Phil Spector was often described as a music legend during the trial that ended Wednesday with a jury unable to decide whether he was guilty or innocent of murder.
The fact is, though, that Spector’s glory days — of reinventing rock ’n’ roll, and influencing everyone from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen — had been decades past by the time he landed in a Los Angeles courtroom surrounded by bodyguards and lawyers.
Still, if only a few modern-day music fans recall the “Wall of Sound” that Spector created, the impact it had on popular music was staggering.
“Simply put, there was rock ’n’ roll before Phil Spector and then there was rock ’n’ roll after Phil Spector,” says Geoff Boucher, pop culture writer for the Los Angeles Times and a student of Spector’s music.
“What he did, through his ambition and his sophisticated studio work and his talent was just raise the bar for the entire recording industry,” Boucher continued.
Until Spector arrived on the music scene in 1958 as “the first tycoon of teen,” making a rock song often involved no more than a drummer, a guitarist and a bass player performing into a single microphone.
The precocious Spector would have nothing of that. The man who has famously compared himself to both Mozart and Shakespeare brought dozens of players into the studio, creating an orchestra of guitars, percussion, keyboards, horns, voices and other instruments.
The result, as Spector himself came to describe it, was to create “little symphonies for the kids” featuring lavish arrangements, overdubbed vocals, multiple lead guitars and other innovations — even more impressive considering they were created in a non-digital era of four-track tape recorders.
“He said to me he had the sound in his head that he wanted to create,” veteran engineer Larry Levine recalled of asking Spector how he came up with the lushly arranged teen anthem “He’s a Rebel,” which Levine helped Spector record in 1962. It would make pop stars of the girl group the Crystals, just as “Be My Baby” would soon do for the Ronettes.
‘He always took chances’
At the same time, said Levine, Spector was never afraid to deviate from the sound in his head if he heard something better coming from his musicians during one of the dozens of versions of a song he would have them record.
“All the sessions would start the same in that he would have the guitar players play the figure that was written on the lead sheet,” Levine recalled. “He’d have them play eight bars, over and over. ... When he was satisfied that he had something workable he would bring the pianos in.”
Before he was through he’d have at least two dozen musicians in the studio, sometimes more. Session guitarist Carol Kaye, who worked with him throughout the 1960s, recalled people being packed shoulder-to-shoulder into a studio for a session that produced the 1966 Ike and Tina Turner classic, “River Deep-Mountain High.”
“There were so many players crammed into the studio that it’s a wonder that he got any kind of sound,” laughed Kaye, who also played guitar for Spector on the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’” the song cited by BMI as the most played in the history of U.S. radio.
She, like others who worked with him during his glory years, cited one word for Spector’s success: genius.
“He always took chances,” said Toni Wine, who co-wrote the 1969 Sonny Charles and the Checkmates’ hit “Black Pearl” with Spector and Irwin Levine. “If he heard and felt something, he just went with it. He didn’t follow any mold.”
By the end of the ’60s, however, Spector’s influence had waned, and since the 1970s his output has been sporadic and inconsistent.
A major influence on the Beatles, he produced their last studio release, “Let it Be.” But as Bill Biersach, who teaches music at the University of Southern California, recently noted, “Paul McCartney hated it” and cited what Spector did to the song “The Long and Winding Road” in the lawsuit that broke the group up.
A dictator in the studio
Still, Spector went on to produce critically regarded solo albums in the 1970s by John Lennon and George Harrison before his production fell off amid increasingly frequent reports of bizarre behavior.
He was said to have angered Lennon by firing a gun during one of his recording sessions; another accusation had him pointing a gun at bassist Dee Dee Ramone. Drummer Marky Ramone has since said that episode was overblown.
In the mid-’90s, Spector also recorded several tracks for Celine Dion, but the partnership fell apart over creative differences.
More recently, Spector produced two tracks for the British indie band Starsailor’s 2003 album, “Silence is Easy.”
Described by many as a dictator in the studio, Spector was never easy to work with, said Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. But the results he got, Medley quickly added, made the partnership worthwhile.
“Even in those days he was a little odd,” Medley said of working with Spector in the 1960s. “I think he wanted people to think he was an eccentric. And then, who knows, he might have talked himself into it.”
Many of those who worked with him in the early years continue to speak highly of Spector, however. For the most part, they have avoided discussing the murder case.
“I’ve felt very badly about the whole thing,” Kaye said shortly before the case went to the jury. “I did see him at a funeral about five-six years ago. He was older, like we all are, but to me he seemed like the same guy.”