Since 1963, when Ronnie Spector added an incandescent glow to the consummate rock `n’ roll holiday album, “A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector,” her warm and inviting voice has lit up the season as much as Bing Crosby’s or Gene Autrey’s or Nat King Cole’s.
At age 63, Ronnie Spector’s love of Christmas not only endures, but is palpable in conversation. The erstwhile leader of New York City’s Ronettes, the girl group groomed by producer Phil Spector, whom Ronnie was married to from 1968 to 1974, merrily recalls her most vivid impressions of the season while growing up in Spanish Harlem as Veronica Bennett, the daughter of a half-black, half-Cherokee mother and a white father.
“I loved how people were so nice to you that weren’t so nice to you at other times of the year,” she says with a chuckle during a phone interview from her home in Connecticut, where the mother of two West Connecticut University students—Austin, 20, and Jason, 21—has lived for 15 years.
“And I couldn’t wait until Santa would come so I could leave cookies and milk. We didn’t have a chimney in our apartment in Spanish Harlem, but we had a fire escape. My father said that was where he (Santa) came down.
“And from the time I was 5, my mom would wait on line with me for hours at Macy’s so I could see Santa. My mother was a waitress and was on her feet all day. I felt bad about that afterward.”
Since the 1990s, Spector has spread Christmas cheer with a series of holiday concerts. Originally she performed them only at The Bottom Line, a New York City club, but in recent years Spector has taken her show on the road.
And though last year she had to forgo her Christmas tour when her husband-manager of 25 years, Jonathan Greenfield, took ill the day before she was supposed to leave - he ultimately needed a liver transplant - this year she is back onstage.
Backed by a seven-piece band, including her “three wise men” - bassist Jeremy Chatzky, guitarist-keyboardist Daniel Rey and drummer Andy Korn - Spector will perform “my three great Christmas songs” - “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Sleigh Ride” - as well as the Ronettes hits “Walking in the Rain,” “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You.”
Also on tap are two tracks from her new CD, “Last of the Rock Stars,” which was released overseas this year and includes guest spots by the late Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, the Raveonettes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner.
One will be a cover of The Raveonettes’ “Ode to L.A.” (Spector supplied the “whoah-oh-oh” background vocals for the Danish garage-pop duo’s version on their 2005 “Pretty in Black” CD).
“It’s a Richard Gottehrer (produced) song,” says Spector, adding that Gottehrer, who wrote the 1960s hits “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy” and produced the debut albums by Blondie and The Go-Go’s, came out of semi-retirement “to do Ronnie. He said he had to come back because I have the absolute original (girl group) voice.”
Spector also plans to sing “There is an End,” a ballad of hope and triumph that on disc features Patti Smith. Spector describes the song as “a personal thing for me,” alluding to the trials and tribulations she had to overcome throughout her life, especially the years she was married to Phil Spector, who, according to Ronnie’s 1989 memoir, “Be My Baby,” kept her a virtual prisoner in their L.A. home.
Fearing legal entanglements, Spector avoids mentioning her ex-husband by name. The 66-year-old record producer is awaiting trial in Los Angeles on charges he murdered 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. He is free on $1 million bail. In October, the trial was postponed a third time, with a judge pushing back the date to March 5.
Still, she can’t help but refer to her ex when asked to assess The Ronettes’ chances of being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. The group, which included her sister, Estelle Bennett, and cousin, Nedra Talley, is among nine finalists for five spots.
“We have been nominated before,” she notes, “but this time we might make it. People finally have caught up with what my ex was doing all those years. Now everybody sees what was going on.”
Asked to elaborate, Spector says her ex had written a letter in 1994 telling Hall of Fame voters not to nominate the Ronettes, because the group was his creation. “My husband (Greenfield) was given a copy of the letter by a business associate,” says Spector.
As the conversation winds down, Spector is asked to name her favorite renditions of Christmas songs by other artists. “John Lennon’s `Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ and Frankie Lymon’s `Christmas Once Again,’” she replies.
Spector then tells about the time the late Lymon, the boy soprano lead singer of The Teenagers who had one of rock’s earliest hits with the 1956 single “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” came to her home in the late 1950s and wanted her to do the song, which he had recorded in 1957.
“We lived about 15 minutes away from each other,” Spector says. “I wasn’t even making records then. I was 15 or 16 years old. I didn’t understand why boys’ voices change, and I didn’t know he was doing drugs and drinking heavily. I told him, `I can’t sing like that.’
“The time before when he came to visit he left a rose stuck under the couch,” Spector continues, adding “He was trying to fondle me, but he was very nice. ...
“My Grandma used to tell me, `Ronnie, you’re gonna go deaf, you’re so close to the radio, because I would put my ear next to it when one of his songs would come on. I loved his diction and his vibrato. He was my favorite singer and he still is. He is my all-time idol.”