Where do you start with Phil Spector? Anyone see “Easy Rider?” Remember the beginning of the movie where the two stars had crappy bikes and funky clothes until after they met a freak in a Rolls Royce and gave him a suspicious-looking package? And he snorted it so we knew it was cocaine? That freak was Phil Spector, and that scene might be of interest to Spector completists—if such there are—but has nothing to do with today’s post, so we move on.
Oh, but Phil Spector was a freak, all right. He was obsessive, tyrannical, paranoid, self-centered, brilliant, obstinate and skinny, and he produced some of the most iconic music of the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s. In fact, he did so until 1966, and that’s our story.
Spector was born in the Bronx on December 26, 1939. Do you know anyone else whose birthday is so close to Christmas? I do, and it’s always the same angry story: your parents say that as long as the two days were so close, instead of giving you two regular gifts, they’ll give you one big one- it’ll be twice as good! And it was always bullshit. You got the same gift you’d have gotten for your birthday or for Christmas, but it was never twice as good! You got cheated and you’ve been pissed off ever since. I know. I’ve heard it before. So maybe—I don’t know, maybe—that’s why he went off the rails so early.
I don’t know what else he might have been a freak about in his early days, but he was always a freak about music. From an early age he wrote songs, he dreamed about songs, and then in 1958 he recorded one of his songs with a coupla chicks, called themselves The Teddy Bears, and went to #1 with “To Know Him Is To Love Him” (the engraving on his father’s tombstone said, “To Know Him Was To Love Him”), and he and went on to become a master of the girl-group sound, producing more than 25 Top 40 hits from 1960 ‘til 1965, always writing or co-writing the songs, rehearsing the singers and musicians, writing the charts and controlling the recording sessions.
Almost everything Spector did invited controversy, but you have to give the man his props: the people he had hits with included the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers, John Lennon, George Harrison, the Beatles, the Drifters (that’s him playing guitar on “On Broadway”), and if I had more time I’d list all the artists he charted and influenced, the latter list including Bruce Springsteen. The guy was a giant in his field.
Let me include just these three highlights:
- “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers, which Spector co-wrote and then produced, is listed by BMI as the song with the most airplay in the Twentieth Century.
- Rolling Stone listed him at #63 of their list of “the Greatest Artists of All Time.” A producer? Right! And:
- The Washington Post named Phil Spector the second greatest record producer in music history.
I don’t know who they gave first place to, but I’d bet it was George Martin for his work with the Beatles. So the guy was impressive if uhh... difficult. Yeah, most of us know that he spent the years after today’s song as a recluse, that he married the lead singer of The Ronettes and then imprisoned her and controlled her life to the degree that she felt forced to make a brazen escape, about his work with the Beatles and the Ramones (although this work was soon vilified by the artists and the press), the weird wigs he wore, and the woman he is now in prison for shooting. Everyone has stories about the guy, but we’re not here for a Phil Spector retrospective, we’re here for a song. But what a song!
Back in the Days of the Hits, Phil Spector often successfully employed legendary songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and he called on them again. Once the British Invasion hit our airwaves everything changed, leaving Spector out in the cold, and he wanted back in. He already had a singer with sufficient bombast in mind, and he needed an epic song for her. Funny story: when Spector had worked with Barry and Greenwich in the past, they were married, but now they’d split up. Spector only found this out later because every time he talked about the lyrics of the song and mentioned “love,” one or both got emotional. But they were the best in their field and he needed them to come through in spades. He was already known for his hits and for his Wall of Sound, but times had changed and suddenly there were new cool kids in town, and he needed to up his game. The song he wanted was going to be the best song anyone had ever heard, and Spector swore that if it didn’t go to Number One on the charts, he would quit the music business!
Then, Barry and Greenwich came through, and he had the song he needed. He knew it. He wrote the charts and he must have astonished anyone who saw them, as this was going to be a massive sonic attack: he’d written charts for 21 musicians and 21 backup singers! Spector rehearsed his players and singers for two weeks before he brought the lead singer in. That amount of players and singers and two weeks of rehearsals for a single? A single? Yep. This wasn’t going to be just any single, this little tune was going straight to #1! He had the song, he had the singer, he wanted to play, and he’d stacked the deck. Now he’d anted up and he was back in the game; he had his comeback hand, and he was all in. Now, Phil Spector might be a jerk, but he knew his business, and he said it where people could hear it: this single was going to #1 or he was gone! So now it’s time to talk about Gold Star Studio.
Yes, let’s talk about Gold Star, where Spector did his best work, as did a long, long list of others, including someone so influenced by Spector that he recorded his “Good Vibrations” there as well as the entire, until-recently abandoned classic, “Smile.” None of us has enough time for a list of who’d recorded there, but no one used it as an instrument like Spector did. Spector is rightly known for his “Wall of Sound” recordings, and to get that sound he used the studio as an instrument, mixing an over-stuffed accumulation of musicians playing acoustic and electric instruments—not miked individually, but played in unison—so that it all blended and mixed the music into an overwhelming, well… wall of sound.
Yeah, so he was probably a little tyrannical at the rehearsals, but he had to be: When rehearsals elsewhere moved to the studio for recording, into this 20’ X 20’ room would march in with their instruments and take their assigned positions: twenty-one musicians and twenty-one backing vocalists. Tokyo subway commuters might be used to this arrangement, but artists tend to have different sensibilities about crowding.
Regular readers (you decide what’s regular) will know that I appreciate a good aside, and the Wrecking Crew is one of them, but this time I won’t digress here, but you can look them up at: the Wrecking Crew
. Or check out the movie about them. They were the house band for Spector and they played on so many songs that you know and love that they should be another post.
Gold Star was tiny, and already known for its echo chamber-like walls of specially-designed cement plaster on heavy rotation forms. I hope someone knows what that means. One of the owners had designed the studio, and, this being the ‘50’s and ‘60’s when radio was king and cars were where you heard it, Gold Star featured a dedicated transmitter that could transmit a song from the studio to a radio in a car parked outside. Smart producers needed to know what that sounded like.
So Spector could play the room like an instrument, jamming it with more sound than logic or sanity should allow, and then he added Tina Turner. The teenaged Anna Mae Bullock had come belting music out of Nutbush, Tennessee, and was now singing in Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm; when she married the bandleader, she became Tina Turner. Phil Spector wanted her big, booming-but-sensual voice for this new song. He wanted what she could do with the song, but there was a problem, and his name was Ike. Ike Turner was also a controlling tyrant. Phil Spector had made his living and his name doing it his way, and he knew that clashes with Ike would be inevitable, time-consuming and disastrous. To make certain that Ike came nowhere near the recording sessions, Spector bought Ike’s recording contract for a generous (at the time) $20,000.
Now he owned the act, and he told Ike that he wanted only Tina there; I’m imagining Ike stewed over this, and with what we know now, none of us would want to be Tina when she came home after the sessions. But the heart wants what it wants, and Spector began rehearsing both the band and the backup singers and, in off-hours, he was rehearsing Tina. When he had the instrumental tracks on tape, he brought in the lead vocal. He knew what Tina could do, and he wanted that- and more. No one ever gives everything, but that was what Spector wanted. He wanted everything Tina had—everything!—and to get it he had her sing take after take, each one all-out, always demanding another take. Tina was getting exhausted and in fear that her pipes would give out, but Spector wanted… just that…right…tone.
She’d been headlining a high-energy R & B revue for years and she knew how far she could push her voice, and she’d been near that already that night, but Spector knew a pro always holds something back, so he always wanted another take.
Sure, you put it almost all out in concert- but you always needed something in reserve; you had to keep some back for fear that your voice might give out before the show was over. Spector didn’t care; he wanted all of whatever she had left. Hours in, she needed a break so she could take off her dripping, sweat-soaked blouse and hang it up to dry. She sang the rest of the night in her bra, and she had certainly never done that before, but…he was waiting. Late, late into the session, she stood before the mike in her bra and gave it one more try. Please, God, make this the last take… That was it, right? Then he wanted one more; he wanted her to feel it. She didn’t know if she had another take in her, but she was a performing pro and Spector owned her contract. Maybe Tina was thinking about how happy Ike would be if she fucked up their deal. So… one more take.
She’d been sweating out all the tea or whatever she was drinking to protect her voice, but it was past that now. Spector wanted another take and she was going to give it whatever she had left. And she did. That was the take that Spector was waiting for! He wanted her last take. Not the last take she did, but the last take she had in her. It rang of passion and desperation, and that, friends, was what Phil Spector was waiting for. That was what he needed for the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song of all time: passion and desperation.
He wanted just that tone and he got it, and you’ve heard it before, I know you have; it’s probably on your device right now. Remember John Lennon’s lead on “Twist and Shout?” That track also had his last possible take, and you can hear the desperation in his voice on that track, and you can hear it on this track. Desperation. That’s what Phil Spector was waiting for! And when it’s there it translates across the airwaves and you know it when you hear it, and you can hear it on “River Deep- Mountain High.” Yes, the single is listed as by Ike & Tina Turner, but we know it was just Tina. Did I say “just Tina?” You know what I meant!
And how did our best-ever track do in the charts? Released in May, 1966, it did quite well in Great Britain, going to #3, and not quite so well in Australia, where it peaked at #16. In the United States? The song never got above #88 and Phil Spector quit the music business. He became increasingly bizarre, occasionally working on a few pet projects before his reputation brought him producing contracts with the Beatles and the Ramones, which met with great hostility and he withdrew even more from social contact, furthering his downward spiral, which ultimately put him in jail for inviting a well-known L.A. restaurant hostess to his castle and killing her, which he now knows is wrong.
Up next: My pal Johnny’s egg
TIDAL Link To River Deep, Mountain High
YouTube Behind The Scenes Listen
YouTube Original Promo Video
YouTube From The Movie What's Love Got To Do With It (1993)
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE
about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101
. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.