Original publish date: February 14, 2019
Ten years ago, the dead body of a 67-year old woman was discovered in Engkewood, New Jersey. Her death came sometime that week and, for the most part, her passing went unnoticed. It remains so a decade later. But, in the weeks and months before the British invasion hit our shores, she was the hottest third of a fairy-tale girl group featured on magazine covers, 45 sleeves and album covers all over the world. She dated George Harrison, Mick Jagger, George Hamilton and Johnny Mathis. Her name was Estelle Bennett and together with her sister Veronica and cousin Nedra Talley, they were known the world over as The Ronettes.
One of the most popular groups (male or female) from the 1960s, they charted nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became Top 40 hits. The trio came from Washington Heights in New York City, and took their name from lead singer Veronica; better known as Ronnie Spector. The Ronettes’ most famous songs were “Be My Baby”, “Baby, I Love You”, “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”, and “Walking in the Rain”. The later won a Grammy Award in 1965, and “Be My Baby” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, just a couple years before Estelle’s death, officially from colon cancer, but those who knew her said she died of a broken heart.
The girls had been singing together since they were teenagers in Spanish Harlem. In 1959, they entered a talent show at the Apollo Theater and won as “The Darling Sisters.” Ronnie was then 16, Estelle 17, and Nedra 13. Soon they were appearing at local sock hops and charity shows. By 1961 they were dancing and singing at New York’s Peppermint Lounge during the Chubby Checker “twist” dance-craze. They were featured in “Twist-A-Rama” shows and toured with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, whose song “Peppermint Twist” was a standard of the era. In time, they were discovered by New York city’s famous disc jockey “Murray the K,” who had them appear in his “rock ‘n roll revues” held at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. In March of 1963, they moved to Phil Spector’s Philles Records and changed their name to “The Ronettes”.
The Ronettes were an exotic contradiction, singing songs in flirting tones about puppy love like edgy big apple street sirens while still looking somehow lonesome and vulnerable. Their heavy mascara framed Cleopatra eyes, their tight slit skirts exposed shapely legs and their tall, jet-black beehive hairdos screamed sex appeal… and danger. All three girls were of mixed-race decent and all three were undeniable young beauties. Ronnie and Estelle had a white father and a mother of African-American and Cherokee descent. Nedra Talley was black, Indian and Puerto Rican. Despite their vampish appearance, the girls were kept off the street by their parents and led tame, sheltered lives. Sometimes at school, they were bullied for their mixed-race looks. Hard to imagine from the girls who Darlene Love (He’s a Rebel) described as “the bad girls of the ’60s.”
Estelle Bennett (July 22, 1941 – February 11, 2009) was the quieter of the two Bennett sisters. When they were in school, Estelle concentrated on her homework and brought home good grades. Ronnie, more of an extrovert, spent her time singing and cultivating her “look”. Estelle was thr fashionista of the two, always reading Glamour, Vogue, and other fashion magazines. Estelle was valedictorian of her class at George Washington High School in Manhattan and went on to study at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Estelle worked at Macy’s durig the day, attended fashion school at night, and sang with The Ronettes on the weekends. And above all, Estelle loved singing and the recognition that came with it. She was the “pretty” Ronette, the one whose dance card was always the fullest. Although content to remain in the shadow of her younger sister, Estelle always soaked up her fair share of the spotlight. Those who knew Estelle described her as gentle and intelligent, and the driving force behind the Ronettes’ style. As cousin Nedra 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.”
By the time the girls signed with Phil Spector in 1963, thanks mostly to Estelle, the Ronettes had their look precisely calibrated. In August of 1963 “Be My Baby” was released and by October, it had shot to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart, making the Ronettes instant stars. The girls embarked on a tour of Britain in December of 1963 into early 1964. The Ronettes were the only girl group to tour with the Beatles. The Rolling Stiones were their opening act. When they toured, the Ronettes always traveled with at least one family member. In late 1964, the group released their only studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, which entered the Billboard charts at number 96.
It was during that tour of ’63-’64 when The Beatles George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle”, began dating Estelle Bennett. The two hit it off immediately. According to Estelle, “We kept running into each other at parties and gatherings and always found our eyes meeting no matter how many other people were in the room. George and I talked whenever we’d see each other. We found we liked the same things, long walks while wearing comfortable clothes and being with sincere people who liked us for ourselves and not because we were in show business. I think I was the happiest when I was talking with George. There was something about him that made me open up and spill out anything that was on my mind. I think he felt the same way, for he’d often call late in the evening and talk on the phone for hours.”
The duo were inseperable for the remainder of the English tour until The Beatles left for Paris. When The Beatles came to America, the Ronettes met them at their hotel in New York City. The Ronettes, in fact, were on hand February 8, 1964 to welcome the Beatles as they arrived in New York for their first U.S. visit and Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But the relationship fizzled out, Estelle saying, “We saw each other many times. I was with him at the party after their concert and on other evenings when we just sat around the hotel with the rest of the group. But somehow things weren’t the same. We couldn’t recreate the same relationship we had when I was in London…Over there he’s at his best, he’s relaxed, he’s George Harrison, Englishman and not George Harrison, Beatle.”
During that same tour, Estelle was also romantically linked with Mick Jagger.
In Keith Richards autobiography “Life” he admitted that he was dating Ronnie when the Stones toured with the Ronettes in 1963. He recalled there that Mick Jagger got with Estelle because she was less “chaperoned” than Ronnie. The pairings were viewed as controversial for a couple of reasons. One was that management, particularly The Beatles’ Brian Epstein, wanted “the boys” to remain single for fans’ sake. And two, interracial pairings were taboo back in those days. Frowned upon in the U.K. and nearly suicidal in parts of the U.S.A.
In 1965, the Ronettes continued to record and tour while making a few appearances on television, including a CBS special and the NBC pop music show, Hullabaloo. However by this time, Phil Spector was busy with other artists. The 1965 song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” produced and co-written by Spector for The Righteous Brothers, became a No. 1 hit. And by early 1966, he was preoccupied with Ike & Tina Turner. By now, The Ronettes were being moved to the back burner by Spector and some of their songs, such as “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine”, and two songs co-written by Harry Nilsson, “Paradise” and “Here I Sit,” were held back for decades. They had one last hurrah in August 1966 when the Ronettes (minus Ronnie) joined the Beatles on their 14-city U.S./Canada tour as one of the opening acts. As for the Rolling Stones, during one visit they made to New York in the 1960s, Ronnie’s mother ended up cooking for them at her Gotham City home.
In late 1966, after several singles failed to make the charts, Phil Spector stopped releasing new records, the Philles label shut down and the Ronettes disbanded. Nedra Talley married New York radio station programming director Scott Ross. Estelle Bennett married road manager Joe Dong and the couple had a daughter, Toyin. After the Ronettes’ break-up, Estelle took it hard. Her cousin, Nedra said “Estelle did not want the Ronettes to end.” Estelle recorded one single for Laurie Records, “The Year 2000/The Naked Boy.” It didn’t do well and she quit the music business. After she left music, her life began a descent into another world.
By 1968, Estelle seemed to lose her moorings. At one point, she was hospitalized with anorexia. Not long after her grip on reality began to loosen considerably. Estelle was often seen wandering the streets of New York, telling people she would be performing with the Ronettes at a particular jazz nightclub. Estelle’s daughter Toyin explained she had never really known who her mother was. “From the time I was born she suffered with mental illness. I never really got to know Estelle in a good mental state.” Cousin Nedra Talley Ross, reported that Estelle had led a hard life, struggling with schizophrenia and anorexia.
Fellow 1960s singer Darlene Love, who once described The Ronettes as Rock’s tough girls, said the last time she saw Estelle, “She didn’t remember me.” By the early 2000s, Estelle Bennett was homeless. In 2007, The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Love recalled seeing Estelle at the induction ceremony. “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.” It was decided that she was too fragile to perform. A back-up singer with Ronnie Specter’s new group stood in for an encore performance of “Be My Baby”.
“Be My Baby” sold millions of copies, both in the 1960s and since then, having been used in the opening segments of films such as Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets and 1987’s Dirty Dancing. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song at No. 22 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys 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.” Wilson, in fact, wrote a famous Beach Boys song, “Don’t Worry Baby,” initially as a follow-up intended for the Ronettes, but it was turned down for that purpose.
When Estelle was found dead in her apartment by police, after relatives had been unable to contact her, Kevin Dilworth, a friend and former Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper reporter said, “I think she really just died of a broken heart. 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.”
Posthumously, all agreed that growing up, Estelle had been a force in creating the Ronettes’ style and act – and that she had a heart of gold. “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.” “Not a bad bone in her body,” said her sister Ronnie in a press statement. “Just kindness.” At that 2007 Hall of Fame ceremony, Estelle spoke only 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.” No, Estelle, we thank you.