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Girl from the Ghetto 

Fifty years later, Ronnie Spector is still a bad-ass

Ronnie Spector was the iconic '60s rock 'n' roll bad girl, famous for teased hair, heavy eyeliner and her poignant "whoa-oh-oh." As lead singer of the Ronettes, the era's quintessential girl group, her distinctive voice carried hits like "Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You" and "(Walking) in the Rain." Those days are long gone, but Spector says she's happy with the way her career has progressed and her recently released CD, The Last of the Rock Stars.

"I haven't felt this good in three decades," she says.

The satisfaction she exudes when discussing her new album suggests a triumph above and beyond merely getting a new record out. Self-financed and compiled over several years, it's her first full-length stateside release in more than 20 years and marks her debut as a producer on three tracks. And as someone who's consorted and collaborated over the years with various Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, finding good help wasn't a problem. But it was still highly flattering.

"People like Patti Smith and Keith Richards wanted to do it," she says. "They volunteered. Keith Richards was always known for being a little late. But when I got there, Keith was already in the studio plugging away. You know, he wanted it perfect. For me. I was shocked! All of these people, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Raveonettes [were] like, 'Ronnie, can we be on the album?' I felt pretty great."

In addition to playing guitar, Richards sings on a playful remake of the classic Ike & Tina Turner duet "(I Think It's Gonna) Work Out Fine." Self-professed Ronnie wannabe Smith trades off vocals on the moody, minor-keyed "There Is an End." "Ode to L.A.," a song that recalls the classic Ronettes sound, features backing from the Raveonettes.

A sweet collision of innocence and freshly minted sensuality, heavily dosed with her signature slowly quavering vibrato, Spector's voice conjures an irresistible urban woman-child, transmitting signals that are simultaneously baby-sweet and big-girl sexy. The voice has worn remarkably well over Spector's career. But the multi-racial New York City native committed to her style only after breaking with the then-current convention for artists of color.

"When I was with Stu Phillips [the Ronettes' first producer, for the Colpix label], I tried so hard to sound black, and it never worked," she says. "So I said 'Ronnie, stick with the voice you've got; it's great!,' and when I met up with that person, he said 'That's the voice I've been looking for.'"

That person, of course, would be producer/ex-husband Phil Spector, whose name was notably absent from Spector's speech when the Ronettes were inducted into the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. And it's made clear up front that part of her past is a non-starter for this conversation. A careful listen to The Last of the Rock Stars' "Girl From the Ghetto" might provide insight into her feelings about that time. But this Queen of Rock seems mostly concerned with the present.

"My whole thing is, you do a record, right?" she says. "And you're in the recording studio. And that's just so you can come out to the world and let them see you. Doesn't everybody do that?"

music@clevescene.com

More by Duane Verh

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