Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Link Between Murray the K and the Beatles Was the Ronettes

Swingin’ Murray the K might not have met the Fab Four when he did were it not for the Ronettes, a new vocal group who came along at the right time.
by Rich Watson 

New York deejay Murray Kaufman, AKA Murray the K, was one of the first to support the Beatles when they came to America in 1964. 

He had broadcast from the hotel they stayed in before their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He joined them at the start of their US concert tour and was on the set of their movie A Hard Day’s Night, among other things. George Harrison christened him “the fifth Beatle.”

A different pop group facilitated their meeting, one that in their way, went on to become almost as influential in music history: the vocal trio known as the Ronettes.

Murray the K in the ‘40s and ‘50s

The son of a vaudeville actress, Murray was a minor child actor in 30s Hollywood. After the war, he worked in the “Borscht belt” of New York State’s Catskill mountain region, putting together shows. Later, he became a producer at New York’s WMCA, promoting songs and interviewing celebrities. 

In time, he rose to the position of president of the National Conference of Disc Jockeys. They sought to connect with a young audience, around the time rock and roll took off. 

While at WMGM, Murray developed the style that would make him popular at his next port of call, WINS, in 1958. His program replaced that of Alan Freed, the legendary deejay whose career was brought down as a result of the payola scandals. Murray’s show was called the “Swingin’ Soiree.”

Unlike other deejays of the period, Freed and Murray played records by the original musicians of color, as opposed to their white covers. But Murray did more than just play black records.

The Brooklyn Fox shows

The Fox Theater in downtown Brooklyn was a venue that opened in 1928, with over four thousand seats. It was part of a national chain of movie palaces owned by Fox Film, before they merged with 20th Century Pictures and became 20th Century Fox. Here’s more about the theater.

In the fifties, Freed had hosted a series of rock concerts at the Fox with multiple acts on the bill. Murray picked up where he left off in the sixties. 

These shows united not only black and white artists, but black and white audiences, a rarity for the times. (In 2021, a Murray the K Brooklyn Fox concert recorded for television re-aired for the first time in decades.)

The extravaganza on stage included a trio of dancing girls from Harlem. They would become the Ronettes.

The rise of the Ronettes

Sisters Ronnie and Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley were encouraged to sing by their big family. At their grandmother’s house they’d perfect their harmonies. Ronnie & Estelle’s mother entered the three of them in an Apollo Theater contest as teenagers. They won. 

By 1961 they performed at New York’s Peppermint Lounge, dancing the Twist and occasionally singing. (They dressed and made themselves up to look over twenty-one.) They also recorded a few tracks with Colpix Records as Ronnie and the Relatives.

At the Miami branch of the Peppermint Lounge, the girls met Murray. He wanted them dancing and singing for his Brooklyn Fox shows. As the Ronettes, among the many who saw them perform there was young uber-producer Phil Spector.

Phil Spector and worldwide success

Spector had made stars out of the Crystals. The Ronettes reasoned he could do the same for them, so they approached him. He was immediately taken with their sound. 

With Spector, they sang backup for other musicians at first. Then in 1963, he gave them a song he arranged with the accomplished songwriting duo of Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich, called “Be My Baby.” Spector recorded the song using what came to be known as his “Wall of Sound” technique

It sold over two million copies in 1963 and became a game-changing, monster hit. “Be My Baby” went to number two on the Billboard pop chart and number four in the UK. The follow-up, “Baby, I Love You,” went to number twenty-four in the US and number eleven in the UK by January 1964. They also appeared on a Christmas record.

The Ronettes’ success across the Atlantic led to a UK tour. The reception they received was comparable to that of British Invasion acts in America. The Rolling Stones actually opened for the Ronettes, who also appeared on the TV show Ready Steady Go! Ronnie Bennett briefly dated Keith Richards.

During a welcome party at a producer’s house, they met the Beatles. The Ronettes danced with them and Estelle Bennett became friendly with George Harrison. Soon it was time for the Beatles to visit America.

The Beatles connection

When the Beatles arrived in America on February 7, 1964, WINS, along with rival stations WABC and WMCA, competed for their attention. Manager Brian Epstein, who knew about Murray through the Ronettes, invited him to spend some time with them. 

After 1964

1964 was a high-water mark for both the Ronettes and Murray the K. Nothing was the same for them afterwards.

The Ronettes recorded more hit singles. Ronnie Bennett fell in love with Spector. In 1966, the Ronettes opened for the Beatles on a U.S. tour, but Spector forbid Ronnie from accompanying the group. Her cousin Elaine replaced her on tour. After a solo tour in Germany the next year, the Ronettes broke up. 

Ronnie pursued a solo career, wrote an autobiography, and sued her ex-husband for unpaid royalties. In 2007 the Ronettes entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ronnie Spector died last year.

As for Murray, he resigned from WINS at the end of 1964 when the station switched to an all-news format. In 1966 he moved to WOR-FM, promoted new musicians, and played longer album cuts in addition to singles. 

As rock and roll radio evolved, he jumped around to different stations in different cities until his death in 1982. In 1997 he entered the Radio Hall of Fame. Even today, he is still remembered as an important voice in the early days of rock.


Did you listen to Murray the K when the Beatles arrived?

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