Walking in the Rain - the Ronettes
On January 16th, legendary record producer Phil Spector died of COVID related illness while serving time for the murder of Lana Clarkson in 2003 from a pistol shot to the head. While there is confusion as to whether Spector actually pulled the trigger, it seems certain that Spector was instrumental in her death.
Which brings us to an often recurring question of modern times: how much do the misdemeanours of an artist - in this case the writer and /or producer of a handful of the greatest rock tracks of the twentieth century - invalidate their work.
Perhaps the best book about Spector is "Be My Baby" - ironically - the autobiography of Ronnie Spector, his second wife and lead singer of the Ronettes. The book, co-written with Vince Waldron, came out in 1990 and therefore her description of her life with Spector isn't coloured by the hindsight of the later tragic events.
From the very start of their relationship, Spector is subtly controlling each step. The day they first met, when the Ronettes auditioned for him, it was love at first sight, but Spector left nothing to chance, even then, continually playing his latest production, Darlene Love's "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry" (see post https://www.unclestylus.com/single-post/2017/12/25/girl-groups-no-9-darlene-love-christmas-baby-please-come-home , giving Ronnie significant looks all the while. He leaves Ronnie in no doubt with the titles and sentiments of the Ronettes' first two Spector produced singles, the awesome "Be My Baby" (see post https://www.unclestylus.com/single-post/2017/12/19/girl-groups-week-no-3-the-ronettes and "Baby I Love You" coinciding with key moments in their developing relationship. Soon, jealous of her contact with the other musicians and backing singers in the studio, he invites her to sit with him in the mixing booth. Ronnie is flattered at first, thinking he wants her advice or maybe to teach her how things work, but quickly realises that this is patently not the case, that he's just trying to isolate her from the others. Later, when they are living together and then married, Spector makes her a prisoner in their Beverly Hills mansion, surrounding them with guard dogs, and barbed wire fencing, and only letting her go out in her car if she has a inflatable replica of him in the passenger seat. Her loneliness - she is in California - not New York where all her friends are - drives her to alcohol, which is a relief as he lets her out to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. After 1966, he records prospective new singles with the Ronettes, but seldom releases them which Ronnie believes were just to keep her occupied and happy, with no intention of putting them out. The tracks - they are now all available - are indeed not a patch on their earlier work and would have flopped, so Spector might have been right not to release them, but either way, it feeds into both their paranoias, his domineering possessiveness or her awareness of being manipulated at every turn. Finally, she escapes with her mother, Spector only letting her out of the front door for a walk in the garden because he has her shoes and he doesn't believe she'll runaway barefoot. Whenever Ronnie disobeys him or does something he doesn't like he shouts at her - he's seldom violent - but he does carry a gun, which is a threat in itself if the carrier has a volatile temper.
The same obsessiveness and attention to detail, the drive for perfection, even it is the distorted vision of the perfect relationship, manifests itself in Spector's great musical productions which massively influenced countless others such as Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Wood, ELO and even (allegedly) Brian Eno and the Velvet Underground to name but a few. By the same token that some people only listen to pre-puberty Michael Jackson, we should salute concentrate on his early years and regret the passing of the young creator of the "Wall of Sound" and the greatest Christmas album and single ever.
In her autobiography, Ronnie Spector mentions several times that she taught herself to sing in a pop style and was most influenced by Frankie Lymon, rather than having the gospel origins of African-American female singers such as Aretha Franklin and Darlene Love. When the Ronettes first met Spector, while they were singing Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" with Ronnie on lead vocal, Spector
'...jumped up, knocking the piano bench down behind him.
"Stop!" he shouted. "That's it. That is it!.................That is the voice I've been looking for!" '
- (extract from "be My Baby" by Ronnie Spector and Vince Waldron).
"Walking in the Rain" is a perfect example of that voice and her pop phrasing, not one jot less soulful than if she'd been a gospel singer, but with the emphasis based on normal speech patterns much more than if they'd been honed in Sunday church, perfectly melding with the emotional tempo of the famous "Wrecking Crew" who are backing her. The delicate pitch between Ronnie's wistful daydreaming about her wished-for boyfriend and her passion is perfectly ahieved.
Deeply flawed maybe, but sheer musical genius for the years' 1961 - 1966, for which he should be remembered. While he should be condemned for the evil he perpetuated, we should also look for the good in everyone, the sun before the storm clouds, or even, as here, the magic of the storm. This was Ronnie's favourite Ronettes' track although she thought the penultimate lines stank:
"Johnny, no, no he'll never do,
Bobby, it isn't him too..."
but the mention of these very ordinary names securely anchors the song in our own backyards, is a touchstone that really makes us feel the song relates to our own experience, along with the rain, and worshipping someone from afar. Spector is one of the few producers who can make the important personal moments the epics that they can be to us. Certainly Ronnie's pin-point vocal is spot on throughout.
Hearing this always makes me happy, remembering having it on in the car on sunny summer days, and sending my kids into peals of laughter as I put on the windshield wipers and stuck my head out of the window to find the lightning whenever the thunder sound effects came on.