When Ronnie Spector met Steven Van Zandt

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SHARE When Ronnie Spector met Steven Van Zandt

Ronnie Spector’s first step towards liberation from her ex-husband Phil Spector came when she met Steven Van Zandt, founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Under Van Zandt’s empathetic production, she dueted with Southside Johnny Lyon on “You Mean So Much To Me,” a sizzling Springsteen soul workout he contributed to Southside Johnny & the Asbury Juke’s 1975 debut album “I Don’t Want To Go Home.”

Spector is in Chicago for her acclaimed autobiographical stage production “Beyond the Beehive” in one show only at 8 p.m. Nov. 1 at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St. The member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is No. 69 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers.”

“I had met John Lennon walking down the street,” Ronnie Spector said last week in a conversation from her Connecticut home. “He yells ‘Ronnie Ronette.’ That’s what he always called me. He was with Jimmy Iovine.”

Iovine had engineered Springsteen’s 1975 “Born to Run” album.

Ironically, Iovine was assistant engineer on Lennon’s “Menlove Avenue” that included outtakes from Lennon’s 1973 Phil Spector-produced “Rock n’ Roll” album.

“Jimmy took me to the studio that night,” Spector said. “Bruce was there. Remember, this was before Springsteen was ‘The Boss,’ when he was a fan of a mine. So I walk in the studio and soon I was on the road again (with the E Street Band). I went on a couple of dates with Southside. He was such a gentleman. Before that I was just doing oldies shows. I didn’t know what real rock n’ roll was anymore after seven years in L.A. (with Phil Spector). I was not allowed to read ‘Billboard’ or ‘Rolling Stone’ magazines. I was a nobody in California all those years because I never saw people. And then to come back and there’s John Lennon walking down the street…..”

At the same time Spector was sharing these stories, Van Zandt was in Chicago promoting “Once Upon a Dream Starring The Rascals,” the Rascals concert-Broadway show that is coming to the Cadillac Palace Theatre Nov. 5-10. The Rascals were as important to me as the Velvet Underground were to other people.

The Rascals and the Phil Spector Wall of Sound are learning blocks for Springsteen and the E Street Band.

“Meeting Ronnie was a big moment for me also,” Van Zandt said. “I had just started producing. It took us awhile, because she had been retired at that point. I think she had done one thing with George Harrison.”

The ex-Beatle produced her 1970 “Try Some, Buy Some” single, making her the only American vocalist to be backed by all four Beatles.

There’s a bar bet you can win.

“Ronnie was out of commission for like ten years,” Van Zandt said. “It took awhile in the session to find that voice again. I remember calling Bruce to come in. He wanted to be there anyway, but as we were going through the song, Bruce pointed out she wasn’t quite emphasizing the vibrato which is why it was not sounding quite like the Ronnie we grew up with. So I took Ronnie aside and said, ‘We need a little more vibrato you used to do.’ She said she wasn’t doing it because she wanted to be more ‘modern.’ I was like, ‘That’s the last thing I want you to be. You got it right the first time.’ So the next take was the Ronnie Spector we all remembered.

“A lot of the ‘60s people were like that. They were conscious of not wanting to be ‘oldies,’ virtually every one I’ve ever met. And I’ve met a lot of them. They all wanted to be in the modern world. It’s been difficult for me to convince them, ‘No, no, no, the last thing you want to do is have anything to do with the modern world.’ We’ve been drowning in mediocrity for 40 years. We want to get back to the source. The last thing you want to lose is that emotional communication.”

This passion is what makes Van Zandt such an engaging and thorough host for his Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show, which airs locally at 9 p.m. Sundays on WXRT-FM (93.1).

Thanks to Van Zandt, I’ll never forget re-discovering late New Orleans soul legend Lee Dorsey, who guested on “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” A few months before the Jukes recording session in Manhattan, the E-Street Band had played at Dorsey’s Yo-Yo Lounge in New Orleans.

The same night of the Ronnie Spector session, Dorsey and Southside Johnny dueted on the hard blues “How Come You Treat Me So Bad?” Stuff like this just doesn’t happen anymore.

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band with Lee Dorsey at his Yo-Yo Lounge

“Right away I had this instinct to include heroes of mine from the past in my production career,” Van Zandt explained. “During those first two Jukes albums I brought Ronnie out of retirement, I got Lee Dorsey out of retirement, I reunited the Coasters and Drifters. They were being called ‘oldies’ but some of them were in their 30s and 40s. It was tragic that the British Invasion put all of the heroes out of work. I wanted to remind people where things were coming from at that time in history when people weren’t looking back anymore. The whole glam thing was happening and rock culture was getting fragmented. That’s one thing me and Bruce had in common.”

By 1980 Lee Dorsey was touring the world as the opening act for the Clash.

“Like most red blooded American men I was in love with Ronnie,” Van Zandt said. “She knew Jimmy (Iovine), who of course went on to run the world. That led to doing the single (of Billy Joel’s) ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’ with the E Street Band, which is the second record I produced after the Jukes first album.” The Joel anthem was Spector’s kiss-off to her ex-husband.

Spector will be covering “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” at City Winery. “You Mean So Much To Me” is not on the set list, although I love the song so much I will offer to duet with her.

Spector talks about Van Zandt and Springsteen in “Beyond the Beehive.”

“This is my story about my life,” she said. “I’m 70 years old. I see Judy Garland, Janis Joplin on Broadway. Most of them aren’t living. With me, the real person tells the real story.” And the music is real.

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