Back in the summer of 2001, I was living up in Spanish Harlem when soul singer Aaliyah died in a plane crash. I was walking down the street and heard this guy on his cell phone saying “Aww man! All my divas are DYING!” Although I wasn’t a fan, I felt his pain.
I thought of this recently with the passing of three key members of top 60’s girl groups: Wanda Young Rogers of The Marvelettes, Rosa Lee Hawkins of The Dixie Cups, and Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. The latter two groups now have just one surviving original member.
It was Wanda who gave The Marvelettes their second act. Gladys Horton sang lead on their early hits, including Motown’s first #1 hit “Please Mr. Postman” and “Too Many Fish In The Sea,” but as their chart success waned, Wanda transitioned into the lead vocalist position on more smooth and sophisticated material – usually written specifically for her by Smokey Robinson. At the time, she was married to Bobby Rogers of Smokey’s group The Miracles.
Robinson recalled, “In the groups I worked with, I always felt these ‘sleeping giants.’ I felt the same way about the Temptations with David Ruffin when I did ‘My Girl’ on him… I knew if I could get a song for her it would be a smash.” She sang lead on such Motown classics as “Don’t Mess With Bill” “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” and “Destination: Anywhere.”
Post-Marvelettes, her life was plagued by tragedy, addiction and mental illness. She recorded briefly for Ian Levine’s Motorcity label in the late 80’s. Wanda was 78 when she passed away on December 15, 2021.
The Dixie Cups didn’t have a distinct lead singer, but they had a sound: all three members usually sang in unison or tight harmony. Rosa Lee Hawkins was 1/3rd of the New Orleans trio, which also featured her petite older sister Barbara and cousin Joan Johnson.
Phil Spector originally recorded “Chapel of Love” with Darlene Love and the Ronettes but was never satisfied with the results. The Dixie Cups version was chosen as the premiere single for Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s Red Bird Records. Produced by the songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it was a smash – knocking the Beatles out of the #1 spot in June of 1964.
The combination of The Dixie Cups with the Barry/Greenwich producing/songwriting team resulted in girl group gold for Red Bird Records with classics like “People Say”, “Iko Iko”, “Girls Can Tell” and many others.
It was just last year when Rosa Lee Hawkins released her memoir Chapel Of Love, in which she writes not only about her career in The Dixie Cups, but also about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Joe Jones, their manager. She felt a great relief in finally telling her story. “I did not write my book to hurt anyone;” she said “I just wanted to get it all down on paper.” Rosa was 76 when she passed away of complications following surgery on January 11, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.
And then there’s Ronnie.
I waited to write about Ronnie Spector’s passing because I knew it would get ample press coverage, her career examined and appreciated with the florid language in which Professional Rock Critics thrive. Why would I race to compete with that? Please don’t make me use the word “zeitgeist”.
Rolling Stone posted a list of 15 Essential Ronnie Spector Recordings. Of course I disagree with some of the choices, which I envision being compiled on a post-it covered bulletin board with equally weighted opinions from one old fanboy and four baby rock critics who had to Google her name when they got the assignment.
Here are five choices that I would have preferred to see on the list:
1) The Ronettes – “You Baby” (1964)
This Barry Mann / Cynthia Weil classic first appeared on the Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes LP. It was subsequently recorded by Linda Scott, Len Barry, Jackie Trent, Sonny & Cher and The Lovin’ Spoonful, just to name a few.
2) Ronnie Spector – “It’s A Heartache” (1977)
Ronnie’s recording of this song was released in the U.S. the first week of November, 1977 alongside competing versions by Bonnie Tyler and Juice Newton. Tyler ultimately won the battle with a #3 pop hit.
3) Ronnie Spector – “Any Way That You Want Me” (1980)
The Rolling Stone “15 Essential” list features no tracks from Ronnie’s first two solo LPs: the Genya Ravan-produced Siren and 1987’s Unfinished Business. This Chip Taylor composition from Siren was originally recorded in the 60’s by The Troggs and then Evie Sands, but Ronnie makes it her own.
4) Ronnie Spector – “Something’s Gonna Happen” (1989)
In 1989 Ronnie recorded a handful of Marshall Crenshaw songs with Crenshaw and his band backing her up. These Alan Betrock-produced tracks are among the best of her solo recordings – it’s hard to choose just one, as the artist and material worked so well together. Unfortunately, plans for an entire album were halted and the recordings stuck in financial limbo until Ronnie bought them back and released an EP in 2003. As blogger Denis Pilon recently wrote; “In a better world, the release of this EP would have marked Spector’s triumphant return to the spotlight.”
5) Ronnie Spector – “Don’t Worry Baby” (1999)
Brian Wilson wrote the song for The Ronettes as a follow-up to “Be My Baby” but Phil Spector would not let them record it. 35 years later, Ronnie finally gave it her best on the Joey Ramone-produced EP She Talks To Rainbows. Entertainment Weekly wrote; “She sounds more fragile than belligerent now, and her bruised, cracked vocals work wonders on (the song).”
Brian Wilson hears Ronnie’s version of “Don’t Worry Baby”: