It’s Brian Wilson’s favourite song, it was covered by John Lennon and many others, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 22nd on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. But what makes the Ronettes’ song more than just another hit single by a girl group?
Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, ‘Be My Baby’ was released in August 1963. It was famously produced by Spector, who was also given songwriting credit, and it’s one of the ultimate examples of his revolutionary “Wall of Sound” music production formula. He described his techniques as “a Wagnerian approach to rock ‘n’ roll: little symphonies for the kids”.
Spector signed the Harlem-based Ronettes to his Philles Records label in March 1963. The group consisted of sisters Veronica (Ronnie) and Estelle Bennett, and their cousin Nedra Talley. The first song they recorded together with Spector was ‘Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love’, also composed by Barry-Greenwich, but it wasn’t released. Instead, Spector started working on ‘Be My Baby’ with Ronnie, who was 15 years old at the time and the only Ronette flown out to California to sing on the track. They rehearsed for weeks, and it reportedly took 42 takes before Spector felt he achieved the sound he’d wanted. The single then peaked at number two on the “Billboard Hot 100 Chart”, but many local rock ‘n’ roll radio stations all over the United States had it at number one.
‘Be My Baby’ was recorded in July 1963 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, where Spector had first begun learning about music production in the mid-50s. The studio was famous for its echo chambers – separate basement rooms fitted with speakers and microphones, designed by owner David S. Gold. These chambers were an essential component in the development of the “Wall of Sound”, as everything captured in the studio was channelled here to naturally reverberate, contributing to the complexity of the track. The signal was then transmitted back into the control room and recorded on tape.
Another technique associated with the “Wall of Sound” is the layering of multiple instruments of the same kind. Generally, four or five acoustic guitars, two basses and three pianos were used, and there was also a horn section of two trumpets, two trombones and three saxophones. Combined with the echo, the result was a smooth synthesis of the many instruments and a unified sound that flowed and filled the track, creating a dense effect that could be described as a “wall”.
Spector also invited a large group of backing vocalists to his recording sessions, whose contributions would blend in with the instruments and strengthen the “wall”. ‘Be My Baby’ features backing vocals by Darlene Love, Fanita James, Bobby Sheen, Nino Tempo, Sonny Bono and Cher, before she was famous.
The Ronettes first listened to the final version of the song on the radio when it was played by Dick Clark, who announced it as “the next record of the century”. When Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys first heard it shortly after it came out, he was driving and he had to pull over to the side of the road, shocked by the novelty of the sound. He said about the experience: “In a way it wasn’t like having your mind blown, it was like having your mind revamped. It’s like, once you’ve heard that record, you’re a fan forever.”
Wilson’s songwriting was consequently influenced by the single, and he aimed at recreating Spector’s “Wall of Sound” on the Beach Boys albums that followed. Gold Star Studios was used to record parts of the Beach Boys’ critically acclaimed 11th album ‘Pet Sounds’. The band even covered ‘Be My Baby’, although this version was never released. John Lennon also recorded the song during the sessions for his 1975 album ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, but it did not appear on the LP. It is, however, included on the 1998 ‘John Lennon Anthology’ box set.
Hal Blaine’s iconic opening drum phrase has been emulated on the Four Seasons’ ‘Rag Doll’, the Carpenters’ ‘Only Yesterday’, Billy Joel’s ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’, Meat Loaf’s ‘You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth’ and Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’, among others. The song has been featured as soundtrack in a number of films, most notably Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ (1973) and Emile Ardolino’s ‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987).
The Ronettes worked on a number of singles following ‘Be My Baby’ and released one album, ‘Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica’, produced by Spector. However, they never managed to repeat the success of their 1963 hit and they didn’t have another top 10 single. They opened for the Beatles on a 14-city American tour in 1966, where Ronnie was replaced by her cousin Elaine Mayes. The group broke up in 1967, and Ronnie married Spector in 1968. After the couple’s divorce in 1974, the Ronettes briefly reunited and recorded three songs, none of which made it onto the charts.