The loss of Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes and Rosa Lee Hawkins of the Dixie Cups within a day of each other this week reminded me of that pop music phenomenon that flourished in the early-to-mid '60s and has seen periodic revivals in many ensuing decades — the vocal blends of what are called girl groups.

It started even earlier with the Andrew Sisters in the 1940s and the McGuire Sisters in the 1950s, but the girl group phenomenon in the rock 'n' roll and rock era really took flight in 1963, before The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others led to the second great musical wave in rock.

Some of the girl groups, including the Ronettes, got an early look and listen to the British bands that would soon be hitting our shores, touring on package shows with them in Britain. It led to some close friendships that would endure, with Keith Richards and John Lennon becoming two of the Ronettes' biggest supporters.

For a period of time, some critics dismissed the early girl groups as unworthy of serious consideration when it comes to the history of rock — but they were oh, so wrong.

Along with the Ronettes and the Dixie Cups, other vaunted girl groups of the era included the Shirelles, the Crystals, the Chiffons, and the fabulous Shangri-Las. Motown, of course, had Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes and the Supremes, who had Berry Gordy's famed musical juggernaut of songwriters, producers session musicians and fashion consultants behind them, but many of the then-East Coast-based groups took a more independent course.

Most of the first wave of rock 'n' roll girl groups came up from the streets — often consisting of sisters, cousins and friends who got together, found they could harmonize, sang in local talent shows and wound up with a record contract.

That's what happened with the Ronettes, which consisted of Ronnie Spector, then known as Veronica Bennett, sister Estelle Bennett and cousin, Nedra Talley. When record producer Phil Spector first heard them, he became infatuated with their sound. Their mother helped secure their release from the record company they were signed to at the time, and Spector quickly signed them to his own Philles Records.

Philles Records' name came from combining the names of Spector and his partner, Lester Sills. When he formed the label at the age of 21, Spector became the youngest person to operate a label at the time.

Soon, Spector found what he considered the perfect song for the Ronettes. "Be My Baby" is credited to Spector along with the husband and wife songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Versions differ as to whether Spector — who has written other songs, including "To Know Him Is To Love Him" — made a significant contribution or simply took a credit as the song's producer,  which sometimes happened during the era.

Spector took Ronnie Spector to Los Angeles, where he booked the well-known Gold Star studios and hired the group of ace session musicians who today are known as the Wrecking Crew.

Accounts of the recording of "Be My Baby" relate how Phil Spector continually rehearsed the session musicians and well as Ronnie before he ever began to record the song. Ronnie Spector, as she came to be known, has told how she practiced her vocals in the ladies room, because of its great acoustics.

Spector put together all the ingredients of his famed Wall of Sound production techniques in an arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, utilizing two drummers, multiple guitars, pianos — with one played by Oklahoma's own Leon Russell, before he found his own fame —  a horn section and a slew of background singers, including a couple who would soon become known as Sonny and Cher, along with Darlene Love, who would record her own hits with Spector. Oh yes, he also included an orchestral string section, which also undertook the seemingly-endless rehearsals.

Finally, Phil Spector, the musicians and Ronnie were ready to record the song — and what a record they created! It's 2:41 seconds of pure pop bliss, resulting in a sound that's imitated to this day.

"Be My Baby" begins with one of the most iconic drumbeats in the history of rock 'n' rol, courtesy of Hal Blaine, the Wrecking Crew drummer who played on multiple hit records. It fittingly kicks off on the kick drum — also known as the bass drum — followed by single snare beat, sort of a boom, boom-boom, wham!

Following Blaine's drum solo intro, the musicians all come in at once, an aural representation of Spector's Wall of Sound — and Ronnie has yet to begin singing. When she does, she delivers a vocal that's tender and yet sassy.

The song shot to #2  on the charts. In California, a young Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy whose songwriting and production techniques helped the band achieve its own fame, has told how when he first heard "Be My Baby" playing on his car radio, he had to pull off the road because it affected him so powerfully.

He still says it's his favorite record of all time. Although the Beach Boys were more than capable musicians as a live performing unit, Wilson grew so enamored of the sound of "Be My Baby" that he convinced Capitol Records to let the Beach Bots record at an outside studio — The Gold Star studios, of course. He also recorded some of the Beach Boys tracks with the Wrecking Crew and wrote his own song inspired by "Be My Baby" called "Don't Worry Baby" — which went on to become one of the Beach Boys most-loved songs.

"By My Baby" became a hit not only in the U.S., but in Britain as well — where members of The Beatles and the Stones were among the Ronnettes' many fans.

Meanwhile, Hawkins, of the Dixie Cups, joined with her sister, Barbara Hawkins and cousin, Joan Marie Johnson, to form their own girl group down in New Orleans.

The Dixie Cups too, landed a recording contract and went to New York to record on Red Bird Records. They too hooked up with the songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and they also were given a song to record that became a huge hit record.

It came out in 1964 — and by that time British groups were largely ruling the charts in America. Nevertheless, the Dixie Cups' bouncy rendition of "Chapel of Love" rocketed all the way to #1 on the charts. They followed it with another hit," People Say," and a song that went on to become a staple of many of the Grateful Dead's concerts, "Iko Iko."

As for the Ronettes, they scored another hit with "Baby I Love You." Ronnie married producer Phil Spector, who she would later describe as a great record producer but a lousy husband. They were married in 1968 and divorced by 1974, with the Ronettes continuing to perform from time-to-time.

"Be My Baby" continued to grow in stature and reached even more listeners through its inclusion in movie soundtracks, including Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" in 1973 and in the opening sequence of "Dirty Dancing" in 1987.

As for the ironic drum intro, which is repeated later in the song, Blaine later said that was the result of an accident, when he dropped his snare drum stick and was only able to retrieve it in time for that final "wham!"

In 1991, Ronnie Spector recorded Brian Wilson's "Don't Worry Baby" — which must have thrilled Wilson with her version.

In 2007, the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by one of their old pals from Britain, Keith Richards — although she and the Stones guitarist were neighbors in Connecticut by that time. 

Richards told how during an early tour with the Ronnettes in 1964, he had entered the backstage area of a dark, dank theater in Britain and heard the sound of the Ronettes rehearsing "Be My Baby," all alone, with nothing but their three voices.

"I got a command performance, all to myself," Richards said. "I realized despite Jack Nitzsche's beautiful arrangement, they could sing their way right through a wall of sound," Richards said. "They didn't need anything.

"They touched my heart right there and then, and they touch it still," Richards said.

As long as people continue to love perfect pop confections, no doubt both the Ronnetes and the Dixie Cups will go on touching the hearts of music fans everywhere.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

Trending Video

Recommended for you