Music News

Happy Birthday, Phil Spector!

Born on December 26, 1939, Phillip Harvey Spector, better known to the world as Phil Spector, boasts a reputation as one of the greatest pop producers of all time. He's also known as one of the flat-out weirdest and wildest men to ever inhabit the rock and roll realms.

The creator of a singular style known as "The Wall of Sound," he made rock an art form early on. Spector created elaborate, bigger-than-life productions that employed multi-dubbed instrumentation, extravagant orchestration, and the talents of a group of Hollywood session players simply known as the Wrecking Crew.

Spector's influence simply can't be overstated. Everyone from Brian Wilson to Coldplay owes him some sort of debt of gratitude for the way he made production and instrumentation as vital a part of the recording process as the players themselves.

Of course he famously worked with some of the biggest names in the music business -- the Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, the Ramones, and many others. What's more, he also helped compose a song that would go on to garner more U.S.

airplay than any other tune in the 20th Century: the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That

Lovin' Feeling."

Yet for all his successes -- including

over 25 Top 40 hits from 1960 to 1965 alone -- it's Spector's wildly bizarre

behavior that's overshadowed practically every accomplishment of his


Those tumultuous events culminated with his conviction for the

shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, and his 2009 sentencing

to 19 years in prison for the crime. His appearance in court, which included a

giant blond Afro wig, rattled even those accustomed to his unusual

antics and threatened to cap what has definitely been a most chaotic


His trajectory began promisingly enough however. One of his first productions, the song "To Know Him Is To Love Him" for a group innocuously dubbed The Teddy Bears, climbed to the top spot in the charts. His co-composition with Ben. E. King, "Spanish Harlem," soon also reaped a top ten hit.

Spector continued to mentor new talent via his own label imprint, Philles Records, spawning several Top 20 hits along the way. In 1963, he capped his success by producing a track by Darlene Love entitled "He's a Rebel," which went all the way to number one. He followed that quickly with "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, a song that not only hit number two, but also stands as one of the greatest songs of all time.

Spector's success continued unabated with a string of hits by the Righteous Brothers and his landmark achievement by Ike and Tina Turner, the song "River Deep Mountain High," which ranks high among his landmark productions.

However, by the late '60s, Spector had become largely disenchanted with the music business. He married Ronnie Spector, the Ronettes' beautiful lead singer. Then he mostly withdrew from public view, save for a cameo appearance in the movie Easy Rider, in which he played a drug dealer in one of the film's opening sequences.

Yet by 1970, he was back behind the boards, hired by Beatles manager Allen Klein to salvage the band's ill-fated Let It Be sessions. Spector took a number of liberties with the album, though. The album eventually went on to yield several hit singles, among them its title track, "The Long and Winding Road," and "Get Back." But Paul McCartney famously and publicly derided Spector's contributions, and controversy raged among the band's fans over whether he had destroyed the group's original intention to strip away the superfluous elements and make an album that would be as bare and basic as possible. 

Still, Lennon and Harrison had no complaints about Spector's efforts, and both tapped his talents to great success on their subsequent solo efforts. However, it was during the sessions for Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll album that word of Spector's strange behavior began to leak out.

Lennon himself was admittedly quite out of control during his California sojourn, to which he later referred as his "lost weekend." Still, he claimed that Spector brandished a gun in the studio, repeatedly threatened Lennon and the other musicians, and eventually scurried away with the master recordings.

That wouldn't be the last time Spector displayed a violent streak in the studio. either. While working on Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man, he reportedly excluded Cohen from participating in the final mix downs, then locked him out of the studio and threatened him with a crossbow.

Members of the Ramones also made similar charges when Spector was producing their album End of the Century, claiming that he wielded a gun during their sessions. Johnny Ramone later said that when they tried to leave a meeting at Spector's house, he pulled a gun from his jacket, put it on the table and said, "You guys don't really have to go yet, do you?" Drummer Marky Ramone disputed that story however, insisting, "They [the guns] were there, but he had a license to carry. He never held us hostage. We could have left at any time." 

For the most part, however, Spector remained relatively reclusive around this time, due in part to a 1974 auto accident in Hollywood that nearly killed him. He was thrown through the windshield of his car and nearly pronounced dead at the scene until a faint heartbeat indicated he was still alive.

Nevertheless, he went through many hours of surgery and received over 300 stitches to his face and more than 400 stitches to the back of his head. Supposedly, that was the reason he took to wearing his outlandish wigs.

Regardless, his career began a decline. Aside from the aforementioned efforts with Leonard Cohen and the Ramones, as well as occasional attempts with Yoko Ono, Cher, Celine Dion, and the British band Starsailor, his later efforts failed to gain him the accolades of his earlier career.

As Spector waits out his time in prison, a piece of celluloid history, practically 40 years old, may well serve as his unintended epitaph. In Brian De Palma's 1974 film spoof Phantom of the Paradise, there's a villainous character called Swan that was reportedly based on Spector. The evidence is overwhelming. A music producer and head of a record label, Swan was originally named "Spectre" in the first drafts of the film's screenplay.

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Lee Zimmerman