Pop music gave birth to countless numbers of singers, bands, one-hit-wonders and music producers. Until the early 1960s, however, there were very few important producers the size of Phil Spector; who, to use author Tom Woolfe’s phrase, was the “fist tycoon of teen.”
His many pop “projects” that often left a lasting impression in the music market, seemingly were started for one major purpose: to show and celebrate the genius of Phil Spector, not the artists, the studio band, or the songwriter (unless it was Phil Spector, too).
All over the music industry of the early 1960s, he was viewed as arrogant, eccentric and a loudmouth; these were some of the friendlier expressions in use for him back then. While already at that time very few popular music impresarios really cared about their artists and their development, Spector left the impression of a reckless experimenter and exploiter who treated his musicians highly inappropriately and seemingly tried to steal all the fame from them.
In order to let his own star shine even brighter, many critics and musicians said. Furthermore, many recordings never were issued, as Spector often found them faulty – for no reason at all, as many musicians complained; this resulted in a number of artists who were signed to his label but for years were denied publication.
At a very young age, 21, Bronx-born Spector already was one of the few big players in the American pop music market and had a vision that he would change how pop music would be sold, produced and appreciated by millions of youngsters all over the world. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was a fan who publicly idolized him; and there are many traces of Spector’ work in Wilson’s fantastic studio productions.
Spector wrote his fist hit record “To Know him is to Love him” in 1958. The song by the Teddy Bears hit #1 in the Billboard charts in December and from this time the American sound of pop music was about to change.
His trademark, the “wall of sound,” now was to appear very often in massive chart hits as “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” or “Be My Baby.” (Even though the original wall-of-sound expression goes back to jazz band leader Stan Kenton).
With his own record label Philles, from 1961 onward he produced hit after hit, in a way. Even though the label had a very small output – not even 50 singles and a dozen LPs – the short-lived affair left a mark. Nevertheless, Spector’s label ceased production in 1967. And not only did he produce his own acts; he was also hired or helped out with other projects. His work for the Beatles, The Beach Boys, George Harrison, Dion, and The Plastic Ono Band was mostly appreciated, while his work for Lenard Cohen, John Lennon and the Ramones was not really a big success.
Author MacLeod here assumes that probably then again “Phil Spector’s ego got in the way.” Those external projects were his main occupation after 1967. That year his Ike and Tina Turner LP production of “River Deep, Mountain High” was a commercial failure, and he then probably developed a robust hatred and fury towards the record buying public and the entire world.
Years passed as Spector time and again tried but then turned his back to the music industry and people in general, as he felt misunderstood and even humiliated since nobody seemed to understand him, his music and most of all his genius. Most of the 1990s and he spent in isolation on his estates.
MacLeod points to many situations and recording sessions when Spector simultaneously displayed signs of insecurity and superiority; signs that maybe his personality was most fragile from an early ago onward, and that he fed from the appreciation of others.
Spector’s career in the music business ended in 2003, when actress Lana Clarkson was found dead at his Pyrenees castle, and the formerly famous producer was seen with a gun in his hand directly afterwards. Her death was ruled a homicide, and Spector was charged with murder. Finally in 2009, he was found guilty, his history with keeping women captive at his houses, and an obsession with firearms did not make things better for him. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
MacLeod, a lecturer, songwriter and music producer from Dublin is no stranger to the music of the sixties, as he has already published a book on girl groups of that decade. Here he devotes lots of details and space to one of the most important pop producers of all times, who changed the sound of popular music and once created not just hit records but works of art. While before him, music recordings were already done with emphasis on an ideal combination of voice, instruments and background/rhythm group, Spector let those components unite into a powerful blend of bass, vibrant voices and created a sound that let the listener image he stood next to the singer right in the studio.
Here we find many comments from artists, fellow producers, music critics and marketing experts of the times who comment on the works and the difficult personality of Spector. Even though some facts are being repeated over and over again, this is good reading for those interested in the mechanism of “studio magic,” music marketing and the lush pop sound of the 1960s.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2018
Sean MacLeod. Phil Spector: Sound of the Sixties. (Tempo a Rowman & Littlefield Music Series on Rock, Pop, and Culture). Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, 286 p.