Invented "Wall of Sound" that revolutionized pop music recording
Career- and string of hits - spanned from Brill Building in 1950s to LA in 70s
Phil Spector has seen many descriptions beside his name over some four decades in the public eye. The nice ones run along the line of "legendary record producer," which ultimately puts all the not-so-nice ones in perspective.
But one description that doesn't show up often enough is one without which he would not have created anything approaching the legacy we know today. Phil Spector was, and is, a songwriter.
He wrote his first number-one hit in 1958, when he was a 17year-old high school student nominally headed for a responsible career as a court stenographer.
He and three high school classmates who had formed a group called the Teddy Bears entered a Los Angeles recording studio armed with a Spector song called "Don't You Worry My Little Pet," an upbeat tune that reflected the precocious Spector's ear for Chuck Berry and the light, bouncy pop of early rock 'n' roll. The acetate got him into the door of Dore Records, where "Pet" got his group a deal to make a record, which meant Spector now had to come up with at least one more song for a B side.
He did, writing "Wonderful Lovable You." Then he came up with a better one, "To Know Him Is To Love Him," the proverbial last minute addition that gets tacked onto the end of a session with no expectations and turns out to be the hit. Most songwriters will say they don't know where a lot of their songs come from, but Spector could trace this one quite precisely: He had taken a phrase off his father's tombstone (changing it slightly from "To Know Him Was To Love Him") and used it to launch his own musical star.
Once released, "To Know Him Is To Love Him" soon rose to the top of the charts, and while Phil Spector was only one-third of the voices ("Da-da-da-da-da"), he was pretty much the sole reason for the records existence - he played every instrument except the drums. He doubtless had the drive, the skill and the sheer chutzpah to have made it in any case, but writing that song was his first tangible passkey through all the early doors where he shaped his craft.
Within four years, before he was old enough to vote, he had launched his own label, Philles Records, and the rest is rock 'n' roll history - history often chronicled superficially as being built primarily on a production sound (the famous “Wall of Sound”), but which was in reality built on far more, including a keen ear for fine music and quality songs.
Phil Spector was born in the Bronx on December 26, 1940. His father died when he was 8 and five years later his mother Bertha took Phil and his older sister Shirley west, settling in Hollywood. While excelling in school and passing through the standard teenage angst, Spector began his lifelong immersion in music. He knew classical, he loved jazz and he also was drawn to this new rock 'n' roll. Years later he would recall how the sound of The Platters on the radio seemed to beam another whole world into his life.
He took guitar lessons and hung around the famous Gold Star studio to watch the producers working with the then-new process of "doubling" voices through the then-novel process of multi-tracking reel-to-reel tape. He practiced stenography by sitting in front of the television set and transcribing "American Bandstand." He formed the Teddy Bears and they sang at local dances and community events.
Then, when he felt he was ready, he and his fellow Teddy Bears, Annette Kleinbard, Marshall Leib and Harvey Goldstein, (by the time "To Know Him Is To Love Him" was recorded Goldstein was no longer in the group) scraped together $40 to cut "Don't You Worry My Little Pet."
That "Pet" rose to the top on the back of "To Know Him" clearly suggested the potential of a precocious teenager. In the cold world of charts and hit records, however, all it guaranteed Spector was an entry in the well-stuffed "One-Hit Wonders" book. While the Teddy Bears were immediately signed to the larger Imperial label and Spector wrote a number of further songs for the group, none were hits. If this discouraged him, he didn't waste time thinking about it. Encouraged by Lester Sill, on independence Day 1960 he flew to New York, songwriting capital of the world, where by a combination of obvious talent and sheer determination he met Doc Pomus (who became a life-long friend and songwriting collaborator), Hill & Range's Paul Case and, by summer's end, he had co-written the classic "Spanish Harlem" with Jerry Leiber.
Spector was focused by this point, however, on the total process of creating a hit, and within a year he had produced a fistful of great records as diverse as Curtis Lee's "Pretty Little Angel Eyes," Ray Peterson's "Corrine Corrine, " the Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me" and Gene Pitney's "Every Breath I Take."
It was in late November 1961, a month before his 21st birthday, that he released the first record on the Philles label. It was sung by the Crystals and Spector co-wrote the hit side, "There's No Other (Like My Baby)," though he would still concentrate on producing for the first year of the fledgling label's life.
In fact, Spector devoted fanatic attention to every detail of Philles Records, from production to promotion, and it paid off only 10 months later with a number-one hit, "He's a Rebel," released as a Crystals record but sung by Darlene Love and written by Gene Pitney.
In early 1963, with Philles established, Spector collaborated with Ellie Greenwich and Tony Powers on "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others' Hearts," then started with the Elle Greenwich/Jeff Barry team by co-writing the classic "Da Doo Ron Ron." A few months later they came back with "Be My Baby," having in the meantime written "Then He Kissed Me," "Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home," "Baby I Love You" and what many consider the finest original Christmas song in rock 'n' roll history, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)."
In 1964 Spector began to work with another famous songwriting team, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, with whom he co-wrote the beautiful "Walking In The Rain" before they created their masterpiece, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." In the late 1990’s, BMI reported that "Lovin' Feeling" has surpassed John Lennon & Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" as the most played song in BMI history and the first song to exceed 7 million performances.
In 1966, Spector teamed up with a third pair of songwriting legends, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, to write "Just Once in My Life." Then he reunited with Greenwich and Barry to co-write and produce "River Deep Mountain High" and "I Can Hear Music."
Unhappy with the changing direction of the music business in the late '60s, Spector did not immediately plunge into something else after he phased out Philles. But his production of the Checkmates' "Black Pearl" in 1969 erased any suggestion he had gotten rusty or out of touch. He also co-wrote that song with Toni Wine & Irving Levine.
In the early '70s he produced John Lennon’s solo debut album, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, Lennon's Instant Karma and Imagine, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and The Concert For Bangladesh as well as John & Yoko's Happy Christmas War Is Over.
In succeeding years he produced, among other artists, Dion, Cher, Harry Nilsson (with whom he co-wrote "Paradise"), Lenny Bruce, Leonard Cohen (who he also wrote with) and the Ramones. In the late 1990’s, Spector worked with Grammy Award winner Celine Dion who commented: "Phil wrote incredible songs (for me). I couldn't give all the time he wanted and it's too bad because, believe me, the songs were just unbelievable."