Musician and convicted murderer Phil Spector dead at 81

Our Foreign Staff
·2-min read
File image of Phil Spector in his youth - Michael Ochs Archives
File image of Phil Spector in his youth - Michael Ochs Archives

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.

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.

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.