Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes, the singing trio whose 1963 hit Be My Baby epitomized the famed "wall of sound" technique of hit producer Phil Spector, has died at her home in Englewood, N.J. She was 67.
Bennett's brother-in-law, Jonathan Greenfield, said police found her dead in her apartment on Wednesday after relatives had been unable to contact her. The time and cause of death have not yet been determined. Greenfield is the manager and husband of Bennett's sister, Ronettes lead singer Ronnie Spector.
The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007; its website hails the group as "the premier act of the girl group era." Among their admirers were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The trio's exotic hairstyles and makeup have been aped by Amy Winehouse.
The Ronettes — sisters Veronica (Ronnie) and Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley — signed with Spector's Philles Records in 1963.
Their recording of Be My Baby hit No. 2 on Billboard magazine's pop music chart that year. Among their other hits were Walkin' in the Rain and Baby I Love You.
They also did a memorable version of Sleigh Ride that appeared on Spector's A Christmas Gift for You album. Their last Philles single was I Can Hear Music in 1966.
The songs feature Spector's elaborate arrangements that blend many instruments into a smooth, pulsating "wall."
"They could sing all their way right through a wall of sound," Keith Richards of the Stones said as the Ronettes were inducted into the rock hall. "They didn't need anything. They touched my heart right there and then and they touch it still."
But their string of hits had tailed off by the time they split around 1967.
Ronnie Bennett had married Spector in 1968 but they divorced six years later.
Greenfield said Ronnie Spector was devastated over her sister's death.
"Estelle was Ronnie's sidekick in the Ronettes," Greenfield, of Newbury, Conn., said Thursday from New York. "She was very much into fashion and worked with Ronnie on the whole look and style of the Ronettes."
After the group's breakup, Bennett rarely made public appearances.
Court battle over royalties
For nearly 15 years, the women waged a lengthy, and ultimately unsuccessful, court battle with Spector over royalties.
They sued Spector in the late 1980s, saying he had cheated them out of royalties by using their music in ways not authorized by their recording contract. For example, Be My Baby was played in the opening credits of the smash 1987 movie Dirty Dancing.
A trial was held in 1998, and in 2000, the judge ordered Spector to pay $2.6 million in past royalties and interest for the use of Ronettes songs as background music in movies, videocassette recordings and advertising.
But New York State's highest court threw out that ruling on appeal in 2002. The judges noted that the contract did not actually mention secondary rights to the use of music, so-called "synchronization rights," which are a more modern phenomenon in the entertainment industry. But under New York state contract law, the court said, the singers did not control those rights unless their contract specifically said they did.
At the group's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2007, Ronnie Spector did not mention her ex-husband, but he sent a note that was read at the ceremony saying, "I wish them all the happiness and good fortune the world has to offer."
In recent years, Phil Spector has been battling criminal charges in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson.
Bennett was born in 1941, her sister in 1943 and Talley in 1945, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website.
According to the book He's a Rebel, a biography of Phil Spector by Mark Ribowsky, the Ronettes first began performing as the Darling Sisters and later worked as dancers at New York's Peppermint Lounge, the epicentre of the early 1960s dance craze, the Twist.
Their first recording contract, with Colpix, went nowhere, but then they were signed by Spector.
In addition to her sister, Bennett is survived by a daughter, Toyin Hunter of Santa Monica, Calif., and three grandsons.