Phil Spector: Musical pioneer and murderer

The legendary record producer died while serving a murder sentence


DELANO, CA - JUNE 5: In this handout photo provided be the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), inmate Phillip Spector poses for his mugshot photo on June 5, 2009 at North Kern State Prison in Delano, California. Spector was received by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from Los Angeles County with a 19-year sentence for second-degree murder for the February 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. He is currently at North Kern State Prison, a reception center in Kern County. The reception center process is used to make housing determinations. (Photo by CDCR via Getty Images)

To a teenager gripped by swirling emotions, nothing compared to being washed over by a “wall of sound” created by Phil Spector, the legendary record producer who died from coronavirus this week, aged 81, while serving a murder sentence.

In the 1960s, Spector pioneered “teen symphonies”, three-minute songs crammed with lush orchestration, soulful singing and haunting melodies.

The songs captured the hearts of thousands of young listeners. Teens’ transistor radios overflowed with the aching wistfulness of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, The Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me and the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Each song brimmed over with violins, horns and percussion, all recorded live in a crowded studio.

Spector called his trademark sound “Wagnerian” and it led to 24 top 40 songs between 1960 and 1965. By the age of 21 he was a millionaire and owned his own record label.

But sadly, the creator of so many monster hits was a monster himself. Slowly sliding down a dark mental spiral, he crash-landed in 2003 when he shot Lana Clarkson, an actress he had picked up in a bar. A first trial ended with a hung jury; he was convicted at a second trial in 2009.

Spector was born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrant parents. They moved to California but things did not go well for them.

In 1958, the 19-year old Spector wrote a number one hit for his first band, The Teddy Bears, called To Know Him Is To Love Him. That line was not just a teenager’s whimsy. It’s the epitaph on his father’s tombstone. Overcome with debt, he had committed suicide when Phil was eight.

Later, Spector experienced bullying to the point where he never went anywhere without bodyguards — and a gun.

He was a session musician and songwriter before finding his niche behind the mixing console. He co-wrote with top songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Carole King and Gerry Goffin and even Leonard Cohen. But it was as a producer that he forged his uniquely massive, swelling sound, often with a group of session musicians called the Wrecking Crew. The Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen eventually copied Spector’s lush style in songs like Good Vibrations and Born To Run.

Many of Spector’s singers and groups were black women, including Ronnie Bennett of the Ronettes, whom he married in 1968. Some of his songs like Black Pearl and Spanish Harlem reflected a longing for hope under racial oppression.

Spector hit his first brick wall when he released a joyful Christmas album on November 22, 1963 — the day John F Kennedy was shot. He withdrew the record as inappropriate and it disappeared. It is now hailed as a masterpiece. But at the time Spector fell into a funk. Rallying, he produced some more hits, and in 1966, put all his effort into recording Ike and Tina Turner’s volcanic River Deep, Mountain High with scores of musicians and backing singers. Successful in Britain, it tanked in the US.

Spector retreated into a wounded sulk for years, drinking heavily and playing with his handgun collection. Ronnie Spector described her marriage to him during that time as “prison”. He told her he would put her in a coffin in the basement if she so much as ventured out of their house. She finally escaped, fleeing barefoot over broken glass.

In 1970, Spector was lured out of seclusion to produce the unfinished Beatles’ album Let It Be. Paul McCartney had wanted the album to have a simpler sound and hated Spector’s strings and schmaltz, especially on his song The Long and Winding Road. But he was the only objector. Afterwards, both John Lennon and George Harrison asked Spector to help out with their solo albums Imagine and All Things Must Pass. He later collaborated with Leonard Cohen and, oddly, The Ramones. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. The Ronettes were themselves inducted in 2007 but Ronnie Spector did not mention her ex in her acceptance speech.

Many stories about weapons have emerged since, telling of Spector brandishing handguns at Lennon, Cohen, Dee Dee Ramone and even Debby Harry. During his trial, which he attended in odd costumes and wigs, five women said he’d threatened them with firearms. His chauffeur testified that the night Lana Clarkson was shot, Spector emerged from the house holding a pistol, saying: “I think I killed somebody”. Twelve years later, Spector died incarcerated.

An ugly end to the creator of so much musical beauty.



Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive