Phil Spector may have been convicted of murder five years ago, but before the legendary producer’s downfall, he was one of the most renowned hit-makers in the music industry.
The Most Successful Producer In Rock ‘N’ Roll
For a moment, Spector was one of the most successful producers in rock and roll history, having smashed out chart-topping singles like “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes and “Da Do Ron Ron” by The Crystals. He even worked with Beatles and all but patented the classic ’60s “Wall of Sound” style of recording.
This is Phil Spector’s story: his rise to fame in the ’60s and ’70s before his demons got the very best of him. Click through to see more!
Phil Spector, The Tortured Genius
Phil Spector led a very dark and tortured life. He admitted this in a 2002 interview saying, ‘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 at peace myself. I have not been happy.”
Spector’s unhappiness can be traced back to his childhood. When he was just nine years old, his father committed suicide. He was brought up by a single mother who he claims simultaneously bullied him and smothered him. Though tragic, his father’s death is what led him to success. He would have never written the single that put him on the map if he wasn’t inspired by his dad’s tombstone.
A Teenage Phil Spector Releases His First Record
Phil Spector got his start as a teenager in 1958 when he co-founded the group The Teddy Bears with three friends from high school. Spector sang and played guitar, but what jump-started his career as a producer was writing the band’s chart-topping single “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” The song was inspired by the epitaph on his father’s tombstone and debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. By the end of 1958, the song sold one million copies for Era Records and led to their signing with Imperial. The Teddy Bears never saw the same success and disbanded in 1959, but Spector would go on to be even more successful than anyone could have imagined.
Phil Spector Has a Strange Incident On Tour
While Phil Spector was on tour with The Teddy Bears, he had a terrible and scary experience in a men’s bathroom. The singer-turned-producer was attacked in a men’s urinal and was completely ill equipped to defend himself. He was urinated on by four street thugs and completely terrified and humiliated. Poor Spector was just a teenager. Since that day, Spector always kept a bodyguard on him and carries around a gun. This is just one incident in a string of strange occurrences surrounding the singer, who went on to have a long history of violence that would eventually land him in jail.
Spector’s success with The Teddy Bears catapulted him to millionaire status. When he was just 19 years old, his band’s album was certified gold by the RIAA. It reached #2 on the UK charts and eventually sold two and a half million copies. When most of us were getting our braces off, Spector was writing and producing the best-selling record in the country. By the time he turned 22 he was a millionaire. He wasn’t the only Teddy Bear who went on to success either. Harvey Goldstein went on to write the Academy Award-nominated Rocky theme song, “Gonna Fly Now.”
Phil Spector Forms The Spectors Three
In 1960, after the Teddy Bears disbanded, Phil Spector formed The Spectors Three. This alias was used because of legal restrictions after he left his label Imperial. The project was very short lived. He recorded two singles “I Really Do/I Know Why” and “Mr. Robin/My Heart Stood Still.” For these tunes, he teamed up with Lester Sill, a promoter who mentored Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. It’s Sill who would bring Spector into the word of professionally recording for other artists.Though The Spectors Three barely released an album, without this project, he may have never gotten his big break as a producer.
Spector Records His First Song As A Producer
After working with Phil Spector on The Spectors Three, Lester Sill got Spector a job as an apprentice to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who worked as producers and session musicians. Spector picked up recording quickly, and Ronnie Crawford became his first project as a producer. Spector ended up writing the Top-10 hit “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King, while Leiber served as a session musician. It was Leiber and Stoller who recommended that Spector produce Ray Peterson’s “Corrina, Corrina.” In 1961, it rose to number nine on the Billboard charts.
Wall of Sound (A.K.A. The Spector Sound)
Throughout his years producing, Phil Spector essentially patented a specific sound known as the Wall of Sound. This music production formula was created at Gold Star Studios with Larry Levine. They were known as the “Wrecking Crew” and crafted the sound to create a really thick, vibrant mix that catered to AM radio and jukeboxes. Spector often used orchestral instruments like strings, woodwind, brass and percussion to layer the sound.
“I was looking for a sound, a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record,” he said. “It was a case of augmenting, augmenting. It all fitted together like a jigsaw.”
Phil Spector Starts A Record Label
In 1961, after recording successful chart-topping hits for a year, Spector started a record company with collaborator Lester Sill. It was called Philles Records, a combination of their two names. Spector picked three groups to produce: The Ducanes, The Creations, and The Crystals. The former two acts signed with a different label, but The Crystals chose Spector and helped him craft what would be his signature sound. No one could really predict what type of success The Crystals would have, but almost anything Spector touched at this point turned into gold (or at least Gold Records).
Phil Spector and The Crystals
The Crystals, featuring Barbara Alston, Mary Thomas, Dolores Kennibrew, Myrna Giraud and Patsy Wright became one of the defining acts of the 1960s girl group movement led by Phil Spector. The five-member group’s first single was a gospel-influenced hit called “There’s No Other (Like My Baby).” The Spector-produced jam hit the Billboard Charts in 1961, reaching number 20. What’s most interesting about the recording is that it was made late at night after the girls’ prom at Central Commercial High School. Barbara, Mary and Myrna went straight from prom to the studio and were still wearing their dresses when they recorded.
The Brill Building
In the 1960s, Phil Spector joined the Brill Building. The Brill Building, located in New York City, was home to 165 music businesses and defined the girl group sound of the ‘decade. Some of the composers who worked out of the Brill Building included Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Neil Diamond. It was in this building that the Crystals wrote one of their biggest hits “Uptown.” It led to their controversial 1963 song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” a shocking tune about domestic abuse. This track, written by Carole King, broke boundaries but had limited airplay because of the content and peaked at #123 on the charts.
You might not know the extent of Phil Spector’s chart-topping catalog. The producer and artist recorded a cover version of the iconic “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” with an act he created called Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. This act featured Darlene Love, Bobby Sheen, and Blossoms member Fanita James. The song peaked at #8 and led to the hits “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts” and “Not Too Young To Get Married.” In 1953, Spector helped Darlene Love go solo and released a record under her own name before forming yet another iconic girl group, The Ronettes. The Ronettes were instant icons.
Legal Problems Lead To One Wild Song
Phil Spector isn’t one to just let things happen without a fight. So when his relationship with Lester Sill went sour and he was embroiled in a legal battle where he was contractually forced to release more music, he did something crazy. Spector created a new song, just because he contractually had to, and it was a six-minute “dance” 45-rpm record by The Crystals. The incredibly long song was called “(Let’s Dance) The Screw” and the lyrics were something that could hardly be played on mainstream radio. The main bit of the song involved Spector saying “dance the screw” slowly over a monotonous beat. In other words, Spector was trying to screw Sill out of a chart-topping hit. He delivered the record to Sill by hand in 1963.
Phil Spector Created The Iconic John Lennon Song “Imagine”
Phil Spector primarily worked with girl groups in the ’60s. but by the early ’70s he moved onto working with a former Beatle. Spector created the iconic John Lennon song “Imagine.” The song ended up landing at #30 on the RIAA’s list of 365 Songs of the Century because it had such a deep historical significance. It even earned a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Lennon wasn’t completely thrilled with collaborating with his wife Yoko and the renowned hit-maker. “Phil doesn’t arrange or anything like that—[Ono] and Phil will just sit in the other room and shout comments like, ‘Why don’t you try this sound?’ or ‘You’re not playing the piano too well’… I’ll get the initial idea and … we’ll just find a sound from [there],” he said.
Phil Spector Stole Lennon’s Master Tapes And Held Them For Ransom
The master tapes are where the money is when it comes to music, and after the gun dispute, things with Spector got kind of crazy for John Lennon. The hit-maker reportedly disappeared with Lennon’s finished record and held the master tapes hostage. Capitol records allegedly paid $90,000 in ransom to buy them back. Lennon later named his cover album Jinxed, which finally came out in 1975. Lennon was pretty kind when asked about his experience recording with Spector. He said “I’m fond of his work a lot. His personality I’m not crazy about.”
Spector Became A Recluse After Almost Dying In A Car Crash
After creating Lennon’s 1971 hit “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and the subsequent bomb of a release in 1972, Spector became reclusive. No one is exactly sure what made the producer withdraw from everyday life, but biographer David Thompson believes it was Spector’s horrific car crash. In 1974, Spector was seriously hurt when he was thrown through the windshield of his car in Hollywood. Spector was nearly dead when police arrived but they detected a very faint pulse and admitted him to the UCLA Medical Center. He had several hours of surgery and needed more than 300 facial stitches and 400 head stitches. This is also possibly the reason why Spector grew fond of wearing crazy wigs later in life.
Spector Had Some Spousal Problems
Spector was married once, and to say it didn’t work out is an understatement. When he married Ronnie Bennet in 1972, he allegedly had a gold coffin installed in the basement of his estate in Los Angeles. He reportedly led his wife there and claimed that’s where she’d end up if she ever tried to leave him. If that wasn’t creepy enough, Spector allegedly locked Ronnie inside of his mansion and refused to let her leave for months. His wife ended up escaping barefoot, with her mother, when she slipped past the barred (yes barred) windows, barbed-wire fence and attack dogs in 1972.
Spector Creates A Label With Warner Bros. Records
Phil Spector’s accident could not have taken place during a more unfortunate time. He had just launched a collaboration with Warner Bros. Records called Warner-Spector. One of the label’s first signings was the legendary Cher. Spector produced “A Woman’s Story” and “Baby I Love You” in 1974. He followed up with “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knockin’ Every Day)” and “(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On” in 1975. Working with Cher led Spector to create a relationship with Britain’s Polydor Records, who helped him form an international label that released some of Cher’s singles in Germany.
Phil Spector Was Pathologically Afraid Of Being Left Alone
Spector always had some strange things about him. He undoubtedly led a very troubled life and his fear of abandonment was evident when he basically held his wife and protégé Ronnie Bennet captive in his house. Spector’s pathological fear of being left alone manifested in a number of concerning and abusive ways. There are multiple accounts of him not allowing guests to leave his home (not just his wife) and locking his doors and threatening them with guard dogs. Five women claimed that Spector threatened to shoot them if they left his home. He only ever spoke candidly about his mental struggles in 2002, decades after they manifested.
Spector’s Last Project In The ’70s Was The Ramones
In 1979, Spector took on a group that was unique to his general wheelhouse. He geared up to produce the Ramones’ End of the Century. This was by far the Ramones’ most popular record giving birth to such hits as “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?” Allegedly, this recording process was painful. Spector forced the band to play the same chord over and over again for eight hours until it was perfect. The band allegedly attempted to leave, but he pulled a gun on them and forced them to play his hit by the Ronettes, “Baby I Love You.”