Ronnie Spector, '60s pop icon and 'Be My Baby' singer, dies at 78

Doha Madani and The Associated Press
American singer Ronnie Spector, leader of the Ronettes and wife of Phil Spector, 27th April 1971.
Daily Mirror | Mirrorpix | Getty Images

Ronnie Spector, known for singing iconic 1960s hits such as "Be My Baby" and "Walking in the Rain," died Wednesday of cancer, according to a statement from her family.

Ronnie Spector, 78, led the girl group the Ronettes and was known for rocking the cat-eye makeup and beehive hair that became synonymous with the era. A New York City native who grew up in East Harlem, Spector quickly became an international sensation.

The group's looks and powerful vocals — plus songwriting and producing help from Phil Spector — turned them into one of the premier acts of the girl-group era, touring England with the Rolling Stones and befriending the Beatles.

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Born Veronica Bennett, Ronnie Spector began performing around New York City with her older sister, Estelle Bennet, and their cousin Nedra Talley. The teen group's stardom was launched after they won an amateurs competition at the famed Apollo Theater.

In 1963 the women were signed to the record label of Phil Spector, the "wall of sound" music producer who helped create hits for some of the biggest boy bands of that time, including The Beatles and the Beach Boys.

The group released their debut album as the Ronettes in 1964, and five of its 12 tracks made it to the U.S. Billboard charts.

The Ronettes, who broke up in 1967, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, where they were credited for producing "some of the greatest music of the century."

In an induction essay for the group, Rob Bowman called the Ronettes, "the sexiest, hippest, and perhaps greatest-sounding girl group of all time."

"While their recording career lasted less than six years and they placed only a handful of singles on the charts, songs such as 'Be My Baby,' 'Baby, I Love You,' and 'Walking in the Rain' were larger-than-life hit recordings that made the Ronettes an indelible part of the sonic memory of early- and mid-sixties rock," Bowman wrote.

Ronnie Spector married Phil Spector in 1968, but the couple divorced in 1974.

She wrote about their time together in her memoir, "Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts And Madness," describing her former husband as abusive and controlling. He was convicted in 2009 for the murder of actor Lana Clarkson and died in prison last year.

But Ronnie Spector's legacy went far beyond her former marriage and the Ronettes, influencing music years for years to come. Amy Winehouse, who also made cat-eye makeup and beehive hair a part of her look, frequently cited Spector as an idol.

She toured as a solo act following the breakup of the Ronettes and continued to make hits, including "Take Me Home Tonight" with Eddie Money, recording Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and the 1999 EP "She Talks to Rainbows."

In an interview with People magazine in 2017, Ronnie Spector said she initially didn't think the Ronettes would be successful "because of our look and being biracial."

She credited the gay community for helping to launch the group and keeping her going over the years.

"Our career started working in the Village in the gay coffee shops," she said. "And then when I came back from California, where do you think I started out? I started out at the Continental Baths, a gay club. That's how I started my return to show business."

She is survived her husband, Jonathan Greenfield, and two sons, Jason and Austin.

"Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face," her family said Wednesday. "She was filled with love and gratitude. Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her."