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.