In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
The Ronettes- “Be My Baby”
PEAK: #2 on October 12, 1963
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs’ “Sugar Shack”
With the recent news of Phil Spector’s death, there’s a conflicted feeling of remembering him as a groundbreaking producer who was also a deranged man which led to him spending the last decade of his life in prison for killing actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. Obviously, there’s no excusing all that. But as a producer, there’s no denying the immense impact he has had on the world of pop music.
His Wagnerian approach to rock and roll which involved using as many instruments and layering as possible to achieve a bigger sound later dubbed the “Wall of Sound” helped to revolutionize how pop music should sound and how the producer could be just as big of an artistic force as the artists themselves. When you look at producers who came after like Max Martin and his brand of melodic math, it’s hard to imagine them without Phil Spector leading the way. All of this influence is shown in “Be My Baby” the smash hit for his recently signed girl group the Ronettes that easily stands as his most famous and recognizable creation.
The Ronettes consisted of sisters Veronica “Ronnie” and Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley who started singing together in the late ‘50s in their Washington Heights hometown of Manhattan. Soon they began grooming themselves into a singing and dancing performing unit when they won a talent contest at the famed Apollo Theater. That soon led to another break when a case of mistaken identity led to them performing at Manhattan’s famed Peppermint Lounge nightclub, the epicenter of the national Twist dance craze, quickly becoming regulars.
Around that time, the group got their first record deal with Colpix Records where after going through names like the Darling Sisters and Ronnie & The Relatives, the Ronettes was soon established. None of their singles on Colpix went anywhere leading to the group arranging an audition with Phil Spector who saw their talent and potential getting them out of their contract with Colpix to sign with his Phillies label in 1963. Some of their early recordings for Spector didn’t do much either being shelved or put out under the names of other groups. Soon after, they were hard at work on a song that would change the course of popular music.
“Be My Baby” was written by Spector along with the songwriting couple of Jeff Barry and Elle Greenwich. Through their collaboration, they came up with a song of romantic desperation. Like many songs of the era, it’s a simple song that uses its simplicity to describe the feelings of young love. On “Be My Baby,” Ronnie sees someone one night and sees love at first sight. She person promises to make this new love happy and proud of her with the chorus acting as a plead for this person to be their little baby for eternity. It’s not a very complicated song but fits squarely within the early ‘60s songwriting lineage.
All this wouldn’t have worked so well if it weren’t for everyone involved with the song. Despite the billing, Ronnie is the only Ronette who sings on the track with backing vocals done by Ronnie and various Spector regulars including Cher, Sonny Bono, Greenwich, and Darlene Love among others. But in a way, Ronnie is the only one here who matters with moments like her “oh-oh-ohs” inflections on the chorus becoming one of her trademarks. She doesn’t have a huge powerhouse voice but has presence that makes her stand out amid the Wall of Sound production selling the teenage innocence and lovestruck nature of the song while the murmuring backup vocals add a fun singalong catchiness.
Spector recorded “Be My Baby” as with most of his productions with the famed crew of LA session musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew as well as a full orchestra for the first time ever. The song becomes legendary almost immediately from its opening where drummer Hal Blaine plays a simple yet memorable pattern “Boom-boom-boom-pow” that immediately hooks you in. It’s become so famous that there are several Spotify playlists of songs that use the same drum pattern. The funny thing about it is that it wasn’t supposed to be played like that as Blaine recalled a more standard drum pattern written but dropped a stick when recording began meaning one of the most recognizable drum riffs ever was created by accident. I love stories like that.
For the rest of the production, it gets about as perfect as it can be. In fact, it’s one of those songs that’s so boringly perfect that you can’t really say much more about it considering the acclaim it’s already gotten. But with all that, it’s still a great listen with the lush and fluttering orchestral flourishes that anchor the song exemplifying so much of what Phil Spector did best with his symphonic approach to pop music. With the Wall of Sound, Spector and his crew turned a simple song about teenage romantic longing into something more.
Upon its release in August 1963, people right away knew “Be My Baby” was something with American Bandstand host Dick Clark introducing it on his show as the “record of the century.” Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was especially blown away by it hearing the song on the radio for the first time while driving with his girlfriend pulling over in astonishment at its sound. It was that song that pushed Wilson into a decade long creative competition doing everything he could to match Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound on future Beach Boys songs and eventually succeeded with his own version using the same Wrecking Crew musicians that Spector used. Wilson even wrote “Don’t Worry Baby” as a response to “Be My Baby” which peaked at #24. The song has also shown up on various greatest songs of all time lists and was added to the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in 2006.
And yet for some reason, “Be My Baby” just missed out on topping the charts. The week the song ascended to the runner-up spot also happened to be the week that Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs began their five-week reign with the goofy novelty “Sugar Shack” which wound up as Billboard’s #1 single for 1963. It’s one of those chart occurrences that today seems weird to compensate: one of the most acclaimed songs ever being blocked by a forgettable ditty about a guy marrying a girl he sees working at a coffeehouse. But that’s pop music for you, nothing makes sense.
Despite the massive success and acclaim of “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes were never able to make the Top 10 again. The closest they got during their peak was 1964’s “Walking In The Rain” and that peaked at #23 with a bunch of other singles that peaked in the lower rungs of the Top 40. Part of that can be attributed to the rapidly changing nature of pop music during this time. A month after “Be My Baby” peaked at #2, President Kennedy was assassinated and four months later the Beatles arrived in America unleashing a new musical revolution that made the Ronettes and Spector’s Wall of Sound style to become increasingly outdated. Also not helped was the rise of Motown and their girl group the Supremes who’d eclipse the Ronettes and all of their girl group peers to become the biggest chart-dominating act of the ‘60s not named the Beatles.
But a lot of this decline can be traced to Spector himself as he sabotaged the Ronettes’ career worried that their popularity would overshadow his name refusing to release songs they had recorded including another Barry/Greenwich collaboration “Chapel of Love” that became a #1 for the Dixie Cups instead. When the group got to open for the Beatles on tour in 1966, Spector got so angry that he refused to let Ronnie perform instead getting the girls’ cousin Elaine to fill in Ronnie’s place. Combined with the typical internal battles of Ronnie getting all the attention, the Ronettes broke up in 1967.
Soon after, Spector married Ronnie in 1968 after years of personal romance but their marriage was anything but happy. Ronnie has talked in detail about her years of marriage where Phil psychologically abused her not allowing her to leave the house most times and constantly threatening to kill her while he put barbed wire and guard dogs around the house. Ronnie eventually escaped in 1972 and divorced Phil two years later. After her divorce, Ronnie tried to put out music both under her name and the Ronettes but by that point, she and the group had become tied to the ’60s and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound so those records didn’t make much impact but she did have one major comeback you’ll see at the bottom.
The Ronettes sued Phil for unpaid royalties of their hits which led to the courts ordering that he pay upward of $1.5 million to the group. The group reunited in 2007 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor that Phil also tried to sabotage. After that, they never did much together again with Estelle dying in 2009 from colon cancer at age 67. In recent years, Ronnie has continued to release music and tour. And just recently, they charted again with their biggest hit since “Be My Baby” as their frantic cover of the Christmas classic “Sleigh Ride,” one of their contributions to Spector’s 1963 classic album A Christmas Gift To You, enjoyed its highest peak ever at #13 a few weeks ago during the holidays.
It seems that in recent years more people have been giving the Ronettes their due as various artists have sighted them as an influence most notably the late Amy Winehouse who aside from being influenced by their music also adapted their fashion sense donning the same beehive hairdo and dresses they wore in the ‘60s. (Amy Winehouse’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “Rehab,” peaked at #9. It’s a 10.) Recently, a new biopic was announced based on Ronnie’s 1990 memoir Be My Baby with actress Zendaya taped to portray Ronnie by none other than the singer herself.
Phil Spector was a piece of shit human being who harmed others and he will not be missed. But as a producer, he created a vision that changed music forever and people have been chasing it ever since.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Be My Baby” soundtracking the opening to Martin Scorcese’s 1973 film Mean Streets:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1986, Eddie Money had a big hit with “Take Me Home Tonight,” a song that interpolates “Be My Baby” even getting Ronnie Spector to come out of retirement to reprise her chorus. Here’s the video in which Spector also appears:
(“Take Me Home Tonight” is Eddie Money’s highest-charting hit and it peaked at #4. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Be My Baby” playing over the opening credits sequence of 1987’s Dirty Dancing:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2016 Scream Queens episode where “Be My Baby” plays over a gruesome beheading scene:
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