“I was still living at home, and Phil Spector came over for a spaghetti dinner,” recalls Nino Tempo. “We went into the piano room after dinner and he said, ‘This is a song I’m gonna record.’ He played and sang it, and he looked up and said, ‘I know it doesn’t sound very good, but it will…’ I said, ‘It sounds terrible with you doing it, but ok!’”
The song the producer had played was “Be My Baby”, freshly penned by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Spector, and destined to be recorded in summer 1963 as the Philles label debut by Spanish Harlem group The Ronettes. The Wrecking Crew cut the music, while backing vocals were provided by the Blossoms, Nino Tempo, Cher and Sonny Bono; but perhaps the most crucial element was the lead vocals of Ronnie Bennett, later Ronnie Spector.
“One day Phil calls,” she remembers, “and he says, ‘You have to be in California tomorrow. You have to sing the lead and then I can send for the other two [Ronettes] later.’ He met me at the airport, and the first place he took me was to Jack Nitzsche’s house, because Jack Nitzsche arranged all of his songs. Once Jack heard my voice he said, ‘Oh my God…’ I left and he started arranging ‘Be My Baby’, and a day or two after that I went in and recorded it.”
The other two Ronettes, Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley, would never get the call, however. Instead, Phil Spector mastered his ‘wall of sound’ production for the track, utilising the echo chamber and tape echo at Santa Monica Boulevard’s Gold Star, his favourite studio. “He was a brilliant, brilliant kid,” says Tempo. “He had a sensitivity in those days for what would be a hit song. You could play 10 songs for him, and they might all be very good, but he’d always go to the one that had the best chance of being a hit. He had a sense of it.”
Released in August 1963, “Be My Baby” hit No 2 in the US and No 4 in the UK, entrancing the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys with its pioneering, rich production, indelible melody and Ronnie Spector’s coquettish vocals.
“The Beatles loved ‘Be My Baby’ and John Lennon loved my voice,” recalls Spector. “I remember we went to a nightclub one night and he said, ‘Ronnie, just sing me a little bit of “Be My Baby” in my ear…’ And I did, and I looked over and he had pretend-fainted! It was just so much fun, and so much energy then. It was pure rock’n’roll and pure everything.”
RONNIE SPECTOR (lead vocals): The Peppermint Lounge was where we got discovered. We were standing in line with all the other people in Manhattan waiting to get in, and the manager comes out and – ’cause we dressed alike on purpose – he said, “Get in here, girls, you’re late, you’re late!” My sister starts to say, “Oh no no no, we were just standing in line with everyone else…” I said “Shut up! Let’s just go”, and we ran into the Peppermint Lounge and they put us right up on stage as dancers. We had done Bar Mitzvahs and sock hops, but that’s all. That’s how it all started.
NINO TEMPO (backing vocals): I met Phil Spector in New York on July 5, 1960 – we both had appointments with Leiber and Stoller. From that point on, Phil and I became very close friends. Shortly after, I was back in California and I was driving on Wilshire Boulevard and somebody blows a horn at me. Lo and behold, it’s Phil Spector. We pulled over, said hi. He said, “I’m going to Gold Star to record tonight, why don’t you come down? I could use an extra pair of ears.” That night I went down and he said, “Nino, why don’t you go out and play piano?” I said, “I don’t play that well, Phil.” He said, “You don’t have to – play the bottom end, Al De Lory will play the upper end.” We had four guys on two pianos! That’s the way he began to get the wall of sound.
DARLENE LOVE (backing vocals): By the early ’60s, the Blossoms would do the background for everybody, for all the Christmas stuff Phil Spector did, the Righteous Brothers – we were the background singers of Hollywood at the time.