Phil Spector, Wall of Sound Music Producer and Murderer, Dies at 81
Producer Phil Spector, the legendary studio revolutionary of the ’60s and ’70s who ended his life imprisoned for a sensational 2003 murder, has died. He was 81.
“Phillip Spector, 80, was pronounced deceased of natural causes at 6:35 p.m. on Saturday, January 16, 2021, at an outside hospital. His official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office,” read the statement from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
It was not immediately clear why the prison system listed a different age.
TMZ reported that he had recently been hospitalized with COVID complications.
Biographer Richard Williams noted that Spector single-handedly “turned the producer from an obscure backroom boy…into a figure whose function paralleled that of a film director.”
His medium was a series of bombastic, cavernous-sounding singles that turned angst-ridden Brill Building love songs into highly orchestrated three-minute operas – or, in Spector’s own memorable description, “little symphonies for the kids.” His extravagant style — dubbed the “Wall of Sound” — influenced contemporaries like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and later acolytes like Bruce Springsteen.
Spector’s lucrative run of ’60s hits on his Philles label with the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes led Tom Wolfe to dub him “the First Tycoon of Teen” in a celebrated 1964 profile.
The resounding flop of his 1966 magnum opus, Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” threw his career off track, but he rebounded with a controversial remix of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and productions for John Lennon and George Harrison.
Spector, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, did little work from the early ’80s on, as tales of his increasingly erratic and violent behavior spread in the industry. On Feb. 3, 2003, he was arrested after actress Lana Clarkson was found shot to death in his home. After a 2007 mistrial, Spector was retried in 2009 and convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
He was born Harvey Phillip Spector in the Bronx. When he was 8, his father killed himself, and his mother later moved the family to Los Angeles, where he began attending Fairfax High in 1954. The school’s alumni included songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who would play an important role in his early career.
Spector’s musical vision developed early: He took guitar lessons from Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts, both of whom would become members of the Wrecking Crew, the powerhouse studio band on his most famous recordings. While studying at L.A. City College, he began hanging out at Gold Star Studios, the Hollywood facility famed for its echo chamber, which would be the site of his epoch-making sessions.
In 1958, Spector scraped together $40 for a Gold Star session with his vocal trio the Teddy Bears, which included friends Marshall Leib and Annette Kleinbard. A breathy ballad, with lyrics inspired by the inscription on the tombstone of Spector’s father, was recorded; issued by Dore Records, “To Know Him Is to Love Him” reached No. 1 that fall, selling an estimated 1.4 million copies.
Other Teddy Bears hits failed to materialize on Imperial, and the act splintered. Spector recorded briefly for L.A. producer-publisher Lester Sill and Lee Hazlewood as the Spectors Three. Sill recommended Spector to Leiber and Stoller, installed in New York’s Brill Building as hitmaking writer-producers, and the 19-year-old headed east.
During his two-year apprenticeship in the Big Apple, Spector co-wrote Ben E. King’s 1960 hit “Spanish Harlem,” worked as a session guitarist, produced Ruth Brown and La Vern Baker for Atlantic and briefly served as Atlantic’s head of A&R. He also produced Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take” for Musicor and Curtis Lee’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” a No. 7 hit, for Dunes.
In 1961, Spector returned to L.A., where he produced the No. 5 single “I Love How You Love Me” by the Paris Sisters for Sill’s Gregmark imprint. Spector and Sill subsequently set up the label Philles as an outlet for Spector’s production output.
Spector cracked the top 20 in 1962 with the Crystals’ “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” and “Uptown” but vaulted to No. 1 with the vocal group’s ode to teen outlawry “He’s a Rebel.” By the time the latter record hit the apex, Spector had bought out Sill’s interest in Philles and established his signature production sound — immense, percussive, densely orchestrated (usually by arranger Jack Nitzsche) and over-the-top.
The hits kept coming. Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans’ “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (No. 8, 1962), an idiosyncratic cover of a song from Disney’s “Song of the South,” introduced former Blossoms member Darlene Love as a lead voice; she would also power the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” (No. 3, 1963) and “Then He Kissed Me” (No. 6, 1963) and have some minor Philles hits of her own.
Spector’s Wall of Sound found its ultimate expression in the work of the Ronettes, a familial New York-bred trio fronted by Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, whose puissant, quavering lead vocals defined them as much as their beehive hairdos and Cleopatra-style eyeliner. The group leaped to No. 2 in 1963 with “Be My Baby,” the most dramatic and thunderous of Spector’s early productions. (Director Martin Scorsese unforgettably used the song under the credits of “Mean Streets” in 1973.)
The Ronettes landed some lesser top 40 hits for Philles — “Baby I Love You,” “The Best Part of Breaking Up,” “Do I Love You?,” “Walking in the Rain” — and were prominently featured on Spector’s 1963 seasonal album “A Christmas Gift to You,” which stiffed on release but later became a yuletide standard. In 1965, they appeared in “The Big TNT Show,” a filmed concert produced by Spector.
Philles struck major paydirt for the last time with the Righteous Brothers. The blue-eyed soul duo of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield had recorded without distinction for Moonglow Records. But they scored immediately with Spector in 1964 with the huge No. 1 smash “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” — BMI’s most performed song of the 20th century. It was succeeded in rapid order by “Just Once in My Life” (No. 9), “Unchained Melody” (No. 4) and “Ebb Tide” (No. 5). (“Unchained Melody” returned to the top 20 twice in 1990 after it was used in the hit feature “Ghost.”)
However, in 1966, Spector and Philles began to hit the skids. The British Invasion — led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the latter of whom invited Spector to their sessions — had pushed girl-group pop off the charts (some obvious impact on soul’s Motown Sound notwithstanding), and Spector’s opulent style had begun to sound dated. Even his devotion to monophonic sound was being challenged by the growing acceptance of stereo recording. However, the producer envisioned a personal renaissance in the form of a single by the husband-and-wife R&B duo Ike and Tina Turner.
Cut at great cost with an army of session musicians at Gold Star, the volcanic “River Deep, Mountain High” was released with a flourish in May 1966. However, while it managed to reach No. 3 in the U.K., the single bombed domestically, peaking at No. 88 and falling off the charts after just four weeks.
Philles issued its last single in October 1966. The Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes and Darlene Love, whose careers were embodied in their work with Spector at the label, were all later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2003, 2007 and 2010, respectively.
It would take a few years for Spector’s career to reignite. In the interim, after divorcing first wife Annette in 1966, he married the Ronettes’ Ronnie Bennett. (The couple’s tumultuous life together, circumscribed by Spector’s terrifying jealousy, ended in divorce in 1974; Ronnie Spector recounted her side of the story in her hair-raising 1990 book “Be My Baby.”) In 1969, Spector took a wordless cameo as a dope dealer in Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider.” A production deal with A&M landed him the No. 13 hit “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles & the Checkmates in 1969.
In 1970, Beatles manager Allen Klein summoned Spector to London, where he produced “Instant Karma,” John Lennon’s first solo single under his own name. Tasked with remixing the Beatles’ log-jammed back-to-basics project “Get Back,” the producer slathered strings, horns and choirs onto the tracks “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Though the latter number became the Fab Four’s last No. 1 single, Spector was universally attacked when the “Let It Be” album was released in 1970.
Despite the criticism, Spector enjoyed strong creative relationships with two ex-Beatles. He produced George Harrison’s luminous three-LP 1970 solo album “All Things Must Pass,” which reached No. 1, and the all-star 1971 live set “The Concert For Bangla Desh,” which won a Grammy as album of the year.
His work with Lennon was similarly fruitful, albeit less consistent and considerably more fraught with tension. Spector helmed Lennon’s albums “Plastic Ono Band” (No. 6, 1970) and “Imagine” (No. 1, 1971), the latter of which contained the much-beloved title song. He also produced the cheery Lennon-Yoko Ono single “Happy Xmas (War is Over).”
Spector also tracked the politically flat-footed Lennon-Ono collection “Some Time in New York City” (1972). Sessions for Lennon’s throwback album of rock ’n’ roll covers during the musician’s L.A. “lost weekend” of 1973 devolved into chaos and reports of occasional gunplay by the producer. Spector absconded with the tapes; after a protracted legal clash, an album, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” was released in 1975, employing just four of Spector’s tracks.
In the mid-’70s, a deal with the international arm of Warner Bros. kept Spector in the studio producing singles by Cher and Harry Nilsson and a set by Dion, “Born to Be With You.”
Spector’s life, already deeply colored by paranoia, continued to darken, and employing him became perilous. As a freelancer, he produced Leonard Cohen’s 1977 album “Death of a Ladies’ Man”; during the sessions, Spector reportedly drew a gun, pointed it at Cohen’s chest and said, “I love you Leonard,” to which the singer-songwriter coolly replied, “I hope so, Phil.” Firearms were also displayed during the arduous recording of the Ramones’ 1980 album “End of the Century,” Spector’s last major production. He was credited with work on Ono’s 1981 release “Season of Glass,” but his contributions were reportedly minimal.
Except for production of a pair of tracks for the English band Starsailor in 2003, an increasingly reclusive Spector had virtually disappeared from view before the shocking Lana Clarkson murder that year.
The producer had picked up the former B-movie starlet at House of Blues in West Hollywood, where she worked as a hostess, and drove her to his Alhambra mansion, where she was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. At trial, Spector’s defense team maintained that Clarkson had killed herself. A hung jury — 10-2 for conviction — forced a retrial, at which Spector was convicted. Higher court appeals were rejected.
Not long after Spector’s conviction, Sony Music’s Legacy division announced a deal to license the producer’s long-out-of-print Philles catalog; a series of compilations and a boxed set followed in 2011.
An HBO docudrama focusing on the Clarkson case, starring Al Pacino as Spector and written and directed by David Mamet, aired on the cable web in 2013.
Spector is survived by his wife Rachelle, a vocalist whose 2010 debut album, “Out of My Chelle,” he produced while free on bail between his two trials; three children adopted during his marriage to Ronnie Spector; and a daughter born to ex-girlfriend Janis Zavala.