On Sept. 28, 1963, The Ronettes performed on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. In the video, the curtain parts to reveal the three singers dressed in identical long-sleeved pencil dresses, their hair partially swept up in the same half-bouffant that would become part of their signature style. They sway their hips and arms awkwardly to the opening bars of "Be My Baby," and then Ronnie Spector, standing on the left, opens her mouth. When the camera zooms in, we see her embellishing the lyrics with gestures as she sings them: She points to an unseen audience member on the line "so proud of me" and cocks her head with a quick Monroe-esque pout on "turn their heads."
The micro-movements in the performance — swaying hips, lightly moving hands — were typical of the kind of directions 1960s girl groups received from their mostly male managers and producers, stemming from the polished synchrony of doo-wop singers. On the surface, The Ronettes look like teen girls who have been coached to move in unison and smile for the cameras — part of the reason The Ronettes are often classified as a quintessential pop group.
But classifying The Ronettes' sound as pop leans too heavily on the contents of the lyrics they sang (which they didn't write) and the instrumental layer behind their voices (which they didn't produce). If we focused instead on the way The Ronettes' vocal and visual choices moved the band away from the pristine expectations of tone and clarity (to say nothing of obedience) that characterize '60s pop girl groups, we could see them laying out a sneaky version of rock and roll disguised as pop. Through the way the group constructed its sound and look, The Ronettes embodied proto-rock transgressions, as their heavy eyeliner, poufed hair and natural New York accents all hint at. The lines between sonic genres are often more permeable than listeners allow, especially as rock was forming, and The Ronettes exposed and maneuvered those malleable boundaries.
The group's debut album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, was released in 1964, when Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett, her sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley were all in their teens. Their only studio album, Presenting... collected singles from the previous year, including "Be My Baby." Five of its twelve tracks had made it to the U.S. Billboard charts: "Be My Baby" (#2), "Walking in the Rain" (#23), "Baby I Love You" (#24), "Do I Love You?" (#34) and "(The Best Part Of) Breakin' Up" (#39). In addition to producing the album, Phil Spector wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs.
Their musical transgression centers on Ronnie Spector's voice, which prefigures the more free, less restrained style that (male) rock vocals would take up in the next couple of years — gravel rather than velvet, and untrained rather than classically molded. Her bombastic ways of singing — from rehearsing in the bathroom to making the sound booth a feminine-only space, to allowing her natural accent to ring true — pushed back against producer Phil Spector's Svengali-like control.