If you’re of a certain post-Baby Boomer age, you probably recognize Ronnie Spector for two things: Being in that Eddie Money video from the 80s where he sings “Just like-a Ronnie said.” And being one of the featured performers on the album A Christmas Gift For You, which was released in 1963 and has been played incessantly ever since, especially in suburban shopping malls and Christmas parties hosted by your parents. The record’s bursting at the seams with classic moments — like Darlene Love belting out “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Phil Spector’s creepy spoken word greeting at the end, where he stops just short of saying “Merry Christmas, everyone. Now get the hell back in my basement!” — but at least for me, it’s the handful of songs by the Ronettes that make it such an iconic record. From Spector’s sex kitten vocals on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to the ringa-linga-linga ding-dong-ding on “Sleigh Life,” she could do things to a Christmas tune that are downright visceral. When Ronnie Spector sings about Christmas, you can smell the cigarette butts and bourbony eggnog.
Almost half a century later, she’s back with another Christmas album, this time sans the Ronettes and her control freak ex-husband/ producer. Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever may be a presumptuous title, especially for an album filled with originals. (Does anybody want or need any new Christmas songs?) But the record makes a pretty good companion piece to A Christmas Gift For You. If Christmas music is a holiday party, then A Christmas Gift For You is the first few hours, when the mood is still lightly boozy and harmlessly flirtatious. Best Christmas Ever is that same party at around 1am, when everyone’s had a few too many libations and nobody realizes that they’re shouting. It may not be the best Christmas ever, and by the next morning you’ll have no memory of what happened, but it’s still a lot of damn fun.
I called Spector to talk about her album and her annual Christmas show tomorrow night in New York City, now in its tenth year at B. B. King’s Blues Club. Even at 67, her voice still has that inimitable little girl lilt, although now it sounds like a little girl with a two-pack-a-day habit. But how many women her age can get away with speaking like a prepubescent, in a voice that wouldn’t be out of character saying “I wont a wollypop,” and not give you the heebie-jeebies?
Eric Spitznagel: A lot of people, myself included, think A Christmas Gift For You was the best Christmas album ever. But you just released a new record called The Best Christmas Ever. Are those fighting words?
Ronnie Spector: No, no. First of all, the songs I did on Christmas Gift — “Sleigh Ride,” “Frosty The Snowman,” and the other one — those songs were written by other people. Irving Berlin, I think. But on Best Christmas Ever, it’s all original. And I got to pick out my own songs, which is something I never had a chance to do in the 60s. Phil picked everything for me.
A Christmas Gift For You was released on the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Does Obama have anything to fear from Best Christmas Ever? Is it a death knell for him?
Oh no! Absolutely no! I think Obama was a great choice. He just hasn’t fulfilled everything yet. But come on, I say give the guy a break. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I like him. Did you know that his mother is white and his father is black? Well, my mother was black and my father was white. So I feel like we have something in common.
With the economy still in the crapper, this is hardly the best Christmas ever for many people. Is your record going to cheer us up, or just push us deeper into depression?
It’s gonna make them feel better! I know it’s hard. Sometimes you’ve got to make the best with what you’ve got. I recorded it in the summer, when it was 95 degrees every day. I made them bring a Christmas tree into the studio and turn down the temperature so it was nice and chilly. It’s hard to make yourself feel Christmasy when it’s hot outside. And let me tell you, honey, it was a long hot summer. That’s the first line of the first song on the album. I love that line because it’s exactly what it was. It was so hot. And then summer’s over and (sings) it’s going to be a cooold, cooold winter.
Jesus, Ronnie. That gave me goosebumps.
(Laughs.) Thanks. You’re sweet. We had a band rehearsal yesterday, and one of the guys, he’d played with Billy Joel for ten years, he said to me, “Ronnie, your voice is so distinctive. I don’t care what record you’re on; it could be a sad song, a happy song, whatever. Your voice is instantly recognizable.” I just love that.
Companies should hire you to do their layoffs.
You mean firing people? Aw, I couldn’t do that! I’d feel so bad for them.
But it’d be so much easier to take coming from you, especially if you sing it. Tell me something like, “I’m sorry, we’re letting you go.”
(Singing) I’m sorry, sweetie, we’ve got to let you gooooo! Cause that’s the way it gooooes!
Now I don’t even care about my lack of a severance package.
I don’t know what it is in my voice. I just have a happy voice. But I can make it sad if I need to. I’ve got to be in the right mood. For a sad song, I have to be a little sad. And for a happy song, I have to be a little happy. That’s why I never got plastic surgery.
Because plastic surgery makes you incapable of basic human emotions?
Well, I’d still feel things. I’d still be happy and sad, but nobody would know it.
Ah, I get you. No facial nuances.
People ask me if I’ve had any work done on my face. Hell no! Because it takes away too much. I wouldn’t know how to sing without the facial expressions. And that’s half of what singing is. If you can’t show what you’re feeling up there on stage, none of it matters. Have you seen those people who get too much plastic surgery?
The way their foreheads are stretched back, they always look surprised.
Isn’t it horrible? I look at pictures of these poor women who’ve had so much work done, and I’m like, “Oh my god, I’ll never get that.” Thank god I look pretty good. It’s in my genes. My dad’s Irish and my mom’s Cherokee Indian and black. So my face stayed pretty youthful.
Black don’t crack.
Well, I ain’t all black. My mom used to say to me, “Be careful cause your dad’s white. You may have a few wrinkles.” My mother had no wrinkles at all. She died when she was 79, not a wrinkle on her. My dad didn’t have many wrinkles either, but he died at 58.
Your music, even the Christmas stuff, is teeming with sexual tension. You don’t hear that as much in music anymore. The sex is all front and center.
Oh god, I hate that. All these records today, they don’t know anything about subtlety.
Sometimes it feels like modern pop music is literally trying to fuck the listener.
And who wants that? These singers are like “oooh” and “aaaah” and it just doesn’t work. Sometimes you gotta hold a little back. That’s a whole lot more to sexy than just being explicit. I remember in the early 60s, when me and the Ronettes went over to Germany to play for the troops. My ex-husband was very upset. “How could you go to Germany where they killed the Jews?!” I had to remind him, “We’re playing for the United States Army, you idiot!” He didn’t want me doing any live shows at all, even for the soldiers, but we went anyway, and it was amazing. Guys were having orgasms on the floor.
Orgasms? Actual orgasms?
That’s sure what it looked like to me. They were rolling around on the floor, just going out of their heads. We did a show in the mess hall, and then a private show for just the officers. We caused a riot! Guys who couldn’t get in to see the shows were throwing beer bottles and acting nuts. They had to put us in an armored truck to get us out of there. It was something. But I loved it. Who wouldn’t love that kind of attention? That’s what they need now. They need me to come over to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Sure, why not? The troops deserve some orgasms.
I know they do! And I would be the perfect one to give it to them.
Does that still happen at your concerts? Do you still bring your audience to orgasm?
It’s amazing because it still happens and I still love it. Guys are just bonkers. I see them in the audience, and their eyes are like fifty-cent pieces looking at me. It’s amazing, and I love it.
What about your Christmas show at B.B. Kings tomorrow night? Will there be orgasms? Will at least a few people in the crowd come a-wassailing?
It won’t be like a mess hall in Germany, where they’re all on the floor watching you. But they do have hard-ons. (Laughs.) They will enjoy themselves.
Hard-ons? As in…?
That’s right. (Laughs.)
I had no idea your shows were so dirty.
There are guys who come backstage and say, “You actually gave me a hard-on.” I don’t know what I’m doing. I just sing, and I move a hip over here or to the left or to the right, and they get crazy. I can’t say I don’t love that.
That’s really why anybody gets into music, isn’t it? Is there a higher compliment than “Your singing gave me an erection that could cut glass?”
None. Unless it’s “watching your body move gave me erection.” All those things they say to me. I just do what I have to do up there. I’ve never had a choreographer. In the 60s, when I was with the Ronettes, all the Motown groups had choreographers and grooming. But I said, “My parents taught me how to groom. I don’t need that.” We did everything different.
Your Christmas show at B.B. Kings usually has at least a few surprise guest stars. Can you give us a hint who’ll be there?
It’s all hush-hush, sweetie. I can’t tell you. I wish I could.
But definitely Keith Richards, right?
I really don’t know.
Keith adores you. You’re telling me you can’t sweet talk him into showing up?
I love Keith. He lives just fifteen minutes from me. I see him all the time. He’s always calling me up. He’s just adorable. I hate when people say that he’s on drugs and stuff. He’s always been so nice to me. When I did my last record, he let me use his studio and didn’t charge me a dime.
He wrote about his relationship with you in his memoir. Did he leave anything out?
He sent me a copy. I have it on the end table next to my bed. He said, “Ronnie, it’s a love affair.” We’ve had a love affair for 40 years. But I didn’t read the whole book yet! (Laughs.) Have you seen how thick it is?
Um. (Long pause.) Wait, what are we talking about again?
His book! Have you seen how thick it is? It’s so big and thick!
Oh, oh, right. (Laughs.) Keith really missed an opportunity when he didn’t have you write a back cover blurb.
I don’t think he needs my help.
Yeah, but what rock star doesn’t want an endorsement like that from Ronnie Spector? “Have you seen how thick it is? It’s so big and thick!”
It was never like that with Keith and me. It was always very innocent. It wasn’t all about “let’s get in the bed” with him. I never had sex with him or anything like that. Although I don’t know what else he said in the book. We may have kissed, I don’t remember. It was forty years ago. I was skimming through it the other day, and he’s talking about Ronnie, and I think, “Oh, he must mean me. I’ll read this.” And then he writes, “We went in the bathroom and did drugs.” (Gasps.) I was like, “Keith! I never did drugs! What are you saying?” I was so angry with him. I never, ever did drugs with him. In fact, I used to yell at Keith. I’d say, “You can do a little marijuana but don’t go any further than that.” So I’m reading this and I’m just fuming. I’m ready to call him and really cuss him out, but then I read a little more and it turns out he was actually talking about Ronnie Wood.
Rolling Stone magazine once called you “the original bad girl of rock.” But it doesn’t sound like that’s entirely accurate. You didn’t do drugs, you didn’t sleep with Keith Richards. Other than inspiring a few spontaneous orgasms, in what ways are you a bad girl?
Well, it was probably because of the Ronettes, and it wasn’t based on anything other than our appearance. All the other girl groups at the time, they always had wide dresses. We did the opposite and made them tight and short with slits on the side. And because there were a lot of different races in us, we wore our hair like ten inches high. So for that reason alone, just because we looked so different from every girl group, we got noticed.
The Ronettes’ beehive is as famous as their music. Did Phil mastermind that too, or was it your creation?
No, honey, that was all me. The three of us — my sister, my cousin and I — we used to have contests, who could get their hair to grow to their waist the fastest. So once we got that, then we’d want to do something fun with it. We loved those movies with Brigitte Bardot and we tried to do our hair like her. The most important thing about a bouffant is that it stands up straight. I feel bad about Amy Winehouse. Her hair is sort of tilted, like the Tower of Pisa. That’s the only bad thing about her.
Well, that and the drugs.
I love her voice. I’m just worried about her hair going to the side. You want to be a Ronette, you’ve got to straighten out that beehive, honey.
What’s the secret to the beehive? Is it all hairspray or is there some kind of scaffolding involved?
It’s all about Aquanet, and then teasing it, and then more Aquanet, and then teasing it a little more. That’s how we got our hair into a bouffant.
That’s an awful lot of Aquanet. Just how responsible were the Ronettes for global warming?
I hope not at all. But you never know. (Laughs.) We did like our Aquanet.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)