Ronnie Spector Talks U.K. Tribute Album 'English Heart'

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{photo: Ruven Afanador/CPI Syndication)

Back in January 1964, riding high on the popularity of the hit “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes toured England. Their opening act was a young five-piece band called the Rolling Stones. It was during that tour that the trio’s lead vocalist, Ronnie Spector, began her longtime love affair with England. More than 50 years later, she’s paying tribute to the country and the artists that sprang from it with English Heart, her first album in a decade.

On the album, due April 8, Spector covers a wide range of British acts, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, the Kinks, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, the Yardbirds, and others. But the song selections aren’t always the hits that you’d expect. “I did that on purpose,” she explains in a phone interview from her Connecticut home. “Take the Beatles, for instance. They had such great hits like ‘Yesterday.’ I could go on forever with the Beatles, but I picked one their songs that a lot of people aren’t that familiar with.” Spector’s choice from the Lennon-McCartney catalog is “I’ll Follow the Sun,” a track from Beatles '65 in the U.S. and Beatles for Sale in the U.K. It was released on an EP in the U.K., but wasn’t a hit.

Her pick from the Rolling Stones catalog, “I’d Much Rather Be With the Boys,” is even more obscure. The track, penned by Stones early manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham and guitarist Keith Richards, turned up on the 1975 odds-and-ends compilation Metamorphosis. Legend has it, the song was written with the Ronettes in mind and it has the obvious influence of Phil Spector-produced “Be My Baby,” making it the perfect vehicle for Ronnie. Yet rather than just do it straight, she flipped the gender to turn it into a girls’-night-out anthem: “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls.” Says Spector, “It sounded like it had a girl-group sound to me, so I just changed it…Theirs is 'I’d Much Rather Be With the Boys,’ but hell, I’d much rather be with the girls… I’ve been through a lot with the boys, if you get my drift!”

The song also has special meaning for Spector, since she’s known Richards for more than 50 years. "He lives like 15 minutes from me,” she says. It was Richards who inducted the Ronettes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and in a 2010 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she said, “I should have married Keith. Our kids would have had great hair.” Spector still remembers her early relationship with Richards fondly. “When we toured over there with them, they were so nice,” she recalls. “I remember Mick and my sister [Estelle Bennett] going out and Keith and I would jump off the bus run into Wimpy’s and get some burgers and get back on the bus. It was the best time in my life.”

Prior the Beatlemania, the Ronettes received a similar response – albeit from a smaller group of fans – during that 1964 visit to the U.K. “There were all these kids waiting for us at the airport,” she recalls. “It blew my mind. We were big in the States, too, but when we got over to the U.K. there was so much love and respect. That’s why I still love the U.K.”

Giving her version of the Stones song even more meaning was the fact that she recruited a pair of familial backing vocalists for that track – her niece Toyin Dong, the daughter of Spector’s late sister and fellow Ronettes member Estelle Bennett, and her cousin, Bruce Springsteen backing vocalist Cindy Mizelle – since surviving Ronettes member Nedra Tallley no longer sings. “The Ronettes were my sister and my first cousin,” Spector says. “It was a blood sound that was different than all the other girl groups, so that’s what made me say, 'Wait, I gotta get my cousin Cindy and I gotta get my niece Toyin to get that blood sound on the record.’ I’m a little superstitious, but I thought that would be really cool.”

Now 72, Spector was born Veronica Yvette Bennett. She took her more familiar name in 1968, after she married legendary producer and “Wall of Sound” architect Phil Spector, the man behind the Ronettes hits. The couple divorced in 1974, with Phil going on to produce such acts as John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, and the Ramones before he was convicted of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2009. With his health declining, Phil is now serving 19 years to life at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, Calif.

Ronnie went on to reform the Ronettes in the early '70s and later appeared as a guest on several recordings, most notably Eddie Money’s 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight.” She’s also released a few EPs and three solo albums, including her previous effort, 2006’s Last of the Rock Stars, featuring members of the Raconteurs, Raveonettes, Patti Smith and Richards. But for English Heart, she steered clear of high-profile guests and a big-name producer. The album was produced by Scott Jacoby, whose credits include work with John Legend, Vampire Weekend, and Sia. Spector says Jacoby allowed her the freedom that she’s longed for during much of her career.

“He didn’t look over my shoulder,” she says. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t see him most of the time, because I was in my own little room. I was by myself and I had so much freedom to sing how and what I want. I loved Scott’s patience. He was just quiet and let me do my thing, and that’s what I’ve never had on any of my prior records.” Spector says she was free to tweak lyrics of the songs to fit her preference, pointing to the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” in which she changed the line, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good” to “I’m just a girl.”

Spector didn’t take the process of finding the right tracks lightly. “I went through about 70 songs and picked out the ones that I loved,” she says. Spector was also looking for songs that resonated with her life and reminded her of “all the guys I hung out with back in the '60s.” While she says she loves all the songs that made the album, her favorite is the Bee Gees classic “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” Spector says, “I remember when that song was out in the '70s and people would say, 'The Bee Gees have that vibrato like you do.’” Aside from the nice fit vocally, Spector found performing the song a highly emotional experience. “I had to go into the bathroom and cry,” she admits, “because it was so much about my life. So when I sang it, I cried and I had to stop the tape and get myself pulled together again so I could continue recording it. It was the one song, out of all of them, that I really, really felt. I felt all of them, but this one really, really, brought me to tears because it was about my life. My heart was broken a lot.”

One particular episode of heartbreak she speaks about is the missed opportunity of recording Brian Wilson’s “Don’t Worry Baby” back in the mid-'60s. “I thought that would have been the greatest song to come out right after 'Be My Baby,’ but the people who were writing my material back then didn’t want it, because they didn’t write it. I didn’t know that if you write songs, that’s where the big money is. Nobody told us back then. I had no idea.”

Spector plans to back English Heart with a tour. “Of course,” she says. “That’s why most people make albums. The reason I go into the studio is so I can go out and perform them for the people. That’s the whole point of being in the studio.” As for the 10-year break in recording, Spector says she hadn’t found songs that moved her to go make a record, until her manager/husband Jonathan Greenfield suggested the British tribute album. “I’ve seen people – Barry Manilow and Aretha Franklin – they have like 40 albums out and I never heard any of them,” she says. “I don’t go into the studio to just make records. I go into the studio to make a point.”

Her current method of working is far different from the heyday of the Ronettes. “I picked every song because it reminds me or this or that,” she adds. “I just can’t go in the studio and just do whatever you guys want, because that’s how it was in the '60s,” she says. “You had to do the material that the producers and writers picked out for you. Now I pick my own songs that I want to sing and that make me feel like I’m in control of my own career. Nobody’s controlling me.”

For the tour, Spector will bring the same intimate format that she recently toured with in the U.K. “I have videos in back of me – the Ronettes and the different things we went through,” she says. “They don’t just get me up there singing. I sit down, I have an iPad in case I mess up what I’m going to say, because I talk through the show. Each song, I talk about it and then I get up and sing. The audience loves that. I love being intimate with the audience. It’s like it’s me and them in my living room instead of a theater.”

If it sounds like a throwback, in a way it is, and that’s fine with Spector. “I see these people out there today with choreographers, hairstylists, and makeup artists following them everywhere they go,” she says. “We didn’t have that in the '60s. We just had ourselves, our own style, we made up our own dances. We didn’t have a big trail of people following behind us with hair and makeup. I would hate that.”

As our allotted time for the interview winds down, Greenfield gets on the phone and says we can have one more question. We’ve been saving one for the end of the interview because of its delicate nature, and we finally ask, “So Ronnie, what are your thoughts on Phil these days?” Before Ronnie can answer, Greenfield pipes up again, “Craig, we gotta go.”

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