Legendary singer Ronnie Spector still remembers the dress she wore the first time she met Santa Claus. Spector, who grew up in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem, was 5 when her waitress mother took her to the Midtown Macy’s one December day in 1948.
“Before I got on his lap, she bought me a red dress,” says Spector, now 69. “I still have a picture. It was a little velvet dress with a white collar. I wanted to be Santa’s daughter. I was crazy when I was a kid.”
Her parents couldn’t afford many presents, but her father would take her to see the skating rink and the Christmas tree at Radio City Music Hall every year (even though no one in the family knew how to ice skate).
“I loved Christmas so much I drove my parents nuts,” she says.
A few decades later, she would record some of the most enduring versions of Christmas classics in the history of pop: If you turn on the radio this holiday season and hear those “sleigh bells jingling/ ring-ting-tingling,” it’s probably Ronnie Spector sing-sing-sing-a-ling.
In 1963, Spector and her girl group, the Ronettes, recorded versions of “Frosty the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Sleigh Ride” (featuring the aforementioned jingling). The tracks were part of the album “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector,” a compilation by her now-ex-husband, uber-producer Phil Spector.
The album, which also featured ’60s pop stalwarts Darlene Love and the Crystals, wasn’t always a Christmas classic. In fact, when it was released on Nov. 22, 1963, it was a total flop. But that had nothing to do with the music itself.
Ronnie Spector — with her famous beehive do — goes over the lyrics to “Frosty the Snowman” before recording it with the Ronettes in 1963. The song is one of three featuring the girl group on the album “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector.”
If that date sounds familiar, it should: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas that day. (In another eerie coincidence, the Ronettes, in the middle of a Dick Clark-organized tour, were in Dallas at the time — staying at the same hotel as the president.)
“I go down to the lobby and all these people are crying and I thought the world had come to the end,” Spector recalls. “I run back upstairs, the phone rings, and it’s Dick Clark. He says, ‘Honey, the president’s been shot.’ ”
In the wake of the tragedy, little of America’s attention was on Christmas music, and the album tanked.
“A lot of those things had to be put to the side until all that unhappiness went away,” she says.
It would take years of cult status and a 1972 reissue before the album reached the audience it deserved. Now it’s considered one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time, and its songs are holiday radio staples. (Spector herself celebrates the season by including some of the tunes in her annual Best Christmas Party Ever shows — she’s at the Howard Theatre on Saturday — a tradition she’s upheld since 1988.)
The album tossed out staid, traditional Christmas music in favor of Phil Spector’s famed Wall of Sound production: These jingle bells didn’t just ring, they rocked.
“In the ’60s, people wanted to hear more drums and guitars,” she says. “I believed in that album. It wasn’t just me — it was the whole sound of that whole album. It was all about the feeling and the spirit of Christmas.”
Rockin’ Around Ronnie’s Christmas Tree
At Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Party Ever, at the Howard Theatre on Saturday, she‘ll perform some of her favorite Christmas songs — John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” Frankie Lymon’s “It’s Christmas Once Again” — along with her many hits, including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Here’s a look at the Ronettes’ three songs from “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”
The sleigh bells “bring out the Christmassy because you don’t hear them in other songs,” Spector says. “When I hear those bells, it’s Christmastime.”
“Frosty the Snowman”
The Ronettes’ version gave the story of Frosty a danceable, doo-wop flavor. The song is featured in Spector’s forthcoming musical about her life, “Beyond the Beehive,” she says.
“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”
The Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW; Sat., 8 p.m., $36-$40; 202-803-2899. (Shaw)
“This happened to me in real life,” Spector says. “I saw my mother and father kissing [one Christmas Eve] and I ran. Every song I’ve ever sung is personal. Every one of my songs has a meaning.”