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Ronnie Spector, ‘60s pop icon and ‘Be My Baby’ singer, dies at 78

Spector, 78, led the girl group the Ronettes and was known for rocking the cat-eye makeup and beehive hair that became synonymous with the era.
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Ronnie Spector, known for singing iconic 1960s hits such as “Be My Baby” and “Walking in the Rain,” died Wednesday following a battle with cancer, according to a statement from her family.

Spector, 78, led the girl group the Ronettes and was known for rocking the cat-eye makeup and beehive hair that became synonymous with the era. A New York City native who grew up in East Harlem, Spector quickly became an international sensation.

The group’s looks and powerful vocals — plus songwriting and producing help from Phil Spector — turned them into one of the premier acts of the girl-group era, touring England with the Rolling Stones and befriending the Beatles.

Estelle Bennett Vann, Ronnie Spector and Nedra Talley Ross of the vocal trio "Ronettes" pose for a portrait in 1964. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

“Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face,” her family said Wednesday. “She was filled with love and gratitude. Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her.”

Spector, who was born Veronica Bennett, began performing around New York City with her older sister, Estelle Bennett, and their cousin Nedra Talley. They became stars after they won an amateurs competition at the famed Apollo Theater.

In 1963 the women were signed to the record label of Phil Spector, the “wall of sound” music producer who helped create hits for some of the biggest bands of the time, including the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

The group released its debut album as the Ronettes in 1964; five of the 12 tracks made it to the U.S. Billboard charts.

When the Ronettes, who broke up in 1967, were inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, they were credited with having produced “some of the greatest music of the century.”

In an induction essay for the group, the music writer Rob Bowman said the Ronettes were “the sexiest, hippest, and perhaps greatest-sounding girl group of all time.”

“While their recording career lasted less than six years and they placed only a handful of singles on the charts, songs such as ‘Be My Baby,’ ‘Baby, I Love You,’ and ‘Walking in the Rain’ were larger-than-life hit recordings that made the Ronettes an indelible part of the sonic memory of early- and mid-sixties rock,” Bowman wrote.

Ronnie Spector married Phil Spector in 1968. They divorced in 1974.

She wrote about their time together in her memoir, “Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness,” describing her former husband as abusive and controlling. He was convicted in 2009 for the murder of actor Lana Clarkson and died in prison last year.

But Ronnie Spector’s legacy went far beyond her former marriage and the Ronettes, influencing music for years to come. Amy Winehouse, who also made cat eye makeup and the beehive a part of her look, frequently cited Spector as an idol.

Spector toured as a solo act after the Ronettes broke up and continued to make hits, including “Take Me Home Tonight” with Eddie Money, Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and the 1999 EP “She Talks to Rainbows.”

In an interview with People magazine in 2017, Spector said she initially didn’t think the Ronettes would be successful “because of our look and being biracial.”

She credited the LGBTQ community for helping launch the group and keeping her going over the years.

“Our career started working in the Village in the gay coffee shops,” she said. “And then when I came back from California, where do you think I started out? I started out at the Continental Baths, a gay club. That’s how I started my return to show business.”

Brian Wilson, a co-founder of the Beach Boys, tweeted that he “didn’t know what to say” about the news of Spector’s death.

“I loved her voice so much and she was a very special person and a dear friend,” Wilson wrote. “This just breaks my heart. Ronnie’s music and spirit will live forever.”

His tweet included a link to video of the two together in 2002, before Wilson performed at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. The pair were hugging on the couch and discussing the Beach Boys’ hit song “Don’t Worry Baby,” written in response to “Be My Baby.”

“You wrote ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ right after ‘Be My Baby.’ That song was supposed to be for me, and Phil didn’t write it, so he said, ‘No way,’” she recalled to Wilson.

“Your voice is so special I can’t even believe it,” he responded.

She is survived her husband, Jonathan Greenfield, and two sons, Jason and Austin.

“Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face,” her family said Wednesday. “She was filled with love and gratitude. Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her.” 

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.