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"My records are built like a Wagner opera. They start simply and they end with dynamic force, meaning and purpose. It’s in the mind, I dreamed it up. It’s like art movies."


One Legend on Another: Excerpts From Greg Shaw’s Overview of the Wall of Sound Creator's Career
The increasingly bizarre behavior of Phil Spector, culminating in his murder conviction on Monday (4/13) has effectively obscured his massive contribution to pop music as a record maker, songwriter and talent scout. The late, great rock critic Greg Shaw wrote an in-depth retrospective for The History of Rock in 1982, which can now be found on the subscription site rocksbackpages.com, an invaluable resource for musical and pop-cultural historians, as well as an endlessly readable cornucopia of the best music journalism of the last four decades. What follows are highlights of Greg’s piece.

PHIL SPECTOR WAS BORN in the Bronx, New York, on 26 December 1940, into a lower-middle-class Jewish family. In 1953, following the death of Phil’s father some four years earlier, Mrs Spector moved Phil and sister Shirley to Los Angeles, where they settled in the predominantly Jewish community around Fairfax Avenue, known locally as “Bagel Junction.”

Phil enrolled at the local school, Fairfax High, where he became involved in various music-making activities. In his last two years at school he formed a vocal group (later to become the Teddy Bears) with two schoolmates, Marshall Leib and Annette Kleinbard. One of the songs Spector had written for the group was “To Know Him Is to Love Him”; the title came from an inscription on his father’s grave, “To Have Known Him Was to Have Loved Him.” In contrast to his later productions, the song was slow and solemn, almost dirge-like—and yet, at the same time, soft and dreamy. It was not a great deal different from the sound that vocal groups like the Fleetwoods were making, but it did reveal a tender streak that Spector was never to lose…

Aged only 19, Spector arrived in New York in May 1960 and began work under Leiber and Stoller, at first playing guitar on Coasters and Drifters sessions and then moving on to production work of his own. The heavy string arrangements and the complex Latin American rhythms that were trademarks of Leiber and Stoller recordings in the early Sixties had a marked effect on the impressionable Spector, and he was later to make great use of those techniques as part of his famed “wall of sound.”

While in New York he gained something of a reputation as a songwriter, most notably as co-composer (with lyricist Jerry Leiber) of “Spanish Harlem”—a hit for former Drifters lead singer Ben E. King in 1961. Lyrics were Spector’s weak point, but through his publishers he teamed up with various lyricists and was hired for production jobs that led to hits with Ray Peterson (“Corrina Corrina”), Curtis Lee (“Pretty Little Angel Eyes”), and Gene Pitney (“Every Breath I Take”), all in 1961. On these he was able to put his experience with Leiber and Stoller to work. Pitney’s record in particular presaged his later productions: daring, experimental, almost out of control. It was also one of the most expensive records ever made in New York up to that time, costing $14,000 for a single session.

Leiber and Stoller also set Spector a good example with their expertise at hustling, working the publishers and record labels to get deals together, and all the rest that had to be done to be a successful independent operator in the early Sixties. They also taught him the value of good songs. At the time, they had some of New York’s best songwriters on tap, people like Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. For the rest of his career, Spector would always come back to these same writers and publishers to be sure he had the best pop songs (or co-writers) for his productions…

In December 1960 Spector had made a trip back to the West Coast, where he resumed work for Lester Sill and produced the female vocal trio, the Paris Sisters—the first of Spector’s girl groups. Like the Ronettes and the Crystals later on, the Paris Sisters proved ideal material for Spector: inexperienced and malleable, they could be manipulated by him as he chose. Spector produced five singles with this group, of which “I Love How You Love Me” reached #5 in the U.S. pop charts late in 1961.

Tired of being merely a producer working for others, Spector went into partnership with his old business mentor, Lester Sill, in November 1961 and formed the Philles (Phil-Les) record label. The new company established itself with “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” and “Uptown” by Spector’s latest find, the Crystals.

In 1962 Spector bought Sill out and from then on Philles was under Spector’s control alone. Demanding the best, Spector gathered around him some of the most talented musicians, arrangers and studio engineers then working on the West Coast. With this nucleus of talent he was ready to go out and conquer the pop charts.

Following on from the success of the Crystals, there came a run of major hits: “He’s a Rebel,” “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others’ Hearts,” “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Not Too Young to Get Married,” “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “A Fine Fine Boy,” “Baby I Love You,” “Walkin’ in the Rain,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin” Feelin’” and “Just Once in My Life.” There was also a wealth of lesser-known gems.

The artists credited on these discs included the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and Darlene Love. But the artists—even those comparatively well-known before they met Spector—were secondary to what Spector did with them, and all these records may legitimately be referred to as “Phil Spector records.”…

Spector may have heard great orchestral movements in his head, but to get them on record he needed the right arranger. With typical luck, he came upon Jack Nitzsche. The arranger’s job is to comprehend what the producer has in mind (no simple task with Spector) and translate that into detailed instructions for the various players of horns, strings and percussion instruments, as well as backing vocalists on the session—and with Spector’s sessions, that could mean a small army.

Although Spector claimed he was quite capable of handling his own arrangements it is probable that he learned much from this association. Nitzsche’s creative contribution, from the string lines on “Baby I Love You” (the Ronettes) or “River Deep Mountain High” (Ike & Tina Turner) to the thunder cracks in “Walking in the Rain” (the Ronettes), was as crucial as that of the songwriters, engineers, players and every other quality ingredient that went into the final product.

Spector and Nitzsche consistently made what could be called two-minute symphonic operettas with bold, aggressive arrangements that made classical elements sound as powerful in the rock & roll idioms as the more traditional guitar (which, despite Spector’s proficiency with the instrument, is rarely heard in a solo vein on his records). Once they began experimenting, the R&B flavor of the early records gave way to a new style—soaring wide, bursting the limits of standard pop. Along with Spector’s production technique, Nitzsche’s arrangements provided the desired effect. Spector said that he was "writing little symphonies for the kids.”

Spector’s talents as a musician and songwriter may often be overlooked, but the one thing universally acknowledged is his triumph in forging a totally new sound, something never before heard on record. Considering the limited equipment available to him, it was s superb achievement. Some commentators consider the influence of the Gold Star Studios to have been vital. Larry Levine, his, engineer at Gold Star, thinks not. "If Phil hadn”t gone to Gold Star, he would have gone to another studio and gotten a different but equally great sound." Nevertheless, Gold Star was the one studio in the world where that sound could be made, because of its uniquely-designed live echo chamber. The echo in the studio was so overpowering that it took Spector some time to adjust to it and it got the better of him on “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his first Gold Star recording.

Judging from his records, the sound in Spector’s head was a powerful surge of rhythm, as thick as ocean waves. He possessed an acute sense of balance and was able to blend many differential elements into a unified sound without it all becoming murky. Yet it was far from clear: when the chords altered you just felt the change. He drew attention away from individual instruments by massing them together to build dense chord patterns. The only instrument that stood out was the drum kit, usually played by Hal Blaine or Earl Palmer. Its rolling sound was turned to thunder by Gold Star’s echo chamber, and this gave the tracks a solid underpinning.

After he had got bored with his girl groups, Spector found renewed vigor when he began work with the Righteous Brothers. His biggest success with the group—and undoubtedly one of his greatest productions—was “You’ve Lost That Lovin” Feelin’” which, in spite of its length (nearly four minutes) and its doom-laden tempo, proved a massive world-wide hit, topping both the U.S. and U.K. charts in 1965...

Although successful on the R&B circuit, Ike & Tina Turner had never established themselves in the Hot 100. And when Spector offered them $20,000 to sever their contract with Ray CharlesTangerine label, Ike and Tina jumped at the chance. Once they were signed to Philles, Spector searched for a suitable song for them to record. He found it with the Barry-Greenwich composition “River Deep Mountain High.” Staking everything on his magnificent, if controversial, recording of the song, Spector was profoundly shocked when the record flopped and the music business turned its back on him.

After a period of retirement, Spector re-emerged in the late Sixties and began production work with the Beatles—but they were then fast disintegrating. His best work was done with George Harrison (All Things Must Pass) and John Lennon (Imagine), but Spector was no longer a trend-setter: he was working with artists whose current reputations far exceeded his own and—perhaps more significantly—the rest of the world had caught up with him. The truth was that he was now only one of a number of very good producers.

During the Seventies he worked with a variety of artists including Dion and Cher, but the magic had gone. Nevertheless, Spector had been at the top in the Sixties and had given the word “producer” a new meaning. He never saw his job as merely the accurate recording of someone else’s music. Spector’s own assessment of his work was typically grandiose: "My records are built like a Wagner opera. They start simply and they end with dynamic force, meaning and purpose. It’s in the mind, I dreamed it up. It’s like art movies."…

Spector’s slogan back in 1961 was “Tomorrow’s Sound Today” and he more than lived up to the title: his records continue to sound as exciting…as they did in the early Sixties. Advancing technology has made many other records of the era seem quaint, but not Spector’s. Made in primitive three-track studios, they still have the power to astound.