"Be My Baby"

How the genius of Phil Spector and Ronnie Spector met and created a song of magnificent carnality.

Published January 29, 2002 1:49AM (EST)

There's a photograph of Phil Spector and Veronica Bennett taken in the early '60s, before Miss Bennett became Ronnie Spector, and quite a few years before she became the sad princess locked in the mad prince's tower (which was really a California mansion). The photograph isn't dated, but from the clothes it's clear that it must have been taken sometime shortly after 1963, the year Spector and the Ronettes (Ronnie was their lead singer) released one of the most consumingly beautiful pop songs of all time, "Be My Baby."

Phil stands in the background leaning casually against a mike stand; he's wearing sunglasses too large for his face, but not nearly big enough for his ego. Ronnie is the giantess in the foreground, tall and shapely in a trim-checked pantsuit, her head cocked to one side, her eyes gazing straight at us through heavy, half-closed, smoke-rimmed lids. But her lips are the thing: Curved into a sensual smile, they're 90 percent innocent seduction and 10 percent sneer.

Be my baby -- or else.

The picture -- Ronnie's half of the picture -- is the key to the magnificent carnality of "Be My Baby," the thing that makes it one of the greatest seduction songs of all time, and also either the saddest or the most joyous, depending on the state of mind it catches you in. In both sound and mood it's an iridescent song, one that turns color depending on your perspective -- like fish scales, or swirls of gasoline on the surface of a pond, or those shimmery, shimmying paillettes sewn onto the wiggly dresses worn by any number of '60s girl groups. It's a song about wistfully wanting to draw the object of your desire close, about plumbing the risk that your dream won't come true. And it's also a work of innocent witchcraft, because there's no way most of us can resist drawing close to this singer and this song.

The singer -- the girl who will go on to become the confident looker in that checked pantsuit -- doesn't know her own power. But the smallish guy in the sunglasses does, and how. And so he allows the spell to be worked around him, not in a wall of sound, as it's so often referred to, but in a web. He meets her sunlit magic with lightning bolts, and the combination is killer.

The New York City-based Ronettes, consisting of Ronnie, her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley, had been together for several years before Phil Spector took them under his wing. It appears he didn't have all that much faith in them originally, but he must have seen them as potentially moldable. The liner notes to the first record they made together, "Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica," included this overtly condescending little story, as relayed by sound engineer Larry Levine: "When I first met the Ronettes I didn't think they were going to be a very good group. Phil had said to me, 'I found this group, they're good looking, but they don't sing too well.' So I said, 'Well, why bother?' He said, 'I kind of promised their mother.'"

If it was a thoughtless remark, at least Phil Spector made good on his word. As the lore has it, although Spector had rehearsed several songs with the group, he was looking for the perfect one, the one that would show Ronnie's voice off like a jewel. Phil invited Ronnie to his penthouse apartment one day, only to disappear into another room -- one with a piano -- from which she could hear him at work with fellow songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. The song they came up with, "Be My Baby," was recorded in July 1963 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles. It would become the Ronettes' biggest and most beloved hit.

"Be My Baby" is Ronnie's moment -- and yet it is also, of course, as much Phil Spector's record as anyone's. No marriage is a fairytale, and there's a fair amount of evidence that Phil Spector may have fallen more in love with the chanteuse he molded, Pygmalion-style, than with Ronnie herself. Even so, I like to think of "Be My Baby" as the prequel to the fairytale that should have been -- as a prequel, in fact, to every great love story that begins with desire that isn't completely mutual. A love story that begins with a glance.

There's generosity in a glance, just as there's generosity -- a willingness to lay yourself bare -- in the first line Ronnie sings: "The night we met I knew I needed you so." It's both pleading and brazenly confident, a declarative sentence with a question mark built in. (The pause she inserts between "I" and "needed" represents the terrifying but essential gulf she needs to cross even just to get started.) Ronnie was a woman, not a girl, when she cut the record; like a method actress, she's playing a character that isn't herself, but must certainly contain elements of herself. Her voice is girlishly direct -- when she sings, "For every kiss you give me, I'll give you three," she betrays a youthful innocence, as if it hasn't occurred to her that the bargains of love just can't be struck that way. But, like an adolescent boy whose voice deepens practically overnight, the luster of Ronnie's voice shimmers and changes during the course of the song, sometimes within the space of a line. Her voice is girlish, yes, but it's also already honeyed with desire, warm and soft and welcoming. For anyone who's ever been a teenage girl, her desire to please, with all its inherent dangers, is throbbingly familiar. She'll do anything for this boy.

Or will she?

In "Be My Baby," Ronnie knows what she wants. Male critics have sometimes written about the song as the ultimate male teenage fantasy, that of hearing a beautiful woman (Ronnie Spector not only is and was beautiful, but she sounded beautiful) state unequivocally that she wants only him. What male, beckoned by such a voice, could resist? She seduces, he accepts gladly, and everybody wins.

That's if you picture yourself the object of the song. But if you put yourself in the singer's shoes, the outcome isn't so certain. What's most adult about "Be My Baby" as a vocal performance, and what's so moving, is the way Ronnie strides so confidently through every bar, with the other Ronettes echoing her assertions less like cheerleaders than a cautious Greek chorus. The risk is obvious: What if she lays her heart bare for this boy, only to discover that he's laughing at her? There's an edge of pleading in her voice that makes that possibility all too real. But the key is that Ronnie sings as if the honor and bravery in speaking up were all -- in fact, she sings as if she knows that the boy's returning her love is secondary to her own assuredness. She's jumping off a cliff, and she's got your hand -- wherever she goes, you're going, too -- which is maybe why so many people feel so passionately about "Be My Baby." Every time I hear it, I'm almost painfully aware of the leap this girl takes. And when it's over, part of the thrill is knowing with absolute certainty that she has landed on her feet.

Ronnie's voice -- you can talk about its technical limitations all you want, but they're as inconsequential as Bob Dylan's -- is the key to "Be My Baby," its soul and its center. So what about the short guy with the big sunglasses?

Everyone knows about Phil Spector's personal quirks and unhealthy reclusiveness. When, not long after marrying Ronnie in 1968, he was crushed by the fact that his record with Ike and Tina Turner, "River Deep, Mountain High," failed to chart in the United States, instead of going to bed for a week (as your garden-variety neurotic-obsessive record producer would do), he retreated to his Bel Air mansion, virtually imprisoning Ronnie with him. She broke free (in a manner of speaking -- her legal battles with her ex-husband have only recently been resolved) when the couple divorced in 1973. "It was like being in the dark all the time," Ronnie has said. "I lived in 23 rooms. Phil went out annually, so that meant I didn't go out either ... And it was like my whole world for five and a half years."

But Phil Spector's mythology, no matter how bizarre it is, should never be allowed to tower over his incontrovertible genius. The songs he produced are often called Wagnerian, and at least in the grandness of their scale and ambition, they are. But if Phil Spector is now viewed as the Mad King Ludwig of pop, it's important to remember that he used to be nothing more outlandish than an exceptionally sharp kid with great ears and a knack for wheeling and dealing. He used to say, not as a way of belittling his work or his audience but of elevating them both, that he made "little symphonies for the kids." Those symphonies were soundtracks to grow up by, and to cherish once you'd made the trip.

"Be My Baby" is nothing so much as the sound of a man setting out to meet a woman halfway and, somewhere along the path, discovering that he's lost half his mind over her and all of his heart, and his only goal in life is to dress her up as a goddess. You could argue that no Phil Spector song ever left the house underdressed (Spector certainly lavished lots of aural attention on Darlene Love as well). Even so, "Be My Baby" is still one of the best examples of Spector's knowing just what becomes a woman most. He whips up a whirl of color around Ronnie; it just happens to be masquerading as sound.

You hear it in those orchestral interludes that feel like caresses; in the assertive clacking of those castanets, a symbol of every exotic danger this exquisite woman poses; in the stark drumbeat that opens the song, like a heartbeat isolated from all the other sounds (breathing, hiccups, grunts) that a human body makes in the course of a lifetime, and held up high as the greatest one. The sound Phil Spector gave Ronnie and the Ronettes is lush but not heavy; a queen's mantle made with something that must have been like love, by one cat who sure knew how to sew.

Most of us are told growing up that an excessive ego is a bad thing. But one of the things I love best about "Be My Baby" is the way Ronnie the singer and Phil the producer mesh egos instead of crashing them together. Ronnie, of course, is the much less flamboyant of the pair. And yet neither is above a little vanity, or, more accurately, a lot. "So won't you say you love me?/ I'll make you so proud of me/ We'll make them turn their heads everyplace we go," she sings, matched by Phil's grand swaths of sound, and it's a tantalizing proposition: She's certain that if she and her beloved hook up, their private sexuality will be so grand that it will radiate off them even in public. In the world of "Be My Baby," Ronnie's soothingly assertive voice and Phil's swirling colors of sound make them twin peacocks (in the Spector fairytale I've concocted, the female is just as gaudy and beautiful as the male) strutting their stuff for all the world to see.

For all its bravado, "Be My Baby" is ultimately a very intimate song. It is also a favorite song of presidents and kings. After a concert at a G8 summit in 1997, in which a number of artists, Ronnie Spector among them, performed for a gathering of world leaders, then President Bill Clinton asked to meet her. He and Hillary welcomed her in their private quarters. "So when I walked in there, he just opened his arms and gave me the biggest grin and he started singing 'Be My Baby' to me," Spector told "Goldmine" in a 1999 interview. "And it was so amazing, because he's so tall -- but so fucking nice."

And as for kings: Rock royalty is full of them, and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson is right up there with Phil Spector. Wilson fell in love with "Be My Baby" the first time he heard it. "That's my all-time favorite song," Wilson told Rolling Stone. "When I first heard ['Be My Baby'] in my car, I had to pull over to the side of the street to listen to it. It blew my mind."

Wilson wrote "Don't Worry Baby" in the hope that the Ronettes would record it as a follow-up. Phil Spector rejected it; he preferred the group to record only songs of his choosing. So Wilson went on to record "Don't Worry Baby" with his own group, and in so doing, made a masterpiece of his own. It seems harsh that Phil Spector wouldn't let the Ronettes record "Don't Worry Baby," but it's just as well. As it is, Wilson's song is the sound of a boy reaching out to reassure a girl, to let her know that she doesn't have to beg. It's the sound of a boy who knows what a risk she took for him. They go off that cliff together, or not at all.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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