February 11, 2009 – Estelle Bennet (The Ronettes), born in New York City on July 22, 1941, became along with her sister Ronnie Spector and cousin Nedra Talley the Rosettes. The Ronettes first began performing as the Darling Sisters and later worked as dancers at New York’s Peppermint Lounge, the epicentre of the 60s dance craze, the Twist. They first signed with Colpix, before being signed by Phil Spector.
Their recording of “Be My Baby” reached hit No. 2 on Billboard in 1963 and was followed by a string of hits including “Walkin’ in the Rain” and “Baby I Love You”. Their rendition of “Sleigh Ride” that appeared on Spector’s “A Christmas Gift for You” album. Their last Philles single was “I Can Hear Music” in 1966. After the Ronettes break-up, she recorded a single for Laurie Records, “The Year 2000/The Naked Boy”. She then quit the music business and had rarely been seen since.
In 2007, when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she refused to perform with them, and spoke only a brief two sentences during her acceptance speech, “I would just like to say, thank you very much for giving us this award. I’m Estelle of the Ronettes, thank you.”
Here is the central part of the sad story that is Estelle Bennett:
For a few years in the mid-1960s Estelle Bennett lived a girl-group fairy tale, posing for magazine covers with her fellow Ronettes and dating the likes of George Harrison and Mick Jagger. Along with her sister and their cousin Nedra Talley, she helped redefine rock ’n’ roll femininity.
The Ronettes delivered their songs’ promises of eternal puppy love in the guise of tough vamps from the streets of New York. Their heavy mascara, slit skirts and piles of teased hair suggested both sex and danger, an association revived most recently by Amy Winehouse.
One of the defining rock ‘n roll songs of the 1960s — a song notable for its role in advancing a new sound that changed pop music — is the Ronettes’ 1963 blockbuster, “Be My Baby.” It was sung by three young girls from New York’s Spanish Harlem who came to be known as the Ronettes — sisters Estelle and Ronnie Bennett, and their cousin, Nedra Talley. More on the ladies in a moment.
In 2006, the U.S. Library of Congress chose the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to be added to the National Recording Registry. The song is also ranked at No. 22 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” published in 2004. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys — no slouch when it came to composing ground-breaking 1960s’ music of his own — has called “Be My Baby” one of the greatest pop records ever made and is his “all-time favorite song.” Wilson was in his car when he first heard the tune on the radio, and being the composer and arranger that he was, stopped the car to give the song a closer listen. “I had to pull off the road,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. The choruses blew me away…”
“Be My Baby,” in any case, was a musical production tour de force circa 1963, and it became part of a game-changing new sound then sweeping through pop music. The song, in addition to the Ronettes’ vocals, had some storied talent in its making. It was co-written by one of those well-regarded 1960s’ writing teams who worked at New York city’s famed Brill Building music center — Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Another co-author of the song was studio wunderkind Phil Spector, who most notably produced the song’s lush instrumentation.
Ronnie Bennett and her sister Estelle, along with cousin Nedra Talley, began singing together as teenagers in Washington Heights, New York. They were all influenced at an early age by family members, many of whom were involved with or aspired to music and/or show business. Ronnie, who would become the group’s lead singer, remembers getting the music bug at a very early age: “My mom had seven brothers, and six sisters, and they all had, you know, show business… And they were playing Sam Cooke, and I’m like four years old [and saying], ‘I wanna do that’. So my uncles made me a spotlight from the Maxwell House coffee [can]. The first audience was my family: my girl cousins, boy cousins and my mom’s brothers and sisters. When I heard that applause, I got chills and I knew that was what I wanted to do…”
Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra began singing together as they listened to all kinds of music at home — from Frankie Lymon and Little Anthony and the Imperials, to Rosemary Clooney. Their grandmother would put the three of them in a room and encourage them to harmonize. In 1959, their mother, Beatrice, entered them in talent show at the Apollo Theater which they won as “The Darling Sisters.” Ronnie was then 16, Estelle 17, and Nedra 13. Not long thereafter they started appearing at local hops and charity shows. By 1961 they were being featured in a dancing and singing act a New York’s Peppermint Lounge during the “twist” dance-craze. They also performed with Clay Cole’s “Twist-A-Rama” shows and toured with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, whose song “Peppermint Twist” was then popular. New York city’s famous disc jockey of that era, “Murray the K,” had also discovered them, and had them appear in his “rock ‘n roll revues” held at the Brooklyn Fox Theater.
The girls soon developed their own style and their own distinctive look. To begin with, all three were of mixed-race decent; all young beauties. Ronnie and Estelle were the children of a white father and a mother of African-American and Cherokee descent. Nedra Talley was black, Indian and Puerto Rican. They also developed their own dress style, part for their dance and performing lounge act, and part personal statement. They each had “big hair” as it was called — tall, black beehive hairdos — and they used a Cleopatra-style dark eye makeup. Their dresses and skirts were tight with slits up the sides, a near Oriental look. They projected, in part, a “bad girl” look, fashioned from the girls they saw on the street, though they themselves were kept off the street. But at school sometimes, they were bullied for their mixed-race looks. By 1961-62, they had cut a few unsuccessful records with the Colpix record label, then known as “Ronnie and the Relatives” before changing to “The Ronettes.” Around this time, a hot popular song titled, “He’s a Rebel,” by another girl group named The Crystals, was at the top of the charts. That song was produced by a 19 year-old recording studio whiz named Phil Spector who also owned a new record label named Philles.
Estelle Bennett got the idea of calling Spector, thinking that maybe the guy who fashioned a No. 1 hit for the Crystals could do the same for the Ronettes. Calling from home after she and Ronnie had been talking in their bedroom, Estelle got through to Spector himself and he agreed to meet with them.
When they started to work with Spector, the girls first served as background singers for others acts, including: Darlene Love with Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, Little Eva, Del Shannon, Bobby Rydell, Joey Dee, and others. But soon the Ronettes got some of Phil Spector’s undivided attention.
On February 11, 2009, Estelle Bennett was found dead in her apartment. She reportedly died from colon cancer. She was 67 years old. Bennett was found by Kevin Dilworth, a friend and former Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper reporter. “I think she really just died of a broken heart,” said Dilworth in one interview following her death. “After [the Ronettes] disbanded in 1966, I don’t think she was ever right again…” Dillworth added that the only time he really saw her come to life was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of March 2007: “When they came out of the main ceremony… when she walked down the hallway, and the paparazzi … all the flashing cameras, and the people asking for autographs … her eyes just lit up. She was so excited, and she was back on top of the world again. But she went right back to anonymity.” Former Ronette and cousin Nedra Talley Ross, reported that Estelle had led a hard life, struggling with schizophrenia and anorexia.
Estelle was the quieter of the two Bennett sisters, Ronnie being more the extrovert. When they were in school, Estelle did her homework and kept up with her grades. Ronnie chose to focus on her singing. Estelle was also quite into fashion in her younger days, always reading Glamour, Vogue, or some other fashion magazines. Estelle was valedictorian at her George Washington High School graduation in Manhattan. She eventually studied at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. But Estelle also loved her role in The Ronettes and the success the group enjoyed in the 1960s. During those years, Estelle also had her share of male suitors. As cousin Nedra Talley Ross recalled: “She was not pretentious at all, but she carried herself with a sophistication that a lot of guys thought was really sexy. And she had a very, very good heart.” Among those Estelle had dated were Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Johnny Mathis, and George Hamilton.
But when the success of the Ronettes came to an end, Estelle took it hard. Her cousin, Nedra said that “Estelle did not want the Ronettes to end.” After the group broke up in 1966, and after Ronnie married Phil Spector 1968, Estelle seemed to lose her moorings. In the mid-1960s, Estelle had married as well, to road manager Joe Dong. And she tried a bit of a solo career for a time, but it never took off. Thereafter she left music and her life began sliding into another world. At one point, Estelle Bennett was hospitalized with anorexia. Not long thereafter her grip on reality began to loosen considerably. In recent years, according to her 37 year-old daughter, Toyin Hunter, Estelle sometimes wandered the streets of New York, telling people she would be performing with the Ronettes at a particular nightclub. Hunter explained she had never really known who her mother was. “From the time I was born she suffered with mental illness,” Hunter said, “I never really got to know Estelle in a good mental state.”
During the legal fight with Spector, fellow 1960s singer Darlene Love was called as a witness, and one day at court she saw Estelle. “She didn’t remember me,” Love said. Estelle Bennett had been homeless for a time as well. Love also recalled seeing Estelle at the Ronettes Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2007. “They cleaned her up and made her look as well as possible…She looked the best she could for somebody who lived on the street. It broke my heart.”
But all agreed that in her prime and growing up, Estelle had been a force in creating the Ronettes’ style and act — and that she had a heart of gold. “Not a bad bone in her body,” said her sister Ronnie in a press statement. “Just kindness.”
“Estelle had such an extraordinary life,” said her cousin, Nedra. “To have the fame, and all that she had at an early age, and for it all to come to an end abruptly. Not everybody can let that go and then go on with life.”
She was 67 years 6 months 20 days old when she died on 11 February 2009 in New Jersey.