It's a story that proceeds by echoes -- beginning with three muffled drumbeats that could be counting off the three flashy girls from Spanish Harlem who are about to sing. The fourth, louder beat, a beat with a kick like a gunshot, marks the presence of a man behind a glass curtain. And everything reverberates from there.
It is July, 1963, the trio of fly girls is the Ronettes -- sisters Veronica (Ronnie) and Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley -- and the young "tycoon of teen" in the booth is, of course, producer Phil Spector. The song is Be My Baby, which some people call the most perfect pop single ever made.
It's merely four months before the boom of a gunshot in Dallas blows apart the particular America the Ronettes were singing to, and nearly 40 years before a shot fired in a California mansion leaves a B-movie actress lying in a pool of her own blood and Phil Spector under suspicion of murder.
His route from world-ruling studio genius to film-noir recluse has been told and retold since Lana Clarkson's death last February. But the singer whose star was ignited with that first hit single, who would later be Spector's wife, has been reduced to a supporting player in his wrestling match (or maybe makeout session) with his demons.
Which for Ronnie Spector, can only be déja vu.
Phil's "Wall of Sound" style, which involved doubling and tripling parts, is heard on classics by everyone from the Crystals to Ike and Tina Turner to the Beatles and Leonard Cohen. It comes up in every history of rock 'n' roll. But something else monumental happened with Be My Baby: Ronnie became the first female rock star.
Yes, Big Mama Thornton had the sound long before white America heard it, rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson was on the fringes during Elvis's reign, and there were girl-group hits before the Ronettes. But Ronnie was the first woman in rock to provoke anything like the hysteria that Elvis had caused, which was soon to engulf the Beatles. And in her case, the boys were screaming even louder than the girls.
Fans can remind themselves why tonight, as the Ronnie Spector Christmas Party -- an annual tradition in New York -- makes a special visit to Toronto, at the Phoenix. The girl-group era is often shrugged off as the period when radio made do with artificial sweetening while Elvis was in the army and the Beatles hadn't yet crossed the Channel. There was far more to it.
Besides the music (covered by the early Beatles, and an influence heard in Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, the Pretenders, on down to the Spice Girls), the heyday of the mostly black girl groups tracked precisely with that of the civil-rights movement. With their high bouffants, formal wear and swoony music, these were black singers white kids could admire without causing too much parental alarm -- clearing the way for the crossovers of Motown and soul.
They also dropped a hint that something was up with the generation of girls who'd just rounded the horn of puberty. In their lyrics and call-and-response structures, they reproduced the tone of girl talk, the obsessive analysis, masochistic romanticism, and (in Leader of the Pack or even It's My Party) a note of rebellion. Though fraught with 1950s-holdover gender codes and the fevers of the adolescent psyche, the music detailed those paradoxes fiercely, and represented girl-gang-style solidarity in its uniformed, harmonizing sisters.
Feminist writers such as Susan Douglas and Donna Gaines argue that these songs served as rehearsals for the consciousness-raising sessions their listeners would grow up to attend. The shifts in education, technology, work and leisure that helped create the new teen audience also made women's lib near-inevitable. The shiver of Ronnie's vibrato was the sound of a loosening in the postwar west.
But the Ronettes unleashed it further: Unlike other girl groups, they dressed in tight, short dresses, slathered on the eyeliner and swiped their spicy dance moves from the street corner. Their songs weren't the usual confessional narratives, but imperative and direct: "Since when," writes critic Charlotte Grieg, "had it been the girl's prerogative to implore 'Be My Baby' to the boy who took her fancy?"
The answer: Since that girl was Ronnie. In her 1991 autobiography she said that John Lennon made a pass, Keith Richards was in love with her and years later she would have an intense one-night-stand with David Bowie (who's in town tomorrow, with Macy Gray at the Air Canada Centre). How big was she? When the Ronettes toured England, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds were the openers.
But it was Phil Spector she married, and as he had courted her in a cathedral of sound, now he built her a prison. He first forbade her to go on the Ronettes' tour with the Beatles, then to go anywhere. She was confined to his estate, ringed by barbed wire; on rare car trips she had to be accompanied by an inflatable Phil doll in the front seat. He made her watch Citizen Kane with him every night, which must have been like looking in the mirror. In 1972, she finally escaped barefoot across the grounds while he was being distracted by her mother, whom Phil told: "I'm completely prepared for [the day Ronnie leaves] I've already got her coffin. It's solid gold. And it's got a glass top, so I can keep my eyes on her after she's dead."
He did not send the hit men he'd threatened. He didn't need to -- like the Wagnerian furies of his rhythm tracks, the arrangements of their marriage would echo through her life in the alcohol problem she nursed for a decade, in repeated failed comeback efforts, and finally in the 15-year court battle for a fair share of the riches the Ronettes earned their producer. (An initial award of nearly $3-million was hailed as a moral victory for artists, but was overturned on appeal. It is back in court this week.) Even the annual Christmas show carries her ex's traces: Salty-mouthed Ronnie made her holiday-music debut on Phil's brilliant 1963 collection A Christmas Gift for You, where she sang Sleigh Ride over a thousand ringing bells.
Still, at 60, she has her second husband and her adolescent kids in Connecticut. Her best post-Ronettes work is on a 1999 five-song disc produced by the late Joey Ramone. On that indie-label release she finally sings Don't Worry, Baby, the masterpiece Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys wrote for her decades before, rejected because Wilson wouldn't give Phil a writing credit. A new EP with Marshall Crenshaw was recorded this fall.
Whatever the fate of her ex-Svengali, for Ronnie the ripple of that first drumbeat continues outward: In the so-called "Echo Boom," as demographers call the kids of the early girl-group fans, she's godmother to the tough chicks of the indie scene, the sexagenarian original bad girl who still has incredible hair. And there is a new crop of girl groups to serve another teen-girl population explosion. From Britney to Beyoncé, singers still hide half-profundities in bubblegum wrappers, never knowing which ones might stick and guide girls' lives till the Destiny's Child oldies tour in 2033.