California Dreaming: Be My Baby

“Bom, bom-bom, BAP”

When Brian Wilson first heard Hal Blaine’s drumbeat coming out of his car radio, he was so awestruck that he had to pull over and listen. That drum part was apparently an accident — Blaine told an interviewer for the Wall Street Journal in 2011 “I was supposed to play more of a boom-chicky-boom beat, but my stick got stuck and it came out boom, boom-boom chick. I just made sure to make the same mistake every few bars” — if so, it may well have been the most serendipitous accident in popular music history.

Harvey Philip Spector, the producer of the single, had been one of America’s most important record producers for years. A New Yorker who moved to LA as a child, while at high school in the 50s he had been part of the music scene that also included Bruce Johnston, Sandy Nelson, and most of the rest of the people who made up the early-60s LA music community. But while they had stayed in California and made their own amateurish yet fascinating music, Spector had taken a different career path altogether.

After his first band, The Teddy Bears, split up shortly after their 1958 number one hit To Know Him Is To Love Him (a song written around the epitaph on the tombstone of Spector’s father, who had killed himself in 1949), Spector had moved back to New York to work with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. There, Spector’s approach to music changed forever.

Leiber and Stoller had originally started as blues songwriters, writing for people like Big Mama Thornton, and they had been one of the most reliable hitmaking teams of the 1950s, writing a huge number of hits for the Coasters, Elvis Presley, and others. But by the early 1960s, they were moving away from their R&B roots, into a new kind of music that combined the emotional power of the blues with the sweetness of traditional pop orchestration. This melodramatic soul music, sung by performers like Ben E King and The Drifters, was almost a kind of pop-Wagner; songs like Spanish Harlem, which Spector co-wrote with Leiber, or Stand By Me, which was recorded at the same session, attended by Spector, had an intensity and a thickness of sound that was unlike anything else around.

Spector had returned to LA and set up, with his business partner Lester Sill, Philles Records, which quickly became solely owned and run by the Phil half of its portmanteau name, and over the next few years he gathered around him a group of trusted lieutenants. Arranger Jack Nitzsche, production assistant Sonny Bono, engineer Larry Levine, and the group of musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew, all became regular collaborators, as Spector experimented on hit records by the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Blossoms and more, slowly building up his “Wall of Sound” while becoming known as the “Tycoon of Teen” for his hitmaking ability.

Much of the Spector sound is, in fact, attributable to these people, and to the studio, Gold Star, in which Spector worked. Gold Star had a reverb that tended to blend sounds together, while making them sound larger, and Nitzsche worked with that, crafting arrangements which had different instruments doubling parts, so in the finished record it would be almost impossible to pick out what was a guitar, a piano, a trumpet — it was just pure music, shorn of individuality, and as huge as the outsized teenage emotions the interchangeable vocalists on the records sang about.

The vocalist on Be My Baby, though, was the most distinctive of them, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, later to be Spector’s wife. Her huge, brassy, New York voice was a far cry from the more controlled vocals of Darlene Love, and there was a raw pleading to her vocals as she strained to be heard over what was the culmination of the Wall Of Sound in its final form.

It had all been leading to this. The song — written by the husband/wife songwriting duo Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, one of the Brill Building teams Spector had got to know in New York, with a contribution from Spector himself — is almost redundant. The bridge (“So won’t you say you love me…”) is wonderful, but the rest of the song is built around cliched patterns, and the lyrics (“for every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three”) are banal verging on the meaningless.

It doesn’t matter, though. It really doesn’t matter. It’s all about the sound. Spector, Nitzsche, the Wrecking Crew and the rest had managed to make a record that sounded like Wagner for thirteen-year-olds, the perfect sonic distillation of an aching adolescent longing. The words don’t make sense? Of course they don’t make sense. Life doesn’t make sense when you’re a teenage ball of hormonal longing, and when you’re in that state this record grabs onto you and never lets you go.

Brian Wilson was so inspired by that first hearing that he spent much of the next few years trying to replicate, and better, the sound he heard coming over that mono AM radio. But fifty years later, he admitted “I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one. ”

Be My Baby

Composers: Jeff Barry, Phil Spector, and Ellie Greenwich

Line-up: Ronnie Bennett, Nedra Talley, Estelle Bennett, (vocals — note that some sources claim that Talley and Estelle Bennett, despite being the other two members of the Ronettes along with Ronnie Bennett, were not on this track), plus backing vocals possibly including some or all of Ellie Greenwich, Nino Tempo, Bobby Sheen, Sonny Bono, Cher, Darlene Love, Fanita James, and Gracia Nitzsche. Instrumentalists included Don Randi (piano), Louis Blackburn (trombone), Steve Douglas (saxophone), Jay Migliori (saxophone), Leon Russell (keyboards), Hal Blaine (drums), Frank Capp (percussion), Al de Lory (keyboards), Bill Pitman (guitar), Ray Pohlman (bass), and Tommy Tedesco (guitar).

Original release: Be My Baby/Tedesco And Pitman , the Ronettes, Philles single 116

Currently available on: Be My Baby: The Very Best Of The Ronettes Sony Music CD

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