When Ronnie Spector was 13 or so - she was Veronica Bennett then - she and her cousin Nedra Talley came to Philadelphia from New York to compete in a sock hop talent show. As winners, they got to meet Frankie Lymon, the doo-wop star of the hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." That was around 1956, and it wouldn't be until 1963 that Nedra, Ronnie, and her sister Estelle became famous as the Ronettes. But Lymon remained a touchstone for her, and on her recent album,
The Last of the Rock Stars
, she covers two songs he did, the ballads "Out in the Cold Again" and "It's Christmas Once Again."
"Frankie Lymon was everything to me, so I reached to my inspiration," Spector, 66, says from her Connecticut home. "He lived 15 blocks from me in New York, in Washington Heights. I used to pass his house to go to the George Washington Bridge, just to see his house, his stoop. I was so in love. I didn't know if he was black, white, green, or yellow - all I knew is that voice pierced me. I had to sound like that. It was a schooled voice, a student's."
Of course, Spector's voice is legendary, too - the sassy, tough lead of "Be My Baby," "Walking in the Rain," and, from the greatest rock-and-roll Christmas album of all time, Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Frosty the Snowman," and others. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member brings her Christmas Party show to World Cafe Live on Tuesday.
Ronnie Spector's recording career was derailed for a long time by her ex-husband (and now convicted murderer) Phil Spector. The Last of the Rock Stars, which came out in the United Kingdom in 2006, is her first full-length since the 1987 Unfinished Business. It's a star-studded affair, with guest spots from youngsters such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and the Raveonettes (who have made a career of copping details from Ronettes songs) and friends such as Patti Smith, Keith Richards, and the late Joey Ramone. But none of the guests overshadows Spector's commanding presence and arresting, iconic whoa-oh-ohs.
She covers songs by Amy Rigby, Johnny Thunders and the Ramones, but the most revealing is one by R&B singer Kina, the vengeful, redemptive "Girl From the Gutter" from 2000 that Spector revised into "Girl From the Ghetto."
"The story line is everything that I went through, down to the person being in jail and looking at the pictures of me. Everything," she says. "I loved singing that in the studio. I had goose pimples because I felt every line. I do in other songs, too, but this one was really about my real life, from the beginning to the end. 'You tried to make me weak so you could be strong' - all those lyrics."
On Tuesday, she'll mix holiday favorites with hits from throughout her career, plus some new ones. (She's been doing Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black.")
"If someone would have said to me 10 or 15 years ago, Ronnie, in 15 years you're going to be in the Hall of Fame, you're going to coproduce some of your records, you're going to have a new CD out, I wouldn't have believed any of that," she says. "I would have thought I dreamt it. Now it's real! I can't believe that!"