#421: The Best of the Girl Groups, Volumes 1 & 2

The Phil Spector Guide to Girl Groups
Part 2: “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio? (Or, How To Get Enough Women Of Color On Your 500-Best Album List)”

“It was 1963 and everyone called me Baby, before I knew to mind.”
—the opening line of
Dirty Dancing

Nevermind the 300 pages of bland, chronological prose—you can read Ronnie Spector’s whole life story in just the index of her autobiography, which lists more entries under Phil Spector’s name than her own.

Spector, Phillip, wall of sound created by

Ronnie published Be My Baby: How I Survived... in 1990, the same year Rhino Records released The Best of the Girl Groups: Vols. 1 and 2. More than 750 distinct girl groups sang songs that made the pop charts from 1960 to 1966. A proven formula: three to five black girls named for winsome objects with a definite article: the Crystals, the Exciters, the Chiffons, the Toys. Some produced by Phil, some not. Each group had their own plight, their own I love you, I need yous and hairdos stacked high. But if I told you that it’s Ronnie Spector crooning on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” would you know to correct me?

Spector, Phillip, number one songs predicted by

Are anthologies and “best of” records worthy to be called albums? Retrospectives are certainly enjoyable, convenient, and cost-efficient. But an album is more than the sum of its tracksit's an emblem of an era, a right of passage forever etched in the grooves. A compilation is short stories, an album is a novel. Is it the Girl Groups of the early ‘60s we’re honoring with the inclusion of this Best of…? Or is it the executive at Rhino Records who calculated that by 1990, baby boomers were making enough money to buy their teenage soundtrack instead of fishing for it on the radio?

Spector, Phillip, Ronnie’s comeback attempts sabotaged by

The titular character in Citizen Kane built his singer an opera house, and Phil Spector built his a Wall of Sound, what he called a “Wagnerian approach to rock & roll.” While Charlie Kane filled his mansion with rare marble statues into his old age, Phil hoarded royalties and obscure B-sides, releasing tracks in England without any of his girl groups’ knowledge. In 2002, after an 11-year lawsuit, Phil paid the original members of the Ronettes $1.5 million in uncollected royalties.

Spector, Phillip, black culture loved by

The editors of Rolling Stone must have had some quotas to fill in their list of 500 greatest albums, as 423-421 is a block of tokens. First the Supremes, then the Ronettes and then those others, right in a row so as not to be missed. Their silky voices still carry, but Diana Ross and Ronnie Spector didn’t break the glass ceilingthey stood on top of it, in heels, avoiding cracks, staring down at nameless back-up singers oohing and ahhing from below.

Spector, Phillip, romanticization of

In 1991, a year after The Best of the Girl Groups charted, another record label released Back to Mono (1958-1969), a four-disc compilation of Phil Spector’s hit singles: the best of the best of the Ronettes and the Crystals and those others. Most of the tracks on Back to Mono already appear earlier in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums,  but we still find this record presiding in the top 100. Phil has been in prison since 2008, serving a sentence of nineteen years to life. In 2012, Rolling Stone editors revised and updated their 2003 list, perhaps reaching out to the baby boomer’s children, a younger, more politically correct generation. Let It Be, the Beatles album Spector injected with orchestral syrup, fell from number 86 to 392. Back to Mono slipped just one slot, from 64 to 65.

Spector, Phillip, Ronnie’s shoes hid by

On the June morning when Ronnie finally escaped the Spector mansion in 1972, she ran out of the house barefoot, shredding the bottoms of her feet on asphalt and broken glass. She and her mother hailed a cab and went straight to a law office. She never returned to the property.

“Everything was his idea, except my leaving him,” said Susan Alexander, the failed opera singer ruminating on her late husband at the end of Citizen Kane.

Spector, Phillip, fame and legacy of

The full title of the Ronettes’ first record is Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes, featuring Veronica, though the entry on Rolling Stone’s 500 just reads Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes. While researching for this essay I stopped into my local record store to see if I could find a copy on vinyl.

“We don’t have that particular title,” the clerk told me. “But we do have the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and a couple ‘Greatest Hits.’”

—Susannah Clark