Spector, Phil (1940—)

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Spector, Phil (1940—)

As the developer of a style of production so lush it was dubbed "the wall of sound," Phil Spector was arguably the most influential record producer in the history of popular music. From the late 1950s through the early 1960s, Spector, along with his arranger, Jack Nitzsche, produced a sound characterized by complex arrangements of strings, horns, and percussion. Although that sound is most evident in pop songs by the Ronettes, Crystals, and Righteous Brothers, all of whom recorded for Spector's label, he also produced a variety of other performers. The Beatles enlisted his skills in the studio, and Spector also produced solo efforts by John Lennon and George Harrison. Acts as diverse as the Ramones and Leonard Cohen worked with him, and Bruce Springsteen cited him as a major influence on his own music.

When he was seventeen, Spector wrote "To Know Him Is to Love Him," which became a number one single for his band the Teddy Bears. It was the beginning of an impressive songwriting career, but Spector's real achievements were in the studio. He learned the craft of production under Lee Hazlewood, who had given Duane Eddy his trademark guitar sound by a variety of techniques, including manipulating tape speeds and recording in an empty grain elevator. Spector left California for New York, ostensibly in hopes of securing a position at the United Nations, but within a few months he had cowritten "Spanish Harlem" with Jerry Leiber, half of the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller. The song would become a hit for Ben E. King.

Spector also began producing prominent performers such as LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, and Gene Pitney, but his most original and influential work came after he established Philles Records. Although he originally had three partners, Spector was sole owner when he was only twenty-one; he was also a millionaire. The Crystals's "He's a Rebel" was the label's first hit and is generally regarded as the first "wall of sound" song. It's worth noting that the phrase is something of a misnomer: although Spector employed an extraordinary number of musicians, and although the primitive technology of the time required an extensive use of overdubbing, the instruments remain surprisingly distinct. That is certainly a result of Spector's obsessiveness in the studio. According to one story, Spector once listened to the same note for twelve hours, trying to determine whether it needed to be rerecorded. Although probably apocryphal, it is undeniable that he worked with a vastly higher degree of attention than most other producers of the time. Labels usually worked on a variety of singles simultaneously in an attempt to get a hit single. Spector, on the other hand, focused his energies on one single at a time, and that approach proved extraordinarily successful. Songs such as the Ronettes's "Be My Baby" and the Righteous Brothers's "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" are some of the most recognizable hits of the 1960s, and Spector's collection of Christmas songs, A Christmas Gift for You, remains an exceptionally popular holiday album.

Spector shut down Philles Records in 1966. Some have claimed that he did so because Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" failed to achieve the success he had expected. A more likely explanation is that he recognized the music industry had changed fundamentally. The increasingly corporate nature of record distribution pushed independent labels to the margins; additionally, listeners began to favor full-length albums instead of singles. Spector no doubt understood that those shifts worked against his emphasis on the hit song. Ironically, however, other changes showed just how deeply Spector had influenced contemporary music. Although the Beach Boys had been known for their hit singles, in 1966 they released Pet Sounds, an album of complex and highly orchestrated pop songs which showed a clear debt to the wall of sound. The following year, the Beatles issued Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; in part a response to Pet Sounds, it also bore the hallmarks of Spector's work.

Despite his undeniable genius, Spector's megalomania and eccentricities became so infamous that fewer artists sought his talents in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, however, Spector became almost reclusive and certainly showed little interest in searching out new acts to produce. In 1998, a short-lived collaboration with Celine Dion ended amid rumors that Spector had been impossible to work with in the studio.

—Bill Freind

Further Reading:

Puterbaugh, Parke. "The Wall of Sound." Rolling Stone. August 23,1990, 113-14.

Wolfe, Tom. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, New York, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1965.