When Ronnie Spector Came to Town 

Ronnie Spector at the Left Bank rock club in Mount Vernon, February 1981 (Photo Frank Ostrander)

Over the course of the late Ronnie Spector’s 60-year career, her travels took her from Harlem to London and beyond. On one August afternoon in 1980, the “Be My Baby” singer found herself in the studio of Briarcliff Manor’s WRNW-FM promoting her first solo album, Siren. 

The “progressive rock” station had a history of hosting artists, many of whom were happy to take the 45-minute drive from New York City to have in-depth conversations with the station’s DJs. Some of the diverse musicians who visited the WRNW studios included Hank Williams Jr., Richie Havens, Joan Jett, and Peter Tosh. 

“We were in the habit, in kind of a legendary way, of having many artists up to the station,” says Gary Axelbank, the young program director and DJ who interviewed Spector. “The record company guys loved us because they knew we were knowledgeable, and the audience loved it because it gave a fresh, personal feel that fit right into the format that we were doing.” CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN RONNIE AND GARY

Spector and Axelbank had a candid and wide-ranging conversation, during which she shared her enthusiasm for a career beyond the controlling presence of Phil Spector, her former husband and producer.  

“The interview clearly indicates that she was thrilled to be able to put out an album of her own,” says Axelbank. 

One of the songs from the album, “Any Way That You Want Me”, was written by Chip Taylor, the Yonkers native and songwriter known for “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing.” 

WRNW DJ Gary Axelbank (center) with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (Photo provided by Gary Alelbank)

Spector also revealed some interesting details about her past. One major revelation was that she briefly dated John Lennon of the Beatles during the early 60s. 

“That is a really remarkable thing to say – I mean, we’re talking about John Lennon here, who was married at the time,” says Axelbank. “But she was very open about it.” 

Axelbank and Spector also discussed artists like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, who had been influenced by her work, and her memorable collaboration with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, 1977’s “You Mean So Much to Me.” 

In the interview, Spector and Axelbank often refer to the “genius” of producer Phil Spector, who was later revealed to be an abusive husband and convicted murderer. Axelbank regrets not delving more into their relationship. 

“If somebody like that were in front of me now, I would not let it go by,” says Axelbank. “When I listen to it now, and I hear myself fawning over Phil Spector, I cringe.” 

At one point in the interview, Axelbank suggests that Spector, about to launch a tour to support her new album, play a gig in the area the next time she is in town. In February of 1981, she played a memorable set at the Left Bank rock club in Mount Vernon. 

The Westchester club, which focused on punk and new wave acts and featured bands such as the Ramones, the Modern Lovers, Iggy Pop, Siouxie and the Banshees, and the Psychedelic Furs, was also an early proving ground for acts like REM, Duran Duran, and Metallica. 

WRNW had a close relationship with the club, where former DJs Meg Griffin and Joe “Joe from Chicago” Piasek hosted a regular Thursday night dance party. 

Spector’s 45-minute set consisted mostly of songs from her solo album, before closing with a medley of classic 60s hits. Her performance was a hit with the hip, young audience. 

Sadly, Spector’s solo career never quite took off the way she wanted it to. Although she spent decades impressing crowds with renditions of her 60s hits and cover songs, she struggled to find a voice of her own.  

Axelbank speculates that substance abuse issues and residual trauma from her relationship with Phil Spector may have had something to do with it, but those are issues they did not have a chance to discuss. 

“I was only 26 years old,” says Axelbank, who now hosts a current affairs program on BronxNet TV. “I was not a veteran interviewer like I am now.”

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About the Author: Christian Larson