The mid-1950s saw the emergence of rock and roll as this new, dangerous genre of music that "corrupted" the youthful baby boomers. This "dangerous" new music was sexually explicit, broke color barriers as its origins were found in African American rhythm and blues, and the genre seemed to disregard the morals of the time.
But, it made money, so it became commercialized. By the decade’s end, many of these "dangerous" early musicians either suffered tragic deaths like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran or were swallowed in controversies like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Artists like Elvis Presley appealed to executives because his appearance could be easily marketed, per Britannica. Thus, the teen idol was born and would dominate the US until 1964 when new groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones crossed the Atlantic from England.
During this period between Elvis’ hips and Mick Jagger’s lips, teenage doo-wop groups from New York found great success. No group was able to bridge the two separate periods of rock music quite like Ronettes. A mixed-race girl group with sex appeal that sang both ballads and rock music checked every taboo box. Produced by one of the most influential artists of the generation, the Ronettes shot to the top of the music world like a comet, then disappeared almost just as fast. Their story has left many untold chapters, so here is the untold truth of the Ronettes, the original bad girls of rock.
The Ronettes were a family affair
Like the Jackson 5, the Ronettes were a family affair — made up of sisters Estelle and Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett and their cousin, Nedra Talley. The three were born and raised in New York City, which was fitting because their background was a melting pot. According to Biography, Estelle and Ronnie Bennett’s father was Irish and their mother was of African American and Cherokee descent. Pop History Dig says that Nedra Talley came from a Black, Indian, and Puerto Rican background. According to the People Pill, Estelle and Ronnie were bullied at their school for being mixed race.
In an interview with NPR, Ronnie Spector (then Bennett) talked about her extended family’s interest in music and growing up in Spanish Harlem. "I had so many first cousins, and I remember being on the rooftop, rehearsing, and trying to get our routines together," Spector said. "I grew up in Spanish Harlem, which was terrific because it was, like, every race, every color, every language."
During her youth, Ronnie Bennett remembered enjoying the music that was played in her home, particularly Sam Cooke. Coming from a big family, many family members were either involved or trying to break into the music business. At the insistence of their mother and grandmother, the three girls began to take music more seriously and learned to sing together as a unit. Eventually, the ladies began to compete in local competitions and became well-known in their neighborhood even before graduating high school.
The Ronettes find early success with Phil Spector
According to All Music, the Ronettes were influenced by doo-wop groups at the time such as Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and Little Anthony & the Imperials. The group worked on their choreography and, calling themselves "The Darling Sisters," won a competition at the Apollo Theatre in the late 1950s, which led them to receive formal vocal training. Two years later, the Ronettes’ big break came by accident. In 1961, while waiting in line to get into a popular club called The Peppermint Lounge, the club’s manager mistook them for the night’s performers. The ladies took advantage of the mistake and by the end of their show, were made regulars at the Peppermint.
That same year, the group signed with Colpix Records and began to release music that was regionally popular. This changed with one faithful plan and phone call. According to Rock and Roll Paradise, Estelle and Ronnie Bennett got the idea to call notable producer Phil Spector, who had just produced a hit with another girl group, the Crystals. Spector and fellow producer Lester Sill founded Philles Records in 1961, as reported by Biography, and agreed to meet with the Ronettes. He signed the group and helped them develop their iconic style. The group sported a large beehive haircut, tight skirts and dresses, and thick eyeliner, distinguishing them from the other female performers of the time period. The appearance projected both femininity and a "bad girl" look they saw on New York City streets.