio and hear fragments of her musical past in today’s pop music. Shania Twain’s “Man! (I Feel Like A Woman),” with its whoa-oh-oh hook, is a prime example. “I think they’ve heard my voice for so many years, young and old. I think what Shania Twain’s doing is a compliment, but at the same time it’s like stealing a little bit of me. People think you’re not around any more, they say it doesn’t happen in the business, but it does – where they steal your style. I remember in the 1960’s, when all these girl groups (like the Shirelles or the Marvelettes) had their hair either with wigs on or they wore big dresses, and the Ronettes came along with our tight dresses and the lipstick and the highest hairdos, and people started looking, changing and looking like us, and I hate that. Look at how these people looked before the Ronettes. Ike and Tina Turner never had dancing Ikettes before they saw the Ronettes. Ray Charles had the Raelettes, everything was “and the ‘ettes'” after a while.”

When Ronnie’s not on stage or in the recording studio, she becomes Ronnie Greenfield, devoted wife and mother. Having long since kicked the bottle away from her life, her new vice is bowling – something she used to do as a teenager; she now shares it with her kids. The rose from Spanish Harlem has finally bloomed, spreading new growth and beauty throughout.

She still keeps in touch with her family, and still holds on to the memories of her mother Beatrice – the person who encouraged her to sing, who supported her throughout the highs and lows, who made breakfast for the Rolling Stones and helped her escape Phil Spector’s maximum security mansion. Her mother stayed in Spanish Harlem, visiting her friends, looking forward to visits with her grandchildren, until she passed away in 1998. “And my mom lived in the neighborhood for her last ten, fifteen years of her life. Much of my family moved to Jersey, but I still had a couple of uncles that lived in the city, so I still have family up there. As you get older and you have your own family, you tend to do things with your own family in another town. You look at Ricky Martin, that’s how it was in Spanish Harlem all the time. I grew up on that. So it’s so weird that people are just getting in tune with something I just loved 30 years ago.”

Author’s notes:

The preceding article consisted of a series of interviews with Ronnie Spector during the summer and autumn of 1999. The assistance of Ronnie Spector and Jonathan Greenfield are greatly appreciated. Other sources of information for this article came from the Boston Globe, Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ebony, The London Times, The Los Angeles Times, Melody Maker, The Village Voice, Creem, Musician, Crawdaddy and The Manchester Guardian.

Did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame get it right? (2017 induction edition)

The inductions for the Class of 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were just announced.  Of the nearly two dozen bands, singers and musicians nominated, six were selected for enshrinement.

Personally, I’m still griping about the omission of the Moody Blues, Boston, Styx, Grand Funk Railroad, New Order and the Skatalites.  Not even on the ballot this year.  Inconceivable.

But the six that made the cut, the six that will be enshrined in the museum in Cleveland, are…

JOAN BAEZ

Well it’s about time she got in, she certainly deserved it… there’s so much of her catalog that deserves to be heard.  Great choice for the Rock Hall.

JOURNEY

I can live with this, I guess.  I mean, Journey did have some fantastic rock songs, tracks like “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin,'” “Open Arms,” “Any Way You Want It,” “When You Love a Woman,” “Faithfully,” and any other ballad that Steve Perry could hit those soaring falsettos on.  But let’s face it.  They got in because of one track – “Don’t Stop Believing,” which has been so overplayed and over-covered and over-emoted… but if Journey can get in, now there’s hope for other arena-rock bands.  Styx … Boston … Grand Funk Railroad … come on, Rock Hall voters, you know you need to do this…

PEARL JAM

This I can get behind.  It makes sense.  Pearl Jam’s greatest tracks were so full of energy and emotion and fantastic lyrics and soaring melodies.  “Evenflow.”  “Jeremy.”  “Spin the Black Circle.”  About five thousand bootleg tracks.  Okay, now let’s get Soundgarden on the ballot, shall we?

NILE RODGERS (Musical Excellence Award)

There used to be a rule in the Rock Hall voting, that if you were on the ballot seven times without getting enough votes, you would get in the Hall automatically.  I think that’s how Solomon Burke got through.  Chic was on the ballot ELEVEN times.  Talk about a wait.  And although Chic didn’t get in this year, Chic creator Nile Rodgers did get in the Hall in the “Musical Excellence Award” category.  Sort of like how Stephen Spielberg won that Irving G. Thalberg award when he couldn’t win Best Director for The Color Purple…

THE ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA

I always wondered what the Beatles would sound like if they kept their music in the vein of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  With the Electric Light Orchestra, we kinda got that.  Symphonic rock at its best.  And now that ELO’s in the Rock Hall, maybe it’s time to add some other symphonic rock bands – um … that’s kinda hard, considering there really wasn’t any other band that sounded quite like ELO.

YES

Wait wait wait – an art-rock band made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  Seriously?  Really?  Honestly?  HELL YEAH!!  FINALLY!!!  Okay, next year … I want the Moody Blues on the ballot, as well as King Crimson, Renaissance, Blodwyn Pig, the Rock Hall door’s open… bust through!

TUPAC SHAKUR

I heard that to celebrate his induction, the hologram of Tupac will perform a new track he wrote last week.  I kid, but … honestly, if you’re going to put Public Enemy in the Rock Hall, then Tupac should join them as well.  And Biggie next year.

So congratulations to the Rock Hall inductees class of 2017.  And hopefully next year some of the groups I feel deserve induction will finally get their due as well.  Although I’m surprised neither the Cars, Kraftwerk nor Depeche Mode got in this year.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” – the violent crime drama

The first 45 record I ever bought with my own money – or at least the first 45 that didn’t have the words “Disney” or “Cricket” on it – was the 45 of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.  I’ve blogged about this before, about how I went to the Blue Note Record Shop in downtown Albany and the store proprietor, Avram Pock, climbed up a shelf to retrieve the record, even though I didn’t know the song’s official title (I just told him it sounded like an opera in the middle of the song).

In the 40+ years since that release, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been honored, exalted, parodied, and celebrated.  And this morning, I found a brand new interpretation of “Bohemian Rhapsody” – as if it were directed as a violent, dark crime drama.

Yep.

Corridor,a YouTube channel created by Sam Gorski and Niko Pueringer, have had lots of fun re-imagining popular movies and music into artistic video creations.  And over the weekend, they debuted their latest clip, “Literal Bohemian Rhapsody.”  No matter how many times you’ve heard that 5+ minute song… you’ve never heard it like this.

Holy Sam Peckinpagh, Batman!!

These guys are damn good.  They’re the same people who created a short Star Wars film by attaching an X-Wing model kit to a personal drone aircraft, strapped a miniature camera on it, and took us all for a ride.

If you’re a fan of the machinima web series REDvBLUE, you’ll get a laugh or three out of their “RED vs BLUE” interpretation, including various reds fighting various blues.

These clips are really well-crafted and quite experimental.  Some of the clips might be a tad too violent, but I think what you see here is a good start to what Corridor can do.

For more information on Corridor and its upcoming projects, check out their Patreon page.

Now if they really want to impress me…

I want to see these guys do a literal version of Stairway to Heaven.  That would be aces.

Some post-9/11 memories…

I have two stories to tell.  One of the stories took place on the anniversary of 9/11, one only tangentially involves 9/11.  So bear with me.

The first story takes place on September 11, 2004.  It’s the three-year anniversary of that somber date.  At the time, I was freelancing for an antiques and auction publication called Antique Week, which meant I traveled on a regular basis from one auction to another, I wrote about big-time auctions – the Katharine Hepburn estate sale at Sotheby’s in New York City, for example – and small-time auctions – the ones where you walk into a big gallery barn, and every item is auctioned off one by one by a fast-talking auctioneer and displayed by big, muscle-bound farmworkers.  It was a great experience and I learned many things.

So this auction took place three years to the day after the September 11th tragedy.  I’m sitting in the back row at the downstate auction house, hoping to find some good human interest story attached to the purchase of a rare coin or a long-lost artifact.  There were definitely some interesting storylines worth following; however, something impressive and unforgettable happened in the middle of the auction.

Many times, an auction will feature a big-ticket item in the middle of the sale; something to draw potential bidders to the day-long event.  It could be a distinctive and rare antique; it could be a one-of-a-kind treasure.  In this instance, the auction house accepted bids on several cars that had been seized by the local bank for defaulted payments.  And while the cars sold well enough to find new homes, I noticed that one vehicle barely cleared its reserve price.

This car sold at a bargain, I wrote in my notes.  Why this car and no other?  Was it being sold for parts?  Was there some defect that was previously undisclosed?

It wasn’t until later that day that I discovered why that car sold for a fraction of its value.

The bidder was a soldier that had just recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and he needed a car for his return to civilian life.  The man was still wearing Army fatigues, as if he had just arrived from a nearby base or recruitment center.  And the minute he placed a bid, I could tell that others in the room were not going to outbid someone who put his life on the line to fight those who would dare cause pain and tragedy upon our soil and against our citizens.

I don’t know if that soldier is still driving that car.  But if he is, I’m glad he was able to return home from his time protecting our freedoms abroad.  God bless.

The next story is more ironic than reverent.  So please bear with me.

At one point in time, I used to write the liner notes for an Australian record company’s detailed reissue collections.  In 2003, I was commissioned to write the liner notes for their reissue of guitarist Al Caiola’s greatest hits.

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Al Caiola?

Here, let me refresh your memory a smidge.

I was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Caiola for the liner notes (he’s still alive today, at age 96), and the CD had a successful release in 2003.  Got a lot of nice responses from reviewers at Amazon.com about the reissue as well.

At the time, I made arrangements with the record company that I would  be paid in American funds.   Getting paid in foreign notes is a pain in the neck to get converted.

And sure enough, a check for $400 arrived in my mailbox, drawn on the record company’s American check stock.

The bank’s address on the check was Bank of America, One World Trade Center, New York City.

The date the check was signed?  September 11, 2003.

Wow.

Granted, I suspect that the record company didn’t use their American account that often, so certainly there’d be old check stock when they needed to pay their American vendors.  But still… wow…

That’s a weird-as-anything coincidence.

It’s memories like these – the touching, the heartfelt, the ironic, the unexplained – that I wanted to share with you today.  The memories of September 11, 2001 are still fresh in my mind, fifteen years to the day after that scary, unexplainable morning.

It’s just as scary as when our parents recall November 22, 1963.

It’s just as scary as when our grandparents remember December 7, 1941.

Today our memories of that tragic morning are now history lessons for our high schoolers.  I’m still wrapping my head around that concept.

And as I remember and honor the memories of those who perished on that day… and of those who saved whomever they could… and of those who fought back against anybody who would dare take our liberties away…

I wanted to take a second today to recall some post-9/11 stories.  Some personal history and observations of my own.

God bless us all.

And God bless those whom we lost fifteen years ago this morning.

Marcia Howard: A voice from the past brings the past to The Voice

Way back in 1982, one of my favorite international rock songs was a track called “Solid Rock,” by the Australian group Goanna.  I loved this song, I played the bejeebers out of it on my college radio station, and I’ve featured it several times in this blog.

You know … this track.

Over time, Goanna had several other international hits, and their music helped influence public policy in Australia – the “Solid Rock” they sang about was the sacred mountain of Uluru.

Goanna broke up and reunited several times, and while lead singer Shane Howard has stayed in the recording studio and at the forefront of social issues, his sister Marcia Howard – who also performed in Goanna – continued with her music career.  She recorded a couple of CD’s, she performed in Nashville a year or two ago…

And just recently, Marcia Howard did something that most artists of the past might not have considered.  She went on a reality TV show – for her, it was the Australian version of The Voice.

You know The Voice, don’t you?  Established musicians listen to performers as part of a “blind audition” – an audition where the artist’s only chance to impress is based on his or her vocal acumen.  The Voice has evolved into an international broadcast juggernaut, with many countries having their own iteration of the competition.

And so, Marcia Howard took the stage on the Australian version of The Voice, and – with just her guitar and her talent – performed a stirring rendition of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”

And the rules are … if a judge hits one of those red buttons on the front of their console, they get to “select” that performer and guide them toward the next step of the competition.

There’s five judges on the Australian version of The Voice.  Two of them are the Madden Brothers – Benji and Joel Madden, the former members of Good Charlotte (“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”).  The other judges are Jessie J (“Price Tag”, “Domino”), Ronan Keating (“When You Say Nothing At All”) and Delta Goodrem (a whole bunch of pop songs that never made it over to America for some unknown reason).

Okay.  One of the members of a band that I loved for ages, someone whom I interviewed for Goldmine magazine a decade and a half ago… she’s now taking the stage.

At the last moment, in Marcia’s final words before the song reaches its conclusion, one of the judges – Delta Goodrem – hits the red button.  Marcia’s in the competition.

And for a final touch in her audition, she is asked by the judges to perform a bit of that massive hit from 1982, “Solid Rock.”

And she obliges.  That’s on the link as well.

Look, I don’t get to cheer for much when it comes to reality TV.  But here’s the thing.  I can cheer for Marcia Howard.  And I certainly hope she runs the table on The Voice and wins the competition.

She’s got the talent.  She’s got the charisma.

And now it’s time to show everybody else the results.

Good on ya, Marcia.  From a longtime Goanna fan in America.

All the best.

That’s not the Little River Band that you remember…

On June 17, a band calling themselves the Little River Band will perform a concert at Proctor’s Theater.  This band will perform many of Little River Band’s classic songs and hits.

There’s just one little problem.

The current lineup taking the stage at Proctors is not the classic lineup from the 1970’s.

In fact, there’s only one member of the current touring lineup – American lead singer Wayne Nelson – who can be heard on LRB’s hitmaking years, and in fact he’s only on two later hits – “The Night Owls” and “Man On Your Mind.”  The main meat and heart of LRB isn’t part of the band any more, and hasn’t been for decades.

For as long as rock and roll has existed, so too have disputes over group lineups and ownership of names.  There are touring groups that call themselves “The Platters” or “The Coasters,” without a single original member in the lineup, or a person who may have sung on the classic hits.  And this phenomenon is not limited to 1950’s vocal harmony groups.  1960’s acts like the Vogues have had the rights to their names locked in dispute.  The Jackson 5 changed their name to the Jacksons because their previous label, Motown Records, owned the name “Jackson 5.”

Now we come to Little River Band.  The heart of LRB’s vocal harmonies came from lead singer Glenn Shorrock, as well as from songwriter-vocalists Beeb Birtles and Graeham Goble.

And over time, those artists – one by one – left the group.  The group continued on with new vocalists (for a while, Australian superstar vocalist John Farnham was a member of LRB).

Then came the lawsuits and litigation between the current owners of the LRB name and trademark and wordmark, and the lineup of Glenn Shorrock, Beeb Birtles and Graeham Goble, who wanted to let fans know that they were members of LRB when THAT trio wanted to tour and to perform.

I wrote about Little River Band past and present in a 2004 edition of Goldmine; the link to the original article is here.  Since then, the lineups of both groups have changed, but the schism remains the same.  And therein lies the concern.  Not just for LRB, but for other groups that tour and perform, despite having a lineup whose performers are younger than the songs they sing.

I totally get it.  Tommy Dorsey is not alive to conduct the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, even though the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra still performs hundreds of dates around the country.  And if you see “The Drifters” in concert, just know that Charlie Thomas is the last surviving member of the Drifters to perform on those classic tracks, and he has his own touring group of Drifters as well.

And herein lies a tale.  And it involves another classic oldies group, the Vogues.

The Vogues had several hits in the 1960’s, including “You’re The One,” “5 O’Clock World” and “Turn Around, Look At Me.”  Over time, the original members of the Vogues left the group, and someone else purchased the trademark to the name.  When one of the original Vogues went back to perform, he was effectively blocked from advertising his connection to the original band – and the lawsuits and settlements went into action.

I say this because about 15 years ago, the trademarked “Vogues” performed a holiday concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.  I went there to see the concert, and at the meet-and-greet-and-autograph session afterwards – where the new Vogues were selling copies of their re-recorded hits on a purchasable CD – I watched as the bandmembers signed photos of their current lineup.

Time for a test.  I slid a copy of a Vogues 45 from the 1960’s on the table.

In a flurry of Sharpie pens, each member of the new lineup autographed the old 45.  Not one member of that new lineup actually SANG on that old record, but they were certainly happy to sign it.  That’s hubris.

But now, let’s get back to Little River Band.  Let me state for the record that the current lineup has a legal right to use that name and brand for their performances and concerts.  They’re not doing anything illegal or deceptive.

All I’m saying right now is – if you’re expecting to see Little River Band perform hits like “Reminiscing” and “Lonesome Loser” and “Cool Change,” just know that the group that performs at Proctors on June 17th may call themselves Little River Band, and they may sing Little River Band hits… but their connection to the original lineup is in name and in copyright.

Besides, if you want to hear the original vocalists – especially when they still sound great after all these years – check out the lineup of Birtles Shorrock Goble as they performed in the Countdown Spectacular in 2007.

There you go.

Earth Wind and Fire: I’ll Write a Song For You

I originally wrote this article, a profile of the legendary band Earth, Wind and Fire, for Goldmine magazine way back in January 1998.  The article consisted of extensive interviews with Maurice White, Philip Bailey and Verdine White.

This article is being reprinted in today’s blog in honor and in memory of the legendary Maurice White, who passed away yesterday.  A magnificent singer-songwriter-composer whose music helped craft a generation.  A true gentleman in every sense of the word.


On a famous episode of Seinfeld, Elaine dances (in the kindest definition of the word) to their hit “Shining Star.” You might have seen them on an episode of “Grace Under Fire” (Grace and Nadine drive all night to their concert, miss the performance, but sing “Let’s Groove” with the band in a local bar). Mariah Carey and Crystal Waters have borrowed their carefully orchestrated rhythm tracks for Top 40 hits, while songs like “That’s The Way Of The World” and “September” have been remade by everyone from Herb Alpert to John Tesh.

The music of Earth Wind & Fire can not be easily categorized, although many in the entertainment industry tried. They brought jazz, bebop and fusion to pop audiences; they brought progressive rock to R&B fans. They didn’t need a 70’s Preservation Society for their music – their classic hits have stood the test of time, every song polished and performed on an endless highway of college concerts and faith. The Grammys, the gold and platinum records, the American Music Awards – all were a by-product of Earth Wind & Fire’s popularity, but the music and the message remain the key to this day.

Even as they approach their third decade of musical expertise, Earth Wind & Fire’s origins can be traced back through the roots of Chicago blues and soul, through the jazz and fusion excursions, back to the beginnings of music itself.

What we know as Earth Wind & Fire today has to start with its creator and producer, Maurice White. Born in Memphis in 1941, White moved to Chicago as a teenager and found work as a session drummer for Chess Records (the story has it that Leonard Chess asked Maurice to bring a few friends over for a recording session; Maurice showed up with his entire college band). By 1967, he was the new drummer in the famed Ramsey Lewis Trio, replacing Red Holt. During the two years White performed and toured with the Trio, Ramsey Lewis showed him a Kalimba, an African thumb piano. That instrument and its unique sound became the focal point of White’s musical dream.

In 1969, Maurice left the Ramsey Lewis Trio, and joined two friends in Chicago, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, as a songwriting team. “We started a group out of just writing songs and commercials around Chicago,” said Maurice. “We were writing a lot of songs, so we decided to form a recording group. We had a recording contract with Capitol, and called ourselves the ‘Salty Peppers,’ and had a marginal hit in the Midwestern area called ‘La La La.’ (Capitol 2433). It was only released in the Midwest, and it did fairly well for an unknown band.”

The Salty Peppers’ second single, “Uh Huh Yeah” (Capitol 2568) didn’t fare as well, and Maurice decided it was time for a change of location – and a change in the band’s name. “We never made any appearances or anything like that as the Salty Peppers,” said Maurice. “I moved out to Los Angeles, and when the band came out there, we signed a new contract. Before that, I renamed the group after my astrology chart of Sagittarius. I was into astrology pretty heavy, and there were three elements in my astrological charts – earth, air and fire, and I changed air to wind.”

Verdine White, Maurice’s younger brother, joined the band in 1970 as their new bassist. “We grew up in Chicago, there was a lot of music on the radio at the time – a lot of Motown and jazz, both on the radio and at the Regal Theatre, where we went a lot. My father is a doctor, so he played a lot of jazz music in his office. Maurice had this idea of putting together a band like that – that could encompass all the different kinds of musicality we were exposed to. The group was pretty much in existence, and he asked me to come out, and I came out in June 1970. And the first couple of years were really those testing years of cutting records.”

Earth Wind & Fire spent three years on Warner Bros., recording two studio albums and the soundtrack for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a box-office smash that paved the way for black-themed films throughout the 1970’s. “We had done this Sweet Sweetback soundtrack,” said Verdine White. “which was actually the first black soundtrack. Maurice knew Melvin Van Peebles really well, and Melvin was putting together this wayout film that was going to be real different and real revolutionary. We recorded that soundtrack over two days at Paramount Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard.”

At that time, Earth Wind & Fire were still finding their identity. They even signed some female vocalists – Sherry Scott (who sang on “I Think About Loving You”), who was later replaced by Jessica Cleaves. In 1971, while Earth Wind & Fire played a gig in Denver, Maurice heard about a singer with a local band – a singer with a range that could rumble the seats with his baritone, yet harmonize with the angels on every high note.

That singer, Philip Bailey, remembers that night. “Our band, ‘Friends and Love,’ was actually doing some of the Earth Wind & Fire songs, and we opened the show for Earth Wind & Fire when they came to Denver to play a promotional tour. We had been familiar with their music through a mutual friend of ours, Perry Jones, who later became a promotional man for Warner Bros. I moved out to Los Angeles when they began to reform their band, Maurice asked me to be in the group. I think that Maurice liked the fact that I had a very identifiable sound in terms of my range, and the timbre of my voice. Maurice and I began to do all the vocals on all the records after “Head To The Sky,” and we really developed a sound together, which became the trademark “sound” of Earth, Wind & Fire. My melodic sensibility was something that was added, and Maurice had the experience of being a songwriter and producer, and was my mentor and teacher for many years.”

But Warner Bros. didn’t know how to promote this new combo – the only other funk band on their label was Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. And after eighteen months, Maurice disassembled his band and formed a new Earth Wind & Fire from its ashes.

“College kids were hip to us far beyond the acknowledgment of the record industry,” said Maurice. “We were on tour, we normally did a lot of college touring, and we had a manager who actually booked John Sebastian into New York City. And so what happened as a result of us opening for John Sebastian, Clive Davis was in the audience. And he saw us for the first time, and he came over and talked to us about joining CBS.”

It would be a perfect match. CBS had successfully promoted another progressive rock/soul band, Sly & The Family Stone. They backed and distributed the Philadelphia International label, home of the Gamble & Huff songwriting and producing team. “We were in the middle of cutting what we thought was our third album for Warners,” said Verdine White, “and Clive bought our contract from them. Clive has great insight. He put us in the right places. He gave us proper marketing, he took the time necessary to break a group like this. A group like this wouldn’t be broken overnight. With us, we wanted to play concerts, we didn’t want to play two sets a night, three sets a night, we wanted to do concerts which showed off our musicality.”

Between 1971 and 1975, Earth Wind & Fire played the colleges, the universities, the clubs and the performance halls, and every night they would use jazz and fusion progressions to keep their songs fresh and their chops sharp. “Our whole vision,” said Philip Bailey, “was creativity within a form. It was derived from the greats before us, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and all the great singers. We really were lovers of jazz and fusion. We were jazz musicians at heart playing popular music. We would take every opportunity we could, whether it meant adding a bebop horn lick or progressive chord changes to our songs. We made fusion and jazz a commercial entity.”

In May 1974, “Mighty Mighty” (Columbia 46007) became Earth Wind & Fire’s first hit on the pop charts, peaking at #29. “‘Mighty Mighty’ wasn’t a big Top 40 hit,” said Verdine, “because at the time Top 40 radio was scared of ‘Mighty Mighty,’ because they thought it was a song about Black Power.” But it was a start. While “Mighty Mighty” was on the charts, Earth Wind & Fire worked with Sig Shore, the mastermind behind the motion picture Superfly, on a new film about the dark side of the recording industry. That’s The Way Of The World starred Earth Wind & Fire as “The Group,” a new recording act. In the film, Harvey Keitel hears “The Group” performing, and produces their first album. The film’s title is repeated throughout the film as a shrug of the shoulders to the music world.

Earth Wind & Fire performed the songs in the film, and Maurice had a small speaking part as leader of “The Group.” “We actually recorded one of the songs, ‘Happy Feelin’,’ at a roller skating rink during the movie,” said Philip Bailey. “We had a truck outside, we actually recorded it then, we went to the studio and tried to do it over, but the feel that we had in the roller rink was the one. So we just used that one.”

“Our performance in That’s The Way Of The World was us running into a van and the van driving off,” said Verdine White. “There was some concert footage in the end, that was it. When we saw the film, we said this is going to be a major flop, we need to get our record out before the film comes. The music was so different, and we didn’t want the film to hurt the music.”

The strategy paid off. The music Earth Wind & Fire recorded during that time period – later released as the album “That’s The Way Of The World” (Columbia 33280) broke through to new audiences. And when songs from the motion picture were repackaged into Earth Wind & Fire’s 2-album set Gratitude (Columbia 33694), the group reached the top. Five songs from that album blasted onto pop and soul radios around the country – the tender ballad “Reasons,” the inventive “Sing A Song,” the sultry “Can’t Hide Love,” the title track from their film “That’s The Way Of The World,” and their first #1 hit, “Shining Star.” As for the film, it bombed upon release, was re-released under the name Shining Star, and flopped again. “It was incredible, the most incredible feeling,” said Maurice White. “Our song, ‘Shining Star,’ was the #1 song in the country. That was our dream come true, it was unbelievable.”

Many of those early hits came from the long years of touring and soundchecks, the improvisation every night that generated a new guitar lick, the musical dexterity born from inspiration and dedication. Even their second song to reach the pop Top 10, “Sing A Song” (Columbia 10251), found its genesis in a soundcheck. “The creative process took place in the studio,” said Maurice, “and it continued to the stage. When we were preparing for a gig, we would make up songs, and a lot of songs later became album tracks. That’s how “Sing A Song” was discovered. We were on stage, just having a sound check. In the studio, there was a process too. I had so many years in the recording studio as a producer, it was very easy for me to capture a song.”

Other tracks, like the complex hit “Getaway” (Columbia 10373), came from outside the group. Verdine White remembers when he heard “Getaway” for the first time. “I originally heard it from a guy named Chuck, who was producing this flute player named Bobbie Humphries. And I heard this song, and I said to him, ‘That would be a great song for us.’ He wanted to produce it for us, but that wasn’t about to happen. So we got the tune, took it into the studio and cut it. It was a smash, too – it was totally different, it was like Yes with a little funk under the bottom. It had uptempo and breaks, and a lot of upbeats in it.”

“‘Getaway’ was written by Beloyd Taylor and Peter Carr,” said Philip Bailey. “It was really bebop, like if you sang the lick at the top. But Maurice had a real uncanny thing for just locking up those rhythms. Al McKay was just the rhythm master, it was a hook that just caught. It was like a train, all the engines were moving and running, everything was in sync. It had a repeating hook, the music and the rhythm that became very catchy. But ‘Getaway’ was still very, very out there. And I think only Earth Wind & Fire could have done that kind of thing right there.”

Even as Earth Wind & Fire’s music blended into the pop mainstream, Maurice White found time to produce other artists and groups. Ramsey Lewis asked him to produce an album, and the Lewis-EWF collaboration Sun Goddess (Columbia 33194) is still a jazz staple. White produced Top 10 hits like “Free” and “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle” for Deneice Williams, a former member of Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove backup group. Another track Maurice produced, the Emotions’ “Best Of My Love” (Columbia 10544), went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts. “We were cutting rhythm section records,” said Verdine. “Maurice would produce the records, him and Charles Stepney at the time, and we’d play on them and then Ramsey would play on them, or maybe Deneice Williams or the Emotions would sing on them. Our schedule was such at the time that if we were in the studio for three weeks, we would be cutting tracks – and those tracks might be for one act or another. It was one continuing musical flow.”

These additional artists became part of one of the largest touring packages of the 70’s. The Emotions, Deneice Williams and Ramsey Lewis would be the opening acts. A group that Verdine White produced, Pockets, also toured in the group. Then Earth Wind & Fire took the stage. Their concerts were loaded with pyrotechnics, magic, laser lights, flying pyramids and levitating guitarists, all supported by a solid musical performance every night. Magician Doug Henning directed many of their tours throughout the 1970’s, and the band – including Larry Dunn (keyboards), Al McKay (guitar, sitar), Fred White (drums) and Andrew Woolfolk (sax, flute) would leviate, teleport, explode on stage – all for their audience’s entertainment. “We started the massive tour around 1975,” said Verdine. “We thought that for the high ticket prices at the time, the public should see something they had never seen before. Most concerts were just concerts, and we thought it was time that people would see something they never saw before.”

“What I started to do,” said Maurice White, “was put on the tour some of the acts that I was also producing at the time, the Emotions, and also Deneice Williams. Sometimes we would use Ramsey Lewis too, so everybody on the tour were from albums I was producing. It was like the moving circus comes to town. We had ten semis carrying equipment and instruments, and we had our own plane. But the music came first. First we were musicians, and we were very serious musicians rather than just there for the hits. Our first love was music. We were just a band. Which just happened to have a couple of hits.”

Maurice also incorporated the Kalimba and its sound into Earth Wind & Fire’s vision of world-wide and world-inspired music, even naming their production company Kalimba Productions. “During that period of time, I always studied metaphysics and Egyptology. It got so interesting, what I was trying to do was share with the audience what we were learning at the time. As we learned more, we went about trying to share it with the audience, bring a message to the music.”

And Maurice’s studies appeared not only in the music, but also on the Shusei Nagaoka-designed album covers. All ‘n All (Columbia 34905), for example, displayed Rameses II’s pyramid as neighbor to an Imhotep-inspired futuristic metropolis. Raise! (ARC/Columbia 37548) showed an Egyptian statue with a mechanical exoskeleton. Ankhs, crosses, statues of Shiva and Buddha and William Shakespeare – all were incorporated into the intricate album artwork of Earth Wind & Fire covers.

“Maurice always studied astrology, numerology, astronomy,” said Verdine. “We introduced Trancendental Meditation to a lot of the black audience. That was very new for them. Of course, the Beatles had brought TM to the people in the 1960’s, but we brought it into the 70’s to an audience that was looking for something alternative. I even met the Maharishi in 1970. When you really look at the three cornerstones of religion – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and all of the world’s religions, they all bear witness to each other.”

In 1978, Earth Wind & Fire appeared in another motion picture, the Beatles movie tribute Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the film, the band played themselves, performing “Got To Get You Into My Life” at a concert hall. The film itself was a commercial bomb (Peter Frampton recalls his experiences with the Sgt. Pepper movie in Goldmine #447), and although the soundtrack shipped triple platinum, it allegedly was returned triple platinum. Yet despite musical performances on the soundtrack from Aerosmith, Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees and Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire’s remake of the Beatles classic was the highest charting pop single from the soundtrack. “Once more, we had a movie that flopped on us,” said Maurice White, “but we had a #1 hit out of it, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life.’ We actually recorded our parts on the set.”

“Robert Stigwood called us and asked if we wanted to be in a movie,” said Verdine. “We said okay, it could be interesting. At that particular time, you didn’t see a lot of musical blacks in movies – there was The Wiz, but that was a horrible movie. We had three songs to choose from – ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ and two ballads. We just did the song Chicago-style. Some people thought George Martin produced the song, but Maurice produced it.”

“I remember that day, it was cold as heck,” said Philip Bailey, “and it was an all-day, all-night kind of thing. That was one that really catapulted us into a whole new arena. That was an exciting move, because the Beatles – that’s legendary, and the magnitude – we were honored to be asked on that, really. That was a good experience for us. We recorded the song in Colorado, in a little studio up in Boulder. We rehearsed the horns for that song in Denver, went up to Boulder in the snow, and recorded the whole song in one night.”

The success of “Got To Get You Into My Life” drew more fans to Earth Wind & Fire’s music, and the group responded with excursions into ice-melting ballads (“I’ll Write A Song For You,” “After The Love Has Gone”), booty-shaking disco (“Boogie Wonderland”, “Let’s Groove”) and more metaphysics (“Fantasy,” “Jupiter”). “We started to expand a little bit,” said Verdine, “and started writing better songs. “Boogie Wonderland” really was capturing the tail end of the disco era. We didn’t think of it as disco, we thought of it as a song with a 4/4 beat. Clubs always had that kind of music, they just called it disco – the industry always has to call it something.”

“As an artist,” said Philip Bailey, “I’m just blessed that songs like that came our way. I remember one that we didn’t get and I always wished we could have – Jeffrey Osborne’s ‘Love Ballad.’ He had a great hit with that one.”

Maurice loaned Earth Wind & Fire’s signature Phoenix Horns – Don Myrick on saxophone, Louis Satterfield on trombone, Rahmlee Davis and Michael Harris on trumpets – to his other production projects, the Emotions, Ramsey Lewis and Deniece Williams. Then, on a tour of Europe, somebody else took interest in the famed horn section. “We used to tour so much,” said Maurice, “we used to tour Europe. Phil Collins had an opportunity to see us. He would recruit our horn section whenever we weren’t using it.”

Sure enough, Collins imported the Phoenix Horns into Genesis tracks like “No Reply At All” and “Paperlate,” and on his solo hits like “I Missed Again,” “Sussudio” and “I Cannot Believe It’s True.” “I sometimes had to call and make an appointment to see my own horn section,” said Maurice. “They even toured with Genesis and Phil Collins for a while.”

In 1983, Earth Wind & Fire released the “Electric Universe” album. It was also their last release for four years. “The whole scene was changing,” said Verdine. “There was an explosion of video artists. At that time, MTV wasn’t playing black artists – the only black artists they played at that time were Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Prince. There was BET to play black videos, but they didn’t have the same money behind MTV. It hurt a lot of those groups, because the audience didn’t know who those groups were, and they only knew about groups that had the visibility. Rick James was the first black artist to really bitch about MTV, and he was right at the time. They were playing acts that hadn’t had hit records, and he had hits at the time.”

“I put the group on hiatus in 1983,” said Maurice, “because I just wanted to rest from touring. I had been touring for 10 years, and it was time for me to take a rest. The only things I ever saw was the road or the studio, that was my whole life for ten years. So I left the band for a while. We kind of put everything on hold, and in the process of doing that, I cut a solo record. The two hits from that album was ‘Stand By Me’ and another song called ‘I Need You.'”

“I think that was the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Verdine, “because it was time to shut down. We had made enough records to define our careers – I tried to convince Maurice to shut down after the Raise! record in 1981, because I felt we needed a break, just to live. We had slammed pretty hard for 13 years. I think people should stop, particularly in creative endeavors, to catch up and see where you are. And times were starting to change, too. We were having our own interest in things we wanted to do.”

During the hiatus, Philip Bailey released a solo album, “Chinese Wall.” While it was not his first solo album (Bailey recorded a series of gospel LP’s for the Myrrh and Word labels), it was his most successful. The first single from that album, a duet with Phil Collins called “Easy Lover” (Columbia 04679) went gold, and the music video of Bailey and Collins rehearsing their collaboration hit #1 on MTV’s video playlist. “I really didn’t know that much about Phil’s music until the Phoenix Horns introduced us and I went to a concert of his. It wasn’t a stargazing thing – when we got together, it was mutual admiration for each other’s musicianship. It definitely was a boost for me – not only domestically, but also internationally. Still, to this day, I can do that song and people will know it. Phil Collins is one of the most down to earth famous people that we ever worked with.”

Meanwhile, during the hiatus, Verdine White worked behind the scenes, writing and directing videos. He produced a Level 42 album, and promoted go-go bands like Trouble Funk and E.U. “When you are known for one entity, people think that’s the only thing you know. But music is music.”

“Contrary to popular belief,” said Verdine, “we didn’t have pop radio in our pocket. For Earth Wind & Fire, we had to continue to have an R&B smash in order to even raise the eyebrows of pop radio. We never really knew if the mainstream market would like our record or not – and in some instances, maybe if the song had been played, it might have been a hit. We were always judged by what happened on R&B radio first. Even after having the countless chart hits that we did, it was still – when a record came out, it had to go R&B first, in opposed to just getting played on the radio. When you listen to ‘After The Love Is Gone,’ and if you listen to Earth Wind & Fire’s catalog, I’m sure there was at least one song in the bunch that pop radio – if they had known about it, would have been a hit. We were always walking that fine line – was the song too R&B, or too pop? Of course, this is all hindsight. These were not things that we focused on or complained about – we were making music, and that was what we did.”

In 1987, CBS Records spoke to Philip Bailey and Maurice White separately, convincing both that a reunion of Earth Wind & Fire would be beneficial for all parties. “We began to realize the real appreciation that people had for the band and what we had done. We saw that the whole Earth Wind & Fire was bigger than its parts. It made sense to continue with what we had started. So we said, let’s do it album by album, one disc at a time. We knew that we couldn’t go back to the old band and start over again, because it would have been a mess. I’m very glad that we were pretty mature about us understanding that – or our reunion would have lasted less than nine weeks.”

Thanks to an ingenious young songwriter, the group had a comeback hit. “Philip and I was in San Francisco,” said Maurice. “Going to the studio one day, we went out to the car and there was a cassette tape attached to the door handle. We got the tape and put it in the car stereo, and played it. It was ‘System of Survival.’ This guy, Skylark, wrote the song, and instead of disturbing us at the hotel, he taped the tape to the door handle of my car. That was a good way to get material to me. I wouldn’t mind if my car was covered with cassette tapes, as long as they were as good as ‘System of Survival.'”

But by 1990, Earth Wind & Fire’s time with Columbia was ending. Their 1989 release Heritage did not sell well, despite cameo appearances on the disc from Sly Stone and MC Hammer. The upper echelon of CBS Records had also changed – while Earth Wind & Fire had achieved success under label presidents Clive Davis and Walter Yetnikoff, there was increasing friction between the band and new label president Tommy Mottola. “Our deal with CBS was with Yetnikoff,” said Verdine, “and we had a key man clause – that meant if Yetnikoff left, we left too. Although I liked Tommy, Tommy’s a really good guy, we just decided to move on. Mo Ostin at Warner Bros. had wanted us to come where he was. We had re-signed with Columbia in 1982, and Mo wanted us to come to Warner Bros. then, but Walter wouldn’t let us out of the contract.”

Their exodus from Columbia may have been spurred by a new hit single by their Columbia labelmate, Mariah Carey. In 1991, friends called Maurice White, telling him to listen to a new track on the radio. What Maurice heard was the Earth Wind & Fire’s rhythm track for the Emotions’ 70’s classic “Best Of My Love,” but the Emotions’ voices were replaced by Mariah Carey – singing entirely different lyrics. And when the disc jockey announced the song’s title had been changed to “Emotion,” White hit the roof. “I don’t mind if someone records a song and gives us credit for writing a tune, that’s fine, that’s not a problem, that’s a compliment. But when somebody just rips you off, steals your song and tries to get away with taking the credit for writing it – we received no writing or publishing credit for that song. Everybody that heard the song knew it was a ripoff of ‘Best Of My Love.’ How close can you get? It seems to be a trend that’s happening now, but I think eventually somebody’s going to come along, they’re going to put the creativity back into music. It’s unfortunate that a lot of fans and a lot of people that received the music get it watered down, and a lot of times they don’t know what the original is. That’s really too bad.”

In 1993, they released their new album under the Warner Bros. contract, Millennium (Reprise 45274-2), earning a Grammy nomination for the track “Sunday Morning.” In fact, between 1975 and 1993, Earth Wind & Fire received 14 Grammy nominations, winning six times. “All through the Seventies, we had Grammies and gold records all over the place,” said Maurice. “It’s a great gesture. The first Grammy we ever won, I couldn’t believe it. It was like getting our first number one single. I make sure that everybody in the band gets the gold records, which we have a lot. I could fill up the room I’m in with the gold and platinum records we’ve won.”

But ten of those Grammy nominations were in the “Best R&B Group” or “Best R&B Instrumental” categories. “First of all,” said Philip Bailey, “I could never understand that you could have a record with the kind of crossover success that Earth Wind & Fire has had, and continue to be nominated as just an ‘R&B Group.’ Just once I would have liked to have seen us nominated as ‘Best Group,’ let us compete with all the other pop and rock bands.”

And when Earth Wind & Fire did win the golden gramophones, their acceptance speeches never appeared on the Grammy telecast. “I’m not dissing the Grammy people or anything like that,” said Bailey, “but you know, we have seven Grammys – the band has six and I have one for my gospel work – and none of those Grammys were ever received on television. Not one. That was at a time when the Grammys were given to the R&B categories pre-telecast. How many people have seven Grammys – and we never got a chance to make a speech on television. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. I’m not bitter about it or anything, it’s just that when you talk about the Grammys – and we’re very proud to have them, I have the ones that didn’t get broken in the Northridge earthquake – but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten the chance to feel what that really means in the larger sense of the world. Very few people even remember that we have this many Grammys, because they never saw it on television. If you didn’t catch that little part where they list all the ancillary awards – seven times – you wouldn’t have known about our seven Grammys.”

Meanwhile, problems were brewing over at Warner Bros. Mo Ostin, the man who recruited Earth Wind & Fire to Columbia, was himself forced out of the label. “We talked about the record for a year before we cut it,” said Verdine. “He let us take our time and let us do what we wanted to do. When we started to record, he financed our upstart costs. The leveraged takeover that cost Mo Ostin his job at Warner Bros., that was one of the biggest mistakes the industry ever made. It slowed the label down, it cost a lot of talent. A lot of artists in the late 80’s-middle 90’s were the victims of moguls fighting over each other for positions. The moguls weren’t fighting over records or movies – they were fighting over who was going to control the gatekeepers of this information. They got Mo out of the way because of the massive catalog that Warner Bros. had. But the only person who knew about Warner Bros. music was Mo.”

Although there were many achievements and accomplishments throughout Earth Wind & Fire’s existence, there has also been tragedy. Charles Stepney had worked with Maurice since the days of Chess Records, and had produced and arranged albums for the Dells, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. In 1976, after helping co-produce and arrange Earth Wind & Fire’s Spirit album and Deneice Williams’ This is Nicey album, Charles Stepney died of a heart attack. He was only 45.

In the summer of 1993, former Phoenix Horns member Don Myrick, whose saxophone could be heard not only on Earth Wind & Fire’s albums, but also on albums from Regina Belle, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Heaven 17 and Phil Collins (it’s Myrick’s emotional sax on Collins’ hit “One More Night”), was shot to death in Los Angeles, under circumstances that still remain a mystery to this day.

“Don hadn’t worked with us in almost ten years,” said Philip Bailey, “and so we were on to other things, we had a new Earth Wind & Fire horn section. I was in Los Angeles, and somebody called me and told me what happened. I think that he had some problems that he couldn’t resolve in himself – that kept putting him in situations. We were all very shocked and hurt that that had happened. He hadn’t worked with the band in quite some time. He did a solo for me on one of my projects, and wasn’t really feeling up to doing what I was used to hearing him do. But later I learned that he was back and playing really well and everything, so it was a real shock to us. He had been real sick one time and close to death, we were thinking he was bouncing back. It’s still shocking today.”

While Earth Wind & Fire continued to record and tour, Maurice White continued to produce. One of his most successful and well-received projects during that time came in 1994, when at the bequest of GRP Records Vice-President Carl Griffin, Maurice teamed up with Ramsey Lewis, Grover Washington, Jr., Victor Bailey and Omar Hakim as the “Urban Knights” (GRP 9815). White produced the sessions, and even wrote six songs for the project. “I was so happy that Carl called me to do the project,” said White at the time, “especially with Ramsey being an old friend. The sessions were highly improvisational and a lot of the tunes were written as we went along. Since my original musical roots are in jazz, this was like coming full circle for me and it was a tremendous experience. My idea (of being a producer) is to allow everyone around you to contribute…you don’t force them [to do that] but allow them to contribute….” The success of the Urban Knights album prompted White and Lewis to collaborate with guitarist Jonathan Butler, saxophonist Gerald Albright and drummer Sonny Emory on a second album, “Urban Knights II” (GRP 9861).

Maurice White is still Earth Wind & Fire’s producer and their guiding light, but he retired from the stage in 1996. He now spends his time building a studio in Los Angeles, fielding offers to produce new bands and performers, and contemplating a less nomadic pace. “I would love to do a completely jazz/acoustic album. Sometime in the future, that’s going to be possible. I was on the road for 25 years, that’s a long time in itself. I paid my dues. I’m doing a lot of recording now, I stay in the studio so much – so the best thing for me to do is build my own place.”

Today, Earth Wind & Fire are back on the road, touring in support of their new album In The Name Of Love (Pyramid/Rhino 72864) and their singles “Revolution” and “When Love Goes Wrong.” “The first time around,” said Philip Bailey, “it was going by so fast. I’m having more fun now than I ever had in my life. That’s not to poo-pooh that time, but in those kind of blitz situations, everything’s coming at you so fast and everything’s happening around you, until you don’t really have time to ever savor the experience and say, wow. It went by so fast, and there so much stuff going on – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“I’m proud of the staying power,” said Verdine White, “the music was always strong and we’re still here. Every time we go to the concert, there’s always somebody of notoriety there from today’s era – Wesley Snipes was at one of our concerts, Queen Latifah was at our concert, I ran into somebody from the Martin show the other night. They get excited, and they’re proud, too. We go to the airports, people still get excited when they see us. They tell us about the songs that affected their lives.”

And as Earth Wind & Fire perform their blend of jazz, funk, fusion, gospel, rock and pop to a new generation of fans, perhaps we can get a glimpse of their future. In the motion picture The Fifth Element, the film mentions that the first four primary elements were earth, wind, fire and water. Not air – wind.

The rest of the film was spent searching for that elusive fifth element. Maurice White found it long ago when Ramsey Lewis told him about the kalimba.