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Posts from the ‘Pop music’ Category

The man who remade the Beach Boys

One day in 1971 a man called Jack Rieley called me up at the Melody Maker. He’d read a piece in which I’d attempted to persuade readers to listen again to the Beach Boys, who had fallen into disfavour as the evolution of rock gathered momentum in the late ’60s. Rieley told me that he’d recently taken over as the group’s manager. He was, he said, a former journalist and disc jockey. He liked what I’d written and started to tell me about his plans, which majored on the idea of restoring Brian Wilson to his role as the centre of the group’s creativity. Amen to that, I said. And when he added that his initial step was to get “Surf’s Up” — the legendary lost track from the lost album, Smile — into shape for release, I was completely on his side.

We met in London and talked several times, and before long he proved to be as good as his word. The song “Surf’s Up” became the title track of the first Rieley-era Beach Boys album, released that August, and was, in its completed form, the masterpiece one had always dreamed it would be. The album also contained new songs that signalled a change of emphasis, in which the band pivoted away from their old cars-and-surfboards image towards an engagement with a new generation.

Mike Love’s “Student Demonstration Time”, a riff on Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot on Cell Block No 9”, was the most blatant and clumsiest of those signs, but other songs demonstrated a more profound change of consciousness — particularly Carl Wilson’s introspective “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road”, to which Rieley contributed lyrics, Al Jardine’s “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” and “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, a collaboration between Brian and Rieley on which the latter actually sang the lead in an artless, heartfelt tone which proved perfectly appropriate to the material. Brian’s “‘Til I Die” was the album’s second masterpiece, a meditation on mortality of a sort that might not have thrilled fans looking for a new “Fun Fun Fun”.

Although most of these thoughts were in the heads of the Beach Boys themselves, there’s no doubt that Rieley nerved them up to accept the risk of abandoning the established following that would have been happy to see them turn into an oldies act. Released in August 1971, the album Surf’s Up brought them a different kind of attention, for which he had paved the way four months earlier when they successfully appeared as guests on a bill with the Grateful Dead at Fillmore East in front of an audience that had probably bracketed them with Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Rieley’s next trick was to release the follow-up album, titled Carl and the Passions: So Tough, in a double-album set with Pet Sounds. This invited the world to listen to their new music — including two intense Dennis Wilson ballads, “Cuddle Up” and “Make It Good”, and a couple of songs (“You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” and “Marcella”) to which Rieley again contributed lyrics — while appreciating anew the richness of their history. They also added two new members, bassist-singer Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, from the Flame, a South African band who had been taken under Carl Wilson’s wing.

Although neither of these albums succeeded in giving the Beach Boys a new hit single, their credibility had been largely restored. They were no longer the group in matching shirts and smiles. And, best of all, Brian seemed to be functioning again.

Their manager’s next gambit was his most audacious, and the one that would contribute to his downfall. Wanting to take them out of their comfort zone and put them in an unfamiliar environment where they could make music without distractions, he conceived a plan to move the whole band and their families to Holland, along with state of the art recording equipment — a complete quadraphonic studio, in effect — and a crew to assemble and operate it. In a village called Baambrugge, on the Angstel river between Amsterdam and Utrecht, they made the album titled Holland, full of superb music: Brian’s “Sail on, Sailor”, Dennis’s “Steamboat” and Carl’s “The Trader”, all with Rieley’s contributions to the lyrics, Dennis’s classic “Only with You”, beautifully sung by Carl, and Jardine’s “California Saga”, which contained verses from the Robinson Jeffers poem “The Beaks of Eagles”.

It also came with a bonus EP containing a “fairy tale” by Brian called “Mount Vernon and Fairway”, a piece for children which contains a few moments of Wilson magic and passages of Rieley’s narration. Before its release Jack got Brian to call me up at home and play it to me over the phone, which was a fairly surreal experience.

But for all its quality, Holland also failed to provide the group with hits, and the project had been so expensive that the man responsible was relieved of his duties. Eventually he was exposed as a bit of a charlatan — he was not, for example, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as he had apparently claimed — and some members of the group had always been suspicious of his methods and motives.

I found him to be pleasant, highly intelligent and quite intense, with an interest in the world beyond rock music. He stayed on in Holland, and in 1975 he gave me an album called Western Justice, a song cycle that he’d just written and recorded in Amsterdam in partnership with a Dutch singer-writer named Machiel Botman. It was an elaborate production, with many Beach Boyish touches, musically not outstanding but interesting for its subject matter: the consequences for humanity of the First World’s heedless appetite for its natural resources, framed in a story set at some undetermined date in the future. An accompanying text, in the form of the fictional diary of an unnamed narrator, contained these introductory words:

Hundreds gathered in the park this morning, and the atmosphere was sort of carnival. Fiddle players serenaded, people danced, craftsmen displayed their work and others just sat on the scorched dry remains of the grass, talking and singing and playing chess and doing nothing. The crowds grow daily as more factories and offices are forced to close. The afternoon’s Emergency Line was long and tiresome. Three hours of waiting yielded a box of dried milk, a large sack full of cereal and dozen transistor radio batteries (marked ‘Gift of the People of Surinam’). The last newspaper has stopped publishing, leaving radio as the sole remaining source of official information. Today’s reports were that new ‘Citizens’ Courts’ were springing up from Geneva to Chicago, putting businessmen and government functionaries on trial for hoarding and black market activities. The Emergency Pact foreign ministers met again in Brussels, but representatives of Canada, the Soviet Union and Spain didn’t even bother to turn up. I adjusted easily when the electricity was turned off, but the current lack of safe drinking water is beginning to annoy me…

And so the narrative continues, depicting the West in a state of chaos and panic, culminating in a conference of the African, Latin American and Asian nations at which the United States begs for help. This was written in 1975, remember.

After that I lost touch with Rieley. I know he stayed in Europe, working in music for a while, then starting some kind of telecommunications business, before dying in Berlin in 2015, aged 72. The ending of his three years with the Beach Boys had pretty well trashed his reputation. But he left his mark on some important recordings, some of which can be heard again on a set titled Feel Flows, a reissue of Sunflower and Surf’s Up, plus associated outtakes, different mixes, vocal-only tracks and so on, released earlier this year.

Whatever his ambitions cost the group in financial terms, by bringing them into the modern world he significantly improved their standing during his time as their manager. Maybe he did make stuff up, but if what he told me in 1971 was accurate, you could also say that we have him to thank for inspiring the reconstruction and release of “Surf’s Up” — still, in my view, as elevated as just about any piece of popular music made in my lifetime.

* Feel Flows is available in various formats, from a 2-CD set to a multi-album vinyl box. The photograph of Jack Rieley was taken in Holland in 1974 by Harm Botman.

The return of Abba

Abba’s decision to release an album of new songs and to prepare a new live show for London next spring led me straight into a row with an old friend who thinks the idea of turning themselves into “avatars” via motion-capture and de-ageing technology is pathetic. I disagree. While nothing would persuade me to attend a show featuring a hologram of a dead artist — Elvis, Amy, Roy Orbison, Michael Jackson — I’m fine with Abba doing it. That’s for two reasons. First, they’re still alive: the decision is entirely theirs. Second, I’m guessing that they’re not attracted by the idea of taking the stage 40 years after their last shows and doing versions of the routines they performed when they were in their twenties and thirties. They want to give us something that is both themselves and true to our memories of them.

This isn’t like Bob Dylan performing into his eighties, unafraid of showing his signs of age. Abba are a pop band, almost a cartoon of the genre, as the Monkees were 10 years before them. What made them different was the self-generated outpouring of great songs that captured a worldwide audience who responded not just to the glittery surface but to the real feelings inside “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game”. Perhaps I’m being too generous, but it seems to me that the avatar business is a way of respecting their audience’s vision of them. With career sales of 400 million records, it can’t be about the money.

I saw them at the Albert Hall in 1977, when they were, I suppose, in their prime. Afterwards I drove from Knightsbridge back to the office of The Times on Gray’s Inn Road to tap out a review that appeared in the next morning’s paper. I’m amused to see that I mentioned the influence of Phil Spector, many years before I discovered — via a biography of the band — that something their studio engineer had read in my 1972 book on Spector had influenced the way they made their records, right from the beginning. (If you think I’ve written about this before, you’re right. But I’m not going to let it go…)

Anyway, amid this morning’s lavish coverage of their announcement is a piece in The Times purporting to list their top 20 greatest singles. It excludes “The Day Before You Came”, which might just be their masterpiece. Honestly, I don’t know where they find them these days.

RIP Don Everly

After a decade of estrangement, the Everly Brothers chose the Royal Albert Hall in London as the venue for their historic reunion concert on September 22, 1983. It was an unforgettable evening, all tensions seemingly resolved as the harmonies soared once again on all those great hits of the ’50s and ’60s. Phil died in 2014, aged 74. Now Don has gone, too, at 84. Here’s how I reported the reunion concert in The Times, with a wonderful photograph by Nobby Clark.

Hollywood Eden

Summer’s here, more or less, and Joel Selvin’s new book, Hollywood Eden, is a good one to take to the beach, the park or the back garden. Subtitled “Electric Guitars, Fast Cars and the Myth of the California Paradise”, it’s the story of a group of white kids who poured out of the local high schools — Fairfax, University, Beverly Hills, Hawthorne and Roosevelt — intent on using the medium of the pop song to reflect a certain idea of life as it was lived by the jeunesse dorée of Southern California in the first half of the 1960s.

Employed as the pop columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1972 to 2009, Selvin also also contributed to Rolling Stone, the Melody Maker and other publications. His many books include biographies of Ricky Nelson and Bert Berns. It might seem strange to have a study of the Los Angeles scene from a San Francisco author, and indeed I’ve heard a grumble or two from native LA writers. But Selvin has certainly gathered enough information over the years to give credibility to his account.

This is a polyphonic tale switching back and forth between the stories of Jan and Dean, Kim Fowley, Sandy Nelson, Bruce Johnson and Terry Melcher, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Lou Adler, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, Johnny Rivers, the Byrds and the Mama’s and Papa’s as they proceed from the affluence and optimism of white America in the Eisenhower/Kennedy years to the dawn of the hippie era. The story of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence forms the spine of the book, much of it seen through the eyes of Jill Gibson, Jan’s girlfriend, who briefly replaced Michelle Phillips in the Mama’s and Papa’s and is the author’s principal source.

Berry himself was an interesting character: a confident, ambitious, driven young man who came from a rich family, studied medicine and had a fair amount of musical talent to go with his surf-god looks. In 1964 he and Dean had a hit with “Dead Man’s Curve”, a song about a fatal drag race along Sunset Boulevard between a Corvette Stingray and an E-type Jaguar whose morbid echoes gained an extra resonance two years later when Berry, a notoriously reckless driver, crashed his own Stingray close to that very spot, suffering injuries that effectively ended his career as a teen idol.

Other shadows dapple a mostly sunlit narrative: the motorcycle accident in which Nelson lost a leg, Wilson’s breakdown in 1964, and Adler’s cavalier treatment of Gibson when Phillips reclaimed her place in the group. They add a semblance of depth to a fast-paced book that reads like a proposal for a 10-part Netflix series and will certainly have many readers pulling out favourite tracks from the period (my random selection included J&D’s “I Found a Girl”, the Beach Boys’ “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and Bruce and Terry’s “Summer Means Fun”). The book ends without a hint of the horror that will soon erupt — in the form of the Manson murders — to demolish the security of the privileged caste whose golden hour it portrays.

* Joel Selvin’s Hollywood Eden is published by House of Anansi Press. The photograph is from a picture bag for Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” 45.

Peter Hammill in lockdown

Some time in the future, academics will pore over the ways people found to make music despite the restrictions imposed during the various lockdowns. But there are things that don’t need the benefit of time to provide perspective. The knowledge that Peter Hammill’s In Translation was created in cruel and unusual circumstances may increase his listeners’ admiration, but its quality transcends such considerations.

Coming 50 years after the release of his first solo release, Fool’s Mate, in the summer of 1971, this is Hammill’s covers album, with a difference. Only three of the songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “This Nearly Was Mine” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” — are likely to be well known to the Anglophone audience. The remainder are either Italian pop songs or melodies by classical composers with lyrics translated by Hammill. It’s the measure of the strength of his artistic character that the whole thing has the unity of a song cycle.

Working in his Wiltshire studio, he weaves his own guitars and keyboards together with samples to create orchestrations that are full of interesting textures — complementary and contrasting — while retaining a sense of economy and intimacy, finding common ground between material plucked from seemingly divergent sources. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that he creates a emotional microclimate within which songs as different as “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Gustav Mahler’s “Lost to the World” can thrive together.

Hammill’s vocal style, with its clear diction, complete absence of blues inflections and occasional use of a pronounced vibrato, has always emphasised the closeness of his music’s spirit to that of European art song, from the Weimar cabaret music of Kurt Weill to the chanson of Jacques Brel, filtered through the sensibility of British musicians who served their apprenticeships in the second half of the 1960s. You can hear this tendency at its most declamatory on “Ballad for My Death”, whose melody is by the tango master Astor Piazzolla but could easily be by Brel. Hammill dials back the drama on other songs, such as Fabrizio de Andre’s “Hotel Supramonte” and Gabriel Fauré’s “After a Dream”, that might have been submerged by similar treatment.

“The Folks” and “This Nearly” are songs he grew up with, so he’s not going to poke fun at their 1950s sentiments. He takes them seriously, delivering them in his ardent English semi-croon, relishing their shapely contours and allowing listeners to make up their own minds about what the lyrics represent. “I (Who Have Nothing)” comes with drama built in: you either sing it that way or you don’t sing it at all, and Hammill’s version adds a shadow second vocal to emphasise what he calls the song’s “somewhat creepy nature”, as well as the hallucinatory sound of a mellotron (I think) and a paranoid electric guitar.

Perhaps the most striking arrangement of all is provided for Piero Ciampi’s “Il Vino”, a late-night drinking song that sways to synthesised strings, a cheap organ and glockenspiel. Its finale reminded Hammill of Nino Rota and thus of a “Fellini-esque aesthetic” which, he thinks, suffuses the whole project.

In Translation is an exceptional album: warm, approachable, and betraying no sense of the isolation in which it was created. Rather the reverse, as Hammill suggests when, in his notes, he remarks that, as well as the coronovirus, he had Brexit on his mind while he was making it. “Now the free travel around Europe which has been such a feature, pleasure and education in my adult life has ended,” he writes, “and all the benefits of cultural exchange are gone with it. I wouldn’t have been able to approach or understand many of these songs without that experience and to lose it is piteous.” It’s hard to believe that one day, when our corner of the world has come to its senses, those borders will not be open again.

* Peter Hammill’s In Translation is released today on the Fie! label: http://www.sofasound.com. The photograph is from the album cover and was taken by James Sharrock.

The arts of Bob Crewe

Perhaps the greatest week of Bob Crewe’s life was the one in 1975 when Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You”, which he had produced and co-composed with Kenny Nolan, fell from the No 1 position in the Billboard Hot 100 and was immediately replaced by Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”, which he and Nolan had also written together.

Or perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe it was the one in 1994 when the first retrospective show of his paintings and mixed-media artworks opened at a gallery in West Hollywood, after he had left the music business behind and climbed out of the valley into which his addictions had led him.

Crewe must have had a lot of great weeks in his life, as the man whose credits as a co-writer and/or producer, running all the way from doo-wop to disco, included the Rays’ “Silhouettes”, Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue”, Freddy Cannon’s “Tallahassie Lassie”, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Jenny Take a Ride/See See Rider”, Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” and Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes’ “I Wanna Dance Wit’ Choo”. And, of course, towering above everything, that fabulous string of hits he produced and co-wrote with Bob Gaudio for the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll”, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Any More)”, “You’re Ready Now”, “The Proud One” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.

Born in 1930 in Newark, New Jersey, Crewe was a blond Adonis in the Tab Hunter mould. He looked like a star, custom-built for American Bandstand, and he had a decent voice, as Jerry Wexler recognised when he persuaded him to record a solo album in Muscle Shoals in 1977. But the studio was where he expressed himself. He couldn’t read a note of music but he had well tuned ears and an instinct for a great hook, musical or lyrical, and he knew how to hire the best arrangers, men like Charlie Calello and Hutch Davie. The idiom didn’t matter. As Andrew Loog Oldham put it: “No one spoke more dialects of ‘hit’ than Bob Crewe.”

But there was another side to his talent, and it was one he seemed to have abandoned after ending his studies at the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village after only a year. Mentored by two older gay men, Austin Avery Mitchell, who showed him the art galleries of New York, Paris and Rome, and the photographer Otto Fenn, an early Warhol collaborator, he had begun painting and had his first show in 1950. Soon, however, music took over and ruled his life for the next quarter of a century, first as a crooner and then as a writer-producer. But a love of the visual media was merely dormant, and after being knocked over by a car in Los Angeles in 1977 he began to rededicate himself to art.

Influenced by Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tàpies, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, he made abstract pieces out of a variety of materials, characterised by a love of texture acquired from Dubuffet and a feeling for outline and repetition that may have come from Johns. Leafing through Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound, a new book about his artworks, it’s easy to respond to his instinct for shape and surface. Here’s one of his pieces, Excavation 8/3/96, juxtaposed with one of the hit singles for which he’s remembered:

I chose that painting because, like many of his pieces, it contains the motif of a perfect circle — in this case three of them, half-hidden within the complex surface markings inscribed on three wooden panels, 7ft tall by 9ft wide. Whether those circles reminded him of all the hits he’d helped to make, I have no idea. I’m not a psychologist. And I am not, of course, an art critic; that side of things is explored by the painter Peter Plagens in one of the book’s three essays. But I do like much of what I see here, and it would be interesting to be able to examine it in a gallery one day.

Crewe’s role in the Four Seasons story was brought back to public attention in Jersey Boys, the musical that opened its run on Broadway in 2005 before enjoying success around the world. He died in 2014, in the retirement home where he had lived after receiving serious injuries from a fall down a flight of stairs in the home of his younger brother Dan, who had been his business partner in the 1960s.

In the first of the book’s essays, Andrew Loog Oldham locates Crewe within the rapid evolution of post-war American popular culture, alongside such figures as Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce and James Dean. Oldham knew him in the hit-making days and watched him at work, making and selling his music in the days when he could start a song with lines like “Loneliness is the cloak you wear / A deep shade of blue is always there.” And, linking Crewe’s two artistic preoccupations, he observes: “He liked to think of music in terms of colour and challenged his musicians to think that way along with him.” Alone with his paints and his brushes and his palette knives, he challenged himself.

* Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound: Compositions in Art and Music, edited by Dan Crewe, is published in the US by Rizzoli Electa ($55). The photograph of Crewe in the studio in 1966 is from the book. The 45 is “Music to Watch Girls By” by the Bob Crewe Generation (DynoVoice, 1967).

(Not) leaving on a jet plane

Lynda Laurence, Jimmy Webb, Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell (photo:Jim Britt)

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the album the Supremes made with the songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb for Motown in 1972. The 26th of their 29 studio albums, the collaboration represented a pretty lateral move for the group. Commercially, it wasn’t a success. Its leaden title — The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb — was a bit of a charisma-killer. Only one single was issued: its A-side was the one track on the album in which Webb had no hand. “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”, a nondescript cover of a song from the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, produced by Motown regulars Sherlie Matthews and Deke Richards, made it to No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100: a long way from their long run of chart-toppers in the mid-’60s.

It was in 1965 that the Supremes first sang a Jimmy Webb song. That was “My Christmas Tree”, produced by Harvey Fuqua for the group’s Christmas album. Webb was 18 years old and had signed his first publishing deal with the Motown-affiliated Jobete Music, and this was the first of his songs to be recorded by a major artist. By the time he joined the group in the studio seven years later, his track record included “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. With the Fifth Dimension’s Magic Garden, he’d shown that his songs and arrangements could shape the sound of a sophisticated vocal group.

At no point does the Supremes’ Jimmy Webb album sound like a Motown production. No Funk Brothers, that’s for sure. It’s a typical product of early-’70s Hollywood, applying standard-issue studio polish to modish concerns represented by the presence of a Joni Mitchell song (“All I Want” from Blue) and Webb’s own “When Can Brown Begin?”, which he wrote after hearing Sammy Davis Jr use that phrase. There’s not much inspiration to be found in “Silent Voices”, a pleasant cover of Mina’s “La Voce del Silenzio”, and any comparison between this version of Harry Nilsson’s “Paradise” and the Ronettes’ original provides only irrefutable evidence of Phil Spector’s genius.

But there are two memorable moments. One is Webb’s “I Keep It Hid”, the only track on which the excellent Jean Terrell doesn’t take the lead. This one is sung by Mary Wilson, and it was her recent death that made me go back and listen to it again. The Supremes’ greatest team player — the only one who was there from start to finish — had a lovely voice, if not a wildly distinctive one. Here she handles a very nice pop ballad with poise and confidence.

The other moment is one I’d put up alongside any of Webb’s early classics. It’s called “5:30 Plane” and it’s one of those marvellous songs in which he captured all the subtleties and nuances of an entire relationship through snatches of thought and circumstantial detail. The singer is in the throes of a break-up. Both parties have been unfaithful and things have become desperate. “I don’t want to know about the whole affair,” she sings, “and you don’t want to know about his pretty hair.” So she’s decided to go. She doesn’t want any more talking. She’s bought a ticket to another town. But here she still is.

What makes you want to play this mid-tempo song over and over again is the glorious melody over beautiful changes, with a hook in the chorus that represents Webb at his best as a pop-music craftsman. But what makes it a great song is the detail of the flight time. “I didn’t want to be here, baby, when you got home, sitting alone,” Terrell sings, her voice soaring and swelling with sadness over the supporting choir, “but the 5:30 plane has already gone.” You’re in the room with her as she sits there, thinking of that plane heading through the evening sky towards Houston or Phoenix or Albuquerque, waiting for what comes next.

Behind the Curtain of Sound

“Too much reporting on the Wall of Sound this morning — #RememberTheVictim,” a Radio 4 listener tweeted today while Emma Barnett, the presenter of Woman’s Hour, was interviewing Mick Brown, one of Phil Spector’s biographers. The interview was, in any case, mostly about Lana Clarkson, the victim of the fatal shooting in the Pyrenees Castle in Los Angeles on February 3, 2003, and the darker sides of Spector’s character.

Fair enough. In the end, Clarkson’s death was why Spector made headlines throughout the last 18 years of his life. Whatever actually occurred in his mansion that night, the gun was his and if he had not persuaded her to go home with him then she would have woken up the next morning as usual. Probably she would still be alive today, approaching her 60th birthday.

There’s no shortage of figures in every branch of the arts whose private lives would be considered deplorable by a majority of people. Their admirers are left with the problem of how to deal with it. I can understand why some now find it impossible to listen to Spector’s records, although I don’t feel that way myself.

I met him four or five times in the early ’70s, mostly for interviews and once in New York for the three days in late 1971 during which he, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” at the Record Plant. The most curious of those occasions was an evening in London at the Inn on the Park, a hotel at the bottom of Park Lane, where my friend Penny Valentine, then of Disc & Music Echo, and I were scheduled to share an hour of interview time with him. Two days earlier I’d interviewed his wife, Ronnie, at the same location; she was promoting the release of a single, “Try Some, Buy Some”, on the Apple label, written by George Harrison and produced by her husband.

The interview with Phil began in the late afternoon of an April day, at about five o’clock. We were met in the lobby and shown up to his suite by his long-serving bodyguard, George Brand, a large, dark-suited, near-silent former cop. If the curtains in the suite weren’t already closed, that’s certainly how it felt. Penny and I sat down and Phil began to talk: an almost unbroken monologue in which he told stories and boasted about the number of hits in which he’d played a vital but unacknowledged role. They included Richie Valens’s “Donna” and practically everything Elvis recorded after leaving the army. These claims were clearly baseless, although he did have a tenuous connection with both, just enough to make you wonder. “Donna” was recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, where Spector refined his signature sound and recorded most of his hits. Elvis’s post-army recordings often involved input from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, to whom Spector was apprenticed when he moved to New York in 1960.

So…? But no. He had to have been fibbing, even though he had an acoustic guitar in his lap and every now and then played a snatch of a song he said he’d written. Why on earth would you need to do that, if you’d been responsible for “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” and “River Deep — Mountain High”? Every now and then Penny and I glanced at each other in the near-darkness, silently registering a mutual astonishment.

But that wasn’t the strangest aspect of the encounter. The scheduled hour of our time together bled into a second hour, and then a third, entirely at Spector’s behest. He needed company, or so it seemed. At one stage he broke off to take a transatlantic call from Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali’s cornerman. Then he went back to telling his tales.

I’ve no idea of exactly what time we managed to get away, but it was certainly late. Nothing remotely untoward happened — he was courteous and amusing and in most discernible respects it was a very civilised evening — but I got the impression that although Penny was as mesmerised as I was by his performance, she was grateful that we could leave together.

In later years I heard several such stories from people who had visited his LA mansion: descriptions of the darkness, of the obsessive need for company, of the increasing presence of bodyguards and the sense of paranoia it all conveyed. Some people thought he was an arrogant jerk. But I also spoke to people in the music business who’d known him for many years and liked him enormously despite all that. They were people like the veteran music publisher Paul Case, who befriended him on his arrival in New York and later told me the important story of how, when the teenaged Spector was doing a show with the Teddy Bears right at the beginning of his career, he was cornered in a restroom by four young toughs who urinated on him. Lou Adler met him in those days and thought him “obnoxious”; later they established a good rapport. He could be enormously sentimental, which is not always a good sign. And of course we eventually learnt from Ronnie’s autobiography what was going on behind the façade of his marriage, and what it was like being married to him.

Anyway, Gold Star may have been razed many years ago — the site on Santa Monica Blvd is now a parking lot for a mini-mall — but the Wall of Sound still stands, and despite it all I found myself listening to my favourite Spector productions after hearing of his death today. Here are five of them:

1 The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” (1964) Unmatchable, of course. Gene Page’s arrangement, Earl Palmer’s drums, the basses of Ray Pohlman (acoustic) and Carole Kaye (electric), the guitars of Barney Kessel and Tommy Tedesco, probably Julius Wechter on vibes, the Blossoms and Cher on backing vocals, and Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield tearing the heart out of the song Spector wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and holding it up for our inspection. (It’s worth pointing out that Spector never just added his name to the songwriting credits to grab some extra cash; among his contributions to this one was the addition of the section based on the I-IV-V “La Bamba” chords.)

2 The Ronettes: “Born to Be Together” (1965) Maybe the most perfect representation of the Spector sound, its expression of romantic ecstasy enhanced by his favourite trick of recording the echo of the strings on a separate track and then using that instead of the primary signal, providing an ethereal effect above the boiling, pounding rhythm section and the chanting voices. This arrangement on this Spector-Mann-Weil song is by Jack “Specs” Nitzsche. The drums are by Hal Blaine.

3 The Crystals: “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” (1961) The B-side of the first Crystals single, Philles 100, the glorious almost pure gospel “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”. Recorded at Mirasound in New York, “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” is a lovely slice of Brill Building teenage pop, set to the baion rhythm — bom bom-bom — loved by Mike Stoller, Bert Berns and others: “Got the heebie jeebies, got the shakes / And I’ve got a funny feeling that you’ve got just what it takes…” Co-written by Hank Hunter, with whom Phil also composed “Second Hand Love” for Connie Francis. Laura Nyro loved this one enough to include it in her solo shows.

4 Ike & Tina Turner: “I’ll Never Need More Than This” (1967) The last but one Philles single, co-written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, given only a limited US release after the failure of “River Deep”. Arranged by Jack Nitzsche and perhaps the most tumultuous of all Spector’s recordings: the sound of thunderbolts, crashing ocean waves, cliffs crumbling into valleys, with Tina as the lone figure in this Caspar David Friedrich landscape.

5 Darlene Love: “Lord, If You’re a Woman” (1977) A short-lived comeback with his new label — Warner-Spector in the US, Phil Spector International in the UK — and two classic 45s, both calling on the Almighty for assistance: Dion’s “Make the Woman Love Me” and this astonishing thing, an extraordinary concatention of noise arranged by Nino Tempo. A song that could almost be mistaken for a feminist anthem is credited on the UK 45 to “Spector”. The US version credits it to “Mann-Weil”. The riff on the bridge, from “Then He Kissed Me”, has only one author. And Love, who had provided the uncredited lead vocal on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” in 1963, returned as a star in her own right. (In 1993 she sued Spector for unpaid royalties and was awarded a quarter of a million dollars; did she think fondly of him every time she was invited to perform “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” for David Letterman on TV, or revived it at her own annual holiday-time show? Mixed feelings, I expect, like most of us.)

* My biography of Phil Spector, titled Out of His Head and first published in 1972, was revised, updated and republished in paperback in 2003 by Omnibus Press.

Happy birthday, Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick was spotted by Burt Bacharach while she was singing background on the Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce” with her sister Dee Dee, her aunt Cissy Houston and their friend Doris Troy in the summer of 1961. She was 20 years old. A year later she recorded “Don’t Make Me Over”, the first of her string of hits written by Bacharach and his lyricist, Hal David.

She had grown up singing gospel music alongside members of her family in the Drinkard Singers and the Gospelairs before studying music at a college in West Hartford, Connecticut. Her musicianship enabled her to cope with the unusual interval leaps and mixed time signatures that Bacharach introduced to the pop music of the early 1960s, blending R&B with Broadway; her poise, her control, her distinctive timbre and her avoidance of gospel gestures such as extravagant melisma and roughened texture made her voice the perfect instrument for this unique purpose.

I love almost everything Dionne ever did, from the early Bacharach masterpieces of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By” right up to “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” with Jerry Ragovoy and “His House and Me” with Thom Bell. But there’s a special place in my affections for an album called Here I Am, released in 1965, in which the Bacharach/David/Warwick combination reaches a series of peaks.

A couple of those peaks are ballads, written, arranged and performed with exquisite delicacy: “In Between the Heartaches” and “If I Ever Make You Cry”. But even more remarkable to my ear is “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)”, an epic of orchestra pop remarkable not just for the double set of brackets in its title but for an astonishing swirling momentum driven not so much by a conventional rhythm section as by the strings, the choir and periodic fusillades of percussion: tympani, tubular bells, boo-bams. And on top of it all, Dionne is doing as she always has done, negotiating Bacharach’s melodic twists, inhabiting Hal David’s words, singing like a real person who happens to be in possession of a divine gift.

Today, it’s exactly 80 years since Marie Dionne Warrick was born in Orange, New Jersey. A very happy birthday to her, with deepest gratitude.

(Not quite) almost like being in love

One evening in the late ’70s I was at home watching The Shirley Bassey Show on BBC1 — not such a terrible idea, since she presented some interesting guests, from Mel Tormé and Janis Ian to Stan Getz and Johnny Nash — when something Bassey herself was singing stopped me in my tracks.

“Almost Like Being in Love” was written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for their musical Brigadoon in 1947. It was a hit for Frank Sinatra, and became a standard. Shirley Bassey has sung it throughout her career, and on YouTube you’ll find several versions in conventional upbeat, ring-a-ding-ding arrangements celebrating the singer’s delight at half-concealing the rapture of love.

On this occasion, however, she and her musical director, Arthur Greenslade, did something different. They recast the song in a minor key, with slightly modified melodic and harmonic contours, setting it to a languid, understated Latin rhythm. I hadn’t heard it from then until now, more than 40 years later, but it always stayed in my head as the way the song ought to be sung.

So here it is, miraculously preserved, with its chiming vibes and pattering congas, hovering strings and 12 bars of beautiful Getzian tenor saxophone (Tony Coe, maybe?), and a bitter-sweet vocal performance that hints at layers of emotional complexity beneath Mr Lerner’s words. It sounds just as exquisite and ambiguous as I remembered. Imagine how cool it would be if Sade, Tracey Thorn or Paula Morelenbaum took this arrangement and recorded it today. Cool, yes, but no cooler than Ms Bassey.