After more than a decade in prison for murdering a girlfriend, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame record producer Phil Spector, a Svengali of the girl group genre, is dead. It had been close to four decades since Spector had made an appreciable contribution to pop music, but much of the work he did from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s is unforgettable to a generation who danced (and made out) with his creations as background.
Spector was born in the Bronx and lost his father to suicide when he was nine. His mother brought him to California, where he eventually attended Fairfax High School. While at Fairfax, he joined a loose-knit community of aspiring musicians, including Lou Adler, Bruce Johnston, Steve Douglas, and Sandy Nelson, the last of whom played drums on Spector’s first record release, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” by the Teddy Bears—consisting of Spector on guitar, along with three friends from high school. The song was inspired by the epitaph on Spector’s father’s tombstone. The song sold over a million copies, but was the only hit for the group, which disbanded shortly afterwards.
During this period, record producer Stan Ross—co-owner of Gold Star Studios in Hollywood—began to tutor Spector in record production and exerted a major influence on Spector’s production style. While recording the Teddy Bears’ album, Spector met Lester Sill, a former promotion man who was a mentor to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In 1960, Sill arranged for Spector to work as an apprentice to Leiber and Stoller in New York. Spector co-wrote the Ben E. King Top 10 hit “Spanish Harlem” with Jerry Leiber and also worked as a session musician, playing the guitar solo on the Drifters’ song “On Broadway”
Spector’s first productions on his own included Ray Peterson’s “Corrine, Corrina”, which reached number 9 in January 1961. Later, he produced another major hit for Curtis Lee, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes”, which made it to number 7. Back in Hollywood, Spector produced I Love How You Love Me”, by the Paris Sisters, which became a hit, reaching number 5.
In 196i Phil formed the record label, Philles, with Lester Sill, combining their first names. On that Label Spector created and recorded the Crystals in “Uptown,” which charted at number 13. After a couple of unsuccessful recordings, he fired the girls. As a freelancer, Spector produced “Every Breath I Take” with Gene Pitney. Pitney had written a song called “He’s a Rebel”. Spector liked it and rushed into the studio to record it with Darlene Love and the Blossoms, who he named the Crystals. That became a trademark of Spectre as producer—creating groups whose name he owned and moving performers around interchangeably with his lush productions==the Wall of Sound– as the dominant feature of the recordings. Another Spector-created group was Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans, again with Darlene Love and two other singers, which gave him three chart hits. In 1962 he produced perhaps the song most associated with him, “Be My Baby,” with the Ronettes –another of his girl group creations- with Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett on lead vocals. In later years Spector would marry Bennett.
Spector’s next big find was the Righteous Brothers—Bill medley and Bobby Hatfield, With them in 1965 he recorded classics like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and three more major hits with the duo: “Just Once in My Life” (number 9), “Unchained Melody” (number 4, originally the B-side of “Hung on You”) and “Ebb Tide.”
It was around this time that Spector started to lose interest in producing, and at the same time behaving erratically. Industry lore had it that Spector was disappointed in the poor reception his recording of “River Deep and Mountain High,” recoded by Tina Turner, had received and he dropped out of music for a time and became a quasi recluse.
In 1968 he married Ronnie Bennett and by that time he appeared to be completely out of control. According to Ronnie in her autobiography, “Be My Baby,” Spector became a controlling figure surrounding the house with barbed wire and guard dogs, and he confiscated her shoes to prevent her from leaving. She recalled that Phil installed a gold coffin with a glass top in the basement, promising that he would kill her and display her corpse if she ever left him. She also made some unflattering comments about Spector’s performance in the bedr In 1998, Ronnie testified that Phil had frequently pulled a gun on her during their marriage and threatened to kill her unless she surrendered custody of their children. In their 1974 divorce settlement Ronnie forfeited all future record earnings because Phil threatened to have a hit man kill her. She received $25,000, a used car, and monthly alimony of $2,500 for five years.
In the 1970’s Spector made a comeback, producing the “Let it Be” album with the Beatles, and producing individual works with George Harrison (All Things Must Pass) and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
In the early 1970’s Spector was nearly killed in a car crash and became more erratic after he recovered. He worked with the Ramones, one of whom accused Phil of pulling a gun on them during a recording session. He also recorded with Leonard Cohen on “Death of a Ladies Man,” an album that infuriated Cohen purists and displeased Cohen. After 1981 Spector was relatively inactive. A project with Celine Dion did nor materialize over creative and personal differences.
In 2003, actress Lana Clarkson was killed in Spector’s mansion (the Pyrenees Castle) in Alhambra, California. Her body was found slumped in a chair with a single gunshot wound to her mouth with broken teeth scattered over the carpet. A witness testified that Spector came out of the house with a gun in his hand. For five years Spector remained free on bail, but finally in 2009 he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 19 years in prison, where he died.
Looking at the life and career of Phil Spector, one is struck with the similarities between him and other fallen entertainment figures like Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein. Brilliant and consequential, they all significantly altered the medium in which they worked, but in the end were destroyed by their demons.