Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October 26: The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"

Artist: The Ronettes
Song: "Be My Baby"
Album: Be My Baby (single)
Year: 1963

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Though every era of music certainly had a number of important developments and fresh approaches, one can easily argue that throughout the 1960's, musical creativity reached its apex, and nearly every sound in the years since can be directly linked to this time period.  While most concentrate such statements on the latter half of that decade, it was during the early years of the 1960's that most of the vital inroads and stylistic endeavors can be found, and one of the most vital to the progression of music was in the so-called "wall of sound" approach.  Pioneered through a number of bands, all under the direction of producer Phil Spector, one can find a number of examples of this brilliant technique, and yet it can be easily argued that the early phases of this approach were at their finest within the songs of The Ronettes.  Though there were certainly other "girl groups" that showed more ability in terms of sheer vocal talent, there is no question that The Ronettes had as much spirit and soul as any other group, and in many ways it was their more authentic, straightforward approach that set them so far apart from their peers.  Rattling off a string of hit singles all across the first half of the 1960's, a number of their songs remain nothing short of iconic within modern music, and there is no other recording that even comes close to the sound and overall impact that can be heard on The Ronettes' brilliant 1963 single, "Be My Baby."

While the entire musical arrangement on "Be My Baby" has become nothing short of legendary, the reality is that the most definitive aspect of the entire song may actually be the opening notes.  Drummer Hal Blaine kicks things off with a simple cadence, and yet this rather basic, unassuming few beats stands today as absolutely unmistakable, and this lead-in would be copied countless times in the years that followed.  Throughout the rest of the song, it is the percussion that takes a majority of the focus, and the ever-present castanets give "Be My Baby" an almost Latin feel, setting it further apart from the more popular "girl group" approach.  It is also this element that gives the track a completely unique sway, and it was largely due to this element that the song was a massive hit all across the globe.  The way that these rhythms are able to interact with the amazingly dramatic piano is like no other recording in history, and it is the rise and drop of tension within this instrument that makes "Be My Baby" completely unique.  As the horns and other instruments enter the overall mix, one can quickly understand what the "wall of sound" technique is all about, as the music becomes almost overwhelming, creating an amazing amount of reverberation within the music, thus defining Spector's musical goal.  This blending of musical and recording techniques would be further explored in many later recordings, and yet one can easily argue that it never sounded better than what one can hear on "Be My Baby."

Due to the fact that the musical arrangement is so powerful and historically significant, one might be able to give a "pass" to the vocalists if they were not up to par; and yet there is no question that the singing all across "Be My Baby" is equally fantastic.  Though she does not possess what might be considered the "classic" voice of the era, Veronica Bennett is nothing short of hypnotizing throughout her performance on "Be My Baby," and it is this more honest and raw sound that is in many ways superior to the recordings of her peers.  The amount of heartbreak and sorrow that the lyrics suggest are deployed in brilliant fashion at every turn by Bennett, and there is an allure within her "baby doll" voice that once heard, can never be forgotten.  In many ways, it is Bennett's more accessible voice that was surely what helped it catch on with the youth of the time, and it remains one of the greatest "sing along" songs that has ever been recorded.  At every turn, Bennett is able to extract the maximum amount of emotion and tone from the lyrics, and yet one can also make the case that while she may seem to be singing of longing for her man, the words are actually more accurate if one reverses the roles.  That is to say, Phil Spector was one of the authors of the lyrics, and the fact that he would eventually marry Bennett makes it easy to argue that these words were actually about Bennett, making the overall impact of "Be My Baby" even more enjoyable and significant.

Almost instantly upon its release, "Be My Baby" shot all the way up the charts, and as the decades have passed, it remains one of the most endearing and enduring songs of that era.  Even beyond the musical importance of the song, it has been used in countless films and television shows over the years, and "Be My Baby" still finds regular radio airplay to this day.  That fact in itself is enough to cement the songs' place as one of the greatest in history, and yet it is the advances in recording technique that may be the greatest gift of "Be My Baby."  Though it was not the first attempt by Spector at the "wall of sound," there is no question that this song represents the turning point for the approach, as in every way, this is the perfect balance of sound and substance.  It is the way that the vocals play against the musical textures that make the song so far beyond other recordings, and when one combines these elements with the wonderfully sweet sound and style of Bennett's vocals, it turns into absolute musical perfection.  In fact, countless later artists hailed this recording as far beyond all others of the era, with the great Brian Wilson even citing the song as, "the greatest pop record ever made."  This bold statement is easily supported by every aspect of the song, as in everything from the musical arrangement to the vocals to the lyrics, there is simply no other recording that can hold its own when compared to The Ronettes' phenomenal 1963 single, "Be My Baby."

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