Phil Spector Biography

Harvey Phillip Spector, 26 December 1940, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA. Possibly pop’s most distinctive record producer. Spector became involved in music upon moving to Fairfax, California, in 1953. While there, he joined a loosely knit community of young aspirants, including Lou Adler, Bruce Johnston and Sandy Nelson, the last of whom played drums on Spector’s debut recording, ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’. This million-selling single for the Teddy Bears - Spector, Annette Kleinbard and Marshall Leib - topped the US chart in 1958, but further releases by the group proved less successful. The artist’s next project, the Spectors Three, was undertaken under the aegis of local entrepreneurs Lee Hazlewood and Lester Sill, but when it, too, reaped little commercial reward, the latter recommended Phil’s talents to New York production team Leiber And Stoller. In later years Spector made extravagant claims about his work from this period which have been rebuffed equally forcibly by his one-time mentors. He did contribute greatly as a composer, co-writing ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘Young Boy Blues’ for Ben E. King, while adding a notable guitar obligato to the Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’. His productions, although less conspicuous, included releases by LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown and Billy Storm, as well as the Top Notes’ original version of the seminal ‘Twist And Shout’.

Spector’s first major success as a producer came with Ray Petersen’s version of ‘Corrina Corrina’, a US Top 10 in 1960, and Curtis Lee’s ‘Pretty Little Angel Eyes’, which reached number 7 the following year. Work for the Paris Sisters not only engendered a Top 5 hit, (‘I Love How You Love Me’) but rekindled an association with Lester Sill, with whom Spector formed Philles Records in 1961. Within months he bought his partner out to become sole owner; this autocratic behaviour marked all subsequent endeavours. It nonetheless resulted in a string of classic recordings for the Crystals and Ronettes including ‘He’s A Rebel’ (1962), ‘Then He Kissed Me’, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby I Love You’ (all 1963), which were not only substantial international hits, but defined the entire ‘girl-group’ genre.

Imitative releases supervised by David Gates, Bob Crewe and Sonny Bono, although excellent in their own right, failed to recapture Spector’s dense production technique, later dubbed the ‘wall of sound’, which relied on lavish orchestration, layers of percussion and swathes of echo. Recordings were undertaken at the Gold Star studio in Los Angeles where arranger Jack Nitzsche and engineer Larry Levine worked with a team of exemplary session musicians, including Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Larry Knechtel (piano/bass), Harold Battiste, Leon Russell (keyboards) and Hal Blaine (drums).

Although ostensibly geared to producing singles, Spector did undertake the ambitious A Christmas Gift For You, on which his label’s premier acts performed old and new seasonal favourites. Although not a contemporary success - its bonhomie was made redundant following the assassination of President Kennedy - the set is now rightly regarded as a classic. Spector’s releases also featured some of the era’s finest songwriting teams - Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil - the last of which composed ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ for the Righteous Brothers, the producer’s stylistic apogee. Several critics also cite ‘River Deep Mountain High’, a 1966 single by Ike And Tina Turner as Spector’s greatest moment. It represented Spector’s most ambitious production, but although his efforts were rewarded with a UK Top 3 hit, this impressive release barely scraped the US Hot 100 and a dispirited Spector folded his label and retired from music for several years.

The producer re-emerged in 1969 with a series of releases for A&M Records which included ‘Black Pearl’, a US Top 20 hit entry for Sonny Charles And The Checkmates. Controversy then dogged his contribution to the Beatles’ Let It Be album. Spector assembled the set from incomplete tapes, but his use of melancholic orchestration on ‘The Long And Winding Road’ infuriated the song’s composer, Paul McCartney, who cited this intrusion during the group’s rancorous break-up. Spector nonetheless became installed at their Apple label, where he produced albums by John Lennon (The Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Sometime In New York City), George Harrison (All Things Must Pass and the commemorative Concert For Bangla Desh). However, his behaviour grew increasingly erratic following the break-up of his marriage to former Ronette Ronnie Spector, and his relationship with Lennon was severed during sessions for the nostalgic Rock ‘N’ Roll album (1974).

In the meantime Spector had established the Warner-Spector outlet which undertook new recordings with, among others, Cher and Nilsson, as well as several judicious re-releases. A similar relationship with UK Polydor Records led to the formation of Phil Spector International, on which contemporary singles by Dion, Darlene Love and Jerri Bo Keno vied with 60s recordings and archive material. As the 70s progressed so Spector became a recluse, although he emerged to produce albums by Leonard Cohen (Death Of A Ladies Man - 1977) and the Ramones (End Of The Century - 1980), the latter of which included a revival of ‘Baby I Love You’, the band’s sole UK Top 10 hit.

Despite undertaking abortive sessions with the Flamin’ Groovies, Spector remained largely detached from music throughout the 80s, although litigation against Leiber and Stoller and biographer Mark Ribowsky kept his name in the news. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989, and having adopted Allen Klein as representative, completed negotiations with EMI Records for the rights to his extensive catalogue. The interest generated by this acquisition is a tribute to the respect afforded this producer whose major achievements were contained within a brief three-year period.

In June 2000, the long-running litigation with his former wife Ronnie and the other two Ronettes seemed to have been resolved, when the Ronettes were awarded back royalties of $2.6 million. Two years later, however, the New York appeals court reversed the judgement. In February 2003, Spector was arrested and charged with the murder of a woman found in his home.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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