Be My Baby (1963)
The Ronette’s “Be My Baby” turned 50 in August of 2013. It has received plaudit upon plaudit throughout the decades and is considered by many in the music world – critics and first-magnitude musicians alike – to be one of the best Rock-N-Roll songs of all time.
It floored almost everyone who heard it for the first time: DJs, radio listeners and industry insiders.
In the Rock-N-Roll world it had a deep, lasting impact.
Some make overt reference to the romance-steeped classic. Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys) said, “I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song and I never did. I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.”
Still one of the peaks of R&R
“Don’t Worry Baby,” The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys’ big kahuna felt compelled to write a tribute song, “Don’t Worry Baby,” which he offered to Phil Spector, producer-magician of “Be My Baby.” Spector declined and “Don’t Worry” went on to become one of the most highly regarded of all Beach Boys songs. Listening to any song the California boys did after Brian heard “Be My Baby,” a casual Rock-N-Roll fan can clearly discern Phil Spector’s Wall-of-Sound palette.
Bruce Springsteen has been especially affected by Phil Spector “girl group” sound. Although his concerns lyrically are miles from 1963, his broad sound, his beats and production values resound with Spector’s techniques.
A few songs that come to mind are “Because The Night,” “Born To Run,” as well as a song from his later oeuvre, “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” Billy Joel’s intro to “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” is a direct swipe of the “Be My Baby” opening.
“Born To Run”
“Girls In Their Summer Clothes”
“Say Goodbye To Hollywood”
At his keynote address at the South By Southwest Festival in March of 2012, Bruce said of Spector, “Phil’s records felt like near chaos, violence covered in sugar and candy, sung by the girls who were sending Roy O. [Orbison] running straight for the anti-depressants. If Roy was opera, Phil was symphonies, little three-minute orgasms followed by oblivion.”
By 1966, after The Ronettes opened for them on a 14-city tour, The Beatles fell under the Spector spell and by the time Sgt. Pepper’s was released in ’67, the producer is clearly present in Beatle work. By 1970, he was re-mixing and re-producing the Let It Be album to the delight of John Lennon and George Harrison and the consternation of Paul McCartney who would strip out the Spectorized elements and issue the album as Let It Be… Naked, in 2003.
The Beatles: “Across The Universe” from original Let It Be mix
“Be My Baby” was born in a special place, a crease, between the sexually complacent ’50s and the sexually charged late-’60s. There is plenty of moon-June-and-honeymoon sentiment in it. Brill Building composing stalwarts Greenwich and Barry would see to that.
But The Ronettes (right) brought the streetwise, sassy charm of “the other” Manhattan, the one above 110th Street, Harlem and Washington Heights. “Be My Baby” is about sex, but in its most heart-achy costume.
The dramatic drum-kick introduction tells us something big is about to happen. Big. Big. Big. It thumps out a warning and then is joined by, of all things, castanets, which lend it an (imaginary) uptown New York nuance. Spector himself was born and raised in the Bronx.
The night we met, I knew I needed you so
And if I had the chance, I’d never let you go
So won’t you say you love me
I’ll make you so proud of me
We’ll make ‘em turn their heads every place we go
So won’t you, please, (be my, be my baby)
Be my little baby, (my one and only baby)
The lyrics are immediately pre-feminist. On one hand the girl is pursuing a shy boy, on the other hand she is laying herself open by doing some bowing and scraping. Her invitation is arousing, seductive and innocent.
The Ronettes (Veronica Bennett – later Ronnie Spector, sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley) deliver knockout vocals. Ronnie Spector’s lead is plaintive, vulnerable and insistent. The backing vocalists sing, well, almost in baby voices. They lead the chorus lyric while Ronnie sings her lead off the beat to their backing voices. The vocals are indisputably sexy, soulful, stylish and full of a certain idea of classiness.
A choir of angels provides mystical “ooo’s” and “aah’s.” Among those voices are Cher’s. The diva was on her first recording gig; her future husband, Sonny Bono, also sings. Co-writer of “Be My Baby,” Ellie Greenwich joins in, as does the greatest of all the girl-group singers, Darlene Love. The song rises to the level of religious fervor, a complete surrender in the cards. What else could this guy want?
I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see
For every kiss you give me I’ll give you three
Oh, since the day I saw you
I have been waiting for you
You know I will adore you ’til eternity
Spector seems to be saying: “You lookin’ at me?” His full psychoses took years to truly emerge, but Spector had quite the look even in 1963
The song grows in poignancy with the passing years. It is Ronnie and Phil’s song before the demons and shadows, before the terror. Although a look in Spector’s eyes tells you something was up even in 1963.
It is difficult to pick out one instrument over another in the results that the Wall-of-Sound method produced. You know there is a bass throbbing, a piano, some kind of guitar dances around like a phantasm that appears and disappears, a tambourine, strings you might hear in Carnegie Hall and it all has relentless echo slapped on it. It stares you in the face, close as the person with whom you stole your first kiss. It’s a sound that never leaves.
“Be My Baby” builds layer on layer into an impenetrable dense thicket, like one in a fairytale, the kind you love to wander through because you know you’ll be so satisfied when you reach the other side after the journey.
In the case of “Be My Baby” a special note and nod has to be given to drummer Hal Blaine, who performs well beyond the density. His beat-keeping is scrupulously by the book. Nonetheless it overflows with flowers and birds of paradise. He plays the drums of love and passion, an event as rare in Rock as a total eclipse of the sun. (It should be noted that Blaine played on six consecutive Grammy-winning Songs of the Year. Further, he was the drummer on nearly 40 #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. Who ya gonna call?)
The rest of the music is provided by The Wrecking Crew, a rotating brigade of L.A. session men known for fluidity and excellence in any genre they’re called upon to execute.
It has been widespread knowledge for many years that Ronnie Spector endured many a torment and many an indignity at the hands of Phil Spector. Her spectacularly good autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, is excruciatingly detailed. Even today from the jail cell in which he landed for murdering his girlfriend, Spector tries to hamper his ex-wife’s life by cheating her of royalties, preventing her from performing songs she crucially helped to make famous.
She did say once that from the day The Ronettes laid down the track her life changed forever. There is a wistful tone in the statement since we know that she was kept under virtual house arrest by the crazed musical sorcerer.
Like all songs that describe the first spark that sets off a love affair – those moments are irresistible to artists working in any and all forms – the question tugs at your coat sleeve: What happened next?
Co-writer Jeff Barry said,“ I was picturing a shy guy. A guy who just needed a little nudge. I always wanted to believe when the song was over, there’s a happy ending. He came around, and they hooked up.”
It’s a lovely testament to Barry’s sensibility that he still keeps his characters in mind all these decades later.
Magic moments can’t be erased easily.
“I was so much in love,” Ronnie Spector said of the days when she was simply Veronica Bennett. “That energy comes back to me every time. When I’m singing ‘Be My Baby,’ I’m thinking of us in the studio.”
Only love can break a heart…
- “Be My Baby” reached #2 on the Billboard pop chart in October of 1963. “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs, a song best forgotten, kept The Ronettes from the #1 slot.
- Brian Wislon of The Beach Boys said: “What a great sound, the Wall of Sound. Boy, first heard this on the car radio and I had to pull off the road, I couldn’t believe it. The choruses blew me away; the strings are the melody of love. It has the promise to make the world better.”