With a brassy voice and attitude to match, Ronnie Spector was the prototypical 1960s tough girl. As the leader of the Ronettes, she popularized an assertive singing style that owed more to the sharp-edged tone of Billie Holliday than to the chirpy songbirds of the day. Her then-husband, Phil Spector, became legendary for his monumental "wall of sound" productions, but Ronnie could knock it down like Joshua's trumpets.
Outside the studio, it was another story. Rather than nurture her career, her jealous husband kept her off the road and under his eyes until their separation in 1973, but by then, her career had lost momentum. The last few years, however, have been productive ones for Spector, with an album released in 2003 and another, Last of the Rock Stars, which was released overseas in 2006 and finally made it to these shores this year in a slightly altered version. So it was that Spector came to be in front of World Cafe Live's audience Monday night, announcing, "It's my time now."
Backed by an eight-piece band that conjured the massive sound of her early days, Spector treated the crowd to hits from her past: "Be My Baby," "Baby, I Love You," "(Walkin') In the Rain," "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up," and the like. Donning a slinky Santa suit for the encores, she also mixed in a healthy complement of holiday fare, ranging from "Frosty the Snowman" to "Sleigh Ride," goosing the staid numbers by swinging freely away from the beat.
Her most intriguing selection was a cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," which both underlined the continuing appeal of Spector's bad-girl soul and conveyed where Winehouse picked up most of her tricks.
Although Spector's pitch wobbled at times and her between-song patter could be strangely disjointed, Spector, 66, has lost none of her ability to slice through the air with a well-chosen note, an explosion of sound choked off like a strangled sob. "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," written by the late New York Dolls' guitarist Johnny Thunders, was part eulogy and part wake, vulnerable and determined all at once. This isn't the first time it has been Spector's time, and with any luck, it won't be the last.