Phil Spector: The 'Mad Genius' of Rock'n'Roll
'His Own Darkness'
Phil Spector was born in the Bronx and moved to Los Angeles with his mother at age 13, four years after his father committed suicide. Spector, who learned to play guitar, piano, bass, drums, and French horn, had his first hit record in 1958 with his band, the Teddy Bears. The title of the song, "To Know Him Is to Love Him," was taken from the inscription on his father's tombstone.
As talented a musician as he was, he suffered from stage fright so severe it would make him physically ill. The Teddy Bears broke up, and Spector took a part-time job as a court stenographer while attending UCLA. But music was his passion, and he found his niche in producing. Mentored by independent producers Lee Hazelwood and Lester Sill, Spector learned the business and showed that he could make hits from behind the control board. In 1960, Spector had a hand in such hits as Ray Peterson's "Corrina, Corrina," Curtis Lee's "Pretty Little Angel Eyes," the Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me," and Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem," which he co-wrote. The next year he formed Phillies Records with Lester Sill, and his unique recording style began to take shape.
To achieve his signature "wall of sound," Spector jammed his small studio in Hollywood with a symphony's worth of musicians — multiple guitarists, background singers, two bassists, up to three pianists, drummers, percussionists, and more. No matter what artists he worked with in the 1960s, the songs he produced were unmistakably his — catchy, dynamic, and overwhelming — music designed for radio play. He was responsible for 20 hits over a three-year period, including the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You," and "Walking in the Rain;" Darlene Love's "(Today I Met) the Boy I'm Gonna Marry" and "Wait 'til My Bobby Gets Home;" and the Crystals ' "Then He Kissed Me" and "Da Doo Ron Ron." Tom Wolfe, in a 1964 profile, called Spector "the first tycoon of teen," having earned his first million before age 21. Spector provided the soundtrack for the teenage hopes and longings of an entire generation.
But Spector's phenomenal run was impossible to maintain when the British Invasion hit America in the mid-'60s. The Beatles and the bands that crossed the Atlantic with them infiltrated the charts, shoving American artists out of their way. Nevertheless, Spector was able to hold his own, producing records for the blue-eyed soul duo, the Righteous Brothers, who had monster hits with "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "Unchained Melody." He tried to repeat that success with Ike and Tina Turner on "River Deep, Mountain Wide." It was a wall-of-sound masterpiece and vintage Spector, but the record didn't catch on with the public, and Spector's career began to slip.
Phil Spector became more reclusive during this period, and darker sides of his personality began to emerge. He married Ronnie Bennett, the lead singer of Ronnie and the Ronettes, but by 1966, as Kurt Loder reports on VH1.com, Spector "became abusive, keeping her a prisoner in their mansion, and at one point, threatening to have a hit man kill her."
Ronnie Spector believed that her husband's aberrant behavior was the result of his mimicking the media's image of him. "Phil was a very normal person at the beginning of his career … but as time went on, they started writing about him being a genius and he said, yeah, I'm a genius. And then they would say he was a mad genius, so he became a mad genius."
In 1969, he took a small role in the film Easy Rider, playing a drug dealer. The next winter he sent out Christmas cards featuring a still shot from the film of him snorting cocaine. The inscription said, "A Little 'Snow' At Christmas Never Hurt Anyone!"
As the 1970s began, he started working with the Beatles and on some of their individual projects. He was called in to complete the Beatles' last album Let It Be, at a time when the Fab Four were barely speaking to each other and needed someone to pull the project together. (Interestingly, the recent re-release of the album called Let It Be…Naked, removed Spector's lush orchestrations to expose the band's raw talents.)
In 1970, he co-produced John Lennon's first solo effort, Plastic Ono Band, and produced many of Lennon's solo hits, including "Instant Karma (We All Shine On)," "Power to the People," and the poignant ballad "Imagine," which Lennon wrote at Spector's house. He also worked on George Harrison's solo debut All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangla Desh.
In 1975 he was once again in the studio with John Lennon, producing his album Rock'n'Roll, a collection of Lennon interpretations of early rock classics. It was a difficult time for both men, and they were drinking heavily while trying to record. The project foundered in boozy confusion, and Spector became very frustrated. Finally he blew up. According to author Mark Ribowsky in his book He's a Rebel, Spector "fired a shot into the ceiling" to get the musicians back on track. (Lennon jumped and held his ears. "Phil," he said, "if you're gonna kill me, kill me. But don't f*** with me ears. I need 'em.") Spector had a fascination with guns, and this incident was just a preview of what was to come.
In 1977, during a recording session for singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen's album Death of a Ladies' Man, violinist Bobby Bruce imitated Spector's lisp to his face. In response, Spector whipped out a pistol, pointed it at Bruce, and banished him from the studio. Cohen, like Lennon before him, felt that Spector had ignored and mistreated him as a musician during the sessions, later told Rolling Stone, "I don't think [Spector] can tolerate any other shadows in his own darkness."