By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Rock producer Phil Spector, who changed the sound of pop music in the 1960s with his "Wall of Sound" recordings and was convicted of murder for the 2003 murder of a Hollywood actress, has died at age 81 of COVID-19, according to authorities and media reports.
Spector produced 20 top 40 hits between 1961 and 1965 and went on to work with the Beatles on "Let It Be," as well as Leonard Cohen, the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner.
He was diagnosed with COVID-19 four weeks ago and transferred to a hospital from his prison cell, where he had been serving a 19 years-to-life sentence for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, the Daily Mail newspaper said.
In a brief statement, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Spector died of natural causes at an outside hospital, and that his official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office.
Clarkson, 40, was killed by a shot to the mouth, fired from Spector’s gun in the foyer of his mock castle home outside Los Angeles on Feb. 3, 2003. The two met hours earlier at a Hollywood nightclub.
Spector was convicted of second-degree murder in a second trial, after the first trial deadlocked in 2007. The case drew worldwide interest because Spector was widely known as a rock music pioneer. In 1989, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He began his career as a performer, recording a hit single as a teen with his band the Teddy Bears, but found his true calling as the producing genius behind 1960s girl groups such as Crystals and the Ronettes.
His signature production technique was the "Wall of Sound," which layered pop and even classical instruments into a full, lush sound that was new to pop records. He called it "a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids."
By the late 1970s Spector, who once said he had "devils that fight inside me," had become something of a recluse, retreating behind the walls of his 33-room hilltop mansion near Los Angeles where Clarkson was killed years later.
Prosecutors charged Spector with murder despite his assertions that Clarkson, star of such films as "Barbarian Queen" and "Amazon Women on the Moon," had shot herself for reasons he could not grasp.
He told Esquire magazine in an interview that Clarkson had "kissed the gun" in a bizarre suicide.
Spector had a troubled early life. His father committed suicide, his sister spent time in mental institutions and Spector suffered bouts of severe depression.
Spector had a long-standing reputation for gunplay. He carried a pistol and a biographer said he often placed it on the recording console as he worked. He reportedly fired a shot in the studio during an acrimonious recording session with John Lennon.
WALL OF SOUND
Born Harvey Phillip Spector on Dec. 26, 1939, he grew up in New York City and formed the Teddy Bears with three high school friends. They scored a hit single in 1958 with a song titled after the inscription on his father's headstone: "To Know Him Is to Love Him."
The Teddy Bears had little other chart success and disbanded the following year, allowing Spector to shift from performing to working behind the scenes at the dawn of the '60s. He teamed with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, co-writing the Ben E. King hit "Spanish Harlem," playing guitar on the Drifters' "On Broadway" and producing several top 10 hits.
In 1961 Spector and promoter Lester Sill formed Philles Records, issuing singles with what was becoming his trademark sound but also albums such as the perennial holiday favorite, "A Christmas Gift for You."
Spector signed Ike and Tina Turner in 1966 and released what he considered one of his masterpieces - the powerful "River Deep, Mountain High" - but it reached only No. 88 on the U.S. charts.
For a time, Spector turned his back on the record business, marrying Ronettes singer Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett, who would later say he was abusive, possessive and made her a virtual captive in their home.
Spector returned in 1969, signing a production deal with A&M Records and working with Lennon on his hit single "Instant Karma" and with the Beatles on the "Let It Be" album.
"Let it Be" was considered a major comeback for Spector, but Paul McCartney was so unhappy with it that in 2003 he oversaw the release of "Let It Be ... Naked," which removed most of Spector's work.
Spector returned to the studio in the mid-1970s to work on records by Cher and others but by the end of the decade he had become increasingly reclusive and worked rarely after that.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Daniel Wallis)