By Johnny Firecloud at 10:12 PM Tuesday, April 21st 2009
After a murder trial that went on longer than O.J.’s, legendary music producer Phil Spector was found guilty last week of the killing of aspiring actress Lana Clarkson in 2003- a woman he’d only known for a few hours before the brutal murder in his home. But who the hell is Phil Spector, anyway? This trial’s been played out over the past five years, and the fleet of massive wigs have been interesting, but to most younger people, Spector is little more than a pasty old freakshow taking up TV time. There’s no historical reference. What they may not realize is that, despite his ridiculous appearance and obvious lunatic mentality, Spector is a crucial piece of the tapestry of music history.
Spector- accompanied by his trademark “Wall of Sound-” was responsible for countless hits throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Until he arrived on the music scene in 1958, rock songs often involved no more than a drummer, a guitarist and a bass player performing into a single microphone. But Spector wasn’t having that at all. The man who compared himself to both Mozart and Shakespeare brought dozens of players into the studio, creating an orchestra of guitars, percussion, keyboards, horns, voices and other instruments with the goal of crating “little symphonies for the kids.” Massive, luxurious arrangements, overdubbed vocals, multiple lead guitars and so on were par for the Spector course, which all took place in the non-digital era of four-track tape recorders.
Session guitarist Carol Kaye worked with him throughout the ’60s, and recalled people being packed shoulder-to-shoulder into a studio for a recording session that produced the 1966 Ike and Tina Turner classic, River Deep-Mountain High.
“There were so many players crammed into the studio that it’s a wonder that he got any kind of sound,” said Kaye, who also played guitar for Spector on the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, the song cited by BMI as the most played in the history of US radio.
“He said to me he had the sound in his head that he wanted to create,” said veteran engineer Larry Levine, who worked with Spector in1962. His perfect pitch and knack for a melody made him an A-list producer at a very young age. He was only 21 when he co-founded his label, which paved the way for high-charting tracks including Then He Kissed Me by the Crystals, The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody, Instant Karma and Imagine by John Lennon, and Be My Baby by The Ronettes, whose lead singer married Spector. In 1990, Ronnie Spector told NPR that their songs were love letters.
“We always rehearsed them alone,” Ronnie Spector says. “So we had this romance between my singing and him teaching me. It was like the best feeling in the world. It was like, ‘Mmm!'”
Spector was anything but a casual cassanova, however. He was controlling and endlessly insecure, refusing to let her wear shoes in the house for fear she would run away. He bought a glass-lidded coffin in which he threatened to display her if she left him. His psychosis wasn’t limited to the home, either. Always a domineering figure, Spector had a reputation for being eccentric and intimidating, and worst of all, he had a passionate love for guns.
Spector’s gun obsession came very early in his career, when a traumatic incident changed his sense of security forever. While on tour with his first act, The Teddy Bears, the 18 year-old Spector was confronted in a men’s urinal. The short, frail Phil was beaten and urinated on by four street toughs, an incident so traumatic to Spector that from then on he kept a bodyguard and a gun by his side.
By the 1970s, however, Spector’s career was in shambles. His mounting obsession with guns was a symptom of outright depression, and there are numerous accounts of Spector threatening his artists with firearms. In 1973, during sessions for John Lennon’s oldies covers album Rock And Roll, Spector was a drunk, verbally abusive mess, constantly threatening Lennon and the studio crew. Samples from this infamous session can be heard on Lennon’s Anthology box set. During these sessions, Spector waved a handgun around, eventually shooting it into the air. The volatile producer then disappeared with the session tapes, which took Lennon months to retrieve.
Six years later, in 1979, Spector forced punk legends The Ramones, at gunpoint, to play the same opening guitar chord repeatedly for eight solid hours. He mixed it into the song Rock And Roll High School over and over, until he got it just the way he imagined it.
He produced the Beatles’ final proper studio realease, Let It Be, and Paul McCartney hated it, according to most accounts. Not only that, but he stated that what Spector did to the song The Long And Winding Road led to the conflict that eventually broke the group up.
Spector continued to spiral downward, going into seclusion. His further attempts at recording with other musicians ended in bickering feuds, and his image wasn’t helped much at his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989. Spector arrived with three bodyguards, all with their hands on their guns. He gave a long, rambling and mostly incoherent acceptance speech before proceeding to fall off the stage.
Time Europe reported in 1999 that Phil’s mentality had withered to the point where he walked around his estate in Alhambra, CA every day, in complete darkness, wearing nothing but a Batman costume. While that may sound like fourteen shades of awesome on the first pass, the thought of a senior citizen actually doing that is pretty goddamned creepy.
Insanity and insecurity ran in Spector’s family as well. His older sister was institutionalized, and his father committed suicide when he was 9. Spector’s first hit was actually inspired by the inscription on his father’s grave: “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”
In the mid ’90s, Spector also recorded tracks for Celine Dion, but creative differences (can you picture that duo?) led to the project’s abandonment. More recently, Spector produced two tracks for the British indie band Starsailor’s 2003 album, Silence Is Easy. Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly a foolproof comeback scheme.
Despite the magic Spector produced in the studio, however, nothing can redeem this tragic episode in Spector’s life. His musical legacy will be forever overshadowed by the murder conviction.
Spector will be sentenced on May 29th and faces between 18 years and life in prison. His lawyers have said they intend to launch an appeal.