Phil Spector

back to mono

Phil Spector (b. 1939) is an American musician (piano, guitar), songwriter and record producer. He was co-owner of Philles Records (with then-business partner Lester Sill), and later owner of Phil Spector Records. In 2009 he was found guilty of second degree murder. Spector’s signature style was called the Wall of Sound. He used large amounts of echo, doubling and multiplying of musical instruments and the parts to be played, and overdubbing of recorded parts. The built-up effect gave his records an operatic, theatrical quality. The music sounded ‘bigger than life.’

The effect carried over especially well on AM radio, which was how most music was broadcast in the 1950s and 1960s. Spector said the Wall of Sound made ‘…little symphonies for kids…’ The recording artists who worked with Spector over the years included The Crystals (‘Then He Kissed Me’), The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), The Righteous Brothers (‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,’ Gene Pitney (‘Every Breath I Take’), Darlene Love (‘(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry’), and Tina Turner (‘River Deep, Mountain High’). Sonny Bono and Cher were among his backup singers. He married Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett of the Ronettes, who took the name Ronnie Spector.Spector’s strongest work was in creating hit singles. He knew many fans never listened to the B-sides of singles, and radio seldom played them, so often his B-sides would feature an instrumental jam session, without the singers credited on the record, and with titles like ‘Flip and Nitty.’ Spector also disliked albums. He called them ‘two hit (song)s, and ten pieces of junk.’ When stereo became more popular than mono in recording, Spector did not follow the trend. In later years he wore a red badge in public, with the words ‘BACK TO MONO.’ Many other producers and musicians imitated the Wall of Sound style, or included elements of it in their own work, including Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Wilson thought of Spector as his biggest rival, although the two did work together on one song, that was used in a public service announcement.

Not all of Spector’s productions became hits. One record, ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’ was pulled from release after complaints were made by listeners, about the song’s theme. (The song was later performed by singer Courtney Love.) Another record, ‘This Could Be The Night’ (working with both Harry Nilsson and Chip Douglas), went unreleased, although radio disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer used it later as his show’s theme song. ‘(Let’s Dance) The Screw’ was a private kiss-off to Lester Sill, when his partnership with Spector ended badly, and only a few copies were pressed. ‘River Deep, Mountain High,’ which Spector thought of as his all-time best work, drew little attention in the United States, but it was a hit in other countries.

One of the few full albums Spector produced, ‘A Christmas Gift to You,’ was released in 1963. The album featured nearly all of the artists Spector worked with regularly. The album did not become a hit at first, but it went on to become a Christmas perennial. Many music listeners consider the album a masterpiece.

The Beatles handed over the rough tapes of their unfinished ‘Get Back’ album for Spector to post-produce, after John Lennon and George Harrison both worked successfully with him on ‘Instant Karma!,’ which became a hit single for Lennon. ‘Let it Be’ was the title for the finished album (and movie, filmed during the recording sessions). Beatles fans bought and enjoyed the album and its singles, but some fans and experts disliked portions of Spector’s work. Paul McCartney hated the changes Spector made to ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ which he meant to have a simple accompaniment, but was released with a choir and orchestra added. McCartney never recorded with Spector, but the other three Beatles worked with him several times, on solo recordings.

Spector appeared as an actor a few times. One appearance was in an episode of ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ as a music producer. Another was in the movie ‘Easy Rider,’ as a rich man who buys cocaine from the two main characters. A character in a 1970 movie, ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,’ was based on the way many people saw Spector. He appeared as himself in scenes from ‘Imagine,’ a 1973 film about the recording of John Lennon’s 1971 album of the same name.

Spector worked less often in the 1970s and 1980s, and his most notable work from those years was with The Ramones and Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon. Spector and Ronnie were divorced, and she sued him years later for unpaid royalties from her years as a singer. She collected over a million dollars, after many years of going to court. Spector spent much of his time as a ‘retired celebrity,’ staying home at his Alhambra, California mansion or dining out. He sometimes invited women guests home, after a night out drinking alcohol. Some of the women reported later having a pleasant time with Spector. Others told stories of being abused, detained, or threatened with a gun.

In 2003, police were called to Spector’s home to investigate a shooting. Actress Lana Clarkson was found dead on the grounds; Spector was charged with second-degree murder. He was found guilty in 2009 and sentences to 18 to years to life in prison.

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