“I’m feeling a range of different emotions right now. I feel a sigh of relief but emptiness too. Another chapter in my life has come to an end. A truly sad ending to a brilliant music pioneer. I will say, if it weren’t for Phil, there would never be a Darlene Love.” – Darlene Love
“It’s a sad day for music and a sad day for me. When I was working with Phil Spector, watching him create in the recording studio, I knew I was working with the very best. He was in complete control, directing everyone. So much to love about those days. Meeting him and falling in love was like a fairytale. The magical music we were able to make together was inspired by our love. I loved him madly and gave my heart and soul to him. As I said many times while he was alive, he was a brilliant producer but a lousy husband. Unfortunately, Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio. Darkness set in, many lives were damaged. I still smile whenever I hear the music we made together, and always will. The music will be forever.” – Ronnie Spector
Consider the enormous grace of the two women above – two women who knew Phil Spector better than most and suffered abuse at his hands: in Love’s case, of the financial kind, and in his ex-wife Ronnie’s case, verbal and psychological assault. Yet, when eulogizing the late producer who died on Sunday at 81 after being transferred from his prison cell to a hospital, both offered kind words and warm memories about the musical legacy they shared. Harvey Phillip Spector was the stuff of rock and roll dreams until he became the stuff of rock and roll nightmares. At the time of his death (reportedly from complications due to COVID-19), the man who practically defined the concept of the modern-day music producer was serving 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson.
It’s difficult – nay, impossible – to discuss the musical impact of Phil Spector without acknowledging the destructive and violent behavior that took the life of Lana Clarkson. His story is one of rampant ego, substance abuse, guns, money, and mental illness. How to reconcile that man with the joyous and innovative music he created? It’s important to remember that the music of Phil Spector didn’t – and doesn’t – belong solely to him. The Wall of Sound was sculpted in equal measure by arrangers such as Jack Nitzsche and Arnold Goland; veteran session musicians including Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Steve Douglas, Barney Kessel, Larry Knechtel, Bill Pitman, Ray Pohlman, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco, and Nino Tempo; Gold Star Studios and its talented engineers, Larry Levine and Stan Ross; and the vocalists who soared above those dense, multi-tracked orchestrations, among them Ronnie, Darlene, Tina Turner, Bobby Sheen, La La Brooks, Bill Medley, and Bobby Hatfield. And where would the Wall of Sound have been if not for the songwriters who provided the raw material of Spector’s grandiose, made-for-AM mono productions? Think of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Peter Anders and Vini Poncia, to name a few. Their work has become part of the tapestry of all of our lives.
Close your eyes for a moment now. Think of Hal Blaine’s thunderous drum phrase that inspired everyone from Brian Wilson to Billy Joel and The Jesus and Mary Chain, followed by Ronnie Spector’s commanding wail of Whoa-oh, a-whoa-oh-oh-oh! Chances are the memory of those sounds take you back to a pivotal moment in your life. “Be My Baby” spoke directly to America’s teenagers. The Ronettes, alternately vulnerable and defiant, were little more than girls when they began putting their voices to the “little symphonies for the kids” being crafted at Philles Records. These records were filled with ebullient abandon and devastating heartbreak, all in three minutes or less. They tapped into uncharted territory. Cole Porter and Irving Berlin weren’t writing songs about teenagers. Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were. They were barely out of their teen years themselves. The poignant songs they created at Philles Records were of a distinct time, but have since been recognized as timeless. Indeed, their universal emotions still ring true. These songs belong to all of them and to all of us.
In his later life, Phil Spector struggled to recapture the magic of those early years, battling mental illness and helming efforts by the collective and solo Beatles as well as Dion DiMucci, Leonard Cohen, Ramones, Yoko Ono, Starsailor, and the pairing of Cher and Harry Nilsson. His arrest followed decades of threats and abuse frequently aimed towards women and also at fellow artists such as Cohen and the Ramones.
It’s difficult – perhaps impossible – to “separate the art from the artist.” Phil Spector was a conduit through which some of the most significant and beautiful music of the latter half of the 20th century emerged. He also was a deeply troubled individual whose actions caused irrevocable damage and shattered lives. Our thoughts today are foremost with the family of Lana Clarkson. They’re also with Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, and the other inspiring talents with whom Phil Spector shared an association. Our sympathies, too, go to Phil Spector’s family and children. One doesn’t have to celebrate the man to delight in the innocence of “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” the euphoria of “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” the exuberance of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the passion of “River Deep-Mountain High,” the wistfulness of “Walking in the Rain,” the anguish of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the urgency of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the wisdom of “All Things Must Pass,” or the majesty of “The Long and Winding Road.” If only life were as simple as any one of those so-called little symphonies.
Do you remember rock ‘n’ roll radio? If you do, you remember the artists, musicians, and songwriters who formed the bricks in the Wall of Sound. Their remarkable art can’t be, and won’t be, forgotten.