Arguably one of the most successful and influential figures in the history of pop music, producer Phil Spector was also one of its most notorious, thanks to decades of erratic and even dangerous behavior that culminated in a shocking 2009 murder conviction. Four decades prior, Spector was regarded as an eccentric visionary whose signature production technique, a Wagnerian assault on the senses called the "Wall of Sound," generated some of the greatest songs of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," the epic "River Deep Mountain High" by Ike and Tina Turner, as well as the Beatles' Let It Be, John Lennon's Imagine and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen echoed Spector's studio brilliance in their own equally legendary music, but Spector's own personal demons rendered him irrelevant by the end of the 1970s. He surfaced sporadically throughout the next decades, usually in stories about his increasingly bizarre lifestyle, before his headline-grabbing 2003 arrest for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. The accompanying trial brought Spector's paranoia and violent impulses into a harsh spotlight, which largely erased the glories of his musical legacy. His 2009 prison sentence was a tragic end for a rock-n-roll icon whose pursuit of pop perfection led him into madness.
The foundation for Phil Spector's tumultuous life was laid in his earliest years. Born Harvey Philip Spector on Dec. 26, 1939 in the Bronx, NY, he was the son of Brooklyn ironworker Ben Spector, who committed suicide when his son was eight, and Bertha Spector, a seamstress given to apoplectic fits of anger. An older sister, Shirley, spent much of her adult life under institutional care. Spector himself was a diminutive, unimposing boy who suffered mightily from asthma and found solace in music. When Spector was 13, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he began singing in the Fairfax High glee club while mastering a wide variety of instruments. By the time he was 16, he was performing in jazz clubs at night while haunting various recording studios in Hollywood. Producer Stan Ross, who co-owned Gold Star Studios, became his mentor and taught Spector the basics of production.
Spector had formed a pop vocal group, the Teddy Bears, with three classmates, and in 1958 recorded a single, "Don't You Worry My Little Pet," which landed them a deal with Era Records. The B-side to "Don't You Worry" was "To Know Him is to Love Him," which drew its title from the epitaph on Spector's father's gravestone. It rose to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart, selling over a million copies, for which Spector netted only $3,000, despite having contributed vocals, guitar and the final song mix.. While on tour with the Teddy Bears, Spector was also brutally humiliated by thugs, who beat him senseless before urinating on him. After recovering, Spector would vow to never be made a victim again. The two experiences would be fundamental in the development of Spector's reputation as one of the music industry's most ruthless and intimidating figures.
After the Teddy Bears' demise in 1959, Spector served as apprentice under the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He quickly worked his way up from session musician on songs like the Drifters' "On Broadway" to co-writer on Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" and full-fledged producer. In 1961, he landed his first Top 10 hit with Ray Peterson's "Corrina, Corrina," which was quickly followed by Curtis Lee's frothy "Pretty Little Angel Eyes." Spector launched his own label, Philles Records, with promoter Lester Sill. For the next few years, Spector became astonishingly prolific, generating hits for, among others, Connie Francis, Ruth Brown and Gene Pitney, who penned the single "He's a Rebel" for Vikki Carr. Spector initially wanted one of his own discoveries, a Brooklyn vocal group called the Crystals, to record the song, but when its members balked over traveling to Los Angeles, he brought Darlene Love and the Blossoms into the studio, dubbed them the Crystals, and cut "He's a Rebel," which became Philles' first No. 1 single. By the end of 1963, the 27-year-old Spector had 23 Top 50 singles to his name.
One of his biggest hits from the period was "Be My Baby," his second single for a trio of Washington Heights girls called the Ronettes. A simple but urgent statement of romantic dedication hinged on the street-smart but heartfelt vocals of Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett, "Be My Baby" was elevated to majesty by Spector's production technique, which gathered the crack team of Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew to play orchestrated parts in unison, with line-ups that often featured four or five guitars, two basses, a brace of horns and strings, and a vast array of eclectic items including exotic Spanish instruments, harpsichords and the like. Spector would then double-track certain instruments multiple times to suggest the massive sweep of a symphonic orchestra; the result was undeniably stirring, deeply emotive pop music, or as Spector put it, a "Wagnerian approach to rock-n-roll." Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson reportedly first heard "Be My Baby" while driving, and was forced to pull to the side of the road to fully comprehend what he was hearing. He would later play the song up to 100 times a day to try and grasp Spector's technique, which he eventually emulated on such classic albums as Pet Sounds (1966) and Smile (1967).
No sooner had Spector ascended to the top of his profession than his world began to crumble around him. Spector's dislike of LPs came to fruition with his 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, a compilation of holidays songs performed by the Ronettes, Darlene Love and others, which was released the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and disappeared without a trace from the chart; in later years, it would become a staple of FM radio broadcasts in December. He found his last great undiscovered group in the blue-eyed soul duo the Righteous Brothers, with whom he would score a No. 1 hit with "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (1965) and an enduring classic in "Unchained Melody." But he soon tired of the act, instead pouring his creative energies into "River Deep - Mountain High" (1966), a colossal R&B single for Ike and Tina Turner. Spector considered the thundering track his finest achievement, but it only reached No. 88 on the U.S. charts. Defeated, he retreated to his Los Angeles estate with his new bride, Ronettes singer Veronica Bennett, who renamed herself Ronnie Spector, and sunk into depression and a slow-building but inexorable state of paranoid delusion.
Spector had exerted iron-fisted control of Ronnie Spector's life since the moment he met her. When the Ronettes toured with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s, he forbade her to speak with them for fear that she would leave him. After his self-imposed exile from the recording industry, he kept her a virtual prisoner in his home, with barred windows and electrified gates erected around the property to prevent her from leaving on her own. At the height of his instability, he would threaten her with guns, only to buy her loyalty again with an adopted son, Donte, in 1969. That same year, Spector returned to the public eye with "Black Pearl," a Top 20 single for Sonny Clark and the Checkmates. He also contributed a cameo to "Easy Rider" as a drug dealer who bought cocaine from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
In 1970, he traveled to England to produce "Instant Karma" for John Lennon. While there, Lennon and George Harrison asked him to try his hand at completing the recording sessions for the Beatles' final album, Get Back. He applied the Wall of Sound approach to the material, which yielded No. 1 albums in both the U.S. and U.K. and three No. 1 singles with "The Long and Winding Road," "Let It Be" and "Get Back." Paul McCartney was reportedly incensed by Spector's production, but both Lennon and Harrison were so pleased with the final result that they hired him to produce their next solo albums, Lennon's Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Harrison's majestic All Things Must Pass (1970), which also reached the top of the album charts. Spector was soon named director of A&R for Apple Records, and produced Lennon's Imagine (1971) and Harrison's Grammy-winning Concert for Bangledesh, for which Spector accomplished the near-impossible by reproducing his Wall of Sound technique in a live setting by utilizing over 44 microphones at the Madison Square Garden performance.
But this new wave of success was soon followed by a series of aborted sessions that collapsed under the weight of Spector's mental issues. His marriage to Ronnie had grown even more unstable, with stories emerging of Spector keeping a gilded coffin in his basement so that he could watch over his wife even in death. After being institutionalized by her husband, Ronnie Spector fled his home in 1972 and divorced him the following year. In 1973, Spector attempted to produce Lennon's Rock 'N Roll, but the sessions imploded after the studio wizard reportedly fired handguns inside a bathroom at A&M Records. He later disappeared with the album tapes, which required Lennon to pay nearly a million dollars to retrieve them. The following year, Spector was nearly killed in a car crash that sent him through the windshield of his Rolls Royce, necessitating over 700 stitches to his head. He survived the accident and subsequently claimed custody of his children with Spector, which included a pair of adopted twins, Louis and Gary. Though allegations of physical and sexual abuse by Spector surfaced during the custody trials, Ronnie Spector allegedly gave up her children after her ex-husband had reportedly hired a hit man to influence her decision.
For the next half-decade, Spector remained a recluse, emerging sporadically to produce Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies' Man (1977) and the Ramones' End of the Century (1979). Both were highly divisive albums for fans of the respective artists, who found Spector's orchestral touches overwrought and out of place. Both records were also marked by infamous stories of Spector brandishing guns at Cohen and the Ramones. In 1980, he married music industry veteran Janis Savala, who bore him a daughter, Nicole, and a son, Philip Jr. His only significant effort during the period was co-production of Yoko Ono's Seasons of Glass (1981) album. Otherwise, he was content to collect his millions in royalty payments and fester in the darkness of his Pasadena mansion.
In 1988, Spector emerged from exile to collect an award in Nashville. His speech was gracious and full of humor, which prompted industry observers to suggest that he had gained control of his facilities. That notion was quickly disproved by a rambling, drunken speech at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Humbled by the negative reaction to his appearance, he gave interviews in which he expressed his desire to return to production. Spector's forward momentum was halted in its tracks by the death of Philip Jr. on Christmas Day in 1991. He slunk back into depression, which precipitated the end of his marriage to Savala.
But after seeing Celine Dion perform a version of "River Deep - Mountain High" on television, he seemed to regain his inspiration. Recording with Dion began in 1995, the same year that Cameron Crowe began work on a biopic of Spector's life with Tom Cruise in the lead role. But a year later, the Dion record, Falling Into You, was released without any of Spector's contributions. Creative differences between Spector, the label and Dion's management were the culprit, but instead of disappearing into his home, Spector remained in the public eye. He was a constant presence at major industry events and Laker games, and even hosted yearly parties at a bowling alley that were marked by appearances by many of his old acts.
He purchased a castle in Alhambra and began a serious regime of therapeutic drugs that included medication for schizophrenia. The new treatment appeared to have a positive effect on Spector, who tried to reconnect with his estranged sons. He had a better time maintaining a relationship with his daughter Nicole, who introduced him to an English group called Starsailor. Spector would produce their 2003 album Silence is Easy, which yielded a Top 10 single in the U.K. A release of an unreleased album Spector produced for Dion in 1977 was greeted by ecstatic reviews. By all accounts, it appeared that Spector had finally wrested control of his life. On Feb. 3, 2003, police were summoned to Spector's home, where they found Lana Clarkson, a B-movie actress and club hostess, dead from a gunshot wound. Spector was put on trial for murder in 2007, during which allegations emerged that Spector had threatened other women with firearms after they attempted to leave his home. A hung jury resulted in a mistrial, but a second trial for murder in the second degree reached a guilty verdict in 2009. In May of that year, Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life. He remained ineligible for parole until he reached his 88th year.
By Paul Gaita