Phil Spector: genius producer and convicted murderer with a toxic legacy

The influential figure has died in prison, aged 81, while serving a life sentence for the 2003 murder of actor Lana Clarkson

As the creator of the ‘wall of sound’ production style, Phil Spector‘s influence on the foundations of pop music undoubtedly rivals that of the very top tier of pop’s most legendary figures. Yet a long history of abusive and manipulative behaviour, including threatening gunplay, culminated in the 2009 conviction of the murder of actor Lana Clarkson, which saw him die in prison and will justifiably overshadow his many achievements.

Spector – who died today aged 81 – was born Harvey Phillip Spector in New York in 1939. His forays into pop music began in the late ‘50s as a member of vocal group The Teddy Bears, who gave him his first US number one in 1958 with the million-selling ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, a phrase that was carved on his father’s gravestone. At the same time he studied production at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood and, following further success with his co-write on Ben E King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’, began working as apprentice to songwriting and production duo Leiber and Stoller, launching his production career in the early 1960s. He crafted hits with the likes of Billy Storm, Ray Peterson, Connie Francis, Curtis Lee, the Paris Sisters and The Crystals, the first signing to his own label Philles Records.

With The Crystals’ ‘He’s A Rebel’ (actually recorded by the uncredited girl group the Blossoms) topping the charts in 1962, Philles Records became a fount of hits utilising Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ technique – what he called “a Wagnerian approach to rock’n’roll”, featuring dense, rich orchestration and powerful beats. Created using a conglomerate of session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, the sound exploited all the possibilities of early ‘60s studio recording and sounded great on primitive radio.

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“I was looking for a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record,” Spector said. Brian Wilson, who was hugely influenced by the technique, claimed: “In the ’40s and ’50s, arrangements were considered, ‘OK here – listen to that French Horn’, or. ‘Listen to this string section now.’ It was all a definite sound. There weren’t combinations of sound and, with the advent of Phil Spector, we find sound combinations.”

Spector’s sound drew acts including The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner and The Ronettes to Philles Records, producing landmark hits such as ‘You’ve Lost The Lovin’ Feeling’, ‘Unchained Melody’, ‘Be My Baby’, ‘Baby, I Love You’ and ‘River Deep – Mountain High’. His Christmas album ‘A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records’, later retitled ‘Phil Spector’s Christmas Album’, gathered the stars of the label together to sing festive standards and became a classic of the form, producing several seasonal ‘60s favourites such as The Crystals’ ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ and The Ronettes’ ‘Frosty The Snowman’.

However, marrying Ronnie Bennett of The Ronettes in 1968, Spector became increasingly reclusive and distant from the music industry. Ronnie’s 1990 autobiography Be My Baby included details of escalating abuse in their relationship over the coming years: Spector subjected her to psychological torment, she wrote, banned her from performing, confiscated her shoes and locked her in closets so she couldn’t leave the house and installed a gold coffin in the basement promising to kill her if she ever left him.

She would later testify to being threatened with guns and said that she only escaped the house and the marriage in 1972, barefoot, with the help of her mother. “I knew that if I didn’t leave I was going to die there,” she told Vanity Fair, and insisted that she surrendered custody of their adopted children in the 1974 divorce proceedings because Spector had threatened to hire a hit man to have her killed otherwise. Spector’s adopted sons Gary and Donté also said that they were kept captive and subjected to abuse as children.

Drawn out of semi-retirement by Beatles manager Allen Klein in 1969, Spector famously reworked sections of The Beatles’ final album release ‘Let It Be’ (1970), infuriating Paul McCartney with his orchestral embellishments on ‘The Long And Winding Road’ and other tracks, thereby hurrying on the band’s split. John Lennon and George Harrison, however, were pleased with Spector’s work on the album, and would co-produce solo records with him – Harrison on ‘All Things Must Pass’ (1970) and ‘Living In The Material World (1973), and Lennon on ‘Imagine’ (1970), ‘Some Time In New York City’ (1972) and ‘Rock ’n’ Roll’ (1973), along with assorted singles such as ‘Power To The People’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.

By this time, Spector’s studio behaviour was becoming dangerously erratic – dressed in an array of outlandish costumes, he fired a pistol by Lennon’s ear as a prank and chased him through the studio halls at gunpoint during sessions for ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, screaming threats. Spector ultimately stole the master tapes of the album, forcing Lennon’s label to buy them back for $90,000.

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Following a near fatal car accident in 1974, which saw him thrown through the windscreen of his car in Hollywood, Spector embarked on a further reclusive period. Later acts who hired him upon his re-emergence would be subjected to similar treatment. Leonard Cohen felt the cold end of Spector’s muzzle while recording 1978’s ‘Death Of A Ladies Man’ and a meeting with Debbie Harry in the late ‘70s ended, she said, when Spector pushed a gun into her boot and said “bang”. Dee Dee Ramone would claim that Spector used armed coercion to stop him from leaving the studio while recording The Ramones‘ 1979’s album ‘End Of The Century’.

Between co-producing Yoko Ono’s ‘Season Of Glass’ in 1981 and Starsailor’s ‘Silence Is Easy’ in 2003, Spector remained professionally inactive. In 2003, he shot and killed actor and fashion model Lana Clarkson at his mansion after meeting her at West Hollywood’s House Of Blues venue. Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life for her murder in 2009.

Phil Spector
Phil Spector on trial in 2009 CREDIT: Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

Though Spector was the original pop auteur, influencing such pivotal acts as The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, Dusty Springfield, Bruce Springsteen, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine (his work also formed the foundations of movements such as shoegaze, art rock and dream pop), it’s Clarkson’s murder that will be remembered most on his death.

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