No one sings like Ronnie Spector. No one.
The petite dynamo with the huge, towering voice proved that her sound and presence are still as unique and unmistakable as ever during a Saturday night tour stop at Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre where she filled the room with charm, captivating banter and that voice.
The former Ronette has long been praised and celebrated for her trailblazing stance as one of the earliest female pop artists to adopt a commanding stance, don a completely individual look,and boast a distinctive sound. Spector showed a sold-out house that she still has those attributes and more.
With what can best be described as a 75-minute musical scrapbook, the diminutive diva — who has lived quite the colorful life both personally and professionally — treated the audience to a program that was chock full of songs, remembrances, anecdotes and memories.
Backed by a crack, eight-piece band (featuring four horn players) primed for action, Spector slowly emerged— flanked by two considerably younger and vivacious Ronettes dressed in matching fuchsia dresses — and opened with one of many Ronettes classics, “Baby, I Love You.” Rousing applause flooded the stage, and Spector — looking like the hippest 75-year-old in the room in a sparkling blue blouse, tight, black peg pants and heels — began the irresistible vocal barrage that would wash over the audience for the duration of the night.
Alternating between a mic stand at the front of the stage and a stool used when sharing stories from her storied musical journey, Spector used a massive screen at the rear of the stage to beam vintage photos of the Ronettes, clips from the group’s first American Bandstand appearance as well as other career highlights from the heyday of the girl group era. Hoots and hollers came from the crowd when names like The Yardbirds, Kinks, Rolling Stones and Beatles were uttered as Spector reminisced on bands the Ronettes played with in England, and one particular British invasion band was honored when she delivered a sumptuous version of The Dave Clark Five’s 1964 hit, “Because.”
Spector’s voice got warmer and stronger as the night progressed, but it never failed to sound just like that gorgeous, towering gift she’s boasted for decades. One of the many spoken highlights of the performance found Spector telling an enchanting tale of her and sister, Estelle, and cousin Nedra being plucked from a crowd and asked to perform inside New York City’s Peppermint Lounge. In this charming recollection, Spector namechecked Tampa Bay resident, Joey Dee (who was in attendance for this show) and his classic single, “The Peppermint Twist” which fueled the scene and the vibe of early 1960s New York.
Many touching and emotional moments came throughout the night, too. While remembering Estelle — who passed away in 2009 — Ronnie delivered a gut-wrenching reading of the 1971 Bee Gees hit, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” while photos of her sister appeared on the large screen behind her. Another tender spot found Spector praising the late, great Amy Winehouse after running a clip of Amy herself describing Ronnie and her group as icons. How did Spector repay her appreciation? By belting a rousing cover of the title track of Winehouse’s landmark final album, 2006’s Back to Black.
From an individual standpoint, the ultimate tearjerker moment came when Spector spoke of Johnny Thunders, the late founder and guitarist of New York proto-punk, glam band New York Dolls and a personal musical hero of mine. Humbly remembering her slow climb from a post-Ronettes musical absence in the 1970s, Spector remembered a man crying the whole time during her performance at upper west side New York City gay club, The Continental Baths. That fawning and reverent fan was Thunders himself and, in tribute to him, Ronnie delivered the highlight of the evening, her version of Thunders’ 1978 solo tune, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” The performance made me understand how and why Johnny had the reaction he had while watching Spector perform.
By no surprise, the night’s most raucous ovation came when Spector and her mighty band launched into the absolutely perfect and infectious classic, “Be My Baby.” As one of the most recognizable and beloved singles of the rock era, the song still packs as mighty a wallop as it did in 1963. As many would firmly agree, that song alone will forever guarantee Ronnie Spector a solid place in the rock and roll history books — no one will ever be able to take that away from this rock and roll survivor and heroine.
Ending the night, fittingly, with the last single The Ronettes ever recorded, 1966’s “I Can Hear Music,” Spector closed on a high note and reminded everyone in the crowd of her musical legacy. As she made her way from one end of the stage to the other at the finale, shaking hands with adoring fans and blowing them kisses, this audience witnessed the classy ending of a dynamite performance by a bona fide rock and roll star and legend.