UK Markets closed

Phil Spector obituary

Richard Williams
·14-min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Redferns

By the time he reached his mid-20s, Phil Spector, who has died aged 81, had achieved his ambition of making records that elevated the craft of producing pop singles to something close to an art, the prodigious commercial success of his miniature epics leading Tom Wolfe to describe him, in a celebrated 1964 essay, as “the first tycoon of teen”.

Even as those words appeared, however, the first signs of Spector’s decline were beginning to appear, and the remainder of his life represented an accelerating sequence of bizarre behavioural episodes ending with the death by gunshot at his Los Angeles mansion in 2003 of Lana Clarkson, an actor whom he had met that night in a Hollywood bar where she worked as a waitress. Six years and two highly publicised trials later, a jury’s unanimous verdict finally pronounced him guilty of murder.

During his months in court, Spector paraded a succession of increasingly elaborate wigs, his appearance supporting the popular image of him as an eccentric recluse and the real-life model for Z-Man Barzell, the crazed record producer at the centre of Russ Meyer’s film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Stories of his manipulative, paranoid behaviour were endlessly recycled: they included the time he ordered a scheduled flight to be stopped on the runway to allow him to disembark, the violent jealousy that made a virtual prisoner of his second wife, the constant presence of silent bodyguards and the habit of pulling guns on the artists whose recordings he supervised. Even his friends were wary of his sudden, irrational rages, fuelled by alcohol and a neurotic compulsion to repay slights real or imagined, recent or historic.

To pop fans who grew up in the 1960s, his name will always be synonymous with recordings that embodied both the music’s early innocence and its increasing sense of adventure. Many of them, such as the Crystals’ He’s a Rebel, Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me, and the Ronettes’ Be My Baby and Baby I Love You, set the appealing voices of New York girl groups against a grandiose background that became known as the “wall of sound”, created through lavish use of instrumental resources.

A devotee of the sort of creative excess associated with Richard Wagner and Cecil B DeMille, Spector hired guitarists, bassists, drummers, pianists, percussionists and saxophonists by the dozen, rehearsing them and putting them through a recording process involving endless adjustments and retakes. Days would be spent on the creation of a three-minute pop record aimed at teenagers, but the value of his work was apparent in a richness, complexity and power that enhanced rather than obscured the simple message of the songs. He reached a creative peak in 1964, with the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, and two years later with Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep – Mountain High.

His career as a hit-maker began in 1958 and came to a sudden halt in 1966, but his work influenced artists from Brian Wilson to Bruce Springsteen and attracted enduring loyalty, not least through the efforts of the British-based Phil Spector Appreciation Society. John Lennon and George Harrison were ardent admirers of his early records and in 1969 they invited him to rescue a haphazard collection of material from the Beatles’ last studio recordings and to turn it into an acceptable album.

The result, titled Let It Be, may have dismayed Paul McCartney (who later authorised the release of an undoctored version of the album), but Lennon and Harrison both went on to invite Spector to collaborate on their subsequent solo albums, including the former’s Imagine and the latter’s All Things Must Pass, both hugely successful.

Phil Spector, left, with George Harrison, an ardent admirer of this work, in the late 60s.
Spector, left, with George Harrison, an ardent admirer of this work, in the late 60s. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

Harvey Philip Spector was born in the Bronx, New York, to Ben and Bertha Spector, the descendants of Russian Jews. A small, chubby child who suffered from asthma and an allergy to sunlight, the young Harvey (as he was then known) was nine years old when his father, an ironworker who occasionally suffered from depression, parked the family car a few miles from their home, connected a rubber pipe from the exhaust to the interior, closed the windows, and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Four years later, in the hope of making a fresh start, Bertha took her two children to Los Angeles, where they settled in the Fairfax district, a Jewish enclave.

While Bertha took jobs as a seamstress and as a bookkeeper, her son, now demanding to be addressed as “Phillip” (with two ls), attended Fairfax High school. Keen on music – jazz and rhythm and blues in particular – from an early age, he learned to play a variety of instruments, including the accordion and the French horn, and for his 13th birthday his mother gave him a guitar. Lessons with two West Coast guitarists, Howard Roberts and Barney Kessel, gave him the basis of a technique and, in the latter case, a lifelong friendship.

Now a pale, skinny teenager, and not an alluring figure to his classmates, Spector used his wit, sense of humour and musical ability to advance his popularity. In 1957 he teamed up with a Fairfax High classmate, Marshall Lieb, to sing the Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night on a radio talent contest, their success confirming his ambition to make it in the music industry. After leaving school, however, he enrolled at Los Angeles City College to train as a court stenographer – an occupation made attractive by his interest in criminal proceedings.

In the spring of 1958 he and Lieb, accompanied by 16-year-old Annette Kleinbard and another classmate, Harvey Goldstein, walked into the Gold Star recording studios, where Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues had been recorded earlier in the year. Having scraped together $40 to pay for the costs, they recorded a song called Don’t You Worry My Little Pet, which was good enough to earn them a recording contract with a local label and the money to record another track for the B-side.

For the second song, To Know Him is to Love Him, Spector paraphrased the inscription from his father’s tombstone and confected a catchy piece of sweet-toothed pop featuring Kleinbard’s lead vocal and backing harmonies from Lieb and Spector. Goldstein had already left to join the navy, but not before bequeathing the group its name: the Teddy Bears. When the single was released on the Doré label, in an initial pressing of 500 copies, the song was on the B-side, but the enthusiasm of a couple of local radio disc jockeys persuaded the label’s owner to turn the record over. An appearance on American Bandstand, the nationally televised show hosted by Dick Clark, was enough to give it the momentum that would take it to No 1 in Billboard’s Hot 100 and to sales approaching 1.5m copies.

Phil Spector with the Ronettes, with whom he made Be My Baby and Baby I Love You.
Phil Spector with the Ronettes, with whom he made Be My Baby and Baby I Love You. Photograph: Ray Avery/Redferns

Although the Teddy Bears never repeated that remarkable success, Spector was on his way. It was while recording the group’s only album that he had met Lester Sill, a well connected Hollywood record salesman who would become his mentor. Sill put him in touch with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two successful producers who had made the move from Los Angeles to New York and were enjoying success with the Coasters and the Drifters. In the spring of 1960 Spector arrived at their office on West 57th Street, where they signed him to their company as a writer and producer and allowed him to sleep on the floor until he had found accommodation.

The brief career of the Teddy Bears had been the start of his apprenticeship. Over the next two years Spector was fast-tracked through the music business, making contacts and supervising sessions with artists both obscure (Billy Storm, the Top Notes) and well known (Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker). He co-wrote the classic Spanish Harlem for Ben E King with Leiber, played the memorable guitar solo on the Drifters’ On Broadway, became a familiar figure in the music publishing companies that made their headquarters in various Broadway office blocks, and was eventually hired as a personal assistant to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records.

His first hits as a producer came in 1960 with Ray Peterson’s gentle Corrina, Corrina and the following year with Curtis Lee’s rocking Pretty Little Angel Eyes and Gene Pitney’s melodramatic Every Breath I Take. That autumn he reached the Top 5 with the Paris Sisters’ swooning I Love How You Love Me, a rewrite of To Know Him is to Love Him on which he was able to show his command of studio resources, in particular a gift for adding echo to voices and strings to create a sense of romantic yearning.

Already wise in the ways of the industry, he was keen to operate on his own terms, and in 1961 he and Sill started their own label. Its name, Philles, indicated their intention to merge Spector’s creativity with Sill’s business acumen. Their first release featured the Crystals, a New York girl group whose lead singer, Barbara Alston, invested a gospel-derived song called There’s No Other (Like My Baby) with a youthful ardour that carried it into the Top 20.

It was in the summer of 1962 that he found the song that established his identity. He’s a Rebel, written by Pitney, turned out to be the perfect vehicle for the Crystals, but only once Spector had returned to Los Angeles to record the track at Gold Star and had used Darlene Love, an experienced Hollywood session singer, as the lead voice. An infectious Latin rhythm and Love’s brash delivery took the song to No 1 in the charts and made Philles a power in the music business. Love was also the lead singer on Spector’s next hit, an imaginative recasting of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, a song from a 1940s Disney film. Given a downbeat backing and a strange, echoing guitar solo, it was released under the name of Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans. To Spector, the identity of the artist was subordinate to the sound: Tomorrow’s Sound Today, as it said on the sleeve of every Philles record.

In 1963 the Crystals were again allowed to sing on their own records, La La Brooks taking the lead on the two songs that carried them back into the Top 10. With Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me, both composed by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Spector approached the apogee of his method: squadrons of musicians almost engulfed the voices with thunderous backing tracks, enhanced by the effect of Gold Star’s famous echo chamber, that threatened to burst the tiny speakers of transistor radios and portable record players in teenage bedrooms across America.

His attention, however, had already turned to his next group of female singers: the Ronettes, two sisters and a cousin from Harlem. The compellingly sultry lead voice of Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett – seeming to echo the women’s looks, which emphasised extravagant beehive hairdos and the heavy application of mascara – received its perfect setting in their first two singles, Be My Baby and Baby I Love You, both huge hits.

Phil Spector, left, with Ike and Tina Turner while recording in Los Angeles at Gold Star Studios in 1966.
Phil Spector, left, with Ike and Tina Turner while recording in Los Angeles at Gold Star Studios in 1966. Photograph: Ray Avery/Getty Images

The Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans and Darlene Love were the artists featured at the end of the year on A Christmas Gift for You, in which Spector brought the old-fashioned idea of a seasonal album up to date with the lavish application of the wall of sound approach to such seemingly inappropriate songs as Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Winter Wonderland and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The assassination of President John F Kennedy had dulled the appetite for Christmas entertainment that year, however, and the album went unnoticed.

At a time when the US was in thrall to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Spector seemed to be one of the few figures in American pop music capable of resisting the British invasion. He became friendly with both groups, their flamboyant Carnaby Street look – the Cuban heels, the frilly shirts, the capes and the long hair – appealing to his dandyish instincts.

When Cilla Black’s inferior cover of You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ threatened to deprive the Righteous Brothers of a hit in Britain, Andrew Oldham, the Stones’ manager, took ads in the music papers to promote the cause of the Spector-produced original.

The British audience responded to Oldham’s advocacy, as it did a few months later to the grandeur of River Deep – Mountain High. But the Ike and Tina Turner record was a mysterious failure in the US, where it was said that the industry was taking its revenge for Spector’s incorrigible arrogance. Stung by its failure, depressed by the heroin-induced death of his friend Lenny Bruce, the comedian, and perhaps aware he was becoming an anachronism in a world where musicians were taking their destinies out of the hands of producers and executives, he abruptly closed Philles.

A three-year retirement from music saw him act as producer on Dennis Hopper’s aborted The Last Movie and take a small role as a drug dealer, alongside Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, in Easy Rider. In 1969 he re-emerged to produce records for the A&M label and Black Pearl, by the Checkmates Ltd, gave him a comeback hit before his association with the Beatles.

Phil Spector in court in California in 2004, charged with the 2003 shooting of Lana Clarkson at his home.
Spector in court in California in 2004, charged with the 2003 shooting of Lana Clarkson at his home. Photograph: Getty Images

For a time he and Lennon were inseparable, relishing each other’s company as they collaborated on Instant Karma, the Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums and, with Yoko Ono, Happy Xmas (War is Over), all subtly enhanced – as was Harrison’s My Sweet Lord – by Spector’s assured touch in the recording studio. A Christmas Gift for You was reissued on Apple, the Beatles’ label, and became a holiday favourite, but he fell out with Lennon while making an album of cover versions of old hits, a process sabotaged by drink and drugs.

Renewed attention encouraged him to start a new label, Phil Spector International, with the help of his old friend Allen Klein, who had briefly and controversially replaced Brian Epstein as the Beatles’ manager. But the echo-laden drama of such late masterpieces as Dion’s Make the Woman Love Me and Darlene Love’s Lord If You’re a Woman failed to find an audience, suggesting that Spector’s approach was finally obsolete.

There would be three further collaborations, each in its way unexpected, with Leonard Cohen (Death of a Ladies’ Man, 1977), the Ramones (End of the Century, 1980), and Yoko Ono, who invited him to help with the album she wrote and recorded after Lennon’s murder (Season of Glass, 1981). Between 1988 and 2000 he was also required to defend lawsuits brought by the Ronettes and Darlene Love, who were eventually awarded unpaid royalties from their 1960s hits.

After a 15-year absence from the studio, the acrimonious truncation of an album project with Céline Dion in 1996 elicited a statement from Spector that could stand as his professional epitaph: “It became apparent that the people around Ms Dion were more interested in controlling the project, and the people who recorded her, than in making history. One thing they should have learnt long ago. You don’t tell Shakespeare what plays to write, or how to write them. You don’t tell Mozart what operas to write, or how to write them. And you certainly don’t tell Phil Spector what songs to write, or how to write them; or what records to produce and how to produce them.”

Spector was first married in 1962 to Annette Merar, whom he had met at school; they were divorced in 1965. Three years later he married Ronnie Bennett, and together they adopted three children: Donte Phillip and twins, Gary and Louis. They divorced in 1974. Eight years later Spector married Janis Savala, a music publisher, with whom he had twins, Nicole and Phillip Jr, and who stayed on as his assistant after their separation in 1991, the year Phillip Jr died of leukaemia.

In 1998 Spector paid $1.1m for the Pyrenees Castle, a mock chateau in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, where Clarkson’s dead body was found in the early hours of 8 February 2003. Three years later, while awaiting trial, he married Rachelle Short, a singer and actor, in a private ceremony. They divorced in 2019. He is survived by Donte Phillip, Gary, Louis and Nicole.

• Harvey Philip Spector, record producer, born 26 December 1939; died 16 January 2021