The challenge in assessing the life of Phil Spector lies in dodging the avalanche of other things so you can keep remembering what will endure: the music.
Spector, who died Saturday at the age of 81 from complications of COVID-19, produced hundreds of records that matter and dozens that stand with the best rock ’n’ roll ever, from “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” “Be My Baby,” “Walking In the Rain” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” to “Black Pearl.”
No rock ’n’ roll holiday album will likely ever match Spector’s 1963 A Christmas Gift For You.
Artists like Brian Wilson studied at Phil Spector’s figurative feet. Three of the four Beatles — Paul McCartney was the dissenter — liked his work on their Let It Be album enough to have him produce solo records like “Imagine” and “My Sweet Lord.”
Reverence for his Wall of Sound production, which is deserved, sometimes overshadows the scope of his lyrical vision. It wasn’t just that he used black artists, which was common enough, but that so many of the characters in his songs were roses in Spanish Harlem, or lived uptown.
That was the music. And then there was all the other stuff, inside and outside the music biz, that turned Phil Spector into a punchline.
In a business generously sprinkled with artists who behaved in odd ways — Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Michael Jackson, Keith Moon, the list is long — Phil Spector some time ago secured the lifetime achievement award for flat-out weirdness.
Some of his actions, sadly, went beyond that. He was convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson at his home in 2003, which is why at the time of his death he was living in a California state prison rather than in his expensive L.A. home. Where Clarkson died.
At the time of the murder trial, a half dozen women said he loved to wave guns around, sometimes pointed toward them. His ex-wife Ronnie said he threatened her with guns. Artists on whom he pulled guns in the recording studio included John Lennon, Debbie Harry, Leonard Cohen and the Ramones.
When he and Ronnie were having marital issues, he ordered a glass coffin that he placed in the basement. He took Ronnie’s mother to see it and told her that was where she could find Ronnie if Ronnie ever left him.
There was clearly a dark side here. A very dark side.
Less troubling was the parade of strange hairpieces he wore during his murder trial, or the scene on the night in 1989 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He brought three armed bodyguards on stage and gave a rambling speech that ended when he was picked up by both arms and carried off-stage with his legs in the air, moving as if he were walking.
The problem, his friend and business manager Allen Klein explained the next day, was that Spector was so nervous about the speech that he drank too much and it interacted badly with his prescription drugs.
That wasn’t the only time alcohol and drugs came up in connection with Spector’s behavior. His relationship with Lennon, particularly during the time in the mid-1970s when both were feeling untethered, was laced with ugly alcohol-related battles.
“I take medication for schizophrenia,” Spector told journalist Mick Brown in early 2003. “I wouldn’t say I’m schizophrenic. But I have a bipolar personality. I’m my own worst enemy.”
He also told Brown that substance issues reflected deeper psychological problems.
“Trust me, you don’t want my life,” he said. “It hasn’t been a very pleasant life. I’ve been a very tortured soul. I have not been at peace. I have not been happy.”
Maybe the closest he came, he said to other writers in his infrequent interviews, was when he got a record to sound like he wanted it to sound.
That might include the Hal Blaine drum solo that kicks off the Ronettes’s “Be My Baby.” It could be the opening to the Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” on which Spector said he worked for six months.
Everyone told him his idea for “Lovin’ Feeling” was crazy, he said, because top-40 radio would never play a song that slow. Spector said when he played the final edit for co-songwriter Barry Mann, Mann’s first comment was, “You’re playing it on the wrong speed.”
No, he wasn’t. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” a couple of years ago became the most-played song in BMI history, passing a little number titled “Yesterday.”
Much has been written about Spector regarding Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High” as his ultimate masterpiece, and feeling deflated when the world didn’t agree. It’s arguable that he made a better masterpiece three years later with “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles and the Checkmates Ltd., which comes off as more powerful because it doesn’t feel like it’s trying so hard.
What gets missed sometimes with Spector is that the Wall of Sound was not a continuous backdrop of noise. He understood that the spaces between musical passages enhanced the passages, and that there was a place for breaks into the classic sax solos that punch up records like “He’s a Rebel” or “Da Do Ron Ron” by the Crystals.
He dropped the wall altogether for wistful ballads like the Ronettes’s “So Young” or the Paris Sisters’s “I Love How You Love Me,” while the Righteous Brothers’s “Unchained Melody” was a vocal solo with piano.
The Alley Cats’s “Puddin N’ Tain” was a pure throwback to the 1950s R&B vocal groups on which Spector grew up, just as he had used the New York vocal group the Halos to back Curtis Lee on two great singles, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” and “Under the Moon of Love”/“Beverly Jean.”
Ray Peterson’s “Corrina Corrina” turned a Joe Turner stomper into a love ballad, and speaking of love, it was Spector who recognized what a gem he had in Darlene Love, a former gospel and R&B backup singer who became a Spector go-to with the Crystals, Bobb B. Soxx and the Bluejeans, and finally solo.
Love’s relationship with Spector eventually soured, for reasons that explain much of Spector’s approach and, well, success.
Spector saw vocals as basically another instrument in a musical production. He regarded singers much as he regarded guitarists or drummers, interchangeable pieces to be inserted where expedience dictated. The Crystals he sent on the road to sing “He’s a Rebel,” for instance, had had no part in recording it.
Being a notorious perfectionist, he did hire hire the best talent he could find, notably his core session band the Wrecking Crew. But in Phil Spector’s world, the real artist was the producer, not the featured name on the label. For years he helped keep all of his singers out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because he argued that the credit for their records really belonged to him.
He saw value in featuring a singer like Ronnie Bennett, who had great promotional value and whom he would eventually marry. He was more cavalier with Love, despite the fact she was a much better singer.
One such instance, as Love later recounted it, came when Spector assured her that “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” would be released under her name. When it came out the label said “The Crystals,” which Spector felt would sell better.
He did release several songs as Love solos, and he reversed field with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which he first recorded with Ronnie Bennett, but then gave to Love because she had the stronger voice. It became one of Love’s signature songs, with an annual performance on Late Night With David Letterman.
Love’s more enduring disagreement with Spector came over her claim that he owed her unpaid performance royalties. She could have taken a number, as litigation over this and other financial matters was a routine occurrence for Spector in later years. Ronnie Spector won a $2.6 million judgment, which a judge later overturned. Spector sued Mark Ribowsky, who wrote an unauthorized biography. He engaged in numerous suits back and forth with songwriters and publishers, including Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, for whom he worked early in his career.
Depositions from those suits show Spector sparring at great length with attorneys, which yields considerable historical insight and reflects another intriguing fact.
He almost never gave interviews or spoke in public because, he said, he wasn’t comfortable in those situations and did not feel confident he could express himself well.
Yet on those rare occasions when he did speak, he was remarkably good. He could ramble if he’d had too much of something to calm his nerves, but more often he was sharp, quick and funny.
On another occasion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the featured guests were normally whisked past the press at Indianapolis 500 speeds, Spector stopped, seemingly on a whim, to take questions. He stayed for a half hour, shooting back answers and quips like a seasoned politician.
On Nov. 9, 1994, he popped up to give a speech at William Paterson College in New Jersey. He had been out of the spotlight for some time, and Allen Klein said he had talked about maybe wanting to do something like a college tour.
That never happened, but the William Paterson evening did, after some last-minute adjustments. Spector’s office requested no press, which was not possible, and no alcohol on the premises, which was.
There was also no admission charge and the speech was scheduled for 7 p.m.
After almost three hours of videos and Spector songs, the featured guest arrived at 9:50 p.m., wearing an AIDS ribbon, a “Back to Mono” button and red-tinted sunglasses.
He warmed up the crowd with an oblique allusion to his punctuality issue.
“So how long do you think it’ll be,” he said, “before they have Prozac Lite on the market?”
Then he got a little more overtly autobiographical: “I’m dysfunctional by choice. I have an attitude problem I’m very fond of. The difference between me and God is that He never thinks he’s me.”
From there he delivered an engaging two hours, sprinkling his philosophy of life into longer musings mostly tied to music.
“To know what you don’t know is true knowledge,” he said. “And if you know what you don’t want, you will probably end up close to what you do want.”
It wasn’t all quite that Zen.
His greatest relief in his lower-profile life, he suggested, was being out of the contemporary music business. The people who run it, he cracked, “do the work of three men — Moe, Curly and Larry.”
On music censorship, a hot issue at the time with Congressional hearings on whether records should be given ratings along the lines of movies, he said government should have “no right to punish. If you are untalented, the culture will punish you.”
Looking around, he said, he saw lots of untalent. Referring to controversies over several recent Madonna videos like Erotica or Deeper and Deeper, he said, “The difference between Madonna videos and porno movies is that some porno movies have pretty good music.”
He wasn’t crazy about some earlier artists, either, explaining that his role on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “was not to let people in, but to keep them out. I get 15,000 signatures for Connie Francis [whose “Second Hand Love” Spector produced] and I’ll tell you which finger I give them.”
While he did like Elvis, he said he often revered songs more than artists. “We grew up on ‘Earth Angel’,” he said. “Or ‘In the Still of the Night.’ The Hall needs a category for records.” [Years later it sort of got one.]
As for what makes a great song, he said, “It’s what the artist and producer bring to the song that makes it work.”
Fred Astaire “saved Irving Berlin’s career,” Spector said, with his performances of Berlin songs in 1930s musicals. He said it was interpretations that made classics of lines like Lorenz Hart’s “My heart stood still . . . ” or Johnny Mercer’s “And the angels ask me to recall . . . ”
To bring it back to rock ’n’ roll, he declared that “If I don’t love you, then grits ain’t groceries,” the title line of a Little Milton hit, one of “the great love songs of all time.”
He said nice things about Bob Dylan before adding that it must be “hard to live” Bob Dylan’s life, by which presumably he also meant Phil Spector’s life.
Nothing in his William Paterson evening countered the suspicion that Spector feels he spent his 20s reaching for and achieving fame, then the rest of his life paying for it.
“Youth is for taking advantage of it,” he said. “You’ll never get that chance again.”
What he had learned since his youth, he said, is “the difference between fame and success. Madonna is famous. Mother Teresa was successful.”
He named five people, all deceased, who “walked into my life and left footprints on my heart: my father, my son [Philip Jr.] who passed away three years ago this Christmas, my mentor Lenny Bruce, my beloved friend and brother John Lennon, and the King, Elvis.”
He also revealed his wish for his own epitaph, not drawn from music, but from the movie King Kong.
We can make of it what we will:
“He was a king in his own civilization
Now he comes here a captive, for your amusement.
Ladies and Gentlemen, here lies Spector.”