The Ronettes had a rather difficult career.
The girl group from Spanish Harlem — a trio composed of sisters Veronica and Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley — started out as the Darling Sisters and achieved fame with “Be My Baby” and won a Grammy for “Walking in the Rain.” But machinations outside their control saw them lose out on releasing “Chapel of Love” right before the Dixie Cups took it to No. 1 in 1964. And their career peaked right as Diana Ross and the Supremes — the darlings of Berry Gordy’s Motown — achieved superstardom. For all their hits, they only recorded one studio album, with the wordy-in-just-that-mid-’60s-
Eventually, Veronica, later known as Ronnie Spector, embarked upon a solo career — only to became a de facto prisoner of her increasingly eccentric husband, the producer Phil Spector, for seven years. (Phil is now in a prison of his own, about one-third the way through a 19-year sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.) But at least the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Ronettes in 2007.
Amid all this Sturm und Drang is one indisputable truth: Ronnie Spector has as much staying power as she has charisma. A friend of the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones, and a collaborator with The Misfits, Patti Smith, and Jimi Hendrix, wild tales about her populate numerous rock ’n’ roll biographies.
Now 73, she might not party as hard as some people will this Pride weekend, but Hard French — the Saturday afternoon soul, Motown, and R&B party that wound down its seven-year residency at El Rio earlier this month — got the Ronettes to play a rare live set this Pride Sunday, June 25. Along with Gays Hate Techno, The B-Side Brujas, La Disco es Qultura, Club Lonely, and others, they’ll be at Mezzanine, for Hard French▼s Los Homos VII. Such a booking isn’t actually much of a departure for the Ronettes, who’ve played at gay bars as well as Glastonbury.
“When the Ronettes started out, we were too young to play in clubs that served alcohol,” Spector tells SF Weekly. “So we played coffeehouses in the West Village like the Cafe Bazaar, the Gaslight, or the Cafe Wha. … There weren’t mixed groups like the Ronettes back then. The gay audience took a liking to the Ronettes, maybe because they knew we were different. We’re Black, Cherokee, Irish, a bit of Chinese — and my cousin Nedra is the same, plus Puerto Rican. But they were the ones that showed up at our first shows before anyone else.
“That made me believe I might have a future performing,” she adds. “We exaggerated everything, our beehives were the highest, our eyeliner was the thickest, our dresses were the shortest — and tightest! And we danced a lot!”
After the Ronettes’ first phase wound down, Spector left L.A. and returned to New York in 1973, playing gigs at a gay bathhouse known as the Continental Baths. (Bette Midler later got her start there, as well.)
“Understand, I had been taken away from the stage at the peak of my career in the ’60s,” Spector says. “It was devastating. Seven years, I wasn’t on stage — but when I returned to New York City and the stage, that audience was still there for me. I had lost a sense of self, ’cause of a very traumatic relationship. But the gay audience welcomed me back.
“I so needed to be on stage,” she adds. “The guys would go crazy. I grabbed one guy’s belt and started whipping him! I really needed them — and for some reason they seem to need me.”
In keeping with Pride, she’ll perform Keith Richards’ “I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys,” recast as “I’d Much Rather Be with the Girls.” It’s a number, she notes, the Stones played when they opened for the Ronettes.
Otherwise disinclined to get too sentimental about the past, Spector says her proudest accomplishment is “that I am alive today” — but immediately shifts gears to discuss teasing Dusty Springfield’s beehive and blasting it with AquaNet in a dressing room.
Considering that all the ’60s talk around town right now pertains to the Summer of Love, it’s important to remember that the Ronettes reverse-commuted in a way, landing in Britain right as the British Invasion crested stateside.
Again emphasizing how she doesn’t like to look back, Spector says, “What I can tell you is you’ll see girls wearing their eyes the same way I did in 1963. Amy Winehouse was influenced by our style. We created that look ourselves. No stylist, no hairdresser, no makeup artist. Today, you have a whole team of people to put your look together. Our style and sound has lasted for quite a while, and we were just having fun.”
That sense of fun won her notoriety as a bad girl of rock ’n’ roll, but being a successful girl group required more than a veneer of innocence.
“The ‘Bad Girl’ image is the Ronettes,” Spector says. “We took the style from the streets of Spanish Harlem, brought some fashion and attitude to it, and then took it to the stage. Yes, we were innocent, a family group — and my mom toured with us, so we were protected. But trust me, when I am on stage, even at sound check, I am bad!”
Had she ever heard of Hard French before?
“Nope,” she said, “but my assistant Marisa was very excited about me playing at Hard French! … As much as I love festivals and large crowds, there is an intimacy to performing in clubs that I love. I feed off my audience, and need to feel them. When I leave the stage, I am pretty wet, and I love that! I never leave dry.”
HARD FRENCH ▼s LOS HOMOS VII, Sunday, June 25, 3-11 p.m. (block party 3-8 p.m.), at Mezzanine, 444 Jessie St., $30-$60, tickets here.