“Back To Mono” is a five record box set, released in 1991, which features the work of Phil Spector. This post is about the first record which covers the years from 1958 – 1963.
On 3rd February, 2003, Phil Spector shot an actress, Lana Clarkson, in the mouth. He told his driver “I think I killed someone” but he later told Esquire Magazine that it was an accidental suicide. The result of his first murder trial in 2007 was a mistrial due to a hung jury. A year later, at his retiral, he was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years imprisonment.
Phil Spector married Annette Merar, lead vocalist of The Spector Three in 1963. Soon afterwards, he started an affair with Veronica Bennett, of The Ronettes, who was later known as Ronnie Spector, after they married in 1968. They adopted a boy, Donté and, as a Christmas present, Spector surprised her by adopting twins Louis Phillip Spector and Gary Phillip Spector. Gary and Donté Spector stated that they were kept captive as children and “forced to perform simulated intercourse” with Phil Spector’s girlfriend. Phil Spector and Ronnie Spector divorced in 1974 and she later claimed that he had imprisoned her in their house, forbidding her to perform. In 1982, Spector had twin children with his girlfriend Janis Zavala. In 2006, Spector, while on bail and awaiting trial, married his third wife Rachelle Short, who was 26 at the time. They divorced in 2018. He died in December 2020 due to complications of COVID-19 at the age of 81.
In 2005, Phil Spector stated that he suffered from bipolar disorder, describing his life as featuring “No sleep, depression, mood changes, mood swings, hard to live with, hard to concentrate, just hard—a hard time getting through life, I’ve been called a genius and I think a genius is not there all the time and has borderline insanity.” Does a murderer with a mental illness deserve our compassion?
Was Phil Spector a genius? One definition of the term is “someone who displays exceptional creative productivity to a degree that is associated with the achievement of advances in a domain of knowledge.” Over the past eighteen months, I’ve written about a lot of exceptionally talented musicians. The word genius might well be applied to Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and other Sixties maestros. It could, in my (contentious) opinion, be equally applicable to Nigel Blackwell, Justin Vernon, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Mike Scott. None of these people are evil and some of them are worthy of our esteem as human beings, as well as creative and unique musical artists.
If someone is a genius, can we forgive them for living a life that the rest of us would find disgraceful? Can we like the music, knowing what a terrible person Phil Spector was? Can we separate the man from his art? Should he be cancelled? My answers are No, Yes, Yes and
Yes/No/Yes/No – I don’t know the answer to the last question.
Andrew Loog Oldham was a friend of Phil Spector in 1964, as well as being manager of The Rolling Stones. He listened to a test pressing of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers and later said “I’d never heard a recorded track so emotionally giving or empowering.” He found out that Cilla Black had released a version, which he didn’t like so he paid for full page adverts in British music papers, using the phrase “Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound”. This phrase describes the complex recording technique that Phil Spector used on many of his productions which used a large number of musicians playing different instruments, many of which were double or triple tracked. When an acoustic piano, an electric piano and a harpsichord play the same parts synchronously, the individual parts are indistinguishable.
“To Know Him Is To Love Him” was the inscription on Phil Spector’s father’s headstone, written by his mother. He wrote the song and played every instrument on the recording, apart from drums. The lead singer of The Teddy Bears was Carol Connors (born Annette Kleinbard), who went on to co-write “Gonna Fly Now”, the theme tune to “Rocky”. The Beatles performed this song in July 1963 on the radio programme, “Pop Goes The Beatles”. John Lennon recorded the song and it was posthumously released on “Menlove Avenue”. Phil Spector went on to produce “Let It Be” by The Beatles, “All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison and three John Lennon albums (“Plastic Ono Band”, “Imagine” , “Some Time In New York City” and “Rock’n’Roll”)
“Spanish Harlem” was a Number 10 U.S. hit for Ben E. King in 1960 and was originally a “B” side to “First Taste Of Love”. Ben E. King had been in The Drifters and this was his first solo hit. The song was co-written by Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber and produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It’s just about perfect.
“I Love How You Love Me” was a Top Five hit by The Paris Sisters and was produced by Phil Spector. It was written by Larry Kolber and Barry Mann. The association would result in “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” being co-written by Phil Spector, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The Paris Sisters appeared in Richard Lester’s first feature film, “It’s Trad, Dad!”, a British musical comedy which included performances by various dixieland jazz bands and rock’n’roll singers. Richard Lester went on to direct “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” This is a soppy song and I love it.
“There’s No Other Like My Baby” by The Crystals went to Number 20 in the U.S. Charts in 1962 and was the first release on Phil Spector’s “Philles Records” label. Phil Spector co-wrote the song and produced it. Mary Thomas, one of The Crystals, remembers that Phil Spector “turned the lights out in the studio and we sat around in the dark, because he thought it would sound more romantic. We rehearsed for nearly two weeks in the dark before recording.” The Beach Boys covered the song on “Beach Boys Party” and although their version is not as sublime, it illustrates Brian Wilson and Phil Spector’s shared vision.
“He Hit Me (It felt Like A Kiss)” was another single by The Crystals but was much more controversial. Carole King and Gerry Goffin used “Little Eva” (Eva Narcissus Boyd) as a babysitter and when they found out that she was regularly beaten by her boyfriend, they talked to her about it. She told them that her boyfriend’s actions were motivated by his love for her. After widespread protests about the song, it was withdrawn.
“He’s A Rebel” was written by Gene Pitney for The Shirelles but they turned it down. He offered it to Vikki Carr but, when Phil Spector heard about this, he was determined to produce his own version first. The Crystals were touring on the East coast so he arranged for The Blossoms, a Los Angeles group to record it. As they were unknown at the time, he credited the song to The Crystals. When Mary Thomas, of The Crystals, heard a DJ announce a new Crystals song on the radio, “my mouth fell open.” They were forced to add “He’s A Rebel” to their set. The lead singer of the Blossoms was Darlene Wright, but Phil Spector renamed her Darlene Love. She recorded “He’s Sure The Boy I Love” but, once again, Phil Spector issued it under the name The Crystals. Darlene Love was never a member of The Crystals but The Blossoms sung background vocals on many further hits, including “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes and “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals”. Darlene Love is credited with four songs on Phil Spector’s great Christmas album, “A Christmas Gift For You”. I can’t ascertain whether or not this video is of The Blossoms or The Crystals.
There are sixteen songs on Record One and 75 songs in total on the whole compilation. Every song is a classic. Some of these songs tell us something a little bit weird or unpleasant about Phil Spector. When he died, the BBC website broke the news with a headline that read “Talented but flawed producer Phil Spector dies aged 81“. A few minutes later, after it was suggested that the headline “did not meet our editorial standards“, they changed it to “Pop producer jailed for murder, dies at 81“. Columnist Arwa Mahdawi commented that the phrasing was “a reflection of how a man’s ‘genius’ is often viewed as more important than a woman’s humanity“. In another article, she wrote, “I’m not disputing Spector’s work had an important impact on pop culture. However, the question we should all be asking ourselves is what part of his legacy matters most: the music or the murder? Does his career matter more than the life, and ambitions, he cut short? Perhaps we should use Spector’s death as an opportunity to inspect our own biases.“