The Ronettes singer brings her love of the holidays to Minneapolis for a rock 'n' roll "Sleigh Ride" at the Dakota.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Ronnie Spector starts thinking about Christmas in September. She loves Christmas so much that she's thrilled that a rare foot of snow greeted her this month in London. She loves Christmas so much that she's been performing her "Xmas Party" at nightclubs and theaters since 1988.
"The end of the year is just my time," she gushed. "I've loved Christmas since I was a little girl. I've never left that dream."
This year, she's added an angel on top of her celebration: a charming new EP called "Ronnie Spector's Best Christmas Ever."
"This is the first Christmas stuff I've ever done without my ex-husband," said Spector, who sang three songs with the Ronettes on 1963's indelible and enduring "A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector," widely considered one of the greatest yule collections ever. (Two of the Ronettes tracks, "Sleigh Ride" and "Frosty the Snowman," rank among the top 20 most-played holiday radio favorites.)
"Best Christmas Ever" features five new songs, including one, "Light One Candle," that she hopes will become -- get this -- a Hanukkah perennial.
"It reminds me of my kids because they're half-Jewish, so they lit the Hanukkah candles every year," said the girl-group legend, 67, who will bring her holiday show to the Dakota next week and performed "Candle" this week on "The Late Show with David Letterman." "There's no Hanukkah songs other than Adam Sandler ['The Hanukkah Song'], but his is like a comedy. My 'Light One Candle' is very serious. I was crying so much in the studio when I was singing it. I was thinking of my mother and father, who are gone now, and my sister has been gone a couple of years, and it really choked me up in the studio. We stopped the tape. I went outside. It was 95 degrees. I had to wipe my eyes and compose myself."
Spector knows all about Hanukkah from Phil Spector, the infamous producer to whom she was married from 1968 to 1974. Conversely, she had to teach him about Christmas when he was creating his holiday album featuring the Ronettes, the Crystals and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans.
"He was Jewish so he didn't know much about Christmas. So he came to my [New York] house and I told him about trees, Frosty and Santa and all that and he went back to California and started working on 'A Christmas Gift for You,'" Spector said this month from her Connecticut home.
She remembers going to Los Angeles to record "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" with Spector. "It was really hot. They put trees out there and they made the studio really cold with air conditioning and it made me feel like it was Christmas time," she recalled. "I had to have it that way to feel Christmas. I closed my eyes. I'm a dreamer and I imagine things."
Keith's bosom buddy
While Spector acknowledges that Phil was a genius in the studio, he was a horrific husband who kept her imprisoned in their Los Angeles mansion. She detailed her dark marriage in her 1989 autobiography, "Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness," but declined to comment about his 2009 murder conviction.
However, when asked about the Ronettes' induction into the Rock Hall of Fame in 2007, she brought up Phil, a longtime member of the hall's nominating committee.
"It feels amazing," she said. "I was nominated for 13 years and my ex would just erase us. He even wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame to keep me out."
Known as the bad girl of rock for her heavy mascara, short skirts and big hair, Spector was glad to talk about another famous man in her life, Keith Richards. In his new memoir "Life," he speaks of Spector as if she was his first girlfriend when the Ronettes toured England with the Rolling Stones in 1964.
"We never got romantically involved because I was also seeing Phil and I was very faithful to Phil. Keith and I, we had like innocent fun in the '60s. We were bosom buddies. We talked about everything," she said. "He lives 15 minutes from me [now], so I'm over at his house all the time. He's the nicest guy."
Richards played on Spector's 2009 CD, "Last of the Rock Stars," along with the late Joey Ramone, Patti Smith and members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Raveonettes and the Raconteurs. Spector has recorded sporadically, including a 1977 single with Bruce Springsteen ("Say Goodbye to Hollywood," which Billy Joel wrote about Ronnie), a 1980 solo album, a 1986 hit single ("Take Me Home Tonight" with Eddie Money) and a 1999 album of covers produced by Ramone.
A chimney-less Christmas
Christmas has always been a big deal to Spector, who grew up as Veronica Bennett in New York City with sister Estelle (a fellow Ronette) and 23 first cousins.
"Even now, I have my dreams about Christmas," she said. "My kids always leave me presents. Of course, we have a real pine tree. Because that's the real beginning of Christmas for me. We lived in one of those pre-war buildings in Spanish Harlem and we had one of those long halls before you'd get to the living room. I'd smell that pine as my daddy was coming in."
Since her family didn't have much -- not even a chimney (Santa came down the fire escape) -- Veronica dreamed a lot.
"If my wish didn't come true, that was fine with me," she said. "We'd always go to my grandmother's house and I'd always get my mother's sisters something. I remember getting one of my aunts a pack of cigarettes and wrapping it up in Christmas wrapping."
One time, she got exactly what she wanted, but she's not proud of it. She and her father went to a store to buy ornaments. "As we were leaving, I said: 'Oh look, Daddy, doll skates.' He said, 'Veronica, we can't get those. I just spent my last dime.'
"I started crying. When we got outside, my dad said, 'Don't tell a soul.' He'd stolen the doll skates. And I couldn't tell my mother. My father loved me so much."
What's her best Christmas ever?
"Right now," she said. "Because I have a new Christmas CD. I just want to give my audience a little more Christmas."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719