Phil Spector: Biography, Songs & Trial

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will extrapolate on the life, career, and recording techniques of Phil Spector. We will examine what made Spector's approach to music so successful, as well as why his personal life and professional career fell apart.

Phil Spector, prison photo 2009
Phil Spector, 2009 mugshot

Phil Spector is one of the foremost producers in the development of popular music. Most of the hero worship in rock music goes to musicians and performers, but Phil Spector is one of the few producers who earned something akin to rock star status. His technical and creative brilliance is beyond question, but in his later years he became equally famous for his erratic behavior, alcoholism, and eventually, violence.

Early Life and Career

Phil Spector was born in 1940 in New York City. Showing early musical talent, Spector experienced his first hit with his band The Teddy Bears in 1958 with 'To Know Him Is to Love Him.' During his early career, Spector would make several attempts to succeed as a performer, but his true skills would be found in the studio.

In the early 1960s, Spector migrated to Los Angeles where he would make most of his most successful records. While trying, and mostly failing, to make it as a performer, he gained valuable experience working with producers and learning the ropes of the rapidly developing recording industry. During this period, Spector also advanced his skills as a session musician and songwriter.

The Wall of Sound

In 1961, Spector founded his own record company Philles Records. Spector's first major acquisition for Philles Records was the Crystals, one of the most significant acts of the burgeoning girl group subgenre. Between 1961 and 1964, the Crystals would churn out hit after hit with Spector as producer including 'There's No Other Like My Baby,' 'He's a Rebel,' 'Da Do Ron Ron,' and 'Then He Kissed Me.'

During the first half of the 1960s, Spector perfected a sound that would come to be dubbed The Wall of Sound. Spector was one of the very first music producers to use the studio itself as a musical instrument in order to create sounds that could only exist on record. Using large numbers of musicians to overwhelm the studio with sound, Spector devised ways to use the limitations of early 1960s recording technology to his advantage. Spector would utilize the natural echo in a recording studio to create natural reverb, a technique that would be profoundly influential to future generations of producers.

The Ronettes, 1966

In 1963, Philles Records signed another major girl group, the Ronettes. With Spector behind the board, the Ronettes would experience considerable success with hits like 'Be My Baby' and 'Walking in the Rain.' Spector would later marry Ronettes lead singer Veronica Bennett in 1968. In 1964, Spector produced two of his most enduring songs 'Unchained Melody,' and 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling,' by The Righteous Brothers.

In all of the above-mentioned hits, the sound of the recording was perhaps more important than the songs themselves. Spector proved that a skilled record producer, like a skilled film director, could create atmosphere and emotion that brought out the very best of the materials at hand.

Seclusion, Bizarre Behavior, and Decline

As the girl groups and pop styles that he was most famous for began to ebb in popularity in the late 1960s, Phil Spector's behavior became ever more peculiar. Spector earned a reputation as a volatile drunk and as a draconian presence in the studio. Spending more and more time locked away in his mansion in suburban Los Angeles, Spector took to only emerging for brief periods of time outside of his home.

During this period, Spector's label ceased to function, but Spector would enjoy success with his remix of the Beatles' album 'Let It Be.' The success of this record resulting in his producing several solo records for the Beatles including George Harrison's 'All Things Must Pass,' and a co-production credit on John Lennon's 'Imagine.' Although Lennon shared Spector's interest in intoxicants, Spector's enthusiasm for brandishing firearms in the studio disconcerted the more mild-mannered Lennon. Spector also survived a near fatal car accident in 1974, which left him with major head injuries.

Leonard Cohen would experience similar gun and alcohol related chaos when Spector produced his 1977 album 'Death of a Ladies Man.' In numerous interviews since, Cohen and other observers have described a megalomaniacal, booze-soaked Spector often threatening people with loaded guns. Accounts of this kind would gain relevance when Spector's violent behavior would come to a head years later.

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