Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys tells the story that he was driving when he first heard Veronica Bennett and the Ronettes sing "Be My Baby" on the radio. He had to pull over, or so the story goes. "It was a shock,” Wilson says in a weekend New York Times story about the record. "I started analyzing all the guitars, pianos, bass, drums and percussion. Once I got all those learned, I knew how to produce records.... It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.”
"Be My Baby," co-written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector, is still hailed as a high point of Spector's Wall of Sound production style. And of course it was a big collaboration of Spector and Bennett, who married her producer and became Ronnie Spector. (They later divorced.) "Be My Baby" shows up in movies and TV shows, and Ronnie Spector sings it in concerts, but she's not allowed to perform it in her touring theatrical production of Ronettes music. Phil Spector says no, even from his perch in a California prison, Ronnie says.
She talks in the NYT about the backstory, which is part of LA's rich musical history.
Ms. Spector suggests that innocence is part of the song’s sustained power. She recounts being flown out to Los Angeles as a teenager from Spanish Harlem to record the song at Ocean Way Studios [see below - ed.] on Santa Monica Boulevard. She was then known as Ronnie Bennett. She belted out her vocals in the sound booth while staring down a young but no less odd Mr. Spector.
“I was so much in love,” she said. “That energy comes back to me every time: when I’m singing ‘Be My Baby,’ I’m thinking of us in the studio.”
The soapy darkness now associated with their subsequent marriage (Ms. Spector’s 1990 memoir, also titled “Be My Baby,” recounts wild jealousy and feeling threatened by a gold coffin in the basement of a castle turned de facto prison) informs the song’s myth.
At its heart, “Be My Baby” is as much about power and control as it is about romance. Lyrically it also marks a bold moment in pop music, when a woman makes a play for a man while infantilizing him. Usually the reverse was the norm.
Mr. Barry said: “I consider myself to this day a feminist. I was picturing a shy guy. A guy who just needed a little nudge.”
There is some fun video footage of Ronnie and the Ronettes online, including them shaking some booty on TV in "Shout" (after "Be My Baby" in this video, link fixed) and at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But here's Jimmy O'Neill on Shindig, probably in 1965, admitting he was already a bit tired of playing "Be My Baby" on the radio in Los Angeles.
Estelle Bennett died in 2009.
* Noted: Hollywood historian Philip Mershon says that "Be My Baby" was famously recorded at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, not Ocean Way (which he says was on Sunset, but only much later.)
Ronettes photo: YouTube screen grab