Big hair, skimpy skirts, fashion-forward styling—and don’t forget the voice. Smart and talented, Estelle Bennett was the oldest and some say the prettiest of the Ronettes, the girl group that rocked to fame in 1963 with “Be My Baby.”
“They could sing all their way right through a wall of sound,” the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards said at the Ronettes’ induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. (The Stones opened for the Ronettes on a 1964 British tour.) “They didn’t need anything. They touched my heart right there and then and they touch it still,” Richards said. The group’s other hits included “Baby I Love You” (1963), “Walkin’ in the Rain” (1964) and two top 100 hits from 1965: “Born to Be Together” and “Is This What I Get for Loving You.”
Bennett died Feb. 11, 2009—five years ago today—of colon cancer at 67. She had suffered from anorexia and schizophrenia after the Ronettes broke up in 1966, and at times had been homeless, her daughter Toyin Hunter said.
“From the time I was born she suffered with mental illness,” Hunter told The New York Times after her mother’s death. “I never really got to know Estelle in a good mental state.”
Born in New York to a mother of African-American and Cherokee heritage and an Irish father, Estelle and her sister Veronica (Ronnie) teamed up with their cousin Nedra Talley in their teens to form the Ronettes.
Record producer Phil Spector—who would later marry Ronnie—signed the trio to his record label in 1963, and the Ronettes put out a string of hits. “Representing Spector’s Wall of Sound, the Ronettes were given a ‘bad girl’ persona and were known for their beehive hairstyles, heavy eyeliner and tight-fitting clothes,” the U.K.’s Daily Mail said.
Estelle Bennett recorded solo for a short time after the Ronettes broke up and married Joe Dong. Ronnie attempted to resurrect the Ronettes in the early 1970s, but neither Estelle nor Nedra were included in that effort.
“I think she really just died of a broken heart,” her friend Kevin Dilworth told the Newark Star-Ledger. “After that group disbanded in 1966, I don’t think she was ever right again.”
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.”