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.
Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra 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. 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.