There are only a handful of people from the 1960s who can truly be said to have had a major and lasting effect on the record business; Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Berry Gordy and Aretha Franklin all immediately come to mind.
But to their ranks should be added Phil Spector, whose production skills not only created some of the most enduring pop records ever but also had a direct and lasting influence on succeeding generations of artists and producers.
Known as “The Tycoon of Teen”, Spector was the first rock producer whose ability to achieve a distinctive sound in the studio came to be regarded as the defining quality of the records he worked on.
It was known as his “wall of sound”, and Spector applied it to recordings by The Crystals, The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers and more, often effectively relegating the artists’ performances to a secondary role in the architecture of the music.
In essence, to create what he termed his “little symphonies for the kids” he packed large instrumental ensembles into tiny studios and employed previously unknown multiple-echo techniques to build up a huge sound, unrivalled in its day.
Doubling, tripling and quadrupling instruments was regularly done with guitars, pianos and basses, building up a block of sound that produced its own overtones.
Phil almost battered his musicians into submission with rehearsals and gradual alterations to the sound before he recorded them, but his hard core of players thrived on it and session tapes from that period show an obvious affection and good humour between producer and players, and knowledgeable musicality from Spector.
Key players included pianists Don Randi, Al De Lory, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell; guitarists Glen Campbell, Al Casey, Barney Kessell (Phil’s own teacher and long-time jazz hero), Tommy Tedesco, Billy Strange, Don Peake, Bill Pitman, Irv Rubins and Gene Estes; Fender bass players Ray Pohlman and Carol Kaye, with upright bass by Lyle Ritz and Jimmy Bond; horn players Steve Douglas, Jim Horn, Lou Blackburn, Jay Migliori and Nino Tempo; percussion from Sonny Bono, Frank Capp and Jack Nitzsche; and finally the drum chair usually being filled by Hal Blaine.
It is often forgotten that Spector was also an accomplished songwriter, having contributed to the penning of Ben E King‘s Spanish Harlem, The Drifters‘ On Broadway and The Teddy Bears‘ million-seller To Know Him Is To Love Him as well as many others.
His particular forte was simple, irresistible hooks, for which his criterion was the question “is it dumb enough?”, by which he meant, was the hook simple enough to cut through everything else and sell the record? Classic Spector hooks are the heartbeat drum intro to The Ronettes‘ Be My Baby, the mesmeric guitar lick that opens The Crystals‘ Then He Kissed Me and the insidiously repetitive piano of He’s A Rebel.
Born Harvey Phillip Spector on 26 December 1940 in the Bronx, New York, he became involved in the music industry only after moving to Fairfax, California in 1953. There he joined a group of aspiring musicians including Sandy Nelson – who was later to play drums on To Know Him Is To Love Him.
His career really started when Lee Hazelwood recommended him to the New York production team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He then tasted success with his own group The Teddy Bears, before moving wholeheartedly into production.
At a time when whole albums were made in a day, Spector would spend a week perfecting just one single.
His success peaked in 1966 when Ike & Tina Turner‘s River Deep Mountain High, a UK Top 3 hit, flopped completely in America, not because of the record itself which has since become a classic, but because the industry had had enough of Spector’s self-aggrandising, dismissive arrogance and simply refused to get behind the record.
Even so, he went on to work with The Beatles on the Let It Be album, although his melancholic orchestration on The Long and Winding Road infuriated the song’s composer, Paul McCartney, who cited Spector as a reason for The Beatles’ break-up.
In 1969, three years after his once-great Phillies label fizzled out, Spector revived his production career with a short-lived liaison with A&M which spawned a moderately successful 45 by a revised Ronettes line-up, and three substantial hits for Sonny Charles and his Checkmates Ltd.
After the end of his marriage with his former protégé, Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes (she divorced him in 1974 claiming he abused her and his children), his behaviour grew increasingly erratic, reclusive and unfathomable.
He would often threaten people with a pistol that he kept strapped to his hip. He also battled drug addictions, notably cocaine and alcohol.
In February 2003, Spector allegedly took a 40-year old B-movie starlet to his Los Angeles mansion and shot her in the face.
When police were called to the house they found Lana Clarkson dead on the marble floor of the foyer beside the murder weapon. Spector was the only other person in the house and struggled with police after they burst in.
Freed on $1 million bail, Spector hired the lawyer who won an acquittal for O J Simpson. He was found guilty of the murder in 2009 and sentenced to 19 years to life in the California state prison system.
Phil Spector was diagnosed with COVID-19 in December 2020 and was transferred from his prison cell at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton to a hospital. He recovered enough to return to jail but he relapsed and struggled with breathing and returned to a hospital where he died on Saturday 16 January 2021. He was 81.