legendary, disgraced producer phil spector -- 10/21/22

Today's selection -- from Waiting for the Sun: A Rock 'N' Roll History of Los Angeles by Barney Hoskyns. Phil Spector was one of the great producers in the early history of rock ’n’ roll, responsible for such classics as 'Da Doo Ron Ron,' ‘Then He Kissed Me,' and 'Be My Baby,' as well as later collaborations with the Beatles. Spector is currently in prison, after his conviction in 2009 for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson:
"By the summer of 1962, Harvey Phillip Spector was already a music-biz whiz-kid. An obsessive dweeb with a Jewish Mother From Hell and a father dead by his own hand, little Phil was possessed of an outsize ego. With his taller, better-looking chum Marshall Lieb -- 'I was really Phil's first bodyguard' -- he'd formed the Teddy Bears and hit very big with 'To Know Him is to Love Him', a throwaway b-side cut at Gold Star in July 1958. 'You never saw such a complete change in a little fuckin' Jewish kid,' grouched Lew Bedell, the crusty co-owner of Doré Records, but the truth was that Phil had mapped out his pop destiny long before the Teddy Bears.

"By the time Lew Chudd had signed the Teddy Bears to Imperial Records for three flop singles and one thoroughly icky album, Spector was a magnetic presence on the LA scene, attracting such disciples as future Warners honcho Russ Titelman and sometime Mother/Magic Band member Elliott Ingber to his side. Moreover, he was already experimenting in the studio, 'bouncing' tracks and stacking vocals to build up his primitive pop sound. 'The Teddy Bears were one of the first hit groups out of LA,' says Lou Adler. 'They were sort of the beginning of the West Coast pop business.'

"Following the dissolution of the Teddy Bears in the spring of 1959, Spector approached ex-Spark Records partner Lester Sill for advice on his next move in the music business. Sill had been impressed watching Phil at work in Master Recorders the year before, and offered to take the superbrat to Phoenix to meet Lee Hazlewood, with whom he'd briefly run Atlantic's unsuccessful East-West label in 1957-8. In Hazlewood's Ramco studio, where Duane Eddy had cut a string of instrumental hits for Jamie Records, Spector observed the creation of Eddy's famous guitar 'twang' with the aid of a storage-tank echo chamber. Unfortunately, Hazlewood found Spector almost as obnoxious as Lew Bedell had done, so Sill packed him off to New York to serve a rather different apprenticeship with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Spector in 1965

"New York taught Spector everything he needed to know about pop. Not only did he learn from Leiber and Stoller themselves -- co-writing Ben E. King's 'Spanish Harlem' with Leiber in the process -- but he produced a handful of sessions by artists on Atlantic and other labels (including, on Musicor, Gene Pitney's orgasmic 'Every Breath I Take'). Yet his biggest hit in 1961 was cut back in LA after Lester Sill had asked him to fly home and produce a trio called the Paris Sisters. The group's 'I Love How You Love Me', which reached No. 5 in October, was almost as sickly-sweet as 'To Know Him is to Love Him', but it gave the twenty-year-old Spector sufficient confidence to propose the formation with Sill of a new record label, eventually christened Philles. Back in New York, he found the Crystals through publishers Hill and Range and earmarked them for his label. Then -- on the recommendation of Snuff Garrett but to the surprise of most onlookers -- he took a $25,000-a-year job as Liberty's man in New York. Garrett was to rue the day he persuaded the company to hire the kid he called 'Spec', because the megalomaniac whiz-kid did little for five months except bide his time behind a vast conference table playing air hockey.

"Phil Spector's great period really started the week he quit Liberty and flew back to LA with the demo of a Gene Pitney song Snuff was saving for Mexican singer Vicki Carr. Recorded in July 1962 at Gold Star -- by now relocated to a seedy business stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard -- 'He's a Rebel' brought together some of the celebrated musicians who'd come to be known as the Wrecking Crew: bassist Ray Pohlman, saxophonist Steve Douglas, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Hal Blaine. It also cemented the crucial partnership between Spector and arranger Jack Nitzsche, who knew most of the Wrecking Crew musicians and recommended the trio who depped as 'the Crystals' for 'He's a Rebel': lead singer Darlene Love and fellow Blossoms Fanita James and Jean King.

"Spector had come close to creating his famed 'Wall of Sound' in New York with the Crystals' 'Uptown', a wonderful Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil paean-to-Manhattan that provided Philles with its first hit. But the superbrat had tired of the condescension of East Coast sessionmen, and now welcomed the chance to work with the younger, hipper musicians of Hollywood. Where the New York session mafia viewed the foppish, fob-chained Spector as a freak, the West Coasters found him at once intriguing and inspiring -- to the point of overt emulation, at least on the part of Nitzsche, Nino Tempo and sometime percussionist/aide-de-camp Sonny Bono. 'He had his nose up Phil's ass a mile,' recalled Lester Sill of Bono, who would dutifully haul himself out of bed in the middle of the night whenever the maestro asked him to drive to Canter's for coleslaw.

"'He's a Rebel' was the first true blast of the Wall of Sound, as patented in the stifling summer heat of Stan Ross's studio. It was teen trash raised to the level of heroic art, a cavernous mesh of vibes and pianos, booming drum rolls and fuzzy saxophones, bearing aloft the rich, assured voice of Darlene Love. Spector wanted huge excitement, a stampede of devotion, and at Gold Star he got it. 'To me,' he said later, 'the cloudier and fuzzier a record is, the more honesty and guts it has.' To other producers, Spector broke all the rules: pushing volume levels way into the red, packing the studio with musicians and instruments, devoting hours to each song. He also broke some of the rules of the business: just as he'd taken Liberty's money and run, so he forced out Lester Sill in late 1962, fobbing him off with a promise of $60,000 severance pay and becoming a tycoon as a result. Spector, wrote Nik Cohn, 'was a walking, talking, V-sign millionaire'.

"1963 was Spector's classic year -- the year of the great Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich confections 'Da Doo Ron Ron', 'And Then He Kissed Me' and 'Be My Baby', all recorded in LA. As his ego swelled, so did the size of the sessions. To the core of the musicians who'd played on 'He's a Rebel', he added the likes of Glen Campbell (guitar), Leon Russell (piano), Larry Knechtel (keyboards, bass), Jim Gordon (drums), Carol Kaye (bass), Billy Strange (guitar) and Harold Battiste (sax), together with full orchestral string sections.

"Sessions kicked off at 4 p.m. and dragged on till breakfast. Musicians doubled, tripled and quadrupled up so that there were often two drum­mers, three pianists, and four guitarists on one track, all of them blending into one blast of noise. 'A lot of the time we had three piano players going at once,' Jack Nitzsche recalled. 'Phil knew the way he wanted the keyboards played, and it wasn't much of a problem who played them. Leon was there for the solos and fancy stuff, but the pianos would interlock and things would sound cohesive.' Drummer Hal Blaine was encouraged, in his own words, 'to do fills that were total lunacy', while Sonny Bono supervised crates of percussion instruments: bells and bongos, congas and castanets.

"Enter the fabulous Ronettes, three streetcorner mulattos from Spanish Harlem who looked more vixenish than they were but turned out to be the ultimate vehicle for Phil's 'teen symphonies'. 'Be My Baby', cut at Gold Star exactly a year after 'He's a Rebel', showed just how colossal the Wall of Sound had become. This was Wagner for teenyboppers, a cacophonous pop army rampaging for three breathless minutes while Veronica let loose her inimitable vibrato whine. By the autumn, when his adulterous relationship with 'Ronnie' was an open secret, the cult of Phil Spector was in full swing. Ensconced in Gold Star for the six punishing weeks it took to complete A Christmas Gift for You, Spector flaunted all the quirks and affectations that caused Tom Wolfe to dub him 'The Tycoon of Teen'. Here was pop's first great auteur, a visionary of sound, a new Charles Foster Kane. 'In its urgent solipsism, its perfectionism, its mad bricollage,' wrote Evan Eisenberg in The Recording Angel, 'Spector's work was perhaps the first fully self-conscious phonography in the popular field.'

"Behind the megalomania, however, lay profound insecurities. When Lou Adler brought a black vocal quartet called the Alley Cats down to Gold Star to record for Philles, he immediately sensed competition from Spector. 'Phil could never accept anybody being on a level with him,' recalled engineer Larry Levine. And when Spector's two Italian lieutenants, Nino Tempo and Sonny Bono, were successful in their own right -- Tempo's and April Stevens' 'Deep Purple' was a No. 1 hit in December 1963 -- Phil felt profoundly threatened."

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Barney Hoskyns


Waiting for the Sun: A Rock 'N' Roll History of Los Angeles


Backbeat Books


Copyright 1996, 2003 by Barney Hoskyns


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