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The Rise And Fall Of Phil Spector

A look at the rise and fall of Phil Spector, creator of the “wall of sound.”

Music producer Phil Spector, left, and his attorney Dennis Riordan appear in a courtroom for Spector's sentencing in Los Angeles, Friday, May 29, 2009. (AP)

Music producer Phil Spector, left, and his attorney Dennis Riordan appear in a courtroom for Spector’s sentencing in Los Angeles, Friday, May 29, 2009. (AP)

At the dawn of the 1960’s, young music producer Phil Spector was turning the world upside down with his “wall of sound” approach to pop. “Little symphonies for the kids,” he called his work, back when Tom Wolfe called him “The Tycoon of Teen.”

Phil Spector was huge, then strange, then charged with murder, then convicted. Now HBO’s brought him back with a sympathetic rendering by David Mamet. Al Pacino as the raving end.

This hour, On Point: from Doo Ron Ron to prison to HBO, the unending story of Phil Spector.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Mick Brown, author of “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector.” (@mickbrownwriter)

Scott Raab, writer for Esquire. Author of the magazine’s 2003 profile, “Be My, Be My Baby: The Phil Spector Story.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Esquire (Scott Raab) “Then — schooled on jazz and Wagner, all brain, balls, and hustle — came Phillip. Wee fatherless Jewboy outta the Bronx via Fairfax in Los Angeles shook thunder from the heavens. Spector claimed to be creating ‘little symphonies for the kids’: He was. He set out to make millions and millions of dollars and music that was good and important enough to last forever: He did. And he wanted to find love — true, true love: Ah, well… two out of three ain’t bad, even for a genius.”

The Christian Science Monitor “His lawyers know that, in the mind of the modern-day public, he is not the music wizard who created the girl-group sound in the early 1960s, co-wrote ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” for the Righteous Brothers, and produced records for the Ramones and the Beatles. Instead, by 2007, he’s generally regarded as a creepy, homicidal has-been who hides out with his dozens of guns and his dozens of outlandish wigs — a pint-sized wacko too big for his britches.”

Entertainment Weekly “In Phil Spector, the trick of Spector’s paranoid megalomania is this: When he talks about his achievements, how he was the most successful record producer who ever lived, or how his placement of black singers within the wall of sound broke the color barrier in America, or how ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ is the greatest pop single ever recorded…well, you listen to this self-justifying litany of achievement, and on some level it’s inflated out of all proportion, and in another way it’s hard to disagree with any of it.”

Playlist

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  • Gregg Smith

    His contribution cannot be denied but what a creepy man he is. Humility is the first trait to go when someone does something great and everyone says so. I’ve seen it a lot. When people want your autograph, the girls give their bodies and the men share their drugs it’s easy to take it too seriously and forget what a scumbag you are. So you look back instead of forward. You put your passion on auto-pilot. You stagnate. Tragedy ensues.

    • brettearle

      But he could have leaped, over the edge–even without his grandeur.

      Granted all that fanfare encouraged his madness, even more.

      But he still might have become a bad character–based on the ole’ tried and true cliche: Pre-existing condition.

      [And  ObamaCare wouldn't have covered it.] 

      • Gregg Smith

        True enough.

    • jiminy cricket

       But that’s only half the picture isn’t it? The music culture that you speak of is something that almost invites people to celebrate and remain adolescence for a lifetime. People wish to become rock stars more for the party than the music. And in my very humble glib and generalizing opinion, explains why we’ve seen such few artists arise in popular culture…or conversely, why we’ve seen the idea of “artist” so debased that it hardly means anything any more.

      • Gregg Smith

        Mainly partiers want to be rock stars for the party. Serious musicians don’t. I agree about the word artist. I draw a line between performers and artist.  

        • jiminy cricket

          Touche.
          You aren’t the Gregg Smith that used to blow bubbles out of his mouth in grade school, using just his own saliva, are you?  :o)

          • Gregg Smith

            Yes I am!

          • jiminy cricket

             hahahahahahaha…. so did Conway just teach us to become online cranks?

  • Bluejay2fly

    At least Roger has better costumes and wigs and he pulls it off with no nose and gray skin.

  • northeaster17

    What a sad looking soul

  • NewtonWhale

    Not clear the founding father’s wrote the Second Amendment with this guy in mind:

    5 Artists Reportedly Held at Gunpoint by Phil Spector

    1. JOHN LENNON

    One night, for a prank, Spector fired the gun in the control room, inches from the former Beatle’s ear. An enraged Lennon yelled, “Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me. But don’t f**k with my ears. I need ‘em.” Another time, Spector pulled his gun and chased Lennon through the hallways of the studio, screaming threats.

    2. LEONARD COHEN

    One night Spector grabbed Cohen, a bottle of Manischewitz in one hand and a revolver in the other. Shoving the gun against his neck, he said, “Leonard, I love you.” Cohen slowly pushed the barrel away, replying, “I hope you do, Phil.”

    3. DEBBIE HARRY

     In the late ‘70s, when Spector was hoping to make a comeback, he invited Harry to his mansion to discuss a studio collaboration. The meeting went sour fast. “He pulled a gun,” Harry recalled. “That notorious thing he does. He stuck it in my boot and went, ‘Bang.’ I thought, ‘Get me outta here. I just wanna go home.’ Why would anyone be carrying a .45 automatic in their home?”

    4. THE RAMONES

    When an exhausted Dee Dee Ramone said he was going home one night, Spector reached for his revolver. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said.

    5. RONNIE SPECTOR

    Guns played only a small part in the Wall of Intimidation that Spector built around his wife, former Ronettes singer Ronnie Bennett. After their marriage in 1968, Spector held the young bride hostage in his mansion, isolating her from the world and squashing her musical ambitions. His cruelty knew no bounds. He tied her up and locked her in the closet. He hid her shoes so she couldn’t walk out on him. Creepiest of all, he installed a gold coffin with a glass top in the basement, promising that he would kill her and display her corpse if she ever left him. “I can keep my eye on you after you’re dead,” Spector said. With firearms and bodyguards all over the house, Bennett was convinced he meant business.

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/28392/5-artists-reportedly-held-gunpoint-phil-spector

    • Gregg Smith

      The guy was a coddled nut case but I don’t think he was a second amendment issue.

  • erictremont

    Spector made staggering contributions to rock and roll, whenever I hear Bruce Springsteen’s song “Backstreets” (from the “Born to Run” album) it is pretty clear that he was inspired by “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” when he recorded that song. 

  • albert Sordi

    Make no mistake,  David Mamet is a powerful producer, whose influence transcends the political.  Mamet’s work, like Wag the Dog, and his sickening warmongering racist patriotic tv series always have a political purpose. 
    And this movie is no different, in whitewashing Phil Spector, an influential character himself.
    Very typical to put an Italian face (Pacino) on the bad guy. Nice touch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    Ronnie Spector’s autobiography, “Be My Baby”, spells out the atrocious, misogynistic & often violently psychotic behavior of her ex-husband, commencing back in the early 1960s. The dude has been sick as a dog for decades- everybody knew it- yet it took Clarkson’s tragic death to finally get the authorities on his case.
    Read Ronnie’s book (written before the murder) and you’ll get a different picture than the one Mamet has painted for the small screen.  

  • hennorama

    Phil Spector – another in the long line of creative geniuses whose indulgence of their various peccadilloes resulted in the death or themselves or others.

    The only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner in Spector’s case.

  • neillf

    There is artistic genius and there are criminals. They are not mutually exclusive. Caravaggio was a murderer and a thief. That does not in any way take away from the power of his art.

  • jiminy cricket

    Samo, samo. All it takes to revere Phil Spector and adulate him about his “invention” of the wall of sound is a lack of historical perspective and complete ignorance of music. Richard Wagner, love him or hate him (hey, just like Phil Spector!) invented a “wall of sound” with his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, an operatic synthesis of art, drama, dance, and of course his huge music. Mahler much the same, e.g. his Symphony of a Thousand (“Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There
    are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” he said).
       Not to trash all things pop, because I’m hardly a Wagner lover, and am more on the side of composers like Satie and others that consciously rebelled from huge music. I am just suggesting a “nothing new under the sun” comment. And to remind that because there is such a cultural schism (read lack of education) in music that we end up revering those who hardly deserve it, and ignoring those who do.

    • Gregg Smith

      I agree, he just applied it in a new medium. If a symphony isn’t a wall of sound then I don’t know what is. I part with your last sentiment though. IMHO music is about evoking emotion and the listener need not be educated to be moved. 

      • jiminy cricket

         I agree. Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “educated” but “lack of availability”. But given the paucity of availability of classical music (or as Bernstein aptly called it, “exact music”) either in schools or airwaves, and the expense of many tickets, it doesn’t even become a choice to have the emotion for. And I would argue that education is needed if only to overcome the stereotypes of what so-called “classical” music is. There can be taught ways to listen to it, especially when it comes to difficult things. You can’t expect everyone or even in some cases, anyone, to just sit right on down and grok Eliot Carter. Even someone as delightful as Poulenc or Milhaud or ________place favorite or obscure composer here_____ can be, it doesn’t hurt it at all to explain the gist of the opera, or the translation of the lyrics, or what moved Strauss to compose such an intimate piece of music for his wife. Such “education” does help to evoke the emotion of the piece, if only to give it a setting.

        • Gregg Smith

          I can’t argue with that. Even so, for me personally I like the Romantic Era and the not so obscure Chopin and especially Liszt. I don’t have to think that hard.

  • ToyYoda

    It makes me wonder about the many unknown, but talented artists we won’t ever know because they refuse to work with a profoundly selfish person who wouldn’t think twice about controlling your soul, just for the temporary gain of money and fame.

    • brettearle

      Forget about the scenario, you state above, that screens out talented artists….

      There are, simply, many talented artists that we won’t ever know, for many, many reasons.

    • Gregg Smith

      Controlling your soul might be a bit harsh but you make a good point. There is tons of great music that nobody ever hears. 

  • MarkVII88

    How do your guests think Phil Spector would think of himself being portrayed by Al Pacino?  Would Spector approve of the choice?

    • tagubajones

       He couldn’t argue with the hair.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    The caller, Frank, touched on a very important aspect of Spector’s “mad genius”. Sociopathic narcissists tend to be few in number (roughly 10% of humanity) but they can do serious damage to other people on an enormous scale. Think Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot. We will never know whose budding musical careers Spector shut down cold, & not for lack of talent, when he was in a manic, destructive mood. No, I’m not a fan. The music was popular before my time & it all sounds very dated to me, now. Sorry, no pity for poor little Phil from this quarter.

  • Steve_in_Vermont

    If anyone in my community had engaged in the behavior with guns that he did that
    person would have ended up in court and been ordered not to possess guns. Like
    so many people in his situation he was surrounded by people who enabled bizarre
    behavior until it turned tragic. Friends indeed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/frank.youngwerth.7 Frank Youngwerth

    Although he takes credit for it now, there is much evidence to support that Spector did not produce Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers.

    • brettearle

      And I would argue that “UM” was better than “You’ve LTLF”. 

  • jdunn

    Why do people enable abusive, criminal behavior by celebrities? I think that those who knew of Spector’s behavior and never reported it also bear some responsibility for Ms. Clarkson’s death.  
    On another note, I had totally forgotten “River Deep Mountain High”. What a weird song! Tina Turner sounds like she’s trying to shout to be heard from the bottom of a well, and yet the song insists on getting stuck in one’s head.  

  • Regular_Listener

    The artist and the man, the talent/work/ability and the decency/sanity are not the same thing.  I guess once in a while we need to be reminded.

  • ronald33

    Does it matter that Lana Clarkson had her own gun? Some say she shot herself with it.

    Still not fully convinced that PS did it.

    In any event,PS is a complicated talent who had problems.

    “Home of the Brave/Land of the free/Why won’t they let him be what he wants to be?”-Bonnie and the Treasures

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