Phil Spector, producer who transformed rock music, dies in prison at 81

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Phil Spector, the eccentric and groundbreaking music producer who transformed rock music with his “Wall of Sound” method and was later convicted of murder, has died. He was 81 years old.

California state prison officials said he died of natural causes in a hospital on Saturday.

Spector was convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 at her castle-like mansion on the outskirts of Los Angeles. After a trial in 2009, he was sentenced to 19 years to life.

While most sources give Spector’s date of birth as 1940, it was listed as 1939 in court documents after his arrest. His attorney later confirmed that date to The Associated Press.

Clarkson, star of “Barbarian Queen” and other B-movies, was found shot dead in the lobby of Spector’s mansion in the hills above the Alhambra, a modest suburban town on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Until the actress’ death, which Spector said was an ‘accidental suicide’, few locals even knew the mansion belonged to the reclusive producer, who spent his final years in a prison hospital in the east. of Stockton.

Decades before, Spector had been hailed as a visionary for channeling Wagnerian ambition into the three-minute song, creating the “Wall of Sound” that fused lively vocal harmonies with lavish orchestral arrangements to produce pop landmarks such as “Da Doo Ron Ron”. “Be my baby” and “He’s a rebel”.

He was the rare self-aware performer in rock’s early years and cultivated an image of mystery and power with his dark undertones and deadpan expression.

Tom Wolfe declared him the “first teen tycoon”. Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson openly replicated his grandiose recording techniques and wide-eyed romanticism, and John Lennon called him “the greatest record producer of all time”.

The secret to his sound: a layered onslaught of instruments, vocals and sound effects that changed the way pop records were recorded. He called the result, “Little Symphonies for Children.”

By his mid-twenties, his “little symphonies” had resulted in nearly two dozen hit singles and made him a millionaire. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” the Righteous Brothers’ lyrical ballad that topped the charts in 1965, was ranked the most-played song on radio and television—counting the many covers—at 20th century.

But thanks in part to the arrival of the Beatles, her chart success would soon fade. When “River Deep-Mountain High”, an aptly named 1966 release featuring Tina Turner, failed to catch on, Spector closed his label and retired from the business for three years. He would continue to produce The Beatles and Lennon among others, but he was now serving the artists, not the other way around.

In 1969, Spector was called in to rescue the Beatles’ “Let It Be” album, a troubled “homecoming” production marked by divisiveness within the band. Although Lennon praised Spector’s work, bandmate Paul McCartney was furious, especially when Spector added strings and a choir to McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road”. Years later, McCartney would oversee a remastered “Let it Be”, removing Spector’s contributions.

A documentary about the making of Lennon’s 1971 “Imagine” album showed the ex-Beatle clearly in charge, pushing Spector on a backing vocal, a line none of Spector’s early artists would have dared cross.

Spector worked on George Harrison’s acclaimed post-Beatles triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’, co-produced Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and the less successful ‘Some Time in New York City’ which featured Spector’s photo on a caption that read, “To know him is to love him.”

Spector also had a memorable movie role, a cameo as a drug dealer in “Easy Rider.” The producer himself was played by Al Pacino in a 2013 HBO movie.

The volume and violence of Spector’s music reflected a dark side he could barely contain, even in his prime. He was imperious, temperamental and dangerous, remembered bitterly by Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector and others who worked with him.

Years of stories of his gun-wielding artists in the studio and menacing women would come back to haunt him after Clarkson’s death.

According to witnesses, she had agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to accompany him home from the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where she worked. Spector came out of the house with a gun, blood on his hands, and told her, “I think I killed someone.”

He would later tell friends that Clarkson had committed suicide. The case was full of mystery and it took authorities a year to press charges. In the meantime, Spector remained free on $1 million bond.

When he was finally charged with murder, he lashed out at the authorities, angrily telling reporters, “The actions of the Hitler-like prosecutor and his Assault Troop cronies are reprehensible, unconscionable and despicable. “

As a defendant, his eccentricity took center stage. He would arrive in court for preliminary hearings in theatrical attire, usually including high-heeled boots, frock coats and extravagantly styled wigs. He arrived at an audience in a chauffeur-driven Hummer.

Once the 2007 trial began, however, he toned down his attire. It ended in a 10-2 stalemate leaning towards condemnation. Her defense had argued that the actress, discouraged by her declining career, shot herself in the mouth. A new trial began in October 2008.

Harvey Phillip Spector, in his 60s when he was charged with murder, was born on December 26, 1939 in the Bronx neighborhood of New York. Bernard Spector, his father, was an ironworker. His mother, Bertha, was a seamstress. In 1947, Spector’s father committed suicide due to family debt, an event that would shape his son’s life in many ways.

Four years later, Spector’s mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where Phil attended Fairfax High School, located in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Hollywood. For decades, the school has been a source of future musical talent. In Fairfax, Spector performed in talent shows and formed a group called the Teddy Bears with friends.

He was reserved and insecure, but his musical abilities were evident. He had a perfect ear and easily learned to play several instruments. He was only 17 when his band recorded their first hit single, a romantic ballad written and produced by Spector that would become a pop classic: “To Know Him is to Love Him”, was inspired by the inscription on his father’s tombstone.

A skinny little boy with big dreams and growing demons, Spector then attended the University of California, Los Angeles for a year before dropping out to return to New York. He briefly considered becoming a French interpreter at the United Nations before meeting the musicians of the famous Brill Building in New York. The Broadway building was then the heart of popular music’s Tin Pan Alley, where writers, composers, singers and musicians produced hit songs.

He began working with star songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had met at Fairfax High a few years before Spector’s arrival. Ultimately, he found his niche in production. During this period he also co-wrote the hit song “Spanish Harlem” with Ben E. King and played lead guitar on “On Broadway” by The Drifters.

“I had come back to New York from California where there were all these green lawns and trees, and there was only this poverty and decay in Harlem,” he later recalled. “The song was an expression of hope and faith among young people in Harlem…that there would be better times ahead.”

For a time he had his own production company, Philles Records, with partner Lester Silles, where he developed his signature sound. It brought together respected studio musicians such as arranger Jack Nitzsche, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, pianist Leon Russell and drummer Hal Blaine, and gave early breaks to Glen Campbell, Sonny Bono and Bono’s future wife, Expensive.

In the early 1960s, he had hit afterthought and a notable flop: the album “A Christmas Gift to You,” released, tragically, on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated, the worst possible time. for such a joyful record. “A Christmas Gift,” featuring the Ronettes singing “Frosty the Snowman” and Love’s version of “White Christmas,” is now considered a classic and a perennial radio favorite during the holiday season.

Spector’s domestic life, as well as his career, eventually fell apart. After his first marriage to Annette Merar broke up, Ronettes lead singer Ronnie Bennett became his girlfriend and muse. He married her in 1968 and they adopted three children. But she divorced after six years, claiming in a memoir he held her prisoner in their mansion, where she said he kept a gold coffin in the basement and told her he would kill her and put her in if she ever tried to leave. him.

When the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, Spector sent his congratulations. But in an acceptance speech from his ex-wife, she never mentioned it while thanking many other people.

Darlene Love also argued with him, accusing Spector of not crediting her for her vocals on “He’s a Rebel” and other songs, but she praised him during his Hall induction.

Spector himself became a member of Hall in 1989. As his marriages deteriorated, recording artists also began to stop working with Spector, and musical styles passed him by.

He preferred singles to albums, calling the latter “Two hits and 10 pieces of bric-a-brac”. He initially refused to record his music in multi-channel stereo, saying the process damaged the sound. A retrospective of the Spector box set was called “Back to Mono”.

By the mid-1970s, Spector had largely retired from the music business. He emerged occasionally to work on special projects, including Leonard Cohen’s album, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” and the Ramones’ “End of the Century.” Both have been marred by reports of Spector instability.

In 1973, Lennon worked on a rock ‘n roll oldies album with Spector, only to have Spector disappear along with the tapes. The finished work, “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, was not released until 1975.

In 1982 Spector married Janis Lynn Zavala and the couple had twins, Nicole and Phillip Jr. The boy died at age 10 of leukemia.

Six months before his first murder trial began, Spector married Rachelle Short, a 26-year-old singer and actress who accompanied him to court every day. He filed for divorce in 2016.

In a 2005 court deposition, he testified that he had taken medication for manic depression for eight years.

“No sleep, depression, mood swings, mood swings, hard to live with, hard to focus on, just hard – a tough time to go through in life,” he said. “I’ve been called a genius and I think a genius isn’t there all the time and borderline crazy.”

By Christopher Weber and Linda Deutsch