Phil Spector, brilliant record producer behind the ‘Wall of Sound’ – and convicted murderer – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
·10-min read
Phil Spector circa 1965 - Michael Ochs Archives
Phil Spector circa 1965 - Michael Ochs Archives

Phil Spector, who has died from Covid-19 aged 81, was a highly gifted record producer and songwriter whose recordings in the 1960s, and later with the Beatles, revolutionised pop music, but whose talents were undermined by a mercurial temperament that would lead to him twice standing trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

In his heyday in the early 1960s, Spector pioneered what became known as “The Wall of Sound", producing some of the most exhilarating and uplifting recordings ever heard in pop music, including Be My Baby by the Ronettes and Da Do Ron Ron by the Crystals. In the 1970s he went on to work with the Beatles, producing John Lennon’s anthemic Imagine and George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord.

Spector’s work was to prove enormously influential on such figures as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who claimed that he listened to Be My Baby every day in search of inspiration, and Bruce Springsteen, whose multi-million selling album Born To Run was an explicit homage to the Wall of Sound.

Yet for all the transcendent beauty of his music, Spector was a man who seemed to magnetise darkness. His controlling behaviour over his artists left a legacy of bitterness and lawsuits; and fame served only to inflame his incipient insecurities, leading to him withdrawing from the music business, a troubled and reclusive figure sequestered behind a screen of barbed-wire fences and Keep Out: Armed Response signs.

Phil Spector poses at the mixing board during a recording session at Gold Star Studios in 1966 - Michael Ochs Archives
Phil Spector poses at the mixing board during a recording session at Gold Star Studios in 1966 - Michael Ochs Archives

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in December 2002 Spector talked of the psychological and emotional difficulties that had assailed him over the years, stating that “to all intents and purposes I would say I’m probably relatively insane, to an extent...I have devils inside that fight me. And I’m my own worst enemy.”

He described himself as having a “bi-polar condition”, adding that “I take medication for schizophrenia, but I wouldn’t say I’m schizophrenic.”

But the worst, he stressed, was behind him; he was now trying to be “a reasonable man. And being reasonable with yourself. It’s very difficult, very difficult...”

Six weeks later, in February 2003, at the end of a long night on the town, in a Hollywood club called the House of Blues, Spector met an actress named Lana Clarkson, who was working as the club’s VIP hostess.

He invited her back to his home, “The Pyrenees Castle”, in the nondescript Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. Two hours later, Clarkson was killed by a single gun shot to the mouth.

In 2007 Spector stood trial for murder, but after five months the jury was unable to reach the unanimous verdict required by California law, and the judge declared a mistrial. The following year he was tried again and in April 2009 the jury found him guilty. In May he was sentenced to 19 years to life in the California state prison system..

Phil Spector (right) in 1989, with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones -  Paul Natkin/WireImage
Phil Spector (right) in 1989, with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones - Paul Natkin/WireImage

Harvey Philip Spector was born on December 26 1939 into a working-class Jewish family in the Bronx, New York. When Spector was nine, his father Benjamin, an ironworker, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving his son to be brought up by an overbearing mother, Bertha, who alternately smothered and bullied him.

Spector, his mother and an elder sister Shirley moved to Los Angeles, where Bertha worked as a seamstress and Spector attended Fairfax High School. Small, pale and scrawny, with watery eyes and an adenoidal voice, he was the playground outsider, and frequently bullied. But he found his salvation in music.

In 1958 he enlisted two schoolfriends in a group called the Teddy Boys, and wrote and produced his first recording. Its title had been inspired by the words on his father’s gravestone “To Know Him Was To Love Him”; Spector needed to make only one change of tense – To Know Him Is To Love Him – to disguise an epitaph as a love song.

The record went to number one in America, remaining in the charts for 23 weeks and selling more than one million copies. It was recorded thirty years later by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, and in 1988 it earned a BMI award as the Most Performed Country Song of the year.

But Spector was unable to consolidate his success with the Teddy Bears, and in 1960 he moved to New York. He served as an apprentice to the illustrious producers and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and with Leiber co-wrote Spanish Harlem, a hit for Ben E King. He worked for Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, and enjoyed modest success as a freelance producer with performers including Ray Peterson and Gene Pitney.

In 1961, with the Los Angeles record-man Lester Sill, Spector founded his own label, Philles (a compound of the name of the two partners, Phil-Les). The label enjoyed a minor hit with their first release, There’s No Other Like My Baby by the Crystals, and the same group would give Philles its first major hit the following year with He’s A Rebel.

More than just a producer, Spector was a visionary who dreamed of creating a sound never before heard in pop music, as rich in depth and texture as symphonic music.

Working on primitive two-track recording equipment in the cramped confines of Gold Star studios in Los Angeles, Spector would assemble a small army of musicians – four, and sometimes five, guitarists; three keyboards, and so on – to build a formidable “Wall of Sound”, which would be garnished by liberal dosings of echo.

Phil Spector with George Harrison, whose 'My Sweet Lord' he produced - GAB Archive/ Redferns
Phil Spector with George Harrison, whose 'My Sweet Lord' he produced - GAB Archive/ Redferns

At a time when even those working in the business regarded pop as disposable ephemera, Spector insisted that what he was doing was art, on an equal with Wagner or Beethoven, describing his recordings as “little symphonies for the kids”.

For a short period in the early Sixties, he was the most successful producer in pop, shaping an unbroken flow of hits for such artists as The Crystals, The Ronettes, and The Righteous Brothers, whose number one hit You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ would become the most played record ever on American radio, exceeding even The Beatles’ Yesterday.

Dictatorial, quixotic, driven by an unswerving belief in his own brilliance and an apparent determination to avenge every slight, real or imagined, that he had ever received, Spector became, uniquely, a bigger star than any of the artists he produced – “the first tycoon of teen” in the memorable phrase of the writer Tom Wolfe.

He played the part to the hilt. A tiny man with a disproportionately fiery temper, he dressed in high dandified style, habitually wearing sunglasses, and adopting a progressively more improbable series of hairpieces in an attempt to disguise his premature baldness.

He acquired the obligatory Beverly Hills mansion, a retinue of bodyguards, and a reputation for wayward eccentricity. “Phil wanted to be Elvis and Sinatra combined,” one friend would remember. “The cool, aloof thing, the entourage, all that protected crap.”

By 1966, Spector’s reign at the top of the American charts was over, his “Wall of Sound” an anachronism. When his most grandiloquent and extravagant production ever, Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High, reached only number 88 in the American charts (although it reached No 2 in Britain), he was crushed.

Phil Spector with his second wife, 'Ronette' Ronnie Bennett, whom he held a virtual prisoner - Ray Avery/ Redferns
Phil Spector with his second wife, 'Ronette' Ronnie Bennett, whom he held a virtual prisoner - Ray Avery/ Redferns

He retired to his mansion to brood; married his protégé Ronnie Bennett, the lead singer of the Ronettes, and, consumed with jealously, kept her a virtual prisoner in their home.

In her autobiography, Bennett would describe how he would pass the days repeatedly watching Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s parable of ambition, hubris and spiritual desolation, weeping at the climactic moment when Rosebud, Kane’s sled, the symbol of childhood joy and innocence, is incinerated. To stave off boredom Bennett was obliged to take up painting-by-numbers.

It seemed that Spector’s career was over, but in 1970 it was given a new lease of life when he was invited by Allen Klein, who was then managing the Beatles, to finalise production on the group’s valedictory album, Let It Be. He went to co-produce four albums by John Lennon, including the classic Imagine, and George Harrison’s multi-million selling All Things Must Pass.

But it was to be his last hurrah. Through the Seventies, Spector worked only intermittently, producing albums by Leonard Cohen, Dion DiMucci and, finally, in 1979, the Ramones.

Phil Spector after being found guilty of murder in 2009 -  Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images
Phil Spector after being found guilty of murder in 2009 - Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

By now his reputation for waywardness threatened to eclipse any acknowledgement of his extraordinary accomplishments as a producer. Stories abounded of his out-of-control behaviour, his drinking jags, of scenes in restaurants and, most ominously, of his predilection for guns.

A huge fan of The Godfather, he would habitually wear a shoulder-holster around the home – one friend told of him conducting telephone negotiations with the chairman of Warner Brothers records while “packing heat...like he was Jimmy Cagney” – and he seldom left home without one.

Spector could be immensely charming and amusing company. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all forms of music, was a vivid storyteller, and his habit of leaving $500 tips ensured him a warm welcome in many Hollywood restaurants.

But even in a world where eccentricity and excess is considered de rigeur, his volatile temperament, allied to his enthusiasm for libation, occasioned a certain trepidation.

Recording with John Lennon in 1974 he fired a live pistol round into the ceiling of the studio. While Leonard Cohen recounted how Spector approached him during a recording session clutching a bottle of Jewish ritual wine in one hand and a pistol in the other, which he shoved into Cohen’s neck, whispering: “Leonard, I love you.” Cohen, with admirable aplomb, moved the barrel to one side, saying: “I hope you do, Phil.”

In 1980 Spector retired altogether from the music business, leading a largely reclusive life. An attempt to return to recording with Celine Dion in 1995 foundered after arguments in the studio. And in 2002 recording sessions with the British group Starsailor were also abandoned with only two tracks having been completed.

A few months later he walked into the House of Blues and met Lana Clarkson.

“People tell me they idolise me, want to be like me,” he had told The Daily Telegraph six weeks earlier. “But I tell them, ‘Trust me, you don’t want my life’. Because it hasn’t been a very pleasant life. I’ve been a very tortured soul.. I have not been happy.”

Phil Spector was married three times, firstly to Annette Merar, secondly to Veronica Bennett, and thirdly to Rachelle Short. All three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter and three adopted sons. A son predeceased him.

Spector was diagnosed with Covid-19 before Christmas and was transferred from California State Prison to a hospital. He recovered enough to return to jail but had a relapse and returned to hospital where he died.

Phil Spector, born December 26 1939, died January 16 2021