Ronnie Spector of the 1960s singing group, The Ronettes, recent passing stirred up emotions and a lot of memories for me. They didn’t become The Ronnettes until 1963 when they signed with Phil Spector which resulted in a string of hits for them. Their biggest hits were: “Be My Baby,” “The Best Part of Breakin’ Up,” and “Walking in the Rain.” They toured with both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
All three of the girls were cute, but Ronnie is the one that most guys had a crush on. I was no exception. She made you feel like she was singing only to you. Before she married Spector, her name was Veronica Bennett. The other two singers were her older sister Estelle and her cousin Nedra Talley. They were all New Yorkers from Manhattan’s Washington Heights.
I became a teenager in 1958. That was an interesting time growing up in Corona, New York. I wrote a lot about it in my first novel, Railway Avenue. (It’s still available in print and e-book.) Before turning thirteen and afterward I usually hung out with the older guys and gals on my street. Those summer nights are still vivid in my mind but fading fast. We usually sat on our friend Vickie’s stoop or stood around in her front yard.
There was always a portable radio playing the hits of the day. Portables were pre-boombox. They could be as small as a Marlboro cigarette box or as big as a hardcover book. Those large ones sometimes had a handle to easily carry them. Some people held them on their shoulders. The smaller ones could fit in a shirt pocket. We only listened to rock and roll, and doo-wop. Doo-wop was popular throughout the fifties and into the sixties. Besides hearing it on the radio, there were guys in the neighborhood who stood in doorways, under overpasses, and in hallways who harmonized and sang doo-wop songs such as, “In the Still of the Night,” “Gloria,” “Maybe,” “There’s a Moon Out Tonight,” “Little Star.” We also loved other popular artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and for the more romantic we had the smooth sounds of Johnny Mathis.
Some of the radio disk jockeys were as popular as the artists whose music they were playing. In New York, we had Murray the K and his swinging soiree. It was one of the most popular nighttime music shows on the radio. The other was ABC Radio’s, Cousin Brucie, who was Bruce Morrow. These were the guys whose chatter we listened to on those humid summer nights at Vickie’s.
Vickie always had a boyfriend. She was cute with blonde hair and blue eyes with an outgoing, friendly personality. Everyone loved Vickie. Sammy’s the boyfriend I remember most. He was a cool guy with dark hair and drove a fast car. Laura, my friend Bobby’s older sister, lived next door to Vickie, and she and her boyfriend Frankie hung out with us, too. Frankie was tall, very skinny, a contrast to Laura who was voluptuous. He drove a 1954 Oldsmobile 88 Convertible; it was red and white.
Bunny, my friend Tori’s older sister, also hung out with us. She looked like Elizabeth Taylor with long, luxurious, black hair. She always had boyfriends. Sometimes she and her man at the time would park in front of my house late at night and make out. The girls wore eye makeup, lipstick, and had the teased hairstyles of the day or ponytails. Those older guys all wore their hair slicked down with Brylcreem, or Wildroot, or Alberto VO5, and combed in the back like a duck’s tail. I started combing my hair that way too. We all wore dungarees; that’s what people called them before the term “jeans” became popular. Most of us guys wore black high-top sneakers. The girls wore tight shorts or dungarees, tank tops, or tee shirts, and sandals or sneakers.
The guys loved their cars which always had their car radios blasting the sounds of the day. Drag racing was popular. Once in a while, they’d ask me, “You wanna come to White Castle.” The twelve-cent hamburger joint on Queens Boulevard was the place where all the hot cars in Queens gathered to see who was driving what. That’s where drag races were kicked off. Which usually meant driving to Connecting Highway, a short link between two major roads connecting Brooklyn and Queens that took you to and from La Guardia Airport. It was below ground so the noise from glass-packed mufflers reverberated off the concrete walls. People gathered above the roadway along the sides and on the bridges that crossed over the strip. The evening’s races usually ended when the police arrived.
So here I am just about the same age as Ronnie Spector reminiscing about her and the times we both lived in. I feel lucky to have experienced those summer nights and the great rock and roll music we listened to. Many of the artists from those days are gone as well as most of the guys and gals who hung around Vickie’s stoop. You can still play the music from the fifties and sixties, and you can still listen to it on some oldies radio stations. So, for the time being, “Be My Baby” will be the earworm that gets me through the day.