The sassy ’60s singer who rocked with the Ronettes
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With her sister Ronnie and cousin Nedra Talley, Estelle Bennett was one-third of the Ronettes, one of the biggest girl groups of the 1960s, whose hits included “Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You,” and “Walking in the Rain.” Described by Talley as the “quiet, sophisticated one,” Bennett had a brief but spectacular career followed by decades of obscurity and struggle.
Estelle and Ronnie grew up in New York’s Spanish Harlem, the daughters of an African-American and Cherokee mother and a white father, said the London Guardian. “They were bullied at school, where their long, straight hair and mixed-race looks made them stand out. Estelle, who read Vogue, was thought to be a snob, and Ronnie’s beauty attracted jealousy.” Estelle attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, but soon joined with her sister and cousin to form a singing trio. Known initially as the Darling Sisters and Ronnie and the Relatives, they backed up Joey Dee and Bobby Rydell, among others, and recorded “a dozen unmemorable and unsuccessful songs.” Then, in 1962, Estelle made a life-changing phone call. “From the bedroom she shared with Ronnie, she rang Phil Spector’s office and got through to the 23-year-old whiz-kid producer.” Granted an audition, the girls received an immediate contract offer.
“The Ronettes were New York’s sassy, street-smart variation on the virginal girl-group model,” said The New York Times. It was Estelle, with her FIT training, who helped devise their signature look: “heavy mascara, slit skirts, and piles of teased hair that suggested both sex and danger.” In 1963 they shot to No. 2 with “Be My Baby,” which sold 2 million copies and was later described by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys as the best pop song of all time. At their height, the Ronettes toured with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; Bennett herself dated Mick Jagger, George Harrison, and Johnny Mathis. But the group’s breakup, in 1966, devastated her. “She released a single, ‘The Year 2000,’ which set a vision of nuclear apocalypse to Ronettes-like music, and made a few other recordings.” Eventually she married the group’s road manager, Joe Dong.
Bennett’s post-Ronettes life was marked by anorexia, schizophrenia, and periods of homelessness, as well as by largely failed attempts to claim $10 million in royalties from Spector, whom her sister married and then acrimoniously divorced. In 2007, she appeared with, but did not perform alongside, her band mates when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was found dead of colon cancer in her Englewood, N.J., apartment after her family had failed to reach her for several days.
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